Readings — From the May 2018 issue

Mothers Superior

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By Jacqueline Rose, from Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, which was published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Rose is the author of more than ten books, including Women in Dark Times (Bloomsbury). 

On October 12, 2016, a front-page story in the Sun, a conservative UK newspaper, reported that nine hundred women who were not British citizens had given birth at a single National Health Service hospital in the previous year. Taxpayers were to pick up the four-million-pound tab. The hospital—read the nation—was being “deluged” with foreign mothers.

The article was illustrated with a photo of Bimbo Ayelabola, a Nigerian woman who had delivered quintuplets by caesarean section five years earlier, at a cost to the NHS of 200,000 pounds. The image of Ayelabola holding her five babies had clearly been chosen to reinforce the stereotype of blacks and the poor reproducing irresponsibly and to excess. “Get this mother out,” the paper seemed to say. (It barely refrained from the suggestion that she should be hunted down.) The scheming dereliction of foreign women threatened the nation’s values and resources alike.

The Sun article was published at a moment when images of motherless children were also at the forefront of the news. Unaccompanied minors were fending for themselves in the “Jungle,” an encampment in Calais, France, hoping that the British government would allow them entry into the UK. Since the migration crisis began in 2015, an estimated 90,000 children and young people had made the journey to Europe by themselves, and roughly a thousand of them ended up in Calais, where they led feral lives: sharing tents with as many as eighteen other children, no mattresses, no heating, no blankets. Some of these minors were killed as they made a run for freedom in the UK—by attaching themselves to the undersides of trucks, hiding in refrigerated containers, or throwing themselves into the paths of cars they hoped would drive them to Britain. The Conservative government stalled their admission at every turn, and, in early 2017, halted their resettlement.

Where are the mothers of these children? The migrant children’s absent mothers are the other face of the pregnant “health tourists” lambasted by the Sun. The mothers are either overlooked or the target of blame, with migration and its miseries the true story behind both. 

Why are mothers so often held accountable for the ills of the world? The breakdown in the social fabric, the threat to welfare, the declining health of the nation­­—mothers are seen as the cause of everything that doesn’t work in who we are. We hold them uniquely responsible for simultaneously securing and jeopardizing our future.

 “All I want is for you to be happy.” What mother, what parent, would not stand by that appeal, however impossible the demand may be? Impossible, first, as a demand to be happy rather than, say, alive in your own life; then, as a kind of vicarious living through one’s child; and, finally, as the death knell for any chance of happiness, since you surely kill happiness the moment you ask for it. My sister, Gillian Rose, once told me about how she found herself on a train talking to a woman who had migrated from the Caribbean in the Fifties and then worked her way through the system, against considerable odds, to become the head teacher in a London school. The woman threw her head back in laughter at the suggestion that parents should want their children to be happy, as if the whole idea were some kind of sick joke, the very last thing a mother should ask for—of—her child. She had the ills of the world at her fingertips, but she was jubilant at the prospect of what needed to be done. Her son became one of the most renowned analysts of antiblack racism in the UK. 

I always remember that story, and the woman’s stubborn, expansive generosity of spirit, when I think of the way mothers are expected to lock any feelings of despair behind closed doors, especially in those first precarious moments of a mothering life. Nowadays, postnatal depression is ascribed to hormone imbalance and typically treated with drugs or cognitive behavioral therapy. But perhaps what goes by the name of postnatal depression is a way of registering grief—past, present, and to come. It should be reentered into the canon of human distress, acknowledged as psychically and historically meaningful instead of as a purely clinical matter.

In South Africa, postpartum depression has been described as an epidemic. It is prevalent among poor black people, who are affected by unremitting racism and persistent social and economic inequality. A recent South African study focused on depression among low-income black mothers who enacted forms of violent rage, to their utmost despair, against their children. When asked how they understood their anger and aggression, they gave three main causes: the demanding child and their own longing to be an “ever-bountiful, ever-giving mother”; the inconsiderate child who made them acutely aware of their own need for attention, support, and respect; and the child engaged in violence and drug abuse who thwarted the mother’s yearning for “a new identity and a new life through her child.” Note the mirroring that binds the depressed mother to her child: the child’s demands drive the mother to unattainable perfection; the inconsiderate child underscores the mother’s radical neglect of her own life; the violent child destroys the hope for a better future that the child was meant to personify. 

These testimonies bear witness to the strong correlation between major depression and poverty, a link that tends to be overlooked clinically (and that must in this case be hugely exacerbated by the unmaterialized promise of a better life after the end of apartheid). Also, the participants in the study are repeating a familiar pattern in which a woman’s anger, deemed socially unacceptable, is internalized as violence against herself and her child. But what stands out most clearly to me is the vicious circle of idealization in which these women are trapped. One by one, they source their rage to the “pain and disappointments associated with not being the mothers they wanted to be.” They feel they have failed because they lash out at their children; they lash out at their children because they feel they have failed. 

In modern families, the mother is blamed for all the shortcomings of an individual life. The truth is that mothers do fail. Such failure should be viewed not as catastrophic but as normal, a crucial part of the task.

The worst, most insufferable demand imposed on mothers, beyond the saccharine image of a perfect future, beyond the expectation that they will produce lives of happiness and fulfillment, is the vast reach of historical, political, and social anguish that we ask them to nullify. We expect mothers to trample over the past and lift us out of historical time—or, in the version that at least has the virtue of its own sentimentality, to secure a new dawn. But each birth arrives with a history not of its own choosing. A mother who yearns—understandably—for her child to embody only the free, the new, the good, is in danger of inscribing her denial of history, her own flight from suffering, across the body and mind of her child.

My maternal grandmother’s family perished in the Chelmno concentration camp during the Second World War. My grandparents in London wanted nothing more than to be safe in their new surroundings, and for their two daughters to bear no trace of the atrocity that had irredeemably scarred their own lives. Their most fervent wish was for their daughters to marry Jewish men, have children, and settle down. Barely twenty years old, my mother was married off to my father, who was returning from his own trauma, having been tortured in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. My mother had wanted to be a doctor, but she was not allowed to assume the place she had secured at medical school—instead she was married to a doctor. 

Her ambitions for her own daughters would grow from that thwarted moment. My sister and I would have the freedoms our mother was denied. But, I find myself asking, what made her think that this would be enough to silence the past? That educational and sexual freedom—for which I will always be grateful—could guarantee a future unstained by history? Maybe there will always be a radical disjunction between what a mother most fervently wants for her child and what that child becomes. Maybe that is one of the agonies of being a mother: to find that your child harbors in the recesses of her soul a story from which you had hoped, once and for all, to free her. 

The task of a mother, they say, is to calm a child’s fears. But we do not consider that her ability to do so might be colored by fears of her own. A mother is meant to be as fearless as a lioness. A lioness, it is implied, will instinctively protect her cubs because she has no internal life of her own to grapple with. She is stripped of all memory and history, reduced to an unthinking beast. You might say that having nothing of her own to grapple with—being “it all” for her child, at the cost of her own inner life—is the very definition, or at least the unspoken agenda, of being a mother.

When I started down the path of adopting my daughter, the first question on the form I was asked to fill in was: “What are your family secrets?” I refused to answer it (just one of several moments that nearly brought the whole process to an abrupt halt). Surely, I suggested, a family secret should be respected as such? It had not occurred to the agency that a potential mother who betrays her family secrets as the price to pay for a child cannot be trusted with anything. The assumption was that minds and hearts are fully open for inspection, that there are no boundaries between what can and cannot be said.

Within months of bringing my daughter back from China, I headed off to Paris to introduce her proudly to some of my oldest, dearest friends, only to be turned back at the airport. I had the adoption papers with me, and my baby was now entered in my passport, but she did not yet have a British passport of her own. The border officials announced that they could not be sure I was not planning to leave her in France as an illegal migrant who in time might start claiming housing and work benefits. (She was not yet one year old.) 

At the airport, I wanted to scream at the officials: “You do not know this baby’s history.” But then, I realized, neither—fully—did I. Nor would I, ever. It is a crime to abandon a baby in China, even if the practice was precipitated by the government’s own One Child policy, which, in the absence of proper pension provisions, made parents desperate for boys whose future wives would tend to them in their later years (whereas married daughters would leave the home). Those of us who adopted from China in the early Nineties were not able to uncover the histories of our children. My daughter does not know—she has accepted that she cannot know—the story of her own past, although she must surely be carrying it within her. 

Any mother, any child, faces a past that will not yield its secrets willingly or without a struggle, if it will at all. Despite the popular formulation in the Western world of mothers and daughters as friends who share secrets, gossip, and clothes (the long-running television series Gil­more Girls would be a prime example), mothers and daughters cannot tell each other everything because they do not know everything about themselves: not about their own lives, or the secrets of their families, or that part of history weighing on their shoulders that is too hard to communicate. All of which is simply another way of saying that one of the most unrealistic de-
mands made of mothers is that they be so inhumanly sure of themselves.

It is a truism of both feminism and Marxism that the image of stability represented by safe, white, middle-class homes is a myth, resting on the exploitation of workers, women, and colonies­—just as it is a truism of Freudian thought that the facade of civilized living in nations Freud referred to, with limited sympathy, as “the great, world-dominating nations of the white race” is precarious and phony in direct proportion to the insistence with which that facade claims to believe unerringly in itself. A simpler way of putting this would be to say that there is a violence behind the norm, a violence that it is truly a form of insanity to expect mothers to placate.

A suffering mother bereft of her child is a staple of maternal imagoes: Niobe lamenting the murder of her fourteen children by jealous gods, for example, and the pietà, the Virgin Mary grieving the dead Christ. With the suffering of the whole world etched on her face, the mother carries and assuages the burden of human misery. But what the pain of mothers must not expose is a viciously unjust world in a complete mess.

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