The "Problem" of Maternal Desire
IT WOULD SEEM THAT EVERYTHING it is possible to say about motherhood in America has already been said. Beckoning us from every magazine rack, beaming out from every channel, is a solution or a revelation or a confession about mothering. Yet in the midst of all the media chatter about staying on track, staying in shape, time crunches, time-savers, and time-outs, there is something unvoiced about the experience of motherhood itself.
It sways our choices and haunts our dreams, yet we shy away from examining it with our full attention. Treated both as an illusion and as a foregone conclusion, it is at once obvious and invisible: our desire to mother.
The desire to mother is not only the desire to have children, but also the desire to care for them. It is not the duty to mother, or the compulsion to mother, or the concession to mothering when other options are not available. It is not the acquiescence to prescribed roles or the result of brainwashing. It is the longing felt by a mother to nurture her children; the wish to participate in their mutual relationship; and the choice, insofar as it is possible, to put her desire into practice.
Maternal desire is at once obvious and invisible partly because it is so easily confused with other things. Those fighting for women's progress too often misconstrue it as a throwback or excuse, a self-curtailment of potential. Those who champion women's maternal role too often define it narrowly in the context of service - to one's child, husband, or God. What each view eclipses is the authentic desire to mother felt by a woman herself -a desire not derived from a child's need, though responsive to it; a desire not created by a social role, though potentially supported by it; rather, a desire anchored in her experience of herself as an agent, an autonomous individual, a person.
As common wisdom would have it, "mother" and "desire" do not belong in the same phrase. Desire, we've been told, is about sex. Motherhood, we've been told, is about practically everything but sex. A century ago, sexuality was repressed; blooming young women in Freud's day contracted odd symptoms - paralyzed arms, lost voices - as a way to adapt to social mores that inhibited women's awareness or expression of their sexual desires.
Today, sexuality is everywhere, and the desire to mother is more prone to obfuscation. Partly owing to five decades of feminist writing, women's sexual desire no longer comes as much of a surprise. Maternal desire, by contrast, has become increasingly problematic. It is almost as if women's desire for sex and their desire to mother have switched places in terms of taboo. The taboo against wanting to mother operates as a strange new source of inhibition for women. Some try not to think about motherhood while they pursue more immediate professional goals. Others deny the extent of their maternal wishes, which become clear only after hard-won insight in psychotherapy.
Still others try to minimize their desire to nurture their child, setting up their lives to return to normal after their baby is born, never fully cognizant that there may be no "normal" to return to. For one woman, wanting to stay home with her child is an embarrassing reversal of previous priorities. Another can't decide whether caring for children is a choice or a trap. Another feels she needs to maintain earning power and professional status if she wants to safeguard her self-esteem. For Freud's patients, sexual desire was frustrated by a restrictive model of decent womanhood, which emerged from complex social and economic forces. Today, maternal desire is constrained by a contemporary model of self that has developed in response to more recent economic and social realities.
Fifty years ago, women who wished to realize professional ambitions dealt with gender inequality by refusing or relinquishing motherhood. Twenty years ago, mothers evaded gender inequality by keeping up their professional pace and not letting motherhood interfere with their work. Women continue to recognize the impediments to earning power and professional accomplishments that caring for children presents, and some adapt by deferring or rejecting motherhood. But the problem remains that for many women, these approaches to attaining equality don't deal with the central issue, namely that caring for their children matters deeply to them.
What if we were to take this mattering seriously, to put it at the core of our exploration? Even to pose the question is to invite almost instant misconstrual. It's as if this would recommend to women to live through others, forsake equality, or relax into the joys of subsidized homemaking. But that reflexive misinterpretation is itself evidence of how difficult it is to think about maternal desire as a positive aspect of self. The problem is on view in the ways we talk about motherhood and work. Defenders of mothers' employment often begin by enumerating its benefits to children, families, and above all mothers themselves.
Then they abruptly switch to the claim that mothers can't afford not to work, so we may as well spare ourselves the unnecessary pain and guilt of even examining its potentially troubling aspects. This rhetorical one-two punch appears designed to fend off a candid consideration of the whole complicated arena of mothers' competing desires, and especially the desire to care for their children. It is not the stay-at-home mother whom this evasion hurts most, but the working mother who longs to spend more time with her children. For her, the need for a frank, legitimizing public discussion of maternal desire is particularly acute.
I juxtapose "maternal" and "desire" to emphasize what we feel oddly uncomfortable focusing on: that wanting to care for children is a major feature of many women's lives. We often resist thinking through its implications because we fear becoming mired in clich's about woman's nature, which will then be used to restrict women's rights and freedoms. But if we resist thinking about maternal desire, or treat it as a marginal detail, we lose an opportunity to understand ourselves and the broader situation of women. To take maternal desire as a valid focus of personal exploration is not a step backward but a step forward, toward greater awareness and a truer model of the self.
THERE ARE MANY HISTORICAL REASONS why the desire to mother has rarely surfaced as a point of inquiry. For most of human history, women exercised relatively little choice about becoming mothers. "A woman can hardly ever choose," the novelist George Eliot, née Mary Ann Evans, wrote in 1866.
"She must take meaner things, because only meaner things are within her reach." In the nineteenth century, industrialization and urbanization irrevocably changed patterns of work and family.
The work of production moved outside the home, and child rearing became mothers' dominant focus. This shift in maternal activity, prompted by economics, soon shaped standard ideology as well: raising her children was a good mother's sacred calling. If she wanted something different or something more, then something was surely wrong with her.
In the twentieth century, gender roles were transformed. Betty Friedan's 1963 call for women to become whole persons, actualizing themselves in public and private realms, catalyzed the expansion of opportunity that had begun earlier and spearheaded the feminist political movement that would begin dismantling gender discrimination. Although "glass ceilings" and insidious gender biases persist, educated women are omnipresent in the once male precincts of medicine, journalism, and law. Women at all class levels are out working, as sales reps, firefighters, and civil servants. Mothers work outside the home in record numbers.
Many would agree that the problems of access Friedan and others decried - of admissions to schools, colleges, and corporations - have largely been redressed. Yet all the access in the world doesn't solve the difficulties that arise when women become mothers; for if a mother wants to spend time caring for her children, her relationship to work necessarily changes. In the 1960s and 1970s, spending time with children was viewed as a roadblock to pursuing personal aspirations. Today, women's successful integration into careers creates a roadblock to spending time with children. Regardless of the decade, it seems, "there is never a 'good' time to have a baby."
In a 1999 New York Times piece, the feminist writer Naomi Wolf lamented the lack of political will among very bright college women. One Yale student was quoted as saying, "Women my age just have to accept that we can't have it all." Wolf discerned in this young woman's attitude an apathy toward social change and an indifference to the history of women's hard-won struggles. Yet I suspect that if we delve more deeply into what young women like this one are saying, we will find a rather realistic appraisal of the ways that women's integration into the workplace has not managed to adequately address a fundamental concern. That concern is less whether one can squeeze procreation into one's life than how to be the kind of mother one wants to be.
The conservative critique of feminism has offered one perspective on the conflicts contemporary mothers face, questioning the benefits to mothers of egalitarian marriage, universal day care, and feminist-inspired ideals of self-actualization. Too often, though, any useful observations they make are undercut by an urge to lay at feminism's door just about every problem women encounter. The French critic Roland Barthes decided to analyze contemporary mythologies because he "resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn," prompting him to dissect the "ideological abuse" hidden behind the "decorative display of what-goes-without-saying." Feminism's critics frequently settle for the "decorative display," the attractive but unfounded claim that nature is nature and always will be. They ignore the fact that feminism has inspired constructive changes in women's lives in areas that just a generation ago appeared as intractable "nature." Feminism, more than any other social force, has helped us question the view that our history is our nature.
At the same time, feminists concerned with the rights and opportunities of women can fail to appreciate the positive motivation - the authentic expression of self - that many women bring to the task of caring for their children. Some voice frustration at women's repeated "retreats" to the world of child rearing, seeing them as a personal or political regression. Others blame baby care experts who advocate spending time with children for trying to impose self-sacrifice on mothers. These critics seem unwilling to apply their critical acumen to their own assumption that mothers experience caring for their children as self-sacrificing.
The view that caring for one's children amounts to self-sacrifice is a very tricky psychological point for women, and a confounding point for theory. It is confusing partly because the term "self-sacrifice" is potentially applicable to two different aspects of experience, the economic and the emotional. When it comes to their economic well-being, it is all too true that women sacrifice themselves when they become mothers. Time taken out of the workforce to nurture children, lost years accruing Social Security benefits, and a host of other economic factors result in unequivocal economic disadvantages to mothers. At the same time, from the point of view of emotional well-being, a mother often sees her desire to nurture her children as an intrinsically valuable impulse, and as an expression of what she subjectively experiences as her authentic self. This inconsistency presents contemporary women with one of the core paradoxes of their lives as mothers.
Considering for a moment the issue of self-sacrifice strictly from a psychological point of view, what is trickiest for women is the fact that some of what they find meaningful about mothering can be construed, from some vantage points, as self-abnegating.
There are moments in the day-to-day life of every mother when the deferral of her own gratifications or aims is experienced as oppressive. But a narrow focus on such moments and the belief that they adequately capture, or stand for, the whole experience of mothering fail to appreciate the overall context in which those deferrals take place. When she relinquishes control over her time, forgoes the satisfaction of an impulse, or surrenders to playful engagement with her child even as she feels driven to "accomplish something," the surface quality of capitulation in these decisions belies their role in satisfying her deeper motives and goals. These deeper goals have to do, ultimately, with the creation of meaning. In the seemingly mundane give-and-take of parenting - playing, sharing, connecting, relaxing, enduring boredom, getting mad, cajoling, compromising, and sacrificing - a mother communicates with her child about something no less momentous than what is valuable in life, and about the possibilities and limits of intimate relationships.
This process can be one of extraordinary pleasure. There is the sensual, physical pleasure of caring for small children; the satisfaction of spending most of our waking hours (and some of our sleeping hours) with the people we love the most, taking care of their needs; the delight in being able to make our child happy and in being made happy by our child. There is the pleasure of being "alone together," of doing things near one another, feeling comforted by the presence of the other while attending to our own activities. There are also the enormous gratifications of watching children develop, grow, and change, and of being involved in the people they become.
Devoting time to caring for children is not, of course, all about pleasure and good feeling. It is also grounded in a sense of meaning, morality, even aesthetics. The choice to do so can express, for example, a value about time, having to do with the desire to create an atmosphere where time is not a scarce commodity and children's sense of time has a place. It can express an ideal about service, to one's immediate community and to a range of broader ethical and political goods associated with raising children well.
It can express a value about relationships. Managing one's rage, quelling one's desire to walk out the door on squalling children and dirty dishes, and feeling one is going to faint of boredom at the sheer repetitiveness of it all and yet continuing anyway are some of the real emotional and moral quandaries that caring for children routinely presents. Many mothers believe, for all their daily struggles with irritation and fatigue, that there is something intrinsically meaningful about managing and overcoming those states in the process of caring for one's children.
Excerpted from Maternal Desire by Daphne DeMarneffe Copyright © 2004 by Daphne de Marneffe. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.