The Mother Knot is a memoir written by US author and academic Jane Lazarre and published in 1976, that is the same year as Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born (read my review here). The two books would go on to have a tremendous influence on writing about motherhood for the decades to come. Both were written by academics who also happened to be « academic wives », and both were concerned with the personal as well as the political implications of motherhood. They both portray, each in their own style, their ambivalent feelings about becoming a mother, which are often the result of the discrepancy between the cultural representation and the reality of the experience. Yet, unlike Adrienne Rich’s book, which aims for a broad understanding of the historical and cultural dimensions of motherhood, Jane Lazarre’s memoir belongs to the categories of individual testimonies with a universal dimension, which liken it to works like Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, or Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Which does not mean her discourse is not racially and socially situated: she presents herself as a progressive, Jewish-born white middle-class woman, who happens to be married to a black man, also an academic. In her introduction she explains that part of the challenges she faced in writing her memoir was to testify to her experience as the white mother of black child in a predominantly white setting. Another fact which complicated her experience of motherhood was that she had lost her own mother at a very young age and had been raised by her father alone, who also died while her son was in his early years. As Alison Stone remarks in her book Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Maternal Subjectivity, becoming a mother means re-immersing oneself in the maternal relationship one had developed with one’s mother in infancy.1 For Jane Lazarre, this experience is impossible to retrieve as she is left with very few memories of her own mother. The other consequence of this traumatic loss is that Lazarre was deprived of a mother-figure who could pass on her own knowledge and help take care of her and the baby in the early, fragile moments of his life.
Mourning the self
Lazarre’s memoir reads like a story of grief and mourning with a happy ending. It opens on the birth of her second child, which brings the drama of coming to terms with motherhood to a close. Although the birth itself is told as a harrowing experience, it is one she has already gone through, and when she gets back home with the new baby, she finds she is no longer grieving the loss of her own self, but welcoming a new addition to the family. The woman who is speaking at the beginning of the narrative has gone through a whole cycle of dissolution and rebirth, and is now able to give a more clear-eyed account of her experience of motherhood. The common thread that runs through this account of Lazarre’s pregnancy and early years with her first son could be best described as the experience of “maternal ambivalence,” a term now common in motherhood studies2.
Maternal ambivalence is best described as the contradictory feelings a mother may feel towards her children, especially during infancy. The intense love Lazarre feels for her child is blended with resentment and despair as she becomes aware that her life has changed beyond recognition. She is no longer able to exist as an independent self: her whole existence is now bound up with her child’s. Her self is not self-contained anymore, it is fractured by the vital needs of her child, which she needs to address day in and day out.
She shows how during her first pregnancy, she had set herself up for a major disillusionment – she for example had unreasonable expectations about the kind of creative work she would be able to achieve once her baby was born; only to realise that as soon as she had become a mother, the possibility of creative activity had become a distant dream. She was no longer herself, but the mother to her child, the member of a close-knitted dyad in which her individual self had no place and was an unwelcome intruder.
I turned to that self inside of me, that girlwoman who had once been all I needed to know of myself, whom I had fought to understand, to love, to free—I turned to her now and I banished her. Into a protective shell tied in a knot, she retreated, four, five, six times a day, whenever Benjamin wanted to nurse. Soon, even when I sought her, she would not come, but began to stay out of reach longer and longer, sometimes not reappearing for whole days. For if she was present when the baby needed me, she was of necessity pushed aside, sent to go hungry. She who had been my life, whom I knew I had to nourish daily in order to be fed in return, hid for weeks, hoarding her gentleness and her strength, placing no gifts in my outstretched hands. (28)
This loss of a sense of self, often represented with images of imprisonment, is something we also find in Rachel Cusk’s motherhood memoir. Very early on, she realises that her own needs as an individual can only be met at the expense of the child’s needs. The home becomes a prison and the child the jailer. Taking care of a child, or at least in the way mothers are expected to take care of their children, involves a complete immersion in the mother-child relationship. This is something that Alison Stone describes in her own study about motherhood and subjectivity:
… mothers are often not properly recognised as subjects by other individuals around them. Indeed, mothers often experience the transition to motherhood in terms of just this loss of recognition. Having formerly been seen as agents of their own lives and treated by others as centres of agency, suddenly they find themselves perceived as largely subservient to the child(ren) for whom they care. (2)
This loss of individual self has two major consequences for Lazarre. The first is that, like Cusk and Rich before her, she finds that she is unable to function as an artist anymore. For sheer lack of time and mental space, she falls out of touch with her inner creative self and her reservoir of creative energy. But as Alison Stone remarks, her loss of self also affects how she is perceived by the rest of the world. All of a sudden, she find that she is defined by her relationship to her husband and to her child. No longer an individual in her own right, she becomes part of the category of the “womenandchildren,” an indistinct mass of being in which the self can no longer stand out.
This puts an inevitable strain on her relationship with her husband, because of the specific burden that is placed on women to surrender their whole beings to the experience of motherhood. She finds that her husband will never be as existentially affected by motherhood as she is – he will only ever remain someone who has happened to have taken care of a child, yet his whole life is not changed as radically like she feels hers has been.
After one more or less passionate moment, James might have walked away, as men have always done, not bothered any further by the existence of his son. He was a father only by virtue of caring for his child. Benjamin’s presence, his demands, his needs created James’s paternity. But I, whatever became of Benjamin, even if I had never known him, had become something new. (100)
The feeling of banishment from adult society extends to her sense of belonging to a community. As she joins her local women’s liberation group, she also realises that she now feels alienated from her own feminist support network. A few days after the birth of her son, she takes her sore, awkward body to a meeting for the female students and academic wives only to find out that she does not belong anymore. Although as a pregnant woman, she still remained her independent self, she is once again relegated to the group of “womenandchildren.” She has defaulted to the patriarchal ranks of the wives and mothers, forever lost to the drudgery of raising children and being an absolute bore.
Only the act of giving birth seemed interesting, I knew, to the intelligent, independent young women facing me. Once that dramatic moment of creation was over, however, the image of motherhood took on, in their minds, hues of graying diapers and red-and-white gingham; they thought of unattractive housedresses, disorderly homes, interrupted careers, diminishing sexuality—with these miserable consequences wrapped in the most unobjective, uncritical, sentimental and enervating kind of love. They thought of lives which were uninteresting, conventional, over. And so did I. (43)
This rejection felt by feminists who have chosen motherhood is also depicted in Alicia Suskind Ostriker’s poem “Propaganda Poem: Maybe for Some Young Mama” (1980). The poet describes her confrontation with young female students who have espoused the view common in second-wave feminism that motherhood needs to be rejected as the ultimate submission to patriarchy3 (see de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone).
after reading the girls my old pregnancy poem that I thought ripe and beautiful after they made themselves clear it was ugly after telling the girls I would as soon go to my grave a virgin, god forbid, as go to my grave without ever bearing and rearing a child I laughed” and if looks could kill I would have been one dead duck in that so-called “feminist” classroom
The subversive potential of motherhood has been explored since, especially by authors such as Maggie Nelson in her groundbreaking memoir The Argonauts (2015), but in the 1970s and 1980s, being a feminist often meant rejecting the strictures of family life in order to cultivate one’s independent self.
For Lazarre, then, there is no acceptable space for women to articulate their ambivalence over their experience of motherhood, and she is left alone with her guilt and anxiety, without the support of a mother or a sympathetic network of other women. She is particularly paralysed by the fear of being a bad mother to her child, a fear which is fed by her readings of psychoanalysis and its constant blaming of mothers for the future ills of their children. Yet at some point down the line she begins to see the light at the end of the tunnel: the baby is finally sleeping through the night.
Lazarre reaches another major milestone as she gets closer to other mothers in her community. In the middle of a crusty, messy living room, she finally hears another mother, Anna, confess to her own shortcomings: like Lazarre, Anna feels she is failing as a mother, and she’s even questioning the sacrosanct bliss she is supposed to feel when taking care of her child. All of a sudden, Lazarre feels she has been released from her solitary confinement: finally someone is openly admitting that motherhood is not as joyful an experience as she had been promised it would be.
And with that statement something fell off, crumbled, disintegrated within me—the wall which had kept me alone, the prison cell, the solitary confinement, and the terrible possibility that even in this universally feminine experience, I would still be, at least to myself, horribly odd—all these were cracked by the familiarity of Anna’s words and began to fall away (68)
The group is not just an occasion to tear down the walls of silence, as the women get together to share their experiences, they also build an informal support network as they agree to take turns to look after each other’s children so that Lazarre is finally able to enjoy some time to reconnect with her former self, beginning with just sitting in the university library4. The isolation of mothers, each in their own home, is a relatively recent phenomenon, as Sarah Knott shows in her book on the history of mothering5, and it is responsible for a lot of the dismay felt by young mothers who are suddenly alone at home with a human being they cannot communicate with.
A second step in her liberation happens when she finds out about a cooperative day-care facility being operated by other mothers with similar backgrounds. She then becomes part of a new coalition, the “underground day-care movement,” a network of parents who decided to make up for the lack of state investment in childcare by organising their own facilities – in this case they are literally operating underground as the premises are installed in the basement of a building. For the first time she feels like she and her mixed-race child can be welcome in a nurturing environment. Encouraged by the messy yet can-do attitude of the community of mothers who run the facility, she finally feels like she can get back to the creative self she had left behind during the first years of her child.
Was it possible, I asked myself, that the simple fact of a good day-care center, a place where Benjamin loved to go every day and which, therefore, freed me from the guilt of leaving him, was the essence of the liberation which I had mistakenly sought in the unraveling of all of my spiritual and emotional tangles? (128)
The day-care centre, however underground it may be, provides Lazarre and her child with a social framework as well as a support system: while the children can finally thrive on interacting with other adults and children, the mothers can get back to their own lives without being dogged by guilty thoughts of abandonment.
Conclusion: silent judgements
The guilt never seems to go away, though, yet as Lazarre becomes aware that she will have to contend with the feeling all her life, she can finally make peace with it. Mother guilt, she finds, is also fostered by the oneupmanship between women over who will give up the most for the sake of her children. This silent competition, she finds, is entangled with issues of race and class: it is the middle-class white mothers’ judgement she fears the most. Those mothers would never dream of leaving their young children in the care of others and pride themselves on devoting their whole lives to the care of their offspring. Unlike black and hispanic mothers who need to “leave” their children in order to make a living, the white women can just bask in their self-righteousness, she feels, and look down on the sad day-care children. Just as Lazarre feels tempted to retaliate against the white mothers sitting in silent judgement on the park bench with their children all afternoon, she decides that she needs to opt out of the competition altogether. They, like her, are mothers: struggling, tired, unrecognised. These women “have been robbed of self-respect by a society which idolizes and damns them” (132). Ultimately, it is with books like Lazarre’s that they can hope to be one day vindicated.
Cusk, Rachel. A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. New York: Picador, 2001.
Knott, Sarah. Mother Is a Verb: An Unconventional History. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2019.
Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts. London: Melville House UK, 2015.
Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. The Mother/Child Papers. Reissue edition. Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.
Rich, Adrienne C. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976). Reissued ed. Women’s Studies. New York: Norton, 1995.
Stone, Alison. Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and Maternal Subjectivity. London: Routledge, 2013.
- Stone, Alison, Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Maternal Subjectivity, London, Routledge, 2013, 11.↩︎
- See for example Parker, Rozsika. Mother love/mother hate: the power of maternal ambivalence. New York, NY: BasicBooks, 1995.↩︎
- “after reading the girls my old pregnancy poem/that I thought ripe and beautiful/after they made themselves clear it was ugly/after telling the girls I would as soon/go to my grave a virgin, god/forbid, as go to my grave without/ever bearing and rearing a child/I laughed” and if looks could kill I would/have been one dead duck in that/so-called “feminist” classroom », Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. The Mother/Child Papers(1980). Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.↩︎
- In Sarah Moss’s novel Night Waking the library is also presented as the perfect world the main character longs to escape too: with its ordered row of books and church-like quiet, it is the perfect antidote to the messy atmosphere of the home.↩︎
- Knott, Sarah. Mother Is a Verb: An Unconventional History. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2019.↩︎