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Mapping the field of maternal studies: psychoanalytic approaches

More conflict and guilt

Mothers are conflicted, we have seen plenty of evidence of that. They are conflicted because they have been told they could “have it all” and then realised that, sometimes, they couldn’t; because they feel that they should be mothers first, but that their love is stifling; or that they should prioritise their own wellbeing, but that they are abandoning their children in the process and probably turning them into sociopaths. No one, it seems, can win this game, and the constant tensions between conflicting cultural prescriptions is fueling the fire of mother guilt, which burns in all our hearts.

Yet the worst guilt, the most buried, the most shameful, is the guilt felt by mothers who feel ambivalent about their children. Of course they do love them, but sometimes, at 3 am, when they are woken up yet again, they may think the unthinkable. Donald Winnicott, the child psychiatrist famous for his concept of the “good enough mother” did try to make us feel better about ourselves (Winnicott [1949] 1994):

The mother however, hates her infant from the word go. I believe Freud thought it possible that a mother may under certain circumstances have only love for her boy baby; but we may doubt this. We know about a mother’s love and we appreciate its reality and power. Let me give some of the reasons why a mother hates her baby, even a boy. 

Donald Winnicott “Hate in the Counter-Transference”, 355

And yet, even with the sanction of renowned psychoanalyst, mothers feel guilty for feeling anything other than pure love for their children. Needless to say, the resentment becomes even stronger when the children impinge on their mothers’ creativity. In Night Waking, the novel by Sarah Moss which I have already spoken about here, Anna is condemned to being constantly intruded upon by her children every time she tries to get any work done on her academic project. In this (hilarious) novel, the mother character confesses to feeling extremes of emotion with regards to her children, who can’t help but be themselves and experience their own needs – a resentment that is made even stronger by the attitude of Anna’s husband, who deploys ever more crafty strategies to excuse himself from having to take care of the children too. For Emily Jeremiah, Sarah Moss’s novel is the perfect illustration of a concept that has gained traction over the last 20 years, that of “maternal ambivalence” (Jeremiah 2018). After acknowledging that this ambivalence is often the result of a conflict between the idealization of motherhood and its gritty reality, she looks at the character of Anna, who experiences the “coexistence of ‘hating’ and ‘loving’ feelings towards her children as the result of, one, bone-crushing exhaustion, two, a sense of failure at both working and mothering. The ghost of infanticide which haunts the novel is here to express Anna’s deepest unconscious fears of acting out in rage and frustration.

In a recent book on maternal experience, Margo Lowy states that the coexistence of contradictory feelings is central to the psychic reality of mothering (Lowy 2021). Like Emily Jeremiah, she turns to the work of Rozsika Parker (see the following Guardian article for a general presentation of her work), who wrote several path-breaking books on the subject. She bases her reflection on the concept of “ambivalence” forged by Melanie Klein, and builds upon it to examine how the existence of conflicting emotions experienced by the mother towards her child does not necessarily involve the possibility of cruelty or aggression. In her book Torn in Two (Parker [1995] 2005), she especially makes a difference between “manageable” and “unmanageable” degrees of maternal ambivalence in order to separate healthy responses from pathological ones. Looking at the relationships between mothers and small children and mothers and teenagers, she blames our current myths around perfect or intensive motherhood for the deep psychological conflicts experienced by mothers, which translate into parallel currents of love and hatred mothers feel for their children. Like Anna Cassingham in Night Waking, the mother may feel downright tormented by her children, who won’t seem to give her a single minute’s respite.

Looking beyond the individual mother who responds to the task of mothering according to her specific psychology, I think there are particular conditions of mothering today which do inflate the guilt associated with aggression and hatred, provoking extreme splitting and overwhelming persecutory anxiety rather than leading to a state of manageable maternal ambivalence. The idealisation of oneness, the representation of mothers as good or bad rather than inevitably ambivalent, the frequent absence of previous experience of childcare, the often sole responsibility, the social isolation, and the eruption of emotions considered unacceptable in mothers, all combine to produce the feelings of helplessness so closely associated with the inability to transform aggression into creative care and attention, not only to the child’s needs but also to her own.

Emily Jeremiah, “Broken Nights, Shattered Selves: Maternal Ambivalence and the Ethics of Interruption in Sarah Moss’s Novel Night Waking”, 115

She belongs to the school of psychoanalysts who are rather critical of John Bowlby’s attachment theory (whose influence was studied in the previous post), whom she believes participated in establishing a standard of care to which women would try – and fail – to measure up to. She also takes Winnicott to task and explains that, for all his reassuring words on an acceptable portion of negative feelings in the mother-child relationship, he still viewed them as a hurdle to be overcome on the way to a more serene and uncomplicated form of maternal love. For Parker – and this is probably the most controversial and interesting aspect of her theory – “manageable” maternal ambivalence has a creative role in that it allows the mother to forge an individual bond with her child which still allows the possibility for separation later on.

Not everybody is comfortable with this takedown of the ideals of maternal love, most notably psychotherapist Naomi Stadlen, author of the best-selling book What Mothers Do (Stadlen 2004). For all her attempts at providing nonjudgmental advice to mothers from all horizons, she is very critical, to say the least, of what she calls the “new” idea of motherly love. In contrast with the “old” notion, which assumed that a mother’s love was pure and unadultarated, Stadlen denounces a discourse which, she feels, forces ambivalence on mothers. She summarizes the new discourse in the follwing words:

Traditional mothers, these writers claim, have been intimated by social pressures. They were expected to conform to the demands of an impossibly high social ideal. They had to sublimate and crush their own needs, and to give an appearance of submissive devotion to their children. So now these writers encourage mothers not to feel guilty if they fall short of these high ideals. A mother is urged to consider her own needs and to assert her independent identity. But she has to struggle for it against the demands of her child. That is why, even though she loves her child, she is expected to experience times when she genuinely hates her child too.

Naomi Stadlen, What Mothers Do, 151

This presentation carries with it the same hint of confusion that Sarah Blaffer Hrdy had identified in some feminist critics’ reactions to Bowlby’s theories (Hrdy 1999): once again analysis is mistaken for prescription. Rozsika Parker does not “urge” or “expect” mothers to have negative feelings, she merely registers that these feelings exist and can be part of an otherwise healthy relationship. Once again, nuance should be in order, but the fact that such misunderstandings remain show that the quality of love a mother has for her child is a difficult topic to broach.

One very useful point made by Naomi Stadlen, though, is that one of the reasons why mothers feel so helpless once their child is born is that, unlike in previous times, women are no longer in contact with small children. This is a consequence of the relegation of mothering to the home, and within the institution of the nuclear family: women do not see their mothers, sisters, cousins, taking care of babies, or breastfeeding them for example. Psychoanalyst Joan Raphael-Leff comes to a similar conclusion and explains the conflict experienced by new mothers by the contradictory imperatives of individual autonomy on the one hand and intensive mothering on the other, which are both part of Western culture. In other words, if babies were not hidden away in the home, alone with the mother, but rather shared within the community, mothers wouldn’t feel such distress at encountering her child who, at first, feels like an intruder on her privacy. (Raphael-Leff 2009).

Mothers are people, too

In motherhood a woman exchanges her public significance for a range of private meanings, and like sounds outside a certain range they can be very difficult for other people to identify.

Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work, 13

To get back to Parker’s theory, one of the cultural prescriptions which foster ambivalent feelings in mothers’s psyche is the idea that a mother should be “selfless”. In the common meaning of the word, selfless means here that she must be unselfish and entirely devoted to her children, but on a deeper level, it also means mothers are required to not develop a separate self of their own. This is a deep-seated notion in most pychoanalytic approaches of motherhood, and as we will see in the next part of the demonstration, the belief in a mother necessarily deprived of a “self” is the main cultural prohibition agains the possibility for mothers to also be writers, or even artists in general. The very existence of a maternal self, as I will be showing here, is in itself problematic. As Lisa Baraitser explains in the introduction of Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of Interruption:

The mother is everywhere in our culture, yet she is constantly escaping our grasp. The mother is stuck in the process of “being there to be left”. Due to her necessary function in the developing world of the infant, and due perhaps to our continued needs for our mothers to remain simultaneously present and yet to disappear, maternal subjectivity persists as ontologically puzzling, both necessary and suspect.

Lisa Baraitser, Maternal Encounters, 5

This idea that mothers should not be subjects in their own right has held currency since the beginning of psychoanalysis. In Freud and later in Lacan, the maternal serves as the background to the child’s ego formation, and as such, it is the opposite of what a self should be – that is, well-rounded, individual, unique. This translates into language as well: in Lacan, the child is only able to access the symbolic on the condition she breaks with the mother. For Kristeva (see (Kristeva 1980) and (Kristeva 1999)), the pre-symbolic space inhabited by the mother and her child before she is transitions into language is the chora; it must be broken with, even though it sometimes recurs through language in avant-garde artistic endeavours, for example (Kristeva 1977). In other words, subjectivation supposes a symbolic murder of the mother – this at least is how it is perceived and described by Luce Irigaray, who sees our culture as fundamentally matricidal (Irigaray 1974) and (Irigaray 1977). The fact that the young child should break from her mother in order to become herself is a condemnation of the mother to the marginal, the unformed, or to get back to Kristevian vocabulary, to the abject, in other words, that which must be revolted against, pushed back beyond the limits1.

We then begin to get a sense of why mothers are not believed to be culturally allowed to claim a self of their own, with its attending desires: their role is to be left behind, abandoned, abjected. This is the conclusion reached by Susan Griffin in “Feminism and Motherhood” (Davey and Griffin 2011). This is also the central claim made by Alison Stone in her book Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Maternal Subjectivity (Stone 2013), which is absolutely fundamental on this particular topic. Yet Stone does not believe in psychic determinism – in her view we do not need to satisfy ourselves with the way mothers have been constructed in patriarchy, which, even though it may sounds obvious, is an organisation of society that places fathers in the position of rulers. Talking about fathers, she believes for example that they can play a different role in their children’s subjectivation, other than just imposing the symbolic law, by taking on some of the cultural roles usually attributed to mothers, which is the way some men, especially lately, would like to see their role evolve2.

This takes us to the questions asked by Nancy Chodorow, who wrote in 1978 another one of the major contributions to maternal studies (Chodorow 1978), The Reproduction of Mothering: why do women mother? And why not men? For Chodorow, there is no definite biological grounding for women’s destiny to become mothers: even though women are primed to carry out most the mothering labour by the biological realities of pregnancy and lactation, it doesn’t mean that they should be the primary carers of their children. For her, the idea that children should be parented first and foremost by women and not men is the result of socialisation as much as biological reality. While this was already a groundbreaking idea at the time, Chodorow makes another major point, which is even more important for my purposes: because girls and women are raised by mothers, and therefore identify with them, they are socialised into believing that their sense of sense is not separate, but relational:

Because of their mothering by women, girls come to experience themselves as less separate than boys, as having more permeable ego boundaries. Girls come to define themselves more in relation to others. Their internalized object-relational structure becomes more complex, with more ongoing issues. These personality features are reflected in superego development.

Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering, 93

This idea, to me is central and it has echoed through maternal studies and gender studies in general ever since. It has, in particular served as the basis for most of the analysis of female autobiographical writing by Laura Marcus (Marcus 1999), Sidonie Smith and Julie Watson (Smith and Watson 2001), Felicity Nussbaum (Nussbaum 1989) and Susan Stanford Friedman (Friedman 1998), among many others3. Writing about oneself means writing about the others in one’s life: a woman is a daughter, a sister, a mother – but she will have to struggle to be an individual in her own right. It bears specific meaning when it comes to looking at the mother writer: the fact that she should take up a pen when she has children of her own is a transgression of several cultural taboos. As a woman and as a mother, she will have to write her claim to individual selfhood against the grain: this will be the topic of my next post.

Is there no way out of this new conundrum? Are mothers destined to be she who must be left behind, the infrastructure to her children’s wellbeing, the unformed individual? We have already seen that fathers have a role to play – even though it was shocking to their friends, Rachel Cusk’s partner did give up his job to allow her to write about motherhood while he took care of the children. From a philosophical point of view, we need, like Christine Battersby suggests, to decentre our representation of the self as necessarily well-rounded, with firm boundaries: female subjectivity is distinct from male subjectivity in that women have the possibility to become mothers, that is split into two beings instead of remaining one throughout their lives (Battersby 1998). From a psychoanalytic point of view, we can also try to conceive of other types of mother-child relationships that do not involve sacrifice and selflessness: this is the idea developed by Jessica Benjamin, who believes that we seriously underestimate children and infants’ capacity at recognising their mothers as separate individuals. The representation of the “omnipotent”, pre-symbolic mother is an a-posteriori fantasy, a reconstruction – and it is a representation that is hurting the mother as well as the child. Instead of seeing the mother and the child as an unbreakable unity, she maintains that the spiral of guilt can be broken by imagining their relationship as one that is mutual rather than complementary. Mother and child do not need each other to exist – as long as the child is properly cared for – they can coexist and yet recognise each one’s desires and aspirations (Benjamin 1994). A mother does not have to be adored or hated by her child: she can also be her own self as well as a “good enough” mother.

Baraitser, Lisa. 2008. Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of Interruption. London: Routledge.

Battersby, Christine. 1998. The Phenomenal Woman: Feminist Metaphysics and the Patterns of Identity. London: Routledge.

Benjamin, Jessica. 1994. “The Omnipotent Mother: A Psychoanalytic Study of Fantasy and Reality.” In Representations of Motherhood, edited by Donna Bassin, Margaret Honey, and Meryle Mahrer Kaplan, 129–46. Yale University Press.

Chodorow, Nancy J. 1978. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. Oakland: Univ of California Press.

Cusk, Rachel. 2001. A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. New York: Picador.

Davey, Moyra, and Susan Griffin, eds. 2011. “Feminism and Motherhood.” In Mother Reader: Essential Literature on Motherhood, 33–46. Seven Stories Press.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. 1998. “Women’s Autobiographical Selves: Theory and Practice.” In Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, 72–82. Madison: Univ of Wisconsin Press.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1999. Mother Nature: Natural Selection and the Female of the Species. London: Chatto & Windus.

Irigaray, Luce. 1974. Speculum de l’autre Femme. Collection Critique. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.

———. 1977. Ce sexe qui n’en est pas un. 1 vols. Collection “Critique. Paris: Éditions de Minuit.

Jeremiah, Emily. 2018. “Broken Nights, Shattered Selves: Maternal Ambivalence and the Ethics of Interruption in Sarah Moss’s Novel Night Waking.” In Motherhood in Literature and Culture: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Europe, edited by Gill Rye, Victoria Browne, Adalgisa Giorgio, Emily Jeremiah, and Abigail Lee Six, 197–208. Routledge Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Literature 78. New York ; London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Kristeva, Julia. 1977. Polylogue. Tel quel 58. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

———. 1980. Pouvoirs de l’horreur: essai sur l’abjection. Points. Essais 152. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

———. 1999. Soleil noir: dépression et mélancolie. Collection folio Essais 123. Paris: Gallimard.

Lowy, Margo. 2021. The maternal experience : encounters with ambivalence and love. 1 vols. Women and psychology. Abingdon New York (N.Y.): Routledge, Taylor & Francis group.

Marcus, Laura. 1999. Auto/Biographical Discourses: Criticism, Theory, Practice. Manchester University Press.

Nussbaum, Felicity A. 1998 (1989) ‘The Politics of Subjectivity and The Ideology of Genre’. 1989. Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Madison: Univ of Wisconsin Press, 160–67.

Oliver, Kelly. 2000. “Conflicted Love.” Hypatia 15 (3): 1–18.

Parker, Rozsika. (1995) 2005. Torn in Two: The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence. London: Virago.

Raphael-Leff, Joan. 2009. “Maternal Subjectivity.” Studies in the Maternal 1 (1).

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. 1998. Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader. Madison: Univ of Wisconsin Press.

———. 2001. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. 2nd edition. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.

Stadlen, Naomi. 2004. What Mothers Do. London: Hachette digital.

Stone, Alison. 2013. Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and Maternal Subjectivity. London: Routledge.

Tyler, Imogen. 2009. “Against Abjection.” Feminist Theory 10 (1): 77–98.

Winnicott, Donald W. (1949) 1994. “Hate in the Counter-Transference.” The Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research 3 (4): 348–56.


  1. Several feminists have expressed very critical views on the linking of the maternal with the abject, with for example Imogen Tyler who sees Kristeva’s work as a justification of the aggressivity towards mothers and their bodies (Tyler 2009).↩︎
  2. This is an idea also explored by Kelly Oliver: what if we reorganised the roles of mothers and fathers in order to break the hold of patriarchy over our conception of the family? (Oliver 2000)↩︎
  3. On this topic I recommend the collection of essays edited by Sidonie Smith and Julie Watson: Women, autobiography and theory: a reader (Smith and Watson 1998).↩︎


Cite this blog post
Alice Braun (2023, February 17). Mapping the field of maternal studies: psychoanalytic approaches. Mothers and writers. Retrieved May 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/rolx

By Alice Braun

Maîtresse de conférences en anglais à l’université Paris Nanterre/Senior lecturer in English at the Paris Nanterre university.

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