Thursday, June 17, 2010

Reading Notes - Maternal Desire

(This post is adapted from a 2007 entry on my private blog.)

One of the things about living (and writing) our life in books is that not all the books I read or want to talk about are children's books. I have a variable relationship with parenting books (and may discuss that another time), but I have a steady ongoing interest in both studies and fiction that write the experience of maternity, the experience of family, in interesting ways. As a feminist bibliophile raising intelligent, erudite daughters, reading deeply about these things, looking into the many mirrors of maternity that are available in texts, is a useful and sometimes instructive experience for me.

One of the books that has impacted most strongly on me in this space is
Maternal Desire by psychoanalyist Daphne de Marneffe (2004). This book made a strong impression on me, for a range of reasons. The most important reason that the book resonated with me was that the author seemed at times to be giving voice to emotional responses and ethical dilemmas that I had been unaware of in my conscious mind, yet struck me as exactly right, precisely how I feel about matters.

The only other book about what I'll loosely term "the maternal experience" that has struck me so forcibly with a sense of concurrence with my experience is Naomi Stadlen's very different work, What Mothers Do (Especially When It Looks Like Nothing). While Stadlen's book is effectively a collection of wisdom and experiental tales from the many mothers she has counselled and assisted over the years, de Marneffe's work is a feminist, psychoanalytically informed attempt to address the depth, breadth and potency of maternal experience in the modern and postmodern Western world. Both books had me almost gasping with agreement at times; I'd read a phrase, a comment, and say "Oh, yes, absolutely!" out loud, bemusing my daughters and amusing my husband (to whom I read lengthy passages, trying to invest into my readings the meaning that I was finding in the words).

And unlike books about how to parent kids or how to treat them (of which I've read a few), these books are about the mother's experience of mothering, the role of maternity in making and remaking a sense of self, about how the transformatory nature, the extremity of the experience opens doors as well as closes them, and how the emotional subjectivity of the mother is never remotely the same after that first birth. This, to me, as a mother who is also a person and a feminist and a writer and a worker, yet has found the permeation of maternity into every aspect of myself both astonishing and amazing, is meat and drink. This talks about what I've felt, what I still feel, and what I sometimes find hard to convey.

One of de Marneffe's most valuable contributions is her systematic deconstruction of the characterisation of what she terms "maternal desire" (the desire to actively mother one's own children) as somehow regressive, or submissive, or anti-feminist. The way she describes maternal desire is so true to me:

"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." (p 3)

This is a much more sophisticated and persuasive rendering of the theme sometimes heard now as "the feminist backlash", the objection to the idea that being a mother (and in that rhetoric, wife also) is unfulfilling and servile. What de Marneffe does is point out that:

a) the notion that paid work is always or even sometimes the best path to personal fulfilment and self-actualisation is not necessarily borne out by lived experience, and is in itself an ideological position;
b) the notion that the care and raising of children is a profitless and unrewarding enterprise foisted on women by men is a reactive, un-nuanced and possibly quite erroneous assumption;
c) the post-Superwoman dichotomy which holds that women can't have both successful, fulfilling professional lives and complete maternal experiences is in itself unimaginative and flawed.

She is not in the business of taking sides in that perennial favourite battleground of the Mommy Wars, SAHM vs Working Mums (aka Kids-atHome vs Childcare / Creche). As she points out, this is yet another diversionary tactic taking real debate away from the core issue: women's heartfelt and largely unacknowledged desire to bear, raise and nurture children. This is a desire that may coexist peacefully in many with a desire to achieve professionally, and actually has no direct relationship to the working and care arrangements in place in any particular family. Women may have a high level of attachment and responsiveness to their children whether at home fulltime or at work fulltime, or something in between, and maternal desire remains the lodestar of their life experience.

For me, de Marneffe's use of the phrase "maternal desire", and her very deliberate analogising of the concept with sexual desire, is a particularly powerful metaphor. She uses it to point out both the power and the curious unmentionability of the felt urge to mother, which is an urge as strong or stronger in many women than the urge to have sex. Admitting to being a sexual creature is seen as liberating, self-actualising for women, yet, as de Marneffe points out, admitting to an equally savage and irresistible desire to mother is seen as somehow self-suppressing, self-denying. This, of course, is not my own experience at all. I have never felt less suppressed or more alive in my life than since I've been given the opportunity to satisfy my strong maternal desire.

de Marneffe covers a lot of ground in this book - she has an interesting take on abortion, and she discusses, with sympathy (but it must be said, not empathy), the painful situation of women who have children and yet lack maternal desire. All of these discussions are interesting, but, to me, tangential to her main thrust, which is a demand that the legitimacy, power, depth and pleasure of maternal experience be recognised and celebrated. Her descriptions of the really great parts of mothering children sang in my head:

"There is the sensual, physical pleasure of caring for young children; the satisfaction of spending most of our waking hours (and some of our sleeping hours) with the people we love the most ... the delight in being able to make our child happy and being made happy by our child. There is the pleasure in being "alone together", of doing things near one another ... There are also the enormous gratifications of watching children develop, grow and change, and of being involved in the people they become." (p 9)

Yes, I thought when I read that, that's it, yes. My daily absorbtion in my children is not mis-imagined or programmed or invalid; it is real, it means something, and I'm not the only one who feels this way. And for giving me a name for what I feel, my intense wish and need to care for my own children, I thank Daphne de Marneffe sincerely.


  1. Wow, you've just convinced me to add both books to the 'must find and read' list. Very interesting. I do want to see though what de Marneffe has to say about the 'complications' of that maternal desire (the loss of power, status, income and so on that come with it, or the possible complications that come with the parent-child relationship itself.)Interesting!

  2. Oh interesting stuff... been pondering some of this myself of late. Must go see if either book is at our library