Reviewer Helen Hazell-English
During my first pregnancy I became interested in the psychological transition to motherhood, and I now focus on that in my counselling practice. So I was excited to read this book, which ‘explores our relationship to the maternal through psychoanalysis, philosophy, art and political and gender studies’ (p.i) and claims to provide ‘new and provocative thinking on the maternal and its place in various contemporary discourses’ (p.ii).
A series of ‘Maternal Seminars’ were held at The Philadelphia Association in 2011-13, and this book is a collection of the papers given. The chapters are divided into two sections of roughly equal length, the first called ’On Matricide’, and the second ‘Maternal Subjectivities’.
A strength of this book is indeed the range of perspectives and writing styles. To give a flavour, this includes attempts to expand psychoanalytic theory; analysis of Greek myths, Shakespeare, film and the symbolism of the Virgin Mary; discussion of how the Women’s Movement neglected maternal subjectivity; a look at how current UK economic and social policy impacts mothers, and qualitative research on the mother-son relationships of a group of Kurdish men. There is also an exploration of the maternal and the erotic, the maternal and music, and an artist’s description of how she expresses maternal experience in visual art. Personal narratives (some of which use poetry) include a male experience of patriarchy; a woman who chooses not to have children; learning to be a mother; considering the intergenerational stories of mothers in one family, and one contributor movingly includes a series of notes to her long-dead mother.
I plunged into section I with great anticipation, but for me it was disappointingly dry. The writing style was mostly academic and in some cases dense and difficult to follow. The main theme was that maternal subjectivity is missing from classic psychoanalytic theory, and indeed it is absent and neglected, and can be unhelpfully and unrealistically polarised in other discourses as well. While I found this interesting, what turned me off was the amount this point was repeated (often referencing the same texts), and the discussion of how to balance the omission was very tentative. I did not get a sense of a productive conversation developing throughout the seminar series. The editors stress that this book has an ‘open-ended’ feel with no conclusions, and indeed it reads like a series of jumping-off points or brainstorms; a series of sketched beginnings that do not speak to each other.
Most authors spoke of exploring matricide with the desire to work towards a more expansive and inclusive model of the maternal. A lot of attention was given to analysing and reappropriating/reworking the very myths, iconography and metaphors that were being critiqued. This is not a project that particularly captures my imagination, as it seems to me that it seeks to formulate an abstract reduction of the mother, which is still objectifying. Reflecting on my strong reaction to this section, I wonder if another facet of my reading experience was that I was having an emotional response to the matricidal loss/silence/annihilation that was its very subject matter.
The last two chapters in section I moved towards maternal subjectivity as a topic, foreshadowing section II. I found the first-hand reflections (about Kurdish mother-son relationships, and on the choice not to become a mother) absolutely fascinating. It is from this point that the book came alive for me, and I really enjoyed it. In these chapters I found so much resonance with my own experiences of mothering and being mothered, and those of my clients, and found myself thinking about both in new ways.
The chapter by Eti Wade about her work as a mother artist was a revelation, and my favourite by far. There is humour, freshness and honesty in her writing, and I am excited to have been introduced to some of her provocative images. Eti’s art is ‘a way of articulating forbidden aspects of maternal experience, expanding and diversifying contemporary maternal narratives’ (p.122). Her work is ‘an alternative representation of motherhood incorporating rejection, anger, violence and aggression as well as intense pleasure and joy’ (p.126). She argues that acknowledgement of negative, difficult emotions can be beneficial, and I couldn’t agree more, from my counselling practice. She even suggests that ‘the transition to motherhood could constitute a trauma’ (p.124), which I find an exciting idea.
A range of ideas about the maternal is included in these personal reflective pieces. For example, Pat Blackett offers a wide definition of maternal instinct as ‘a nurturing side that appears to come from a maternal source within me’ (p.112), and which she uses to look after plants, animals and people. On the other hand, Christina Moutsou discusses ‘the primal creativity in her birthing, mothering, breastfeeding capacity’ (p.191). To Lynda Woodroffe ‘being maternal is not always “natural”. It does not always emerge at childbirth, and can suffer stops and starts … motherhood is a melting, an unfurling, developmental and evolutionary’ (p.165). I liked Barbara Latham’s point that a danger of theorising is turning humans into objects of knowledge, stating that ‘of course there is no such thing as ‘the maternal’ (p.139)!
Overall the message of the second half of the book is that maternal subjectivity is a complex, ambivalent, and personal matter, impacted by a wide range of factors including social status, intergenerational history, culture and the time in which we live. The last chapter briefly mentions post-menopausal mothers; a reminder that there are also many stages to motherhood. While the first chapters seemed to want to theorise, to distil subjectivity, these chapters made me think of that as an impossibility.
The Mother in Psychoanalysis and Beyond reads to me like two separate books, so it is a strange experience. I do not think it has huge directly applicable relevance to psychotherapeutic practice, but it is a richly thought-provoking and interesting read that would doubtless be a creative stimulus to practitioners.
Helen Hazell-English is a BACP registered integrative counsellor with a special interest in the psychological transition to motherhood. She has a private practice in South London/Surrey providing counselling for mothers and mothers-to-be.
Mum Therapy: www.mumtherapy.co.uk