The Inextricable link..

…between motherhood and femininity – has psychoanalysis perpetuated this view?

Sheila O’Sullivan

My aim in this paper is to consider whether the psychoanalytic view that there is an inextricable link between motherhood and femininity has contributed to the stigmatisation of electively childless women. My research interest includes those women who are childless for reasons other than medical ones. I am interested in how elective childlessness manifests in the consulting room and the clinical implications of this growing phenomenon in twenty-first century Britain.

The inspiration for this research came from my own clinical and personal experience. In my practice some clients were presenting with issues relating to infertility while others were grappling with the decision about whether or not to be a parent, and how this might impact on their relationship. There were those who had delayed childbearing and were dealing with the consequences of this, and single men and women, gay and heterosexual, were included in these dilemmas. There were parents too who were struggling with the parental role and with their relationship with their children. I had experienced my own existential crisis with infertility but my clinical work and discussions with peers and friends alerted me to the complexity of the ‘to be or not or not be a parent’ dilemma in our post-modern age. I would argue that the boundary between elective and non-elective childlessness is not always clear. Choice for individuals is often complex and this includes grappling with ambivalence. Shaw’s (2011) recent paper questioned the notion of choice and women’s ownership of the decision. She discovered that the term ‘choice’ itself needs unpacking, and her interviews with women revealed a complex tapestry of contributory factors on the path towards elective childlessness. These findings were supported by Cooke, Mills and Lavender (2012) whose work on women who delayed childbearing highlighted the urgency, social pressure and lack of choice in the timing to have a family.

There is a great deal of psychoanalytical literature on non-elective childlessness (Miller [2003]; Raphael-Leff [1997]; Pines [1993]). At the same time, elective childlessness has been written about extensively by sociologists (Gillespie [2000]; [2001]; [2003]; Hird [2003]; Lisle [1996]). Sociologists have shown how women in particular experience stigmatisation and stereotyping as a consequence of their childfree status (Veveers, 1980). It is curious that there is this lacuna within psychoanalytical literature and, as Sartre (1956/1943) states, things that are absent are as important as those that are present in defining how we see the world. An important question that my research is trying to unravel is whether binary thinking is present with regards to mother/non-mother and parenthood/non-parenthood in the consulting room. Gender beliefs draw upon gender binaries: society endorses the opposition between male and female, homosexuality and heterosexuality as well as (one could argue) parent and non-parent (Drescher, 2002:66). This thinking often becomes dominant and unconscious in social and scientific discourse and may adversely affect those who have not followed what is considered to be the ’normal’ path (Gillespie, 2000). A conference – Psychoanalysis and Homosexuality: Moving On – organised by the British Psychoanalytic Council in January 2012 highlighted the binary thinking that had been prevalent in psychoanalysis and led to moral judgments and ‘malignant prejudices’ (Fonagy and Higgit, 2007:213). I would like my research to highlight how this could affect childless women.

I will briefly outline some of the psychoanalytical theories which, among others, I would argue have contributed to the inextricable link between femininity and motherhood. In his paper entitled Female Sexuality (1931), Freud further developed his theories on the unconscious motives for a woman’s wish for a child. At the centre of Freud’s argument is the concept of penis envy and the girl’s sense of her own castration, for which she blames her mother. Thus, she turns away from her mother to embrace the father, the possessor of the penis. The search for the missing penis is the crux of the Oedipal crisis for the girl. Freud saw three ways in which this could be resolved. First the girl may choose to give up on her sexuality as she is frightened by her comparison with boys. The second line leads her to cling to her assertiveness in the hope of getting a penis, thus developing a masculinity complex. Only if she takes up the third option, her father as her object and gives up her mother, does she achieve a normal feminine development, resulting in her seeking a baby from her father as a replacement for the missing penis. Although Freud does not refer to voluntary childlessness overtly, it can be surmised from this theory that these women will have taken either of the first two routes, neither of which would be considered ‘normal’ from a classical psychoanalytic position. Many feminists (Ireland [1993]; Morrell [2000]; Letherby [1999]; Veveers [1980]) have argued that the Freudian view of women being associated with lack is felt more acutely by childless women.

Although psychoanalysis was one of the few professions women could access, it was not keen to support ‘masculine tendencies’ in females. Deutsch writes: “It is the task of analysis to free these patients from difficulties of the masculinity complex and to convert penis envy into the desire for a child, thus inducing them to adopt their feminine role.” (Deutsch, 1930). Interestingly enough, she also introduced the concept of womb envy, which implied that the ability to give birth was the only advantage that women had over men. The concept of ‘biology as destiny’ espoused by Freud was questioned by Horney (1926). She acknowledged the existence of penis envy, but stated that it was based more on the sexual and social freedom experienced by men. Despite this move towards acknowledging that women’s sense of inferiority is not primary, in terms of encouraging women’s reproductive choices she too described clinical cases of women who became ‘real’ women when their penis envy was displaced by the wish for a child.

Some authors such as Fleigal (1963) suggest that the concept of penis envy should be dropped as studies show that culture outweighs biology in emerging views of female development, and that many girls feel good about their gender. Erickson (1964) argued that Freud’s theory of psychosexual development was only partially true, and recommended a move away from equating femininity with a ‘lack’, and towards a concept stressing the vital inner potential of the womb. Similar to his concept of generativity, this inner space is relevant regardless of whether a woman is a mother or not. He does state that a woman does not need to identify only with this inner space, but can forge a pathway for herself as a worker. He also states that he is ‘not trying to doom every woman to motherhood’ (Erickson, 1964:605).

Another contentious issue is the psychoanalytic concept of parenthood as a development stage. This theory was espoused by a number of authors, including Benedek (1959), Erickson (1951) and Pines (1993). Their views gave further credence to the notion that having children was not only a biological drive, but also essential for emotional maturity. Benedek’s theory applied both to men and women, but at this stage I will primarily focus on her theories of feminine development. She explains how the changes at puberty set in motion the drive towards maturity, which includes the physiological readiness for procreation and the next phase which is parenthood. The dynamic between the mother and child leads to changes not only in the infant but also in the mother. This allows the conflicts which were incorporated in the superego when the mother was a child, to be worked through again due to the experiences of parenthood. Benedek (1959) also outlines the opposite effect, that an unsuccessful experience of being a parent might undermine the parent’s self-esteem, thus enhancing the strictness of his superego and rendering it pathogenic for the parent as well as the child. Despite these views, Erickson stated that “individuals either through misfortune or because of special interests or gifts do not apply this drive to their own offspring” (Erickson, 1951:240).

Since the 1970s more and more psychoanalysts (Brody, Marcus and Moore as cited by Parvens, 1975) Williams (1986), Weldon (1988) and Parker (1995), have been questioning the premise that parenthood leads to psychological maturity. Women’s roles in society have changed tremendously in the past forty years. The pressing issues for many female patients of depth psychologists have also undoubtedly changed during this period. Brody (quoted in Parvens, 1975:3) considered it curious that parenthood should be considered a developmental phase, bearing in mind the history of neglected and battered children and the presence of parent substitutes through the use of wet nurses, nannies, boarding schools and child care arrangements. He questioned whether parenthood is invariably accompanied by structural changes in the ego and superego, and argued that change does not necessarily imply advancement towards a higher level of emotional maturity. Brody (quoted in Parvens, 1975:5) carried out a 10-year longitudinal study of 131 ‘normal’ mothers and their infants and observed that often women appear to be unable to shift their attitudes towards the child as he or she moves from phase to phase. In addition, Moore (quoted in Parvens, 1975:5) stated that, although the wish to have children may fulfil a biological and narcissistic need, this desire does not necessarily provide the major influence on how one may parent. This is more dependent on environmental, social and psychological influences in a parent’s life. Moore doubted whether there is an innate drive towards parenthood or a development mental need in man to reproduce and rear children. This view was backed up by Weldon (1988) who discussed the darker side of motherhood. Nevertheless, it is still curious that psychoanalysts, particularly female ones, even those holding a feminist position (Chodorow [1978]; Mitchell [1974]) were still assuming that all women would be mothers. This supports my contention that the motherhood mandate has always been pervasive, and that this position remains unchallenged, particularly within psychoanalysis.

In our society there is a split representation of motherhood, typical of most western societies, according to which mothers are expected to be both childlike and mature. Parker (1995) criticises psychoanalysis for its approaches to motherhood and to femininity. She argues that these approaches, which regard motherhood as the developmental goal of femininity, are embedded in and determined by the history of psychoanalytic theorising. Acknowledging the childless woman, Parker states that psychoanalysis perpetuates the view that you are ‘not a real woman unless you have had a baby’ (Parker, 1995:204). Parker supports my hypothesis that there is a need for depth psychologists to be more open to researching into elective childlessness and viewing it as a viable option for some women.

I would argue that women’s reasons to remain childless are as varied as the arguments of pronatalists. As an alternative explanation, Ireland (1993) argues that the voluntarily childless woman, whom she calls transformative, is saying to the world that she’s on a personal quest in which motherhood plays no part. She is making a conscious decision to explore other avenues of expression for whatever maternal feelings she has, and regardless of the external questions she may get, she will affirm herself internally as she moves in the world. This, of course, can be regarded by pronatalists as an atypical female identity. However, I would argue, as do others (McAllister and Clarke, 1998), that the changes that have taken place in society since the 1950s have made this choice available to the ‘ordinary’ woman who may not see herself as trailblazer or as transformative. It would be interesting to explore the reasons behind electively childless women’s tendency to remain invisible in discussions of adult identity. One could argue that their presence challenges many unconsciously accepted preconceptions of what women should be. Ireland (1993) argues that there is more resistance in society to recognising the female identity of the childless woman as she is more likely to have organised her identity around autonomy. This can often lead to even more stereotyping of these women as hard-driving career women. The voluntarlly childless are often portrayed as white middle-class women who prefer their careers and strive to be like men. However, other research (Campbell [1985]; McAllister and Clarke [1998]; Morrell [2000]) shows that the voluntarily childless may be working class, not career minded, and have very similar characteristics to mothers. The childless couple find themselves constantly asked by well-meaning friends and family about their ‘lamentable state’ (Williams, 1986), while parents are very seldom placed on the defensive with regard to their motivations for childbearing. The media, psychoanalysis and researchers often portray childlessness as being the result of unfortunate circumstances as opposed to being of a voluntary nature. To cope with these circumstances, the couple must develop an adequate social defence of their decision. Many electively childless couples choose to say they are infertile as they might be too embarrassed to expose the truth (Benedeck and Vaughn, 1982).

Discussing the female decision to remain childfree, Kamalamani (2009) raised a number of interesting points. There is the inherent danger of failing to capture the diversity of individual life because one is choosing to look at it from a particular angle, when in fact most lives are a more complex web of interconnected events, people and phenomena. I would argue that in our post-modern society, women are faced with fighting two battles at once – the tyranny of choice and the tyranny of patriarchy. These two powerful forces can pull women in different directions.

It is therefore crucial that therapists do not make assumptions about childless women as their experiences can be as varied and conflicted as those of mothers. Kamalamani (2009) argues that, when working with this growing phenomenon, therapists need to provide a spacious and supportive environment to allow the complex decision-making to unfold freely. I will outline below other ways that elective childlessness can be viewed in the clinical setting.

The woman is reminded each month during her menstruation that she has the biological potential to carry a child. Electing to be childless does not equate with rejecting the symbolic potential of the womb. From a Jungian perspective, the psychic encounter of childlessness often occurs in midlife – but this midlife crossing often accentuates a woman’s own particular identity evolution (Ireland, 1993). This provides an opportunity for re-framing and exploring what is missing or absent in the potential space and may well include aspects of regret. Jung (1953) argued that it provides an opportunity for a dialogue between the conscious and unconscious parts of ourselves, which means that we are more able to face the developmental task of the second half of our life and come to terms with the inevitability of death. The adult pathway of the woman who is childless merely makes this particular human challenge more visible. Ireland (1993) argues that the path to a satisfactory adult female identity for the woman who is not a mother must include encountering her own lack of a child. This enables her to enter a transitional and potential space in order to interpret her situation, thus creating something new. By inhabiting this generative space, the childless woman expands her experiences of female subjectivity. This allows a distribution of psychic energy within her as well as letting her reconnect with her own female identity and other women.

Another view is that it is possible for women to achieve gratification from creative expression without bearing children. Writing in the context of infertility and early menopause, Joan Raphael-Leff (1997) describes the concept of generative identity which, if successfully realised, can achieve conceptual changes in the individual. This entails freeing oneself from biological determinism by utilizing psychic cross-gender potentialities, as well developing a more abstract notion of creativity in general (as opposed to the ‘physical creativity’ associated with the baby). This potential for individuals to have access to male and female aspects of themselves is a thread drawn from Jung (1953), Raphael-Leff (1997) and Ireland (1993).

My contention is that it is inevitable that psychotherapists in contemporary British society cannot avoid internalising the negative social attitudes towards childless women because these attitudes are part of the socio-cultural and political milieu in which we all live. The psychoanalytic literature, therefore, continues to reflect an inextricable link between motherhood and femininity. I hope through my research to raise the profile of this question so as to allow more discussion within therapeutic communities. I would like to develop a more contemporary, inclusive and relevant concept relating to elective childlessness. The question is this – how can psychotherapists bring about social change, challenge the prevalent pronatalist position and encourage people to engage more with the existential issues?


Sheila O’Sullivan trained in Integrative Body Psychotherapy at the Chiron Centre and has been practising for 14 years in High Wycombe and Ealing. Currently she is in her fourth year of a PhD research degree at the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies at Essex University. The title of her research is A Study of Elective Childlessness.


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