Since, oh, forever, there have been volumes have written about how to be the perfect mother. Everybody has an opinion—doctors, psychologists, lawmakers (there was a time when women were not allowed to enter the legal profession because it would interfere with their “sacred” duties as mothers.) The thing is the definition of the “perfect” mother changes from one generation to the next. Mothers are too strict. Then they are not strict enough. There are helicopter mothers who hover too much and tiger mothers, hoping to raise the next Mozart or champion gymnast. Motherhood is a moving target and judging from all the complaints and misguided souls out there, you would think that no one ever gets it right.
Truth be told, motherhood is an impossible enterprise. No, I mean it! Mothering in individual homes with one bedraggled and frazzled women wrangling one, two or more children alone is really an unmanageable task. Whatever a woman can do in the way of support groups, play dates, and respite care of whatever kind she can manage is all to the good. It is not healthy for either mother or child to be cooped up with each other on a daily basis without any breaks. No human woman is perfect enough to pull it off without her own weaknesses and idiosyncrasies rubbing off onto her children and vice-versa.
This particular model—woman as child-bearer (inevitable) and women as caregiver (not inevitable)—has been around a long time. It is the gold standard and it is not going to be easy to examine and yes, call into question its inevitability. But whenever we choose to disrupt a cultural practice—so ingrained as to have the status of prime directive or irrevocable law—we must, I believe, begin by scrutinizing its components and breaking them down into analyzable parts. It is with this goal in mind that we have written our book A Womb of Her Own. (Routledge, In Press)
Our purpose then in this volume is to address from a psychoanalytic perspective those “every day miracles” that disproportionately affect women as a function of their biology. If it appears that we are going backward it is because we believe that women’s stories from women’s bodies have not been fully elaborated. Unless and until they can claim these experiences as their own, their power and their agency will remain compromised. From this viewpoint we are talking not about the self as the subject of discourse but rather about the psychic self or what Benjamin (1988) calls the “conflicted experiencing self”. We are talking about women in a binary world, a patriarchal order ‘that sets up stringent binaries on the basis of anatomical sex differences and . . . does not allow for people to deviate from that binary without suffering grave consequences’ (Davisson, personal communication)
Women as mothers are either vilified or held to impossible standards as the essential “socio-emotional environment” for positive human development. Schore’s (1994) breath-taking compendium on affect regulation states as follows:
A central thesis of this volume is that . . . the infant’s transactions with the early socioemotional environment indelibly influence the evolution of brain structures responsible for the individual’s states and the changes in these states takes a significant amount of empathic attention and emotional involvement on the part of the primary caregiver. (p. 540)
Later in this discussion the author makes it clear that the “primary caregiver” should be the mother. Schore cites studies that indicate that nonmaternal care of even more than 20 hours per week presages untoward effects such as increased aggression and insecure attachment. No attention is paid to the effort required of women to accomplish this type of attunement.
So we need to take a step backward and listen to women’s voices as clinicians and therapists and women themselves talk about the experiences—heart-wrenching, tragic, stressful, and glorious—of being a woman and a mother. It is time that we framed it, not from the perspective of the child or the point of view of how best to meet a child’s every need, but from the outlook of the mother—a living breathing human being who is not always gazing at her child!
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.