Mothering is really a miracle but why is it still invisible? Sure. We sing their praises on Mother’s Day… once a year! But that is a small reward for hundreds of hours of unpaid labor that they have performed over centuries of time. If you are a psychoanalyst as I am you will know that they are mentioned plenty–but largely for what they do that is wrong, wrong, wrong! They are neglectful. They are too intrusive. They are not attuned. And they are expected to accomplish their task whether they live in a golden tower with half a dozen servants or work in a rice paddy and carry their newborn in a sling.
It is ironic that even liberal feminists of which I am also one have often defined mothering as an annoyance. Women are encouraged to “lean in” as they pursue their own careers. How they manage to do that while raising children is a mystery that is seldom addressed!
Our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, March 2017) endeavors to give voice to these issues as viewed by women and mothers who are also therapists. The issues are not new but clearly, they have not been integrated into the current political climate in a productive way.
Our book addresses these as follows:
The latter two sections of the book focus on topics related to the work of mothering which, as we know, has been given short shrift in the psychoanalytic lexicon. Women as baby carriers and nurturers are highly significant but their subjective experiences as mother or not-mother are unimportant. Rothman (Recreating Motherhood, 2000) has pointed that, ironically enough, patriarchy and liberal feminism have converged in giving short shrift to the physical and correspondingly emotional processes of gestation, labor, delivery, and lactation. Both ideologies have discounted and devalued pregnancy and the challenging work of mothering infants and young children.
Yet it is still women who give birth and who mother and, in the absence of opportunities to share these experiences, women continue to suffer narcissistic wounds in that these vital contributions are not identified or venerated in any ongoing manner. Our textbooks abound with what children need for healthy development but little attention is paid to the exhausting work of providing that experience. We have little to say about what it means to be a “socio-emotional environment” [a term coined by famous psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott.]
In the third section we consider issues of motherhood, again not from the perspective of the child, but from the subjective experience of the mother as she makes decisions about adoption and remaining childfree. We also consider the recent Birth Rights Movement that glorifies and idealizes the birthing experience in a way that once again duplicates a controlling approach toward female reproduction. In the final section we have included some very personal narratives as viewed through a psychoanalytic lens. We consider issues of maternity leave, the actual birth experience and postpartum depression as they affect the woman both as a person and as a therapist. These accounts bring us face to face with what Vissing terms “experiences of losing control, not succeeding in actively taking charge of the task, and feeling violated by interventions, whether medicalized or not . . . likely experienced as major defeats of the self” and burdened with “potential for psychic restructuring” [this volume]. All of the above issues have been given but a passing nod in psychoanalytic discourse.
Even in this day and age the majority of women will become mothers, undertaking a huge task that will encompass years of their lives. It is essential that their voices as mothers are heard. It is only in this way that they can have a substantial impact on public policy, child welfare and the multitude of issues that affect children and families.
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.