Did you see the TIME magazine cover for October 30 0f 2017? In the 21st century society is still telling women how to mother. The article describes the mandates to breast-feed and to pursue “natural” childbirth without painkillers. To do so will, or so it goes, provide the mother with a radiant experience of her role in the process of birthing a child. It then points out the pressure it places on mothers who cannot accomplish all of these “natural” accoutrements of motherhood. In the same issue, Siobhan O’Conner writes that “the rules of pregnancy are meant to prepare women for life as a mother—a life where every choice is one of sacrifice, where putting another’s well-being before your own is paramount.”
Does the life of the fetus always take precedence over the life and well-being of the mother? I remember a movie many years ago in which a man had to decide between his wife and the fetus. Both could not survive. According to the dictates of his religion he had to choose the fetus. It was a heart-breaking moment. I recall nothing else about the movie but that tragic scene stuck in my mind as I approached new motherhood.
In a paper which I presented this past weekend at the Association for Psychoanalysis and Culture (APCS) I addressed the puzzling contradiction in which mothers’ SUBJECTIVE experience is largely invisible while they are at the same time BLAMED for the evils that befall humanity. As early as 1982 Jacob Arlow (Scientific Forum) stated that “indicting mothers was an activity with an extensive legacy, universal in its reach, embedded in human psychology, and influenced by an invisible scrim of shared unconscious fantasies.” (p.66) Theresa Bernardez stated that “…many psychoanalytic writings, despite their valid contributions, lead to the notion of absolute responsibility on the part of the mother, not only for the infant’s survival but also for the infant’s unimpeded development and adequate mental health.” (The “good-enough” environment for “good-enough” mothering. The Inner World of the Mother, ed. D. Mendell and P. Turrini, pp.299-317. Madison, CT: Psychosocial Press. 2003)
Mother as a reactive three-dimensional human being—at best, distractible, preoccupied, overwhelmed, exhausted and at worst, frightened, ill, hungry, over-worked and alone—has no place in this model of optimal human development. In fact a mother’s real and authentic feelings are expressly forbidden. If the mother were to show her authentic emotion she might overwhelm the infant. If, because of her own lack of emotional regulation, a mother were to respond to the baby’s negative emotion and produce a real emotion of her own, she could seriously impact the baby’s emotional development. If the mother’s response misperceives the baby’s emotion, it also derails the infant’s developing sense of self. Researchers and clinicians claim that the mother’s needs must in no way impinge upon the infant. Her task, her only task, is that of mirroring and tuning in with ever-present attention and involvement.
In our minds and in our fantasies we all hope for the “Leave It to Beaver” mother—attuned, empathic, self-sacrificing and waiting at the door with a plate of warm cookies. Thus we still retain a view of mothering that obliterates decades of progress in other areas of women’s lives. Mother is supposed to be a well-spring of love, patience and protectiveness. In the best of circumstances she is a force for good, the all-giving Mother Goddess or Mother Nature—filling the earth with the flowers of Spring or the bounty of Autumn. In the worst of times she is Satan Incarnate, or a killer tornado that destroys everything in its path. In reality “mother” is one of the last outposts of human contact in an ever-increasingly impersonal world. It is not just what she does but it is her very being in which we hope to be grounded. Fathers do tasks and are greatly rewarded for their efforts. Mothers are the invisible background from which we emerge as human beings. Their complex responses to their children go unrecognized. It is part of their nature. Were we to analyze and acknowledge the “mind of mother” we could devolve into chaos and anarchy. So we call her an environment, an object and even in our most sophisticated theories fail to grant her individualism. To view mother as an individual means that we disentangle our deeply-held beliefs from the complex interweaving of biology and male dominance that has held us captive and then consider different and disturbing data that has seldom entered our conscious minds. The concept of mother—the shadowy presence that, for good or ill, infuses all of our lives—as anything other than an always-available, largely invisible, primal energy may be terrifying to contemplate.
The point of the TIME article is that mother is an individual. She has the right to make decisions herself about breast-feeding, birthing and pain medication. My presentation carries that argument further to say that, short of abuse or neglect, a mother is her own authority throughout the long years of child-rearing. If we want that perfectly warm and cuddly environment, then we all need to step in and participate because it is not all on a mothers’ shoulders! The ideal circumstance that we all hold in our fantasies will be possible only if society supports the significant task of raising children!
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.