Part Two Of Our Article On Maternal Desire

What is maternal desire and is it good or bad? How to make the most of your maternal desire.
Daphne de Marneffe

The view that caring for one's children amounts to self-sacrifice is a very tricky psychological point for women, and a confounding point for theory. It is confusing partly because the term "self-sacrifice" is potentially applicable to two different aspects of experience, the economic and the emotional.

When it comes to their economic well-being, it is all too true that women sacrifice themselves when they become mothers.

Time taken out of the workforce to nurture children, lost years accruing Social Security benefits, and a host of other economic factors result in unequivocal economic disadvantages to mothers. At the same time, from the point of view of emotional well-being, a mother often sees her desire to nurture her children as an intrinsically valuable impulse, and as an expression of what she subjectively experiences as her authentic self.

This inconsistency presents contemporary women with one of the core paradoxes of their lives as mothers.

Considering for a moment the issue of self-sacrifice strictly from a psychological point of view, what is trickiest for women is the fact that some of what they find meaningful about mothering can be construed, from some vantage points, as self-abnegating.

There are moments in the day-to-day life of every mother when the deferral of her own gratifications or aims is experienced as oppressive. But a narrow focus on such moments and the belief that they adequately capture, or stand for, the whole experience of mothering fail to appreciate the overall context in which those deferrals take place.

When she relinquishes control over her time, forgoes the satisfaction of an impulse, or surrenders to playful engagement with her child even as she feels driven to "accomplish something," the surface quality of capitulation in these decisions belies their role in satisfying her deeper motives and goals. These deeper goals have to do, ultimately, with the creation of meaning.

In the seemingly mundane give-and-take of parenting -- playing, sharing, connecting, relaxing, enduring boredom, getting mad, cajoling, compromising, and sacrificing -- a mother communicates with her child about something no less momentous than what is valuable in life, and about the possibilities and limits of intimate relationships.

The pleasure of motherhood
This process can be one of extraordinary pleasure. There is the sensual, physical pleasure of caring for small children; the satisfaction of spending most of our waking hours (and some of our sleeping hours) with the people we love the most, taking care of their needs; the delight in being able to make our child happy and in being made happy by our child.

There is the pleasure of being "alone together," of doing things near one another, feeling comforted by the presence of the other while attending to our own activities.

There are also the enormous gratifications of watching children develop, grow, and change, and of being involved in the people they become.

Devoting time to caring for children is not, of course, all about pleasure and good feeling. It is also grounded in a sense of meaning, morality, even aesthetics. The choice to do so can express, for example, a value about time, having to do with the desire to create an atmosphere where time is not a scarce commodity and children's sense of time has a place. It can express an ideal about service, to one's immediate community and to a range of broader ethical and political goods associated with raising children well.

It can express a value about relationships. Managing one's rage, quelling one's desire to walk out the door on squalling children and dirty dishes, and feeling one is going to faint of boredom at the sheer repetitiveness of it all and yet continuing anyway are some of the real emotional and moral quandaries that caring for children routinely presents.

Many mothers believe, for all their daily struggles with irritation and fatigue, that there is something intrinsically meaningful about managing and overcoming those states in the process of caring for one's children.

When the activities of mothering are interpreted as self-limiting, they tend to be treated dismissively. In Susan Faludi's book Backlash, the value of mothers spending time raising their children is articulated either by right-wing ideologues who are trying to suppress women's freedom and equality or by disaffected feminists lapsing into a defeated sentimentality.

Author Myriam Miedzian comments that life at home with children amounts to "shining floors and wiping noses." Time with children is often framed in feminist analyses as a form of drudgery unfairly allotted to women, remediable through shared parenting or better day care. It is as if the day-to-day practice of mothering places unreasonable or unjust demands on mothers and is part of the oppression of women's gender-based role. Yet in an era of unparalleled choice for women, spending time caring for children cannot be glibly interpreted as a deficiency or inhibition.

One of the goals of feminism in the last 25 years has been to dismantle the ideal of the all-giving, self-sacrificing mother, an ideal with which previous generations of mothers did battle. But we can better understand the situation of mothers today if we don't view this image of the mother as an eternal ideal, because, in fact, for the current generation of mothers, the ideal has shifted.

The ideal of the supermom
More recently, the ideal of the supermom has been by far the more vivid and immediate. This cultural ideal pressures mothers to perform excellently on all fronts, in a job, with their children, with their partner, at the gym, and in the kitchen, making those 15-minute meals.

The supermom ideal plays into people's fantasies that if they work hard enough to get everything "right," they will not lose anything, that nothing will have to be sacrificed. What we had in the previous ideal was a woman who lost herself to her children and her mothering. What we have in the supermom ideal is a woman who loses nothing.

But in fact, the problem with trying to do everything is that it changes radically your perception of the time you have. Anyone who has tried to "fit everything in" can attest to how excruciating the five-minute wait at the supermarket checkout line becomes, let alone a child's slow-motion attempt to tie her own shoes when you're running late getting her to preschool.

Most women today are not struggling to break out of the ideal that instructed them to sacrifice everything for their children. They are more likely beset with the quandary of how to break out of the "do everything" model so that they will have more relaxed time for their relationships.

Whereas the past ideal may have hindered women's search for autonomy and self-determination in the wider world, the current ideal makes it harder to express their desire to care for their children.

It may be the supermom ideal that Naomi Wolf's seemingly apolitical college women are rejecting when they say they can't "have it all." These young women may intuit, well before their mothering years, that life may require them to make a conscious and planned departure from the "do everything" model that preoccupied the generation of women that preceded them.

Huge shifts in women's lives brought on by the availability of birth control, educational and economic access, and the possibility of diverse life choices -- have finally created the potential for mothering to be a chosen activity in ways unimaginable for the vast majority of women throughout history and still in many parts of the world today.

At the same time, the proliferation of choices presents new challenges, as it creates expanded arenas for conflict, indecision, and doubt.

In trying to understand our conflicting goals and desires from the inside, we might begin with that science of desire, psychoanalysis.

The psychoanalytic method is a powerful means for understanding the desires women bring to mothering. It is, after all, a method designed to elucidate what we feel and what we hide from ourselves. It reveals to us that our desires, motives, and beliefs never have a single fixed meaning, and that they are not always what they announce themselves to be.

Listening to patients in the clinical consulting room discloses the obvious fact that every woman brings to mothering her own personal history, temperament, and sense of herself.

For any given woman, the desire to mother can be a heartfelt longing, a fantasy, an excuse, something to be denied -- or all of the above, at different times.

One woman extols the value of being an extremely attentive mother. She worries that if she doesn't make her kids' sandwiches every day and watch all their sports games, she's a bad mom. Meanwhile, her own work as a graphic designer languishes. At this time in her life, her notion of being a good mother keeps her from expressing other important aspects of herself.

Another woman has little time to attend to her children's daily routines and takes pride in raising children who are as self-reliant as she is. For her, finding the time to help her children constitutes a healing liberation from her own exacting standard of self-sufficiency. Each of these mothers seeks a greater sense of vitality and meaning, but they differ in where they started and where they are going.

The meanings of mothering
The personal meanings of mothering are endlessly complex, and the particular conflicts vary from person to person. Yet it seems that today, a mother's desire to care for her children is the side of the conflict that gets the most simplistic public airing, even by its partisans, and the side that mainstream feminism has done the least to support. Consequently, it is not uncommon for mothers to have a hard time seeing how their desire to care for their children is playing a role in their dilemmas.

For example, a 35-year-old professional woman who was employed full-time dwelled on the potential inadequacy of her child care arrangement, worrying that her 10-month-old was unhappy, even though she could not think of any specific reason for concern. She attained greater clarity when she realized that the real issue was that she was missing her baby, and her sense of anxiety over child care then gave way to a more intelligible sense of yearning.

It was hard to become aware of missing her baby, because she had operated with the assumption that if the baby was all right while she was away, she would -- or should -- feel all right about being away too.

For this person, it took psychotherapy to make her aware that she was missing her child; but her quandary points to a more general cultural phenomenon. In the current milieu, women rarely perceive their desire to care for their children as intellectually respectable, and that makes it less emotionally intelligible as well.

On a broader social level, mothers' need and desire to work and its importance to their self-sufficiency and self-expression get a strong public hearing, but mothers' needs and desires with respect to nurturing their children receive comparatively little serious discussion. Maternal desire tends to be treated as back-ground noise or unspoken assumption rather than as something explicit, valuable, and important to include as an issue relevant to women's lives.

Our national discussion of child care, for example, understandably focuses on the reality that most parents need to work.

Read part three of this article on the next page!


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