1 The “Problem” of Maternal Desire
It would seem that everything it is possible to say about motherhood in America has already been said. Beckoning us from every online platform, beaming out from every news satellite is a solution or a revelation or a confession about mothering. Yet in the midst of all the media chatter about staying on track, staying in shape, time crunches, time-savers, and time-outs, there’s something that remains unexamined about the experience of motherhood itself. It sways our choices and haunt our dreams, yet we shy away from giving it our full attention. Treated both as an illusion and as a foregone conclusion, it is at once obvious and invisible: the desire to mother.
The desire to mother is not only the desire to have children, but also the desire to care for them. It is not the duty to mother, or the compulsion to mother, or the concession to mothering when other options are not available. It is not the acquiescence to prescribed roles or the result of brainwashing. It is the longing felt by a mother to nurture her children; the wish to participate in their mutual relationship; and the choice, insofar as it is possible, to put that desire into practice.
Maternal desire is at once obvious and invisible partly because it is so easily confused with other things. Those fighting for women’s progress have too often misconstrued it as a throwback or excuse, a self-curtailment of potential. Those who champion women’s maternal role have too often defined it narrowly as service to one’s child, husband, or God. Each view eclipses the authentic desire to mother felt by a woman herself—a desire not derived from a child’s need, though responsive to it; a desire not created by a social role, though potentially supported by it; rather, a desire anchored in her experience of herself as an agent, an autonomous individual, a person.
I juxtapose maternal and desire to emphasize what we still feel uncomfortable focusing on: that wanting to care for children, even with its difficulties, is an important source of meaning and identity for many women. We resist reflecting on its implications because we fear becoming mired in clichés about women’s nature, which will then be used to justify gender inequality. But when we avoid thinking about maternal desire or treat it as a marginal detail, we lose an opportunity to understand ourselves and the broader situation of women. Clearly, not every woman wants a child and not every mother finds meaning in caring for children. But for those who do, or wonder if they do, it’s time to have a deeper conversation.
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LIKE SOME WOMEN and unlike others, I had always imagined being a mother. When we were young, my sister and I whiled away our afternoons in an ongoing saga of siblings with four kids apiece, each with a set of twins. In our imaginings, we
withstood car crashes, camping disasters, hurricanes—this was Motherhood as Adventure. Despite our awareness of the upheaval in contemporary thought about women’s roles in the sixties and seventies when we grew up, we enjoyed this game, in part because our own mother made it clear that she loved raising children, and we happily modeled ourselves on her example.
If my childhood fantasies bore out later in my life, they didn’t predetermine my path toward motherhood. I don’t believe that early maternal feeling is a prerequisite for becoming a mother or being a good one. Rather, I now see these early feelings as a kind of seed of potential, one that gradually developed into a physically involving, emotionally complex, and psychologically transformative desire to care for children. The realization of that desire began with the birth of our first child, when I was several months shy of completing my PhD. Overnight, motherhood became thrillingly and dauntingly real, filled with our newborn daughter’s suckling, her startle, her drunken contentment after nursing, her nocturnal waking, her nerve-jangling cries.
As I moved from the abstractions of expecting a baby to the absorbed bodiliness of infant care, I still loved my work as a psychologist. While pregnant I’d been committed to building a psychotherapy practice for children and adults, and I looked forward to continuing my research projects on childhood trauma and gender development. Yet, something about taking care of my child changed me. As a new mother, devoting long hours in the library or at my therapy office didn’t feel good, and I held my work in abeyance. I was fortunate to have a profession in which I could make my own schedule, but the more hours I spent with my baby,
the better I felt, in myself and with her. Whenever I was out of the house for more than a few of hours, I felt an invisible tether drawing me home, and then, when I was with our baby, I couldn’t imagine a worthwhile reason for leaving her.
Yet, when I took account of my values and my enduring sense of social responsibility to continue my work, I experienced an inner conflict, questioning whether these new feelings were something that I could fully endorse and embrace. During feedings at 4:00 a.m., an hour ripe for morbid rumination, I would wonder if my reluctance to leave my daughter revealed some sort of weakness that I couldn’t quite acknowledge or pin down. I’d probe the nature of my seeming lack of willpower, but despite my background in thinking through psychological issues, I couldn’t find clarity or even a satisfactory vocabulary for describing how I felt. This led to some vaguely disorienting conversations with friends, each of us struggling to explain our different choices and different constraints, each of us finding ourselves both defensive and exposed. Yet what was the nature of this defensive posture? Where did it come from, and why couldn’t we talk about how motherhood had changed us, or hadn’t, without getting bogged down in the kind of stock generalities (“work’s so much easier than home,” “kids need their moms”) that so often stymied such conversations?
As my desire to spend time mothering gathered force within me, I kept noticing how hard it was to talk about. Usually comfortable expressing myself in words, I found myself strangely inarticulate on this topic. The only time distress ever drove me to shop was after a respected mentor bemoaned over lunch my post-motherhood lack of professional productivity. Rather than find a way to explain to her
my shifting priorities, I responded, as if in a trance, by purchasing a hideous mauve suit as a sop to my vanished professionalism. I never wore it. A few weeks later, my obstetrician genially asked what I was up to, and I muttered something about having turned into a fifties housewife. It was as if the moment words began to form in my mouth, they instantaneously tumbled into the well-worn groove of cliché.
I was aware that my conflicts and fear of judgment bore the stamp of my own idiosyncratic psychology, and eventually I stopped expecting this complex of feelings to dissipate; I simply learned to live around it. Over the next five years, it sat in the background of my thoughts, familiar enough to be regarded as an uneasy companion, flaring up when I faced a difficult choice about how to allocate my time. Things took a turn, though, when I became pregnant with our third child five years later. I remember taking a walk in the first few weeks of pregnancy along a bike path near our house and feeling a surprising sense of lightness. It surprised me because I’d imagined that, though the child was very much wanted and planned, my spirit of welcome would be weighed down by an array of practical worries and the old familiar psychological concerns. Instead, though mindful of the challenges that lay ahead, I felt an almost giddy sense of freedom.
Poised as I was in that sliver of time between becoming pregnant and the descent into nausea and bone-tiredness, I knew that soon even thinking would exhaust me, so I was impatient to figure out what was making me feel so light. Suddenly, a childhood sense-memory of learning to ride a bike came to mind—in particular, the feeling of being at the final stage of not knowing how to do something and tipping overnight and without conscious effort into the
most elementary stage of knowing. It captured a transition I sensed within myself, from a model in which children were fitted into the mold of my previous life to a new sense in which mothering was the center from which my other priorities flowed.
My feeling of freedom didn’t diminish the real economic, emotional, and practical demands of having another child. Still, I found it compelling, in part because its source—my shift of emphasis toward mothering—felt so transgressive. How was it that at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the ancient imperative that women mother their children felt somehow liberating and new? Those thoughts led me to reflect on the complexities of women’s experiences of mothering young children in America today. They stimulated me to reconsider questions I had long pondered about the place of motherhood in the psychology of women. Eventually, they drove me to use my training as a psychologist, my practice as a psychotherapist, my sympathies as a feminist, and my ongoing experience as a mother to try to understand how we evaluate and live out, socially and individually, the desire to care for children. And ultimately, that exploration became this book.
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NO MATTER WHAT our differences may be, every mother I’ve ever known has grappled with her own version of similar questions: Where should caring for children fit into one’s life? How should one understand, think about, or talk about the feelings involved? What are we to make of our desires, our ambivalence, our guilt? No one expects to have easy answers. But it seems that so often our culture’s response
is framed as a matter of figuring out the minimum amount of time one can spend with one’s children without doing them any real damage. Rarely does public discussion take account of the embodied, aching desire to be with their children that many mothers feel. What’s more, the vocabulary for this desire seems so limited, the language available for exploring it so constricted, that it is hard to grasp what part the desire should play in one’s decisions and in one’s assessment of oneself.
There is a complicated blend of emotions at the heart of these issues, as well as a complicated overlay of social messages. On this minefield we step gingerly around our own feelings and those of others, balancing self-revelation and self-concealment in an effort to respect others’ choices, maintain friendships, avoid giving offense. Women’s desire to have children is now fully respectable and in public view. Remote are the days when the radical feminist Shulamith Firestone identified
childbearing as the root of women’s oppression, and the ubiquity of fertility treatments attests to the lengths people are willing to go to have children when they want to. But the territory that remains occluded, dogged by contention and strangely unspeakable, is the subject of caring for children—of spending one’s hours and days with them, of “quantity time,” and of its meaning and value to children and mothers alike.
The historical reasons for this silence are abundantly clear. For most of human history and in many parts of the world today, women have had little choice in being mothers. “A woman can hardly ever choose,” wrote the novelist George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans) in 1866. “She must take the meaner things
because only meaner things are within her
reach.” Motherhood has always meant sacrifice—of economic power, of personal freedom, and sometimes of life itself. In the fight for gender equality, women have correctly understood that a chosen and desired motherhood is essential to our rights and freedoms. We have recognized the strategic risk of emphasizing women’s maternal role, the very role that for millennia defined our existence. It has therefore been crucial to put front and center women’s equal access to social roles and rewards other than motherhood, such as professional opportunity, economic justice, and sexual autonomy.
Today, women are mindful of how precarious our rights and freedoms continue to be. Yet during the socially transformative decades that saw motherhood conceptualized as disempowering, important aspects of what makes maternal desire so compelling to many women were misinterpreted or lost. Mothers continue to recognize the impediments to earning power and professional accomplishment that caring for children presents, but the problem remains that caring for their children matters deeply to them. What if we take this mattering seriously, put it at the core of our exploration? Even to pose the question is to invite almost instant misconstrual. It’s as if this would recommend to women to live through others, forsake equality, or relax into the joys of subsidized homemaking. But that reflexive misinterpretation is itself evidence of how difficult it is to think about maternal desire as a positive aspect of selfhood.
Consider, for example, the view that caring for one’s children amounts to self-sacrifice. When it comes to their economic well-being, it is all too true that women sacrifice themselves when they become mothers. But in terms of
emotional well-being, a mother often sees her desire to nurture her children as an intrinsically valuable impulse. This tension presents contemporary women with one of the key paradoxes of their lives as mothers: that some of what they find meaningful about mothering can also be construed, from some vantage points, as self-sacrificing. At moments in the day-to-day life of every mother, the deferral of her own gratifications or aims is experienced as oppressive. 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 are some of the real emotional and moral challenges that caring for children routinely presents.
Yet when a mother relinquishes control over her time, forgoes the satisfaction of an impulse, or surrenders to playful engagement with her child, the surface quality of capitulation in these decisions can also obscure their role in satisfying 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 the possibilities and limits of intimate relationships.
This process can be extraordinarily pleasurable. It can also be filled with difficulty. In motherhood, we consent to make space for a child, in our emotions and our body. We accept responsibility for a completely dependent being, and at times the responsibility feels like an encroachment, an imposition, even an invasion. It takes great strength to find the necessary resources within ourselves. We accept and
desire a relationship defined by responding, being affected, being needed, and
enabling the other to come into him- or herself. We relinquish control, we are touched, we change. This desired relationship benefits children, mothers, and humanity itself, but seen through the wrong lens or experienced in frustration, it can be swallowed up by the hotly contested political waters surrounding the idea of mothering activity as “disempowerment” or “submission.” When this occurs, we risk losing sight of the deeply-held personal and social values about responsiveness and responsibility that this relationship expresses.
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FUNDAMENTALLY, OUR RELATIONSHIPS with our children and our desire to care for them have to do with time: time is an essential ingredient of every satisfying emotional relationship, and the tough choices we make between our children and our other commitments are a product of our limits as temporal beings. Yet spending time with children is culturally devalued and personally conflicted. Mothers today worry that their power, their prestige, and their very identities are at stake. They’ve absorbed views that hang in the cultural air: mothering is a sacrifice for the sake of the child; mothering is of lesser value by not being paid work; careers enhance personal growth, while caring for children produces stagnation. Those who are partnered sometimes seek to circumvent the problem by carefully monitoring their division of labor. They fear a scenario in which their duties diverge and conceive of pre-parenting life as the norm and the ideal. As one prospective mother said of her husband, “I’ll resent it if he can still do everything we used to do, and I can’t.”
In the shrinking American middle class, time with children is also
a “luxury” many parents feel they can’t afford. If current statistics are correct,
American women are having fewer children than they would like. Like so many basic necessities of life—health care, good schools, fresh air—motherhood has turned into something of a privilege. Mothers at all socioeconomic levels face difficult decisions regarding spending time with children, and the devaluation of maternal desire operates at various levels of social and economic reality and in many intersecting ways. If we opened our eyes to the commonalities in mothers’ experiences, it could generate some political consciousness, even solidarity, about the larger-scale problems that the social devaluation of caring for children inflicts upon everyone.
This social devaluation brings with it missed opportunities that can never be recaptured or regained. In the popular American mind-set, there’s always a second chance. So it comes as a shock to realize how fast children grow up and how quickly they no longer crave your company or respond to your influence in the ways they once did. The time-limited nature of mothering small children, the uniqueness of it, seems almost like an affront to women’s opportunity, demanding that mothers respond at distinct, unrepeatable moments with decisions about how to spend their time. Unfair as it may seem, the fleetingness is real. That should point us toward prizing, personally and socially, this brief period of our lives.
With respect to the well-being of children, psychological research unambiguously demonstrates that responsive, sensitive, and secure relationships with caregivers are at the heart of every aspect of healthy development—from brain
maturation, to stress response and resilience,
to the capacity for emotional intimacy. With respect to the well-being of parents, adult development researchers advise that we spread our professional and personal obligations evenly over the course of our lives, providing ourselves more flexibility throughout and
reducing the emotional stress of parenthood in particular. These findings are linked: providing children sensitive and responsive care depends on and amplifies parents’ pleasurable, desired engagement. As a society, we need policies concerning work and family that recognize the value of shared time together—for the sake of children and parents alike.
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MOTHERHOOD CALLS FOR a transformed individuality, an integration of a new relationship and a new role into one’s sense of self. This is a practical and a psychological transformation. It is clear that as a society we are grudging and cramped about the practical adjustments required by motherhood, continually treating them as incidental and inconvenient. Like an irritated bus passenger who is asked to move over and make room, we appear affronted by the sheer existence of mothers’ needs. But the practical difficulties have far-reaching psychological effects. They shape how we appraise and experience the whole issue of inner maternal transformation, the “space” we allow motherhood to occupy in our psyches.
We are at a promising cultural moment for expressing and describing female desire. Yet to inhabit our desires and bodily experience fully and without apology, we need new narratives about both sexuality and motherhood. Historically,
mother and desire do not belong in the same phrase. Desire is about sex, and motherhood is about practically everything but sex.
In Victorian times, blooming young women contracted odd symptoms—paralyzed arms, lost voices—because social mores inhibited women’s awareness or expression of their sexual desires. By contrast, their roles as mothers were sanitized and idealized. Today, young women’s free expression of their sexual desire is central to identity and empowerment. It’s maternal desire that gives rise to more troubling questions of self. For a certain class of contemporary woman, it’s almost as if the desire for sex and the desire to mother have switched places in terms of taboo.
My goal for this book is to provide a framework for thinking about women’s desire to care for their children in a way that is consistent with feminist ideals and free from sentimentality and cliché. This task necessarily means evaluating the most significant ideological approaches, scientific research, political issues, cultural norms, and social practices that relate to mothering today. Specifically, it involves the following, as the book’s chapters will respectively elaborate: a critical appraisal of twentieth-century feminism in an effort to formulate how maternal desire can offer opportunity, rather than simply oppression; an exploration of the resources that psychology and psychoanalysis can provide women who need help thinking through their perspectives on (potential) motherhood and childcare; a frank, nuanced account of what it means to encounter both the pleasurable highs and ambivalent lows of maternal experience; a dispassionate survey of contemporary policies and the ethical standards that our society applies to the hot-button issues of childcare, fertility technologies, and abortion; a comparative look
at how our society prepares (and doesn’t prepare) young women and men for the prospect of parenthood; and an honest discussion of what our culture truly values and how we strive to spend our time.
The sense we make of motherhood has a powerful impact on women living their day-to-day lives, so my goal is ultimately therapeutic. The creation and nurture of children transforms men and women alike. These activities also provide a unique opportunity for reconsidering the premises of one’s life. We live in a culture that enshrines acquisition but profanes care. When a person, still most likely a mother, feels the desire to care for her children, our tired cultural scripts shed little light on the profundity of her situation. This book offers a new view of maternal desire, including its qualities, its effects, and its pervasive devaluation and misinterpretation in our individualistic culture. I hope it proves useful to women reflecting upon their lives. More than that, I hope it frees them to tap into their own sources of human happiness.