Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty by Jacqueline Rose

A review of the non-fiction book Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty by Jacqueline Rose.

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Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty by Jacqueline Rose explores our all-or-nothing attitude towards motherhood and the consequent warped expectations we place upon mothers. Rose contends that when mothers do not fit the idealised maternal image we have constructed they are “the ultimate scapegoat for our personal and political failings, for everything that is wrong with the world.” We see this in the vilification by tabloid newspapers of foreign mothers who are labelled as health tourists, and the punishment meted out by the government to single mothers through the cutting of benefits. Not only are mothers expected to provide us all with an unending source of maternal love, but they are, Rose argues, also charged with the impossible task of fixing everything that is wrong with the world.

Drawing on Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, Rose posits that mothers remind us that once we ourselves lived in a state of dependency. The feelings of vulnerability provoked by this cannot be tolerated and must be returned and located back in the mother. This fear of dependency is evidenced in the right-wing politicians who so often celebrate a stance of self-sufficiency that they must be repressing the “echo of the baby in the nursery” and their “own vaguely remembered years of utter dependency.”

As in her 2014 book Women in Dark Times, Rose looks to psychoanalysis and literature to explore aspects of motherhood that many of us find too disturbing to talk about. In the work of the novelist Elena Ferrante, Rose finds female characters that disturb the idealised mother image. An example of this is Lila from Ferrante’s novel The Lost Daughter, who describes the feelings of disgust and hatred a mother can have for her child: “My body became a bloody liquid; suspended in it was a mushy sediment which grew a violent polyp, so far from anything human that it reduced me, even though it fed and grew, to rotting matter without life.” The mother’s feelings of hatred are further explored by Rose in the work of psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott whose paper ‘Hate in the Countertransference’ recognises these feelings as an expected and unavoidable part of being a mother. Winnicott argued that whilst hatred is uncomfortable to bear, we need to become acquainted with it so we do not act on the feelings we attempt to deny, and even includes a list of reasons why a mother is justified in hating her child.

Originally an article written for the London Review of Books, Mothers has developed into what I think will be an important addition to the discourse on motherhood. Rose asks us to “pay attention to what mothers have to say—from deep within their bodies and minds” and encourages us to be curious and examine our inner emotional conflicts so we no longer use motherhood as the place “where we lodge, or rather bury, the reality of our own conflicts, of what it means to be fully human.”

Nic James thinks too much and always talks over movies.

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