Jacqueline Rose’s fascinating insights into the distortions of motherhood

Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty is an urgent feminist appeal for cultural change

Jaqueline Rose: has a dazzling imaginative range and is fluent in many disciplines

Jaqueline Rose: has a dazzling imaginative range and is fluent in many disciplines

Sat, May 12, 2018, 06:00


Book Title:
Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty


Jacqueline Rose

Faber and Faber

Guideline Price:

A photograph from the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency shows a group of men signing into law an executive order banning funding anywhere in the world for groups offering or even advocating abortion. “The male colonisation of mothers’ bodies starts inside the womb,” writes Jacqueline Rose, in her compelling new book. A cultural subversive, she admits she is “always on the lookout for those moments when mothers get to speak the unspeakable, trash the expectations laid upon them, play with other ideas”. She finds such a moment in Ancient Greece, when the demand for a herbal abortifacient was such that it became extinct.

She quotes Adrienne Rich, whose pioneering study Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution was published in 1976. “All human life…is born of woman…[and] there is much to suggest that the male mind has always been haunted by the force of the idea of dependence on a woman for life itself.” Women must be forced to be mothers then, even though their performance in the role is constantly and inevitably found wanting. Motherhood is, Rose argues, “the ultimate scapegoat for our personal and political failings, for everything that is wrong with the world, which it becomes the task – unrealisable of course – of mothers to repair”. Even a mother who is allowed to suffer in public, like the Virgin Mary, must do so nobly, “her agony redemptive”.

Rose argues that “given voice, space and time, motherhood can, and should, be one of the central means through which a historical moment reckons with itself”. Why, then, she demands, is it marginalised in public and political life? With magnificent scorn she casts aside Sheryl Sandberg’s “ghastly imperative” to “lean in”, quoting sociologist Angela McRobbie on the “neoliberal intensification of mothering”. This, Rose notes, consists of the “perfectly turned out, middle class, mainly white mothers, with their perfect jobs, perfect husbands and perfect marriages, whose permanent glow of self satisfaction is intended to make all women who do not conform to that image… feel like total failures”. It is an illusion founded on “a pack of lies”. Among the women who fail are those whose poverty forces them to leave their own children and travel abroad, often as undocumented migrants, to mind the children of the allegedly perfect.

Breastfeeding on demand

Another extreme version of the perfect mother is the one espoused by the La Leche League, set up in 1956, and its more recent incarnations, to advocate for “the womanly art of breastfeeding”. Women are instructed that it is best for baby that they feed on demand and basically for as long as the demanded breast continues to produce milk, which is to say, years. Since breastfeeding in public was until recently regarded as revolting, and still is not entirely acceptable, rather than hide out in toilets to do it, many women absent themselves from the public realm and stay at home. Those who choose or have to go out to work are liable to be judged harshly by the fundamentalists. At the same time, in some parts of the world women are urged by multinational corporations not to breastfeed their babies, instead paying hard-earned money for formula milk powder which must be mixed with unsafe water.

The novelist Eimear McBride, with whom Rose recently read in Dublin, has praised the originality and sophistication of her mind. Edward Said described her work as “simply breathtaking”. She has a dazzling imaginative range and is fluent in many disciplines, so that there is never a sense of striving or showing off. She mines, as she has said herself “the interface between literature, psychoanalysis, politics and culture”. It is in literature that she finds “the most profound and heart-wrenching diagnosis and lament” over the distortions of motherhood within patriarchal societies. These distortions ruin the joys, struggles and creative potential of the mother-child relationship and make society dysfunctional.

She finds devastating evidence in the writings of Rich, Edith Wharton, Simone de Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath and others. There is a full chapter on Elena Ferrante, who has commented that her preoccupation with the relationship between mothers and daughters is such that she sometimes thinks she has written about nothing else. Ferrante says that it is the task of the woman who is a writer today not to present motherhood as idyllic, which only leaves women feeling “alone and guilty”, but to “delve truthfully into the darkest depth”. Rose is one of our most passionate and intuitive delvers, and she has brought back from the molten core of the deep dark places a fine book, another urgent feminist appeal for cultural change, before it is too late.