By Ranjana Das
This Sunday 31st March, the UK celebrates Mothers’ Day. Mothering Sunday, with various religious roots as the BBC tells us. In contemporary Britain, cards, flowers, pub-lunches, warm walks in the woods amidst the spring sunshine, and images – of being, celebrating and even performing ‘mother’ on social media – are all parts of such a day. Come Sunday we shall be surrounded by a happy deluge of pictures and words – all speaking of love, and such love must indeed be celebrated.
Structures of mothering
In the 1990s, Sharon Hays theorised the ideology of ‘intensive mothering’ – the logic that made it important and necessary for neoliberal, patriarchal societies to tie women to the child. Fantastic work on the maternal, on mothering and food, mothering, breastfeeding and attachment parenting, and indeed motherhood in policy – demonstrates repeatedly the multi-pronged pressures that burden mothers, whether articulated or not, worked through or not, in contemporary Western societies. In her fascinating new book Heading Home, Shani Orgad argues, supposed ‘choices’ mothers make – and Orgad focused on the choices of educated women to give up careers and stay at home – are deeply imbricated in structures of patriarchy. Rebecca Asher in her book Shattered – outlines the fractures of the maternal self in ways that are often violently corrosive to identity.
Ambivalence and fractures
We mother in context, contexts are complex and divergent, our mothering experiences very far from uniform. My post today reflects on some of the invisible and uncertain emotional aspects of the day, as I reflect on the last few years of research with mothers, particularly new mothers.
My daughter doesn’t feel like mine. She feels like a child I’m babysitting for or something. That was why I couldn’t carry on breastfeeding—it felt wrong and it still feels wrong sometimes to change her.
As I have argued recently, this quote from an anonymous mother online makes sense when read against the ample literature on maternal ambivalence. As Rapahel-Leff identifies, not being able to speak about ambivalence freely works as an exclusion which “compels mothers to hide conflictual and shameful feelings from professionals—and from themselves” (p. 1). So we are dealing then, with an image of ‘mother’ where shattered selves, ambivalence, uncertainty, ambiguity, fracture haven’t any space for expression.
So I was homeless, pregnant, about 12 weeks pregnant, and then I got the flat, I think, yes, just before I had her, and then she was born at the flat as well. See, even this pregnancy as well, I told them about the movements slowing down. It’s changed, like, three times. ..that could have been one day where she stopped moving and then, you know, gone.
My interview with Conny revealed that the conditions which rendered her homeless, and partner-less were both heavily classed and gendered, and still fresh and incomprehensibly difficult for her. Mothers’ Day for Conny is forever ambiguous. Uncertainties around the maternal ran through my interviews with most mothers. Some, like Sofia from Algeria, have complicated relationships with mothers elsewhere. Some, like Kavya, are stuck in a loop to be a ‘good Indian mother’ – learnt within the gentle confines of a warm but not empowering maternal relationship growing up. Some are like Violetta as she wishes to delight in her new baby, but her womb feels like an inhospitable place where a foetus might be ‘rejected’. And indeed, those who have chosen not to be mothers, or who cannot be mothers, those who have been mothers once but cannot be mothers again, those who have been mothers but have lost a child. But for many, such ambivalences – ranging from soft uncertainties to powerful emotions that aren’t quite ‘supposed to be’ – go unspoken and unarticulated.
Why speak of the unspeakable?
Lest this paints a picture of gloom versus glory, or a world where there are fixed and neat categories of mothers who feel confidently maternal, and those who don’t, or mothers who fit social media highlight reels, and those who don’t, or mothers who reject powerful structures with counter discourses of real agency, and those who don’t or can’t – reality is more of a mess perhaps. One is hardly ever, if at all, just the one thing. How do we create space for ambivalence, around our water-coolers at work, at meals out with friends, on Facebook and Instagram, whilst holding on to and celebrating Mothers’ Day and the many wonderful things we want to mark?
But, why is it important that we speak of the ambivalent, so to speak? Whilst popular culture pitches mothers against mothers by speaking of ‘mummy wars’, this makes it remarkably easy to place blame on individual mothers for speaking solely of the bright moments of doing mother. But this spectacularly misses the point, for all of this is ultimately political and structural, and never down to the individual alone. Making space for ambivalence and fractures is key then, for individual mothers struggling to find space for darker feelings, but also key as a political task in itself. So, how might we begin?
I suggest we do so by speaking a bit more openly, when feeling strong enough to do so, of one’s own messy experiences and those of others, so that we collectively contribute to not just a highlight reel of scones and woodland walks alone – but also of other things. And perhaps we do so, by simply being aware – of the complexities of public holidays, and the messy arena of affect and feelings, and the complex structural and political reasons for which it has become near impossible to speak of things rendered unspeakable. And then, bit by bit, we might arrive at a patchwork quilt of stories, where all sides of mother – fracture and fulfilment, closeness and distance, certainty and uncertainty – find space and voice.
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