Jacqueline Rose’s book offers a clear-sighted analysis of what it means to be a mother

The womb is a battlefield. Never underestimate the amount of sadism pregnant women can evoke, warns Rose.

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“Speaking as a mother.” Don’t you just hate it when women do that? Implying that because they have reproduced they are somehow nothing but virtuous moral superiority with an innate understanding that no one else could possess. They have birthed empathy, connection, love itself. They may have birthed something altogether more difficult but this remains elsewhere. It did for Andrea Leadsom to speak as a mother but I am doing it here.

I reacted to this book as a breeder and a reader. Actually, Jacqueline Rose’s book tore me apart, reminding me of things I would rather forget. Motherhood is not easy. It does not get easier, though I pay lip service to the old lie that it does.

It is Rose’s contention that mothers are hated. Mothers are scapegoated for all that is wrong in the world, they are held responsible for all our personal and political failings. What we are asking of mothers is impossible and actually unsayable much of the time. Rose, one of our very best cultural critics, looks far and wide for places where some kind of truth about motherhood is spoken.

She starts with the image of the invading foreign mother, the health tourist, the Nigerian woman who comes here to give birth and for whom no sympathy is extended. This alien mother is simply a threat. Where, Rose asks, are the mothers of the unaccompanied minors in Calais? They are the new kind of missing. Where are mothers given agency in public life? She speaks of Doreen Lawrence, given voice through loss. The reality is that more than 50,000 women lose their jobs every year in this country because they are pregnant.

The womb is a battlefield. Never underestimate the amount of sadism pregnant women can evoke, warns Rose. Think of the attempts to turn women into incubators, sometimes risking their lives. Certainly, the demands on pregnant women and mothers have become increasingly ridiculous since I first had a child more than 30 years ago.

Rose quotes Angela McRobbie on the neoliberal intensification of perfect mothering. The baby becomes the narcissistic product and project of the perfect job/relationship/whatever. The mother must now rear the child in some bubble as though emotions can be avoided like they were gluten. She must manage both her attractiveness and her salary. This unworkable fantasy is why so many women are choosing not to have children. This is, after all, women’s not-so-secret weapon. We could end humanity this way.

Ranging from Greek myth and Victoria Beckham to Sylvia Plath and Courtney Love (whose daughter thanked her for not breastfeeding), Rose illustrates just how punitive attitudes are towards mothers, and single mothers especially who are seen as having put their sexual lives before their social responsibility. This I know to be so as politicians have been explicitly attacking women like me for years. Yes, those attacks felt personal and were meant to. They accelerated during the 1990s. One of the first things Tony Blair did when coming to power was to cut single parent benefits. For we were the source of societal breakdown and therefore to be impoverished for it. We were the original scroungers, seen to be dependent.

Dependency is a threatening state so it must be denied psychically and politically. The book excels in brilliant psychoanalytical readings on the ways that the interiority of motherhood is silenced. If anything, so-called post-feminism shut us down even more. We are now self-contained units “coping” somehow. There is no solidarity of motherhood across ethnic or class boundaries. The two-thirds of the female prison population who are mothers concern us as little as migrant mothers. “Let them drown”. Meanwhile order a babyccino and book the infant drumming class. Tamp down the blood and guts of it all.

The fear we have that we will split asunder during birth is suppressed. The evidence of post-natal depression in economically deprived communities is ignored. The idea that motherhood will bring female desire to a standstill is everywhere. All of this is covered over by pastel fluffiness as though conflict can be erased with a cutesy sheep mobile. DW Winnicott’s 1947 essay “Hate in the Countertransference”, where he lists 18 reasons why a woman may hate her baby, is as radical now as it was then because it understands how hate jostles with love.

Rachel Cusk wrote memorably of how motherhood felt like a “defection”, a stripping of personhood, and it was Simone de Beauvoir of all people who saw exactly, almost instinctively, that motherhood blew apart a certain philosophy. The existential idea of untrammelled self-realisation loses itself when a body makes another body exist.

For Rose, it is Elena Ferrante who comes closest to talking truthfully about mothering. Ferrante’s mothers abandon their children, they ignore them, use them as pawns in their affairs. And love them. These women know what it is to disintegrate and yet remain within history, within the political realm, their inner and outer lives merging.

Rose also gives voice to her own difficulties on becoming a mother through adoption, of her parents and of the loss of her sister. This is a book of pain, joy and brutality, a howl of anger. It talked to me of all I have repressed just to get by. The bloody mess of it all. Speaking as a mother I realise how little we ever really speak for ourselves alone. 

Jacqueline Rose appears at Cambridge Literary Festival on 14 April

Mothers: an Essay on Love and Cruelty
Jacqueline Rose
Faber and Faber, 256pp, £12.99

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire