Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Jacqueline Rose on Mothers in the LRB

Jacqueline Rose's review of a recent glut of publishing on motherhood makes, as ever, brilliant and thought-provoking reading.

But, oh dear, I struggled to read it — not remotely because what she says is somehow inaccessible or highfaluting, or jargon-filled (the usual accusations made against 'academic' writing, mostly without bothering to read it). What she says is limpid and multi-layered, suggestive, provocative, and I agree with it. I struggled because there is just no bridge today between academia and other areas of life, and it causes me pain every day.

She opens on Tim Minchin's Matilda, noting the wry critique he offers of vicious perfectionism in childrearing. Music to my ears. Try, however, actually saying anything like this about Matilda in Muswell Hill. What it means here is the summer workshop at the local performing arts centre, populated by little girls, whose parents are assuring them constantly that they are (and must remain) miracles while pushing each other out of the way to film their own offspring. Were you to connect Matilda with contemporary parenting round here, people would avoid you as a pariah — or worse, a negligent mother.

And so I walk the streets feeling alone, not rich enough to afford all the soi-disant opportunities I am told I ought to be giving my children; deeply critical of the education system, but silenced within it as a parent — why is my child doing no academic work now, when SATs were in May and they don't break up till July? — why do I have to make arrangements to cope with yet another teachers' strike, while my daughter trails into school, bored and fed up with too little stimulation? I am not patient enough to spend all my own time and energy 'developing' my children — I'd rather they developed themselves; I long for my own life and time and space; I pay lip service to the compulsory orthodoxy of sharp elbows and anxiety. I feel unable to give voice myself to what Jacqueline so beautifully articulates from her position as a commentator, for fear of social exclusion, or worse, some indefinable impact on the children.

It is impossible, currently, to escape or rid yourself of the discourse of perfectionism in the mother and the child, impossible to live the alternative without constant punishment in the form of contempt, confusion, silence, being dropped. I am in the middle of Motherload. I know, although I feel alone, that I am not — there are others who think like I do. So why are there not million-mother marches chanting, "Stop blaming, exhausting and milking us!"? Because we are afraid of the attack that would ensue.

Jacqueline outlines the compulsory positivism in contemporary notions of mothering. It's well known that pure positivism is toxic to mothers and children, whether as maternal performance ("Oh things are going so well for little Jimmy!"), or as impact on the child ("He's such a high achiever!"). Yet I fight to accept being 'good enough', as a parent and a person, and for my children. I feel like a failure.

Here is where I totally agree with Jacqueline:
Today we are witnessing what Angela McRobbie has described as a ‘neoliberal intensification of mothering’: perfectly turned out middle-class, mainly white mothers, with their perfect jobs, perfect husbands and marriages, whose permanent glow of self-satisfaction is intended to make all the women who don’t conform to that image – because they are poorer or black or their lives are just more humanly complicated – feel like total failures. This has the added advantage of letting a government whose austerity policy has disproportionately targeted women and mothers completely off the hook. (Reference via Mothering and Motherhood in Ancient Greece and Rome by Lauren Hackworth Petersen and Patricia Salzman-Mitchell)
Here is what I think is Jacqueline's crucial question:
[…] what version of motherhood might make it possible for a mother to listen to her child? […]  if the term ‘mothers’ is a trigger for a willed self-perfection that crushes women as mothers, then how can mothers be expected to hear their children’s cry […]? 
If mothers are busy all the time justifying their right even to exist through relentless perfectionism, then what hope have they of hearing their children's real voices? So here is what most needs to change:
What do we expect when society continues to believe it has the right to trample over the mental lives of mothers?
The inner lives of mothers are crucial to the wellbeing of their own and all children. We don't need contented little babies as much as we need contented adult mothers and fathers. We need the latter to have a hope of the former.

This is Jacqueline's final wish:
As I was reading the outpourings of all these recent books on motherhood, it occurred to me that we need a version of this story for mothers, a version in which, without any need to deny everything else talked about here, the acute pleasure of being a mother would be neither a guilty secret, nor something enviously co-opted by bullies – ‘You will be happy!’ – but instead would be allowed to get on quietly with its work of making the experience of motherhood more than worth it.
I hope, more than anything, that Motherload can be that version.

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