The Society-Mother Relation: A Review of Jacqueline Rose's Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty
by Lucy Mercer (@MINERVAplatform) on June 2, 2018

Jacqueline Rose, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty (Faber & Faber, 2018)

Mothers is a welcome addition to writing on motherhood, a subject that has not had much literary attention until recently and even less so scale-wise in the visual arts. Tessa Hadley’s obnoxious recent review in The Guardian (‘an indignant defence’) in which she treats Mothers as a kind of well-meant but deluded overdressing of an issue highlights the ongoing passive aggression – a cowardly, saccharine form of aggression – shown towards mothers not only from contemporary neoliberal society but from the critical cultures that stem from it.

The best thing about Rose’s book is that it is engaging and well-written, combining an impressive set of multiple subject areas and sources but without the heaviness of academic writing proper. It’s readable for a large demographic, and here I am particularly thinking of mothers of young children who actively need books like this, who are tired out, who probably don’t have the time or the energy to read dense documents on maternal studies, social policy and psychoanalysis. This is important, because Rose’s book demonstrates it is possible to write a popular essay without compromising on informative complexity – in this sense, Mothers is kind of a literary form of William Morris’ socialist aesthetics. Hadley complains ‘the net of this argument is cast so wide and so loosely, invoking so much’, which is exactly the reason why it is good: we need more of this, more passionate outbursts from academics to wider audiences, more wide net castings and weavings.

Like Adrienne Rich’s trailblazing Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience & Institution (1976), Mothers is largely preoccupied not with mother and child relations but the effects of structures, or the lack of them, on mothers. This is because the problematics of being a mother, and of mothering, most of the time are structural issues – for capitalism, motherhood is the nightmare nexus of reproductive contradiction, and mothers pay the price for this every day globally, judging by the contents of Mothers. Structurally, mothers are expected to somehow fit into a socio-economic system that actively works to eliminate them, whilst also being saddled with expectations (cultural, social and emotional) to supposedly fix spiralling problems of human psychology and behaviour, which unsurprisingly is unmanageable. As mothers are depersonalised and used as a kind of dumping ground or ‘ultimate scapegoat for our personal and political failings’, Rose asks, ‘what are we doing to mothers – when we expect them to carry the burden of everything that is hardest to contemplate about our society and ourselves?’ This is the crux of the book and I am grateful that someone has spelled it out so eloquently. In turn Rose praises Elena Ferrante who ‘has let the cat out of the bag on behalf of mothers, and I, for one, could not be more grateful.’ This palpable cycle of relief felt by mothers reading texts that truthfully expose the dark sides of mothering and the structural violence enacted on, by and through mothers is both testament to the reality of how repressed the mother-as-subject is both in life and in literature and the veracity of Rose’s arguments.

Mothers are just people. There seems to be a need to repeat this ad nauseam – on the whole it is easier to expect of mothers and our own mothers that they are not complex human beings like everyone else. Hadley clearly hadn’t read Mothers properly if at all, when she complains ‘There’s a logical difficulty with treating mothers as an oppressed minority: mothers are also punishers […] Mothers are participants in their culture, all mixed up with men…’ – Rose not only portrays ‘pious, punitive or simply dotty versions of motherhood’, disturbed, disturbing and manipulative mothers among others, but Mothers revolves around the fact that mothers are expected to be perfect, more-than-human or depersonalised burden carriers that are actively suppressed and encouraged not to participate but put into a social vacuum. In short, Hadley finishes her article by badly enunciating a watery version of Rose’s own argument as a critique of the same book. Reading this made me furious, because it shows how much this basic point – mothers are people – needs reiterating: Hadley clearly thought she had arrived at some kind of revelatory conclusion, her final line putting the tough nail in the coffin – recognising the needs of mothers ‘wouldn’t be an end to all our problems’, therefore insinuating why bother doing it when there are so many of them, everywhere, and they’re so mixed up in human culture? If mothers can’t solve our problems then who can? Why give them ‘the right to their own mind’?

Other aspects of Mothers I enjoyed were Rose’s refreshing takes on single motherhood – ‘the single mother brings too close to the surface the utter craziness […] of the idea that a mother should exist for her child and nothing else’ – including her point that single mothers historically have been the norm not the exception in the twentieth century, the stabs at the dreadful new organic cult of perfect mothering, the tracings back towards ancient societies where mothers had (in some regards) more public visibility, the attention paid to the slow, pernicious generational effects of trauma and violence. These are just a few strands from a set of rich material: Rose is not afraid to attempt to delineate a kind of universal community of mothers through time via. affiliated contexts, yet retaining separations. Structurally, the relation of society-mother can be more accurately identified than the nebulous mother-child relation (human subjects escape containment), and yet culturally the former is nearly always occluded in favour of the latter. As a point of criticism, the shattering experience of birth and poorly medicalised interventionism is elided in Mothers and there is not enough about the trauma of breastfeeding – she tends to focus on the repressed sensuality of breastfeeding over its painful, monotonous aspects and the harrowing guilt and poor treatment suffered by mothers of newborns under the NHS in regards to breastfeeding. However, if sticks are being bent, better that the emphasis on the materiality of motherhood – the leaking, spilling body returned to again and again – is more overlaid with the sensuality that it is rarely given in a culture obsessed with airbrushing out its traces.

It’s also possible that as an adoptive mother perhaps Rose felt less confident writing extensively on birth and breastfeeding. In terms of adoption and that fraught subject, the biological maternal body – which is paradoxically both so important in society and also not important at all in relations – Rose’s account of experiencing a kind of ‘inverse pregnancy’ with her adopted daughter, as well as her memoirs of the adoptive process, are some of the most moving parts of Mothers. A tapestry emerges, especially of late, of writers on motherhood in which the individuality of each mother’s experience with the unmanageable task of motherhood combines towards starting to understand with a larger view.

More needs to be written about the isolation suffered by mothers when participating in work, society and culture, much more needs to be written from divergent class perspectives and about class in relation to motherhood. But the call to write a book that ‘solves problems’ on anything, must end. Exhortations for literature to perform impossible tasks are just as bad as asking mothers to perform impossible tasks. As Rose writes, ‘Among its other problems, the exhortation to be happy is, literally, a killjoy. Joy is not always possible. Like all forms of intimacy, it relies on at least a modicum of freedom.’ If Rose reaches any particular conclusion that could be a ‘problem solving’, it is the dispossession of self experienced by mothers. ‘I was being turned inside out. This, I suggest, is the chief property of joy, certainly of maternal joy, which shatters the carapace of selfhood. Nor is it restricted to mothering alone […] you can only experience it by letting go of something else. This is not, however some idea of maternal sacrifice.’ There needs to be freedom to make, unmake, make unmake, but not solve.


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