Mother load

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

With Moth­ers: An Es­say on Love and Cru­elty, Jac­que­line Rose, the Bri­tish aca­demic known for her analy­ses of fem­i­nin­ity and its darker im­pulses, has waded into the deep­en­ing pool of ma­ter­nal fem­i­nism. The tenor of her tri­par­tite med­i­ta­tion is made clear by the sec­tion head­ings: So­cial Pun­ish­ment, Psy­chic Blind­ness, The Agony and the Ec­stasy. No hayride, this. As Rose posits: [M]oth­er­hood is, in Western dis­course, the place in our cul­ture where we lodge, or rather bury, the re­al­ity of our own con­flicts, of what it means to be fully hu­man. It is 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.

The mag­i­cal real­ism of moth­er­hood ap­pears to dis­turb Rose. It is as if she holds trauma to her breast like an amulet in an ef­fort to de­flect mis­for­tune. Such fear, as com­mon as it is un­nec­es­sary, can sti­fle the de­lights of moth­er­hood, and serves a fun­da­men­tal pes­simism. If the joys of moth­er­ing are smacked down — con­tained by cau­tion­ary tales of ma­ter­nal rage and self-in­ter­est, by in­ven­to­ries of bur­den — then we can jus­tify com­part­men­tal­is­ing moth­er­hood in favour of sta­tus rather than ad­dress­ing it as a revo­lu­tion.

Rose lists how we, as a cul­ture, use the suf­fer­ing of moth­ers as a de­coy or dis­trac­tion from po­lit­i­cal and cor­po­rate ac­count­abil­ity. Lament­ing moth­ers have been and of­ten still are the hall­mark image for so-called ‘‘nat­u­ral’’ catas­tro­phes such as earth­quakes. In these images, moth­ers are not … held re­spon­si­ble. Nev­er­the­less, there is a con­nec­tion, as their mis­ery is be­ing ex­ploited, shoved in the face of the world, so that others will get off scot-free: con­trac­tors who put up build­ings that col­lapse, town plan­ners cut­ting cor­ners to cram as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble into an in­hu­manly crowded space.

It’s an in­ter­est­ing point, if not al­ways ac­cu­rate. Rather than as an at­tempt to di­vert fo­cus, the lament­ing mother is fre­quently used as an emo­tive hook to at­tract at­ten­tion to the is­sue, to in­vest it with the out­rage that fuels change. In short, far from shut­ting down “the por­tals of the heart”, such im­agery is used to blow them open.

De­spite this, Rose in­sists that moth­ers “who ex­pose mis­for­tune as in­jus­tice … by telling the world of the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial ills be­hind the death of a child, still strug­gle to be heard’’.

“To put it at its crud­est, a mother can suf­fer, she can be the ob­ject of heart­felt em­pa­thy, so long as she does not probe or talk too much.”

The ac­cu­racy, par­tic­u­larly in re­gard to con­text, of such state­ments strikes me as un­even. One has only to con­sider the in­ter­na­tional im­pact of Kate McCann, whose search for her miss­ing daugh­ter, Madeleine, has made front pages around the world for 11 years.

It would be truer for Rose to state that

Bri­tish writer Jac­que­line Rose, above, raises a num­ber of im­por­tant and in­ter­est­ing points

Sheila Heti pon­ders life’s great de­ci­sion

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