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