Motherhood today



The ambitious title of my talk sums up a deep social and historical anxiety related to the question of the morality of procreation at will.  I will more modestly limit myself to an aspect of motherhood that concerns me personally both as a mother and a psychoanalyst: maternal passion and its meaning today. My reflection on maternal passion will touch upon three themes, which I will not develop extensively here, but upon which I hope nevertheless to shed light.
     What do I mean by “today”? Well, everyday the life sciences and obstetrics are gaining growing mastery over the enigma of gestation which, due to its very status as an enigma, formerly  conferred power upon the mother while at the same time anxiously taking it away. And yet feminine fertility and pregnancy not only continue to fascinate our collective imagination, but also serve as a sanctuary for the sacred. The position of modern religiosity would hold the “ beyond” as no longer being above our heads but in the womb.  Today motherhood is imbued with what has survived of religious feeling.
-    At the same time, the difficulty of managing the economic and personal costs of  having children calls for national debate and solidarity, for the obvious reason that the human child is born “unfinished”, incapable of autonomy for any but a short period of time. Should there be parental leave for both parents? Subsidies for each child or only the third? – the debate is ongoing, in France at any rate.  Motherhood today brings us face to face with the dilemmas of globalization -  perhaps most notably with its inability to politically solve the capital question of human procreation.
-    Finally, my experience as president of the Conseil National Handicap has put me in contact with a number of « courageous mothers » : mothers of handicapped children, children with various social and learning disabilities.  Everyone knows that in most cases it is primarily the mother who “manages” and “cares for” the child.  However worn down the mother of the “disabled” or “troubled” child may be, she remains a fighter. She only despairs about what will happen to her child “after her death”.  As long as she’s alive, the mother is there to guarantee life to the best of her ability, whatever the conditions.  And since the famous “crisis of values” we’re going through really upholds only one value which seems to garner overall support – “life” as a value itself – courageous mothers are considered the cornerstone of today’s civilization, a civilization which has lost its points of reference.
  In the context of this “today”  I’ve roughly sketched out by addressing these three themes, something remains missing.  What we lack is a reflection on maternal passion.  After Freud and with Lacan, psychoanalysis has largely been preoccupied with the “paternal function” – its need, its failures, its substitutes and so on and so forth. Philosophers and psychoanalysts seem less inspired by the “maternal function”, perhaps because it is not a function but more precisely, a passion. The term « a good enough mother », coined by Winnicott, who took this theme further than Freud, nevertheless runs the risk of playing down the passionate violence of the maternal experience.
I will suggest the hypothesis then, that if modern culture, and notably the media “overvalues pregnancy”, it is to avoid questioning ourselves about this passion. Maternal passion is  perhaps the  only passion that is not virtual and subject to spectacular manipulation and which constitutes the prototype for the love relation. As we know, this relation alone represents the “sacred” in our modern world in which religions are at once over invested and in decline.  I will also hold that due to the complexity of this passion even mothers participate, more or less unconsciously, in obscuring it: they would rather benefit from this vision, this ideology of the womb as sacred and the marketing of the “perfect child”, the “child king,” than weigh out the risks and benefits that this passion holds for them, their children, the father and society at large. Consequently, we will see that there is no other way to accompany the bio-physiological, economic and ideological ordeals of motherhood to which I referred in my introduction than to try to come to terms with this passion’s ambiguities.
Could we replace this denial of maternal passion seen in the media and in the  biological and social treatment of motherhood by an informed exploration of the risks and benefits of this experience?  Such is the question that motherhood raises today as I see it being a mother, a psychoanalyst and a writer. I shall try to convince you, therefore, that motherhood is not an “instinct” and that it cannot be reduced to a “desire to have a child”. What about the desire not to have a child?  (Marilia Aisenstein has hinted at this). Rather it is a reconquest that lasts a lifetime and beyond.

      I. We ought to distinguish between passion and emotion. Motherhood is a passion in the sense that the emotions (of attachment and aggression toward the fetus, baby and child) turn into love (idealization, planning for the child’s future, dedication) with its hate correlative more or less reduced.   The mother is at the crossroads of biology and meaning as early on as the pregnancy:  maternal passion de-biologizes the link to the child, without becoming completely detached from the biological, yet already the emotions of attachment and aggression are on the way towards sublimation.  
   All this begins with the pregnant woman’s passion for herself, a “herself” reflecting a reinforced and destabilized narcissism: the pregnant woman is losing her identity, for, in the wake of the lover-father’s intervention, she splits in two, harboring an unknown third person, a shapeless pre-object. In other words, though dominated by narcissism, this initial maternal passion remains triangular ; neverthless the absent or inward looking gaze of the Madonnas with child of the Italian Renaissance, such as those by Giovanni Bellini, openly show what many of us know: that the pregnant woman “looks” without “seeing” the father and the world; she is elsewhere.
 This first stage of inwardly turned passion is followed by the mother’s passion for a new subject, her child, provided that he stops being her double and that she detaches herself from him so that he gains autonomy.  This motion of expulsion, of detachment is essential.  This is a way of saying that from the outset, maternal passion is inhabited by the negative. Through this learning process in how to relate to the other which is motherhood, the mother experiences both the strongest intensity of drives (Melanie Klein’s « projective identification  »  by which the subject - mother but also baby - slips into the other - likewise baby  but also  mother - to harm, possess or control him/her) and an inhibition of the drive in terms of its aim,which allows the affect to turn into tenderness, caretaking and benevolence.
At the risk of shocking some of you, I will say that without an optimal experience of biface maternal passion (narcissistic withdrawal, then a bond with the object through projective identification sublimated as tenderness), the woman subject has a difficult time forming relations with the opposite sex and more generally with others, that are not governed by pure osmotic emotion (attachment/adversity) or pure indifference.  Here I specifically use the term maternal passion in the structural sense of the experience and not just in the biological sense: it is not impossible that through psychoanalysis, self-analysis or sublimating work a woman can also live out her maternal passion without gestation and giving birth (through adoption, surrogate mothers and other fertility techniques to come, or on another level though care-taking, teaching, long-term relationships or in communal/community work).  For most, however, at this stage in civilization (before the invention of an “artificial uterus”!), maternal passion generally concerns mothers and remains the prototype of the love relation.
 Freud was convinced that  “loving thy neighbor as thyself” was an illusion, a pious wish of the Evangelists. Indeed, such love has only been attained by Saint Francis and other rare mystics like him.  I believe that “loving one’s neighbor as oneself” brings us back to this enigma – even more obscure than the mystery of gestation – of what the “good enough mother” is.  It is she who allows the infans to create a transitional space, a space which enables the infant to think. Because it is not easy to love oneself: generally, it is either impossible, or else tragic, although the “good enough mother” succeeds in loving her child as herself, and then as another self.
On the cultural level, I’ve noticed that in cases of « feminine genius » (be it outside of the maternal experience and in ventures as diverse as those undertaken by Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein and Colette) there is an object relation from the very beginning of the psychic life. This is quite different from  Freud’s postulation of a “narcissism without an object” at birth and from “masculine genius” (philosophers, artists) which is more directed towards solipsistic incantations and the dramas of subjectivity per se. And yet to maintain that for a woman, and even more so for a mother, there is an Other early on in the psychic life is hardly idyllic, for this precocious object relation is characterized by instability, an instability likely to turn into manic exaltation or depression and aggression: him or me, projection-identification.
  This drama nevertheless has a positive side, as this passion can allow the mother to create a possible bond with the other, to elaborate the passionate destructiveness underlying all types of relations and that motherhood in particular makes us experience all the more sharply (« I love him and I hate him »).  This is why, with its violent emotions of love and hate motherhood resembles an analysis of borderline states and perversions. I share the opinions of authors as different as François Perrier and André Green, for whom feminine sexuality takes refuge in motherhood to live out its perversion and madness, which can also be a way of enabling their working-through. Seduction, fetishizing the child’s body and its accessories, emotional outbursts, manic states -  it isn’t rare that the very possibility of thinking is threatened by the mother’s  passion.  It takes on then a more lethal meaning, like that of an ethnic war, where we’ve seen that the most ferocious are those in which the differences between ethnic groups are very slight, those waged against oneself by way of aggressing the one who’s closest (mothers on trial for infanticide are proof of this).

 II. However, a certain detachment-depassioning takes place in most cases. And it’s from this that maternal love derives its definitive psychic and vital support.  Because most mothers are not in analysis, one has to concede that there is something in the very structure of the mother’s experience that encourages this metabolism of passion by depassioning. I suggest considering three factors within maternal passion itself: the place of the father, time and language acquisition.
I won’t dwell on the essential role of the father or his surrogate, which leads to a re-appropriation of the Oedipal triangle such that the mother redoes, repairs or analyzes her own Oedipus complex which the little girl she once was more or less failed to do.  This side of the question has already been dealt with by other analysts, and in my seminar on sublimation.  But I will say a few words about time and language in maternal passion. `
We don’t say often enough that the child’s language acquisition implies that the mother also re-learns language.  In the projective identification of the mother and child, the mother inhabits the mouth, lungs and digestive tube of her baby and by accompanying his echolalia, leads him towards signs, sentences, stories: hence infans becomes a child, a speaking subject. Each mother accomplishes in her own way the Proustian search for time past” : by speaking her child’s language a woman remedies step by step the  « non congruence » (as the cognitivists say), the abyss that separates the affect from cognition, which the hysteric complains about endlessly.
As for temporality, referring as it does in western philosophy to the time of death (which also haunts the experience of motherhood of course) here, in the case of motherhood, it is dominated by another caesura: that of beginning. Of course both parents experience conception and giving birth as initial acts marking a beginning, yet the mother feels it most strongly because of the importance of her own body’s involvement in the process. For her, this new beginning that is birth is not only a conjuration of death.  Philosophers have taught us that the logic of freedom does not reside in transgression as one might readily suppose, but precisely in the capacity to begin. Winnicott himself suggested that the baby does not leave the uterus to be born until he has become sufficiently free in his movements and has reached a certain bio-psychological completion, a certain autonomy: beginning and sufficient autonomy would be, for this psychoanalyst, flip sides of the same coin. The mother’s time is brought into contact with this opening, with this beginning – or rather with these beginnings in the plural when she starts having more children or when she becomes a grandmother with grandchildren. The ephemeral nature of this life we, as mothers, have given undoubtedly rekindles our anxiety and worries, and yet the marvel felt experiencing the ephemeral as a new beginning overrides this angst. I call this maternal experience of temporality, which is neither the instant nor the irretrievable flow of time (which preoccupies men, who tend to be more obsessive than women), duration by means of new beginnings. Being free means having the courage to begin anew: such is the philosophy of motherhood.        
Phallic elation?  Denial of death? Paranoid horizon ? Such are the excesses which underlie maternal passion.  Nevertheless, the temporality of maternal passion can be viewed analytically as a kind of detachment  in relation to the sole object, as an invitation to the plurality of beings and relations;  it can be seen as the source of “depassioning” and freedom, which is ultimately freedom from passion. We see that while being the prototype of human passion, maternal passion is also the  prototype of the letting go of passion which allows the speaking subject to take her distance in relation to the two tormentors of the human psyche which are also passion’s aids: drives and the object.      
At the risk of causing an outrage, I will venture to say that the «  good enough mother »  likes no one in particular: her passion has been overshadowed by a depassioning, which, without necessarily becoming monstrous (this happens but not inevitably), we call serenity.  Serenity precludes an exclusive relation because it is open to all relations. Colette portrays an ideal mother, her own, Sido.  Yet Sido is none other than a woman who refuses to see her daughter because she prefers the possible opening of a cactus rose to her child.  A “good enough mother” likes nothing and no one, only the “opening” : “ the possible opening, this waiting for a tropical flower suspended everything, silenced even her heart destined for love ». In other words, the limits of a sole passion seemed restrictive to Sido; the limits she sought were those of the cosmic beginning.  Are we here at the border of the paranoia inherent to maternal passion?  I’ll suggets that, to paraphrase Freud in the feminine, the “good enough mother”  could say “I’ve succeeded there where paranoia has failed.”  Colette’s mother did indeed succeed, even if she didn’t go to see her daughter: She did not abandon her daughter because she passed on her own passion for language. (Sido wrote superb letters to her daughter) : Colette ends up saying that the writer of the family is her mother and not « the great Colette », Colette the writer !) Would not the capacity to share passion through this delight in language alone be a way of providing a freer more protective maternal presence than does the overbearing mother whose daughter continues to be dependant on her?
III . This brings me to the maternal passion’s capacity for sublimation. It is because the maternal passion is a continual sublimation that creativity is made possible for the child. The child’s acquisition of language and thought depends as much on maternal support as it does on the paternal function. How would this acquisition be possible if women were unfit for sublimation as Freud insinuated? The founder of psychoanalysis perhaps imprudently put forward this excommunication based on hysterical excitability resistant to symbolization.  Unlike hysteria, maternal passion operates a transformation of the libido in such a way that sexualization is deferred by a tendency towards tenderness, while at the same time narcissistic exaltation and its melancholic flip side, reaching the point of “maternal madness” with its indestructible hold, gives way to what I will call a “cycle of sublimation” where the mother positions herself by differentiating her newborn from herself.
Freud had observed such a cycle in the emission and reception of jokes. Indeed, the author of the joke neutralizes his affects by communicating his surface thought: he stands back from his drives and latent thoughts and only invests his listener’s reaction.  The storyteller’s pleasure is doubled when her listener understands the hidden meaning of the joke, be it a trap ! The listener experiences the ambiguous pleasure of understanding that he was trapped. This cycle of sublimation is comparable to what happens when mother and child exchange signifiers, for this exchange involves the emission of  « enigmatic signifiers », preverbal or verbal, by the mother ; the withdrawal of the mother’s drives, her attentiveness to the reaction of her child alone; and the surplus of pleasure created, or the encouragement given to the child’s response.  The mother does not invest her own message, but only the child’s response from which she procures even greater jouissance and which in turn she magnifies and encourages.
As you can see, this cycle of sublimation is not without sublimatory perversity in regards to the mother’s behavior and speech, for she defers her immediate hold on the child so as to experience greater pleasure with him and in her role as a guardian of meaning which the child must gain possession of if the “witticism” is to be!  What a mother ! But this is how she sublimates her ambivalent passion and allows the child to create his own language, which is the equivalent of choosing a different language than his mother’s, or even a foreign language.
Those who claim that maternal passion lacks humour are mistaken: if mothers can transform their hold on the child into a sublimatory cycle resembling that of the witticism and which promotes the pleasure of thinking, they are living proof of Hegel’s claim that women are “the eternal irony of the community.”
To put it differently, by her progressive depassioning and or by her aptitude for sublimation, the mother allows her child to represent not the mother (« nothing can represent the maternal object », wrote André Green), but the mother’s absence : if and only if she leaves the child free to appropriate maternal thought by recreating it in his own way of thinking-representing. The “good enough mother” would be she who knows how to leave to make room for pleasure, for the child, for thought. To leave room, in other words to disappear. Thus a kind of symbolic matricide operates through the child’s acquisition of language and thought which diminishes his need to take pleasure from his mother’s body; he comes to find pleasure in thinking, first with his mother, as far as the intermittent nature of maternal thought permits, then alone, in her stead.  This happens provided the mother knows how to turn her message into a witticism rather than a way of wielding influence.  Only if  depassioning is at work in maternal  passion can sublimation move from the body to thought thus encouraging the child’s development of thought.  Maternal passion is not a kind of witchcraft because it is capable of depassioning thought itself, capable of turning it into jokes, and of passing down, along with DNA, the keys of culture.
We’ve seen maternal passion as cleft between the mother’s hold over her child and sublimation. This division makes the risk of madness ever present, and yet this very risk offers a perpetual chance for culture.  Religious myths spun their webs around this divide.  In the bible the woman is a “hole” (such is the meaning of the word “woman”  - nekayva - in Hebrew) and a queen; the Virgin is a “hole” in the Christian trinity father/son/holy ghost and a Queen of the Church. By these imaginary constructions, religions address this maternal division: by recognizing it, they perpetuated it and found a way of balancing it.  A kind of working-through of maternal madness came of this, one which made possible the existence of a humanity endowed with a complex psychic functioning, capable of having an inner life and of being creative in the outer world.
 On the contrary, by turning all our attention on the biological and social aspects of motherhood as well as on sexual freedom and equality, we have become the first civilization which lacks a discourse on the complexity of motherhood.  My dream is that the arguments I’m trying to develop here will help to remedy this lack, that they will stimulate mothers and those who accompany them (gynecologists, obstetricians, mid-wives, psychologists, analysts) to sharpen our understanding of this passion, pregnant with madness and sublimity.  This is what motherhood lacks today.

Julia Kristeva


Colloque Gypsy V
Vendredi 21 et samedi 22 octobre 2005-10-28 Rêves de femmes
Organisation Pr René Frydman et Dr Muriel Flis-Trèves
Jardin des planetes, Grand Amphithéâtre du Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, 57 rue Cuvier, 75005 Paris