The Paradox of the Maternal


Most of us have plenty to say about mothers if we have been anywhere near psychoanalysis. The very word ‘maternal’ brings a shudder to many who feel grateful at having put at arm’s length the one who had total power to protect or destroy. Not only were we within her body, but were incapable of looking after ourselves for a prolonged period. We relied on being cared for and could only gradually join in the language in use – language partially shaped to suit whoever was initiating us – language being used by others to decide who we might be or what was good for us.

Others sigh at those endless psychoanalytic papers on mothers and babies, on attachment and dependence, for it is grown adults who come to our consulting rooms, not just big babies reducible back to one original mould – a mould which usually takes little account of social context, siblings, or the subtleties of temperamental differences. In the astonishing range and complexity of what people say of their mothers, or being a mother, one overriding thing is certain – it does not all fit any one pattern and changes over time.

I liked being a girl – rather it never occurred to me to wish it otherwise – but, until nine or ten, it hadn’t dawned on me I might also be expected to follow my mother and take up some particular place as a woman. To that I said a firm “No thank you!” asserting resolute disinclination to acquire what were considered important feminine skills. When asked, “So what will you do when you have children?” I answered grandly, I wouldn’t have any, but adopt when I was 50. I didn’t quite know what I was saying, or why, yet was articulating wanting something other than what seemed to be on offer for girls in small town New Zealand of the 1950s.
The maternal, like the paternal, is deeply implicated in social and economic structures, in the political, and in the way of thinking of any era. We have a continuing fight over responsibility for those in need of care – where the hard work of giving one’s flesh, one’s time, one’s life, to caring for others is not much valued. And then there is the distribution of what are called feminine and masculine characteristics. Here the edge was taken off battle lines for me, by having a father drawn to looking out for others and emotionally more available for intimacy, while my sparky mother liked a big stage to thrive.

But this whole complex area (along with the enormity of being a mother and inevitably hurting one’s children or worse, damaging them) which I’m sure will be taken up elsewhere in this series, is not what I’m attempting to consider. I put all that aside – since what I want to look at is our mammalian start – a beginning in water and also in inarticulacy. There is a play with sounds early once we move into air, but language is slow learning. Like our mothers’ bodies, language is about us and forever remains that which is of us and also beyond our skin. It is outside full mastery in that, however we come to express ourselves, we can never get behind the available language, or get back to before we could use it. It is this paradox, which is also at the heart of the maternal, that is my focus in this paper.

Becoming a mother was another re-opening to that which is beyond, and not just through the passion of childbirth to which one is subject, for despite the scientism around us and belief that soon all will be explained mothers do not know how to make their own babies. A new life takes shape within our bodies by simply absorbing what is needed, as the baby then absorbs the culture and language. Also becoming a mother – and thankfully I was not kept to my childhood intentions – made me responsible for someone. Once re-plugged back into life outside myself, there was no longer the option of ending it all in a fury of retaliation towards my dead mother.

Our culture emphasises the separate, the individual and the rational – as if we are to make everything just our own. We don’t keep our eye on where we are rooted in the collective – for example in the complicated game of money there is little acknowledgement of the fact it can only be played because it is the shared game. Each is to grab what money they can, without responsibility, and those living with excess, displaying huge wealth, are admired – a need for luxury fuelling the economy – yet now there is also a move to add on something lost, as it becomes the fashion for the rich and for business to “give something back.”

The word “separate” is used with such approval, being an individual is set up as a good, as if it’s not a profoundly subtle matter. After all separate comes from separate, which in the thesaurus equates with cleave, break up, come apart, disjoin, disconnect, unattach.  Much of what we claim to be expressions of our unique individuality are likely to have been absorbed from the zeitgeist. Then there is the range of phenomena we call intuition and the uncanny, which draw attention to the fact that we cannot be half as separate as we mostly assume.

Nor are we as much creatures of reason as we hope. Anglo-Saxon culture seems particularly drawn to elevate reason, not just as a crucial language to learn, which it is for us, but as if it’s the basis for all life. It has a long history of taking sons, who might be expected to have power and influence one day, right away from the maternal while still young – as if to wipe out that in which their life is rooted.

Freud, like Jung, became fascinated by the area where reason did not hold sway. They took up an interest in the occult. Freud saw we could not be conscious of all we are immersed in – we are embodied and subject to our bodies’ extraordinarily subtle workings, we are in language, and a particular era, we are subject to desire and to a need for sleep where we are not in our conscious mind.
Nevertheless Freud decided to put, as he said, “a bulwark against the black tide of mud”, and re-defined all which cannot be brought to consciousness as the unconscious. Bion argues that the theory of the conscious and unconscious is extremely useful but “becomes a bit of a pest after a time because it gets in the way of being able to see other things one doesn’t know – stands in the way of one’s own ignorance, so that there is very little chance of investigating this realm of ideas that have never been conscious and this state of mind that is not available when a person is talking to you with his wits about him in broad daylight, and you are listening to him with all your wits about you.” [2]

Certainly Freud, growing attached to his own description, proceeded to use his rational theories as if they decoded mystery, so that we are no longer inevitably creatures of the symbolic but, like Oedipus, faced only with a riddle. A riddle psychoanalysis itself might answer.

This confusion continues within psychoanalysis – is the analytic tradition one of getting behind dreams and the defined unconscious to give a decoding from theory? Or is it addressing the original recognition that we are in more than we can grasp, since we can never be sufficiently outside to fully formulate it? Freud acknowledged forces to which we are subject, then shifted gear so that his metaphors became “facts”.
If we take a brief look at dreaming, it’s obvious we do not stay awake to reason while we also dream. Even if words bubble up, briefly on automatic, as one wakes, which may be the best access one gets, or if we are left with vivid images to play with, the dream has faded. That weave of strangeness, with possibly a haunting presence, has gone – a mode of connectedness has been shed, not brought into the day, even though meditating on it may throw light on matters. To quote Bion, [3] “I don’t think that Freud, in talking about the interpretation of dreams, really considers the fact that the patient who has a dream had an experience in what I would consider a very different state of mind from that in which he is when he is awake. Therefore the story the patient tells you, consciously, is his version of what happened last night, but he doesn’t really know.”

What we cannot do, is gain dominion over dreaming by cracking any one particular, deciphering code. That we try to do so reveals our mania for explanation. Our relation to the maternal is much the same – we come out of dreaming as even more fundamentally we came out of our inarticulate beginnings. Driven to catch where we have been, we start retrospectively applying constructions. Some might be well imagined. We may look to descriptions of attachment, or read Winnicott and find it makes sense to us, just as any good fiction does. What has a ring of truth is, then, too readily mistaken for explanation. This process of generating “explanations” is helped by reification. Of course, there is no such thing as “the maternal”, there is a birth mother and someone who has to care for an infant.

Slippage into explanation and other category confusion is not trivial, nor a cold matter of “just grammar and logic”: once descriptions slip into accounting for our history, we lay claim to conceptualising more than is justified and turn ourselves, our patients, and the maternal into objects of knowledge. Also we generate the unfounded illusion of being able to get hold of ourselves through rational theory, even though we were fully present, alert and responsive to the world around us, our senses in good order, long before reasoning, which is necessarily a late development in language. How far we can sniff one another out, tuning in in a myriad of ways, sensing where we are with one another and getting our bearings, long before we can use reasoning – and, thankfully, these ways continue along with speech an increasing belief in “rationality.”
Language introduces meaning and makes possible a future and a past tense – a past tense that may go to our head if we superimpose some theoretical picture. This is obvious in Klein’s misuse of language to decree what is going on conceptually in the minds of pre-linguistic infants, who cannot possibly yet have any concepts. These require language.  Klein’s theory encloses the baby within particular structures, as if no other life force is of any relevance. It is as though the child forms within a seashell, with Klein knowing exactly the shape of those firm sides shutting in the developing life. In her picture there is no ocean; yet if sea shells do not open to the flow of water, any life within shrivels and dies.

Winnicott, in his struggle with Klein, to be allowed to express what he understood in language other than Kleinian theory, used a different metaphor to argue that she sounded as if she knew how to make daffodils flower and that was not what psychoanalysis could know. All we can see is how we might better nurture the bulb, in the hope that it may flourish.

Since therapy is an attempt at honest speech, the therapists’ correct relation to the words they use is fundamental. Slippage into pseudo explanation and confusion of categories, which imply or establish a spurious knowingness, is either unthinking or unscrupulous.

It generates power and fake authority for our practice. This is not to suggest a collapse into “we can’t say anything”, nor is it to endorse that “it’s all about feelings and words don’t matter” – the struggle to move into a more correct relation with what we can and cannot say of ourselves requires rigorous attention.

Just as what it is that we can capture of having been mothered, when much of it took place before language, requires consideration.

Wittgenstein’s questioning of language misuse seems particularly relevant here. As I have said, we human mammals, who were once within what remains beyond our group, also find ourselves joining a shared language beyond our confines, and the many ways we get drawn into confusions with language is the essence of therapy.  Most of us come to therapy with, at least, some of our “language-on-holiday,” [4]i.e. we speak with a degree of disconnection from what we have already lived, or perhaps only half understanding what it is we are trying to say. That is having become caught up in debased language, with varying degrees of dissociation, rather than being able to speak our distress we come in search of it. Often at the start the words used are bland generalisations…”there is something wrong with me,” or “I have depression/anxiety/low self esteem.” Out of such shared phrases as if we are an object with a condition defined by experts begins a struggle in a search for the meaningful which is particular, for we can only come alive to our own temperament and face our specific lostness.

As Ortega y Gasset says,
“The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from…fantastic “ideas” and looks life in the face, realises that everything in it is problematic and feels himself lost – he who accepts this already begins to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look round for something to which to cling and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost is without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.”[5]

For many the wish to have difficulties heard might be a beginning to therapy, but soon there is a question of our own unreliability. For example, where we have constructed a coherence from a not fully acknowledged grievance, or from a determination that we “need” to get hold of a systematic picture if we are to understand, and so keep to a belief about ourselves and others.
There is the task in therapy of listening to oneself as one is being heard, with a slow recognition of words that are empty, or are really a demand, i.e. “parents should have done x,” “life ought to be y.”

And attempts to explain ourselves or our past usually cover over what we have been unable to adequately question. This includes much of the language used in and about therapy. It’s easy to say “self” an “ego,” making claims as to what we believe to be good for them, but what are we actually talking about? They aren’t objects to be taken out and assessed like an appendix. That in time we learn to say “I” is part of the process of initiation into using the shared language and cannot be reduced back to a singular possession.
Similarly many speak of separation from mothers as if we know what this is and that it’s a “thing to achieve.” Obviously we don’t stay in her belly but do we think we must separate from shared genes and language, from her values and all her way of life?

The task of finding a way out of proliferating vain talk towards more honest speech is, crucially, a move towards accepting complexity and is a move towards seeing how much of ourselves can never be caught with words. Perhaps we begin therapy as a search, hopeful of an answer, the meaning. Expecting to grasp ourselves and others with understanding we pursue this quest till we are forced to recognise the limits of our language.

Many of us also begin expecting to extricate ourselves from strong mothers and take a long time to surrender to the fact that the maternal, like language, is the ground of our being – and we cannot reason our way out of being subject to it.
This brings me to the second part of this paper – to my own notes. as I tried to get hold of my mother. I have taken a tiny selection, from masses of scraps of paper, bits of diary, which I eventually gathered together to put in two big folders.[6]

Perhaps I began writing to her when surprised by the intensity of longing to show her my newborn son, though she had been dead ten years.
I can’t really say what I was hoping to clarify – and it changed – but I sought to make more sense of the woman who left life dramatically, just as I assumed myself to be leaving her. Who was she? What did I think of her? And why did I seem unable to re-find ease of connection, except in extremis, out at sea.  I had gone to look for something of her, nine grim months after her death, in the city she came from and where she’d returned on holiday and been killed in a car crash.
There seemed to be no doubt that she was present in the deep. She had been  all around me as I grew into life inside her and I, like many, felt her profoundly about me as I was almost drowning. In between my coming into life and nearly leaving it, what had she been?

These fragments are not in the order in which they were written, over four decades. I have chosen those that seem to connect with the first part of this paper and restricted myself to an alphabet length of A to Z. My mother is the “you” in these notes, my father the “he”.

  1. Had you lived there would have been ways to meet, with every day frustrations. In the resounding absence, I foraged, perhaps finding only dried bones, but also made my way into much you left unspoken.
  2. Decades on it is still possible to gag on the fact that you are never coming back – and that you, who were all too present to existence, could just leave with no goodbye.
  3. There was nothing to be done to keep you. It was all over and not a single thing could make it different. That was the crushing defeat and how I struggled to forgive it.
  4. When death came for you, I had no importance – yet it remained an outrage you didn’t send a message.
  5. For you were at the mercy of forces I no longer believed in – the power of life and death, like fairies, were outgrown. Till you showed me – dying to do it!
  6. The air thickened with misery and confusion. Weighing heavy, it pushed us down through surface crust, over which we’d previously skated.
  7. You whisked away the ground we stood on, proving every lullaby a lie – you couldn’t keep us safe – you could not save yourself!
  8. Having assumed any difficulty ahead would be standing up to your strength – asserting my own way – I never doubted you’d be there to fall back on. If I was about to move out on a long rope, of course, you’d stay firm behind me.
  9. We lived side by side, no longer close, I’d probably have replied, if asked – you cooked, I ate good food, and failed to notice I might be rooted in you still – not so autonomous after all.
  10. You died and that was fact, if also indigestible. Your mothering proved to be no object to catch – whatever still lived was not for extermination – and continued beyond that barely believable cremation.
  11. With him it was easier – never having been within his flesh, he couldn’t swallow me back. And it never occurred to try and seek all strands of fathering – he was there in person – not to be pinned with words.
  12. Death was dressed in euphemisms and you draped in hyperboles. The “you” I recognised was gone and, after bewilderment, I began to hunt you – to catch those primrose sandals at the beach – the way you flung yourself backwards into water – my pride in your sparkling ball gowns – your relish of oysters and foreign foods. I sought your character, asking embarrassed friends and your reluctant sisters. I got given clichés.
  13. I missed knowing you as adult – so much I want to ask – and all I’d like to tell.
    But would you have ever listened?
  14. Like most, I hatched to cocoon life, within a family – added in and sharing residence, fears, a bedroom, meal routines and ways of speaking, ways of doing to grow in us as forming bones.
  15. Your structuring days were through my way of being, not detachable as I’d supposed.
  16. My flesh began as part of you, though I considered myself distinct, but your crashing out proved more than could be taken in, through confusions of what must be you and what was me, until I found I could not go where you had gone, except by wilful destruction.
    And, yet, how soon I went abroad, shoulders pushed up in declaration of managing without you, and went exploring, just as you made plans to do the night before you borrowed a car, not knowing it was faulty.
  17. Though I thought it was you reduced to pieces in a smash, it was our expectations lying in bits. But, cruelly, our bodies looked whole, in an illusion of completeness, while having to bear comprehension of your death only in small fragments.
  18. You were the earth for the seed of me, even if that idea displeased. I grew despite you is the claim, yet cells developed through no will of mine. Not that you spoke to me of our beginnings, even though the complications lingered.
  19. Shared existence shattered, like some shell, leaving me apparently freed, if with a running yolk. You as the container were fragile too, though I’d certainly failed to notice. Astonishingly his comfort outlives his ordinary death – while your end was too disruptive of who I took my teenage self to be.
  20. Alongside our colonial, daily life was always that wide ocean. Even landlocked days kept a watery edge – liquid, from which we emerged, there in perpetual motion – a power beyond the confines of town. Our several rivers led the way in merging again, into vast and salted sea.
  21. And when its pulse fades into tales of its existence – having no force except in the pitfalls of memory – we are stranded high and dry in constructions of the mind.
  22. Sedate like you I’ve never been, and move still in tides and with the moon. The flow of water might be hard to collect and yet I have felt gathered, in etching words to you, across what stays filmy between us.
  23. Phrases come alive in the writing – that quick move to show the unseen – but what do they net when put on repeat?
  24. Who can speak that move out of water into air, before there is any talking? You told me only what you wished, of thunder at my birth. Then left before I could question your version.
  25. While you lived, some of our history never got a word in – which put much else on semi-disconnect between us. In nearly drowning, months after your death, finding you at sea, it seemed an absolute that language for us must begin again, from scratch!
  26. Eventually, therapy gave a gradual re-association with some of what we’d lived. I didn’t get hold of you, as probably I’d hoped, but learned to talk with someone else – making space for a way of speaking, inconceivable while beside you.

•   •   •  

[1] J.M. Heaton, The Talking Cure Wittgenstein on Language as Bewitchment & Clarity Palgrave Macmillan 2010, 2013

[2] Wilfred R. Bion, The Tavistock Seminars, p21, Karmac Books, London 2005

[3] Wilfred R. Bion, The Tavistock Seminars, p21, Karmac Books, London 2005

[4] JM Heaton Wittgenstein and Psychotherapy from Paradox to Wonder, Macmillan 2014

[5] Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, Chapter XIV p 120, Unwin Books, 4th impression 1972

6 These notes are taken from the author’s book, Dancing after a Dead Mother, currently under preparation.