I started Jacqueline Rose’s book Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty on a winter afternoon when my children were sick. To keep misery at bay, I allowed my older son to watch Peter Pan, and while he was instantly absorbed in the adventures of Peter and the Lost Boys, I found myself distracted by the tragedy of Wendy Darling. Here was a bright, imaginative girl conscripted into playing mother to a vile little boy, a boy who seems to take great pleasure in pitting her against the sexier, more adventurous women in his life. Wendy is attacked by Tinker Bell, nearly drowned by the mermaids, cast aside for Tiger Lily. She is told that she talks too much, that she is a “big, ugly girl.” Each time she is insulted or hurt or almost dies, Peter laughs—a maniacal, braying laugh; the laugh of an idiot and sadist. But Wendy rarely complains or lashes out. Instead, she sings one of the sweetest, most pious songs about motherhood ever written: “Ask your heart to tell you her worth / Your heart will say, ‘Heaven on earth’ / Another word for divine / Your mother and mine.”
As I watched the movie, growing increasingly horrified by the spectacle of Wendy’s vulnerability and devotion, I began to feel the great urgency of the two questions that guide Rose’s Mothers: What is it about mothers that provokes hostility, abuse, and exploitation? And why, in the face of their bad treatment, do mothers continue to hold themselves to impossible standards of goodness and love? For Rose, the answer lies less in unequal laws (as it would for liberal feminists) or in capitalist relations (as it would for socialist feminists) than in the murkier, more intimate realm of the unconscious. The idea of motherhood operates as a kind of collective projection, an imaginary order that shapes our perspective of the kind of person a mother ought to be. Motherhood, Rose explains, is “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.”
As a literary scholar and psychoanalytic thinker, Rose has long insisted that we pay close attention to the subterranean fears, fantasies, and narratives that structure our most pressing sociopolitical problems: suicide bombings, honor killings, state-sanctioned terror. Her feminism takes its cues from this insight. Her previous book, the feminist treatise Women in Dark Times, called for a “scandalous feminism,” one that supplants pleas for equality and power with radical self-interrogation. If men and women are to fully realize their humanity, they need to be willing to go beyond the sanitized slogan that “the personal is political” and instead “enter the landscape of the night,” confronting “dark with dark.” One must meet certain fears head-on, unflinchingly, with passion and even pleasure: the fear of pain, the fear of abandonment, the fear of disintegration—of “dissolving margins,” as Elena Ferrante puts it in her writing on motherhood—and, ultimately, the fear of death.
These are fears intrinsic to human life in general, but in Mothers Rose argues that they are acutely part of the process of becoming a mother. Pregnancy is nothing if not an act of colonization, and every birth, no matter how glorious or empowering, is a harbinger of death. This is true in a very concrete sense for mothers. Childbirth is risky, and mothers are still left to die in hospitals, in prisons, and on the streets. But it is also true in a less tangible but still powerful way for the people who encounter mothers and their children out in the world and, on some unconscious level, feel unnerved by the radical act of creating another human life. “The fact of being born can act as an uncanny reminder that once upon a time you were not here, and one day you will be no more,” Rose observes. (When I informed an administrator at the university where I work that I was pregnant with my second child, he replied in a funereal tone, “May you gestate in peace.”)