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Getting to the heart of the matter

A new book sheds light on the complex emotional experience of motherhood and how it shapes our lives

Maternal Desire:
On Children, Love, and the Inner Life

by Daphne de Marneffe
Little, Brown, 2004

Let me begin this review by explaining what Daphne de Marneffe’s Maternal Desire: On Children Love, and the Inner Life is not. It's not a highbrow attempt to discredit the motives, values or emotional capacity of mothers who work outside the home. It is not, primarily, about the importance of sensitive maternal attachment to the healthy growth and development of infants and children. It is not anti-feminist. Nor is it (mercifully) a literate retread of romantic stereotypes of maternal devotion. At its best, Maternal Desire is a deeply intelligent and thought-provoking work on how the practice and process of mothering children can bring us closer to an authentic sense of self.

De Marneffe describes maternal desire as a profound need to have physical and emotional contact with one’s children— an urgent, spontaneous drive she compares to sexual desire. Mothers yearn not just to have children, she argues; they want to care for them, too— up close and personal. When we respect and respond to the felt need to care for our children, de Marneffe suggests, we substantiate our innermost reality and assert our potential to live as our fullest selves. This kind of talk will sound like a no-brainer to women who connect with the powerful emotional traction of maternal desire as a matter of course. Those who’ve enjoyed more sporadic encounters with what de Marneffe refers to as “maternal pleasure” might be tempted to dismiss Maternal Desire as little more than an educated elaboration of the idealization of motherhood as the be-all and end-all of feminine self-expression.

But de Marneffe’s purpose is to uncover the rarer stuff of maternal experience— a landslide of complex and often conflicting feelings that bears little resemblance to the popular ideal of motherly love. By attempting to explain how motherhood transforms a woman’s understanding of herself and her relationship to the world from the standpoint of psychology rather than ideology, de Marneffe moves into fascinating and largely unstudied territory.

As Jane Swigart writes in The Myth of the Perfect Mother (1998), when “we approach the intimate relationship between mother and child, our attention tends to swerve away from ourselves to the child.” If mothers often fail to appreciate the centrality of their own subjectivity in the relational work of mothering, they are not alone. Numerous clinical studies suggest that a certain quality of maternal sensitivity and attachment enhances the emotional “security” of infants and toddlers, but few are designed to elicit greater insight into how the practice of mothering affects the emotional growth and development of the mother herself. This undermines the credibility of de Marneffe’s hypothesis to some extent, since— inexcusably, but predictably — authoritative studies on motherhood as a psychological event simply don’t exist. This leaves Maternal Desire insufficiently equipped to supply definitive answers about how and why motherhood changes the lives of women who mother, but de Marneffe’s most important contribution is giving us an idea of where to start looking.

While de Marneffe’s theory of maternal desire clearly originates from a feminist perspective, she devotes the first third of her book to critiquing feminism’s valorization of paid employment as the one true path to women’s freedom and happiness. She contends that by representing paid work as a prerequisite for self-fulfillment, liberal feminists contributed to the devaluation of care-giving and further obscured the role the psychological process of mothering plays in the formation of the mother’s mature identity. Assailing feminism for spawning the cultural contradictions of motherhood is pretty much de rigueur for the new band of serious mother/writers, and not without reason (however, let’s not forget that women’s care work was socially and economically devalued long before second wave feminists took a crack at it). De Marneffe’s assertion that some feminists downplay the possibility that elements of maternal experience may actually promote women’s self-actualization carries a bit more weight -- although it must be noted that almost all of the existing literature aimed at advancing our understanding of the quality and meaning of maternal experience is the direct product of feminist scholarship. Given how readily the general culture has absorbed the proposition that motherhood puts an end to the most cherished aspects of a woman’s distinctive personhood— autonomy, spontaneity, sexual and intellectual curiosity, self-awareness, personal and creative ambition— it’s easy to mistrust the inner voice that tells us motherhood can also be the beginning of something genuinely worth longing for. According to de Marneffe, if we hope to get the most out of life, love and work, we need to sit still and start listening.

As a clinical psychologist, de Marneffe’s writing is most effective when she surveys familiar ground— the evolving emotional dynamics of the relationship between mother and child. The potential to experience deep and abiding joy in mothering, she reasons, depends on a mother’s willingness to confront and live mindfully with the emotional conflicts and ambivalence that flow from the routine interactions of day-to-day care-giving. Although de Marneffe’s book gives rather short shrift to the influence of temperament and anxiety on women's satisfaction in the maternal role, she admits in an interview with Salon.com that the most delectable moments of maternal pleasure may be more accessible to mothers who have easy-going, cooperative children. Apart from encouraging women to get in touch with the gestalt of motherhood for their own good and for the sake of their children, the core message of Maternal Desire is that mothering— in all its complexity— can be integral to discovering a more complete sense of who we are and who we want to become. In de Marneffe’s enlightened vision, motherhood is not an oppressive trap that prevents us from inhabiting our truest selves, but an unparalleled opportunity to experience the emotional richness of our lives in connection to others whom we love and wish to care for.

Maternal Desire is not unflawed. De Marneffe has a knack for generalizing her own experience with a confidence that defies the standards of formal scholarship, and some of her points of reference seem arcane and tangential. The overall tone of the book is profoundly intellectual and occasionally metaphysical, which may discourage casual readers from continuing beyond the first few chapters— and that would be a shame, because de Marneffe’s later chapters on the personal meaning of infertility, fatherhood and abortion are exceptional. And while de Marneffe cannot be faulted for the proclivities of certain ideologues and backward journalists who delight in twisting the realities of contemporary motherhood every which way, there is the nasty little problem that the whole concept of maternal desire invites willful misinterpretation as proof that feminism was a bad idea from the get-go— and mothers might as well follow their hearts right out of the workforce, because they can’t possibly do justice to a demanding job if they’re aching to be at home with their kids.

But sometimes, we do ache to be with our children. And sometimes, we long for quiet, order, privacy and enough uninterrupted time to string our thoughts and feelings together in a way that makes sense. We want all the satisfaction of striving to reach our highest potential on our own terms, and all the joys of sustained intimacy. We crave separateness, and fusion. We want to care for others and to be cared for by others. And sometimes— maybe most of the time— we feel all these things at once. The paradox is not that the lived experience of motherhood gives rise to such a wild range of conflicting emotions; it's that we’ve been sandbagged into believing— by both traditional and feminist ideology— that it could ever be any other way.

The outing of maternal desire is bound to resonate with millions of mothers who can verify its existence with their own steady pulse of love and longing. Others residing in the more ambivalent regions of motherhood will persist in calling out false consciousness and the power of ideology to mold our intuition about what is good and meaningful in human relationships. And perhaps this is precisely the intersection of thought and feeling where an earnest discourse on the complicated nature of maternal psychology must begin.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
April 2004

Also of interest:

MMO interview with Janna Malamud Smith,
author of A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear

In MMO Essays:
Mother of Milk by Brenda Clews

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