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Maternal Desire

An interview with author Daphne de Marneffe

Introduction by Judith Stadtman Tucker

When Daphne de Marneffe's Maternal Desire: On Children, Love and the Inner Life was published in 2004, several reviewers dismissed it as a paean to the romantic myth of maternal bliss -- while Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels were noted for ripping the idealization of motherhood to shreds in their concurrently released book, The Mommy Myth. Critics' juxtaposition of the two books as being on the opposite ends of the feminist spectrum was unfortunate, because as I wrote in my review, Maternal Desire offers wholly original thinking on the psychological complexities of mothering and is a deeply feminist work.

Today's savvy mamas are adept at finding outlets for self-expression -- at least if the explosion of books, independent media sources and blogs created by and for mothers is any indication. The quaint idea that personal achievement and devoted motherhood are fundamentally incompatible is being replaced by the notion that the practice of child-rearing endows mothers with valuable leadership skills. And as recent reports of tensions between parents and childless adults over who has the right to patronize local hang outs suggest, the present generation of mothers is unwilling to surrender the cultural and public visibility they enjoyed in their pre-maternal lives simply because they happen to have small (and sometimes irritable or disruptive) children in tow.

This is all for the good, but satisfying the urge to sip lattes in the trend-setting establishment of one's choice -- or seizing a few guilt-free hours for pampering or socializing sans kids -- can still leave mothers feeling like there must be more to life. As Daphne de Marneffe and feminist writers as diverse as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan and Faulkner Fox have suggested, the missing link of maternal fulfillment might just be a robust sense of self. Writing from her perspective as a clinical psychologist, de Marneffe argues that rather than cutting women off from their potential for authentic self-expression, navigating the emotional contradictions of motherhood can promote individual growth and development. A key part of this process, she believes, is understanding the nature and power of our desire to be with our children and the pleasure we take in caring for them as "a positive aspect of the self." Maternal desire, she writes, "is not only the desire to have children, but also to care for them. It is not the duty to mother, or the compulsion to mother, or the concession to mothering when other options are not available. It is not the acquiescence to prescribed roles as the result of brainwashing. It is the longing felt by a mother to nurture her children; the wish to participate in their mutual relationship; and the choice, insofar as it is possible, to put her desire into practice."

Maternal Desire is not a blanket recommendation of motherhood as the one true path to female self-knowledge, or a prescription for a specific parenting style or work-life arrangement -- de Marneffe stresses that mothers experience and act on maternal desire differently, and that fathers long for intimate connection with their children, too. The premise of Maternal Desire is that love is a good thing, and understanding motherhood as a complex and changeable relationship rather than a self-effacing social role can improve the quality of women's lives.

Despite women's strides toward equality, we still live in a culture where women need to remind themselves and others that -- as one mother recently remarked on an online message board --"Being a mom doesn't mean you stop existing." Which is where the mothers' revolution can make a difference, because I'm convinced that once we emancipate motherhood from the conventional myths of maternal instinct, maternal bliss and maternal omnipotence, the psychological process of becoming a mother has the potential to expand women's self-concept in powerful and unanticipated ways. And as Daphne de Marneffe writes, acknowledging and honoring our experience of maternal desire may be central that transformative process.

The MMO recently interviewed Daphne de Marneffe.

MMO: Has your thinking about the nature of maternal pleasure and desire evolved since "Maternal Desire" was first published?

Daphne de Marneffe: Yes, mostly in relation to what I see in my clinical work as a psychologist. Partly in response to my critics, some of whom felt they detected a whiff of self-absorption in the celebration of maternal pleasures, I became sensitized to situations in which what looked like maternal devotion from one perspective, appeared excessive and problematic from another. In particular, I began to think about clinical cases where an absorption in mothering served other psychological purposes, such as trying to repair a damaged sense of self, as a defense against intimacy with a partner, or as a defense against awareness of loss.

I began to ask myself, What is the relationship of narcissism and object love -- or in plain language, self-love and love of the other -- in "maternal desire"? And as a couple therapist, I have become very interested in how absorption in children and their care influence and come to structure how a mother thinks about her relationship with a partner. We live in a culture that devalues mothers, yes, but we also live in a culture that vaunts a certain ideal of mother-with-child self-sufficiency, most obviously emblematized by movie stars and ad campaigns, but permeating the culture in other more subtle ways. For some young women, the idea of having and loving a baby is far less conflicted than the idea of forging a workable, loving relationship with a partner.

MMO: In the last six months, at least two controversial books -- Caitlin Flanagan's "To Hell With All That" and Linda Hirshman's "Get To Work" -- have skimmed the issue of maternal desire. Flanagan suggests women's aversion to traditional domesticity detracts from the quality of men's and children's lives (yet admits her own ambivalence about homemaking and hands-on child care), while Hirshman's notoriously blunt analysis of child rearing as a waste of well-educated women's time and talents seems almost antithetical to the proposition that the process of caring for and about children can contribute to women's self-actualization. What was your reaction to these books and the media attention the authors received?

Daphne de Marneffe: I can't relate to Hirshman's thesis at all, and don't know anyone personally who can. I haven't read Flanagan's book, although I have read many of the articles on which it was based. I think she's a wonderful stylist. My second hand impression of the book is that her perspective so closely hews to her own personal psychology and circumstances, that it is hard to apply it constructively to the lives of most mothers. In terms of the media attention, incendiary ideas sell books, and it’s always tempting as an author to make sweeping, provocative claims with the hope of attracting a wider audience.

MMO: Interest in the issue of men, work and family seems to be growing as younger workers express a reluctance to prioritize work over creating rich and rewarding personal lives. Do you sense that the public discussion about fathers' attachment to family and desire to care for their children is also taking a new direction?

Daphne de Marneffe: I hope so. I feel that the specific and necessary role of fathers, to daughters and sons, is given short shrift in our culture, possibly due in part to high rates of divorce and to political sensitivities about normative models of the nuclear family. And I think the more individual men fight the tide on that, and the more public awareness and discussion we have about it, the better. One thing I've observed in the professional organizations I'm a part of, is that people's willingness to run committees, spend their evenings at meetings, etc. has diminished as people -- men and women --have become less abashed about saying "my family comes first." I do worry a bit about how this priority -- which I completely endorse! -- clashes with the need for people to serve larger causes. It's a tricky thing, because to my mind many of the world's ills would be significantly ameliorated by closer bonds and relationships, and putting time and emotion into those is the best use of one's energy. At the same time, doing some good for those outside one's inner circle often requires sacrificing that. I guess it comes down, as most of these things do, to balance.

I also am very glad that we live at a time where gender roles are less rigid, and couples can work out between themselves who is more suited to working more and who is more suited to caring for children more. I think the culture is getting close to generally accepting that paradigm shift. As a psychologist, however, I am also attuned to individual situations. In some couples, the woman is the professional go-getter and the man loves taking care of the kids, and it works quite well. At the same time they may be having difficulty because the woman wants to be less "Type A" and feels a lot of pain at how much she misses the kids, and yet the system they've developed for taking care of the families needs doesn't really allow for that. So while we are luckily moving away from gender stereotypes, we also have to move away from the model of the "ideal worker" (Joan Williams's term) so that neither parent is deprived of contact with their children.

MMO: From the sheer number of introspective and provocative blogs, web sites and books on motherhood which have surfaced in the last few years, it seems we've reached a pivotal point for mothers who are trying articulate the complexity of maternal experience in way that feels personally authentic. Unfortunately, in popular culture this work-in-progress tends to gets flattened into lifestyle advice for "the woman inside the mother" and championing the value of "me time." If we lived in an ideally caring society -- meaning, in a society where caregiving is recognized and supported as a primary human activity, rather than marginalized as "women's work" -- how do you imagine it would change the way mothers think and talk about motherhood and mothering?

Daphne de Marneffe: The purpose of my book was to foreground the mother's experience of relatedness to her child. My essential point was that too often in discussions of motherhood, a woman's self-assertion and her care for others have been artificially placed in opposition. This doesn't capture the way that mothering puts women in a different subjective position, in that caring for their child and meeting the child's needs and desires often comes to be experienced as a way of meeting their own desire. Connecting to their child is often felt to be a way of connecting to themselves. This aspect of maternal experience should inform how we view the maternal self. In other words, it is important not to limit our discussion of a mother's sense of self to those things she wants for herself apart from her baby. What she wants with and for her baby is integral to what she wants for herself. In some ways this is not a simple idea, because we are so used to either/or thinking: Either it's for the baby or it's for the mother. Both culturally and psychologically, it is so hard for us to stay in the realm of relatedness, to hold in tension the reality of two whole people, in a relationship. Recasting stay at home motherhood or caring for kids as "me time" treats it as narcissistic exercise rather than a relational practice. It ignores or dismisses the ways that relating to an individual child has the capacity to change the mother, and vice versa.

More and more people are trying to express truths about these changes, and to think about their implications for women, men, feminism, society. I think part of working toward society "where caregiving is recognized and supported as a primary human activity, rather than marginalized as 'women's work'" is understanding in a larger way how caring for others is caring for the self. Maternal desire is not about turning children into accessories to our narcissism, but about connecting us to what really matters, to our own deepest human desires and values, as a wellspring for caring action -- toward our own children, but also toward the larger world.

MMO: Are you planning any future writing projects related to motherhood and maternal desire?

Daphne de Marneffe: I've become very interested in the question, How does the sense of meaning and purpose in caring for small children change as they grow up and the mother grows older? It relates to a broader question of how "midlife crises" are thought about, for men and women. I was intrigued last year when spate of "women at midlife" books came out, by Gail Sheehy and Sue Shellenbarger among others, giving midlife the expectably upbeat slant of "women finding themselves and not settling for less." Sheehy brightly declared that embracing one's passion at midlife need not require breaking up one's marriage, although quite often it does. In this familiar American inspirational genre, accepting limits is the same as shrinking from challenge. I think the necessity of mourning inevitable loss, and working with the deflations inherent in this phase of life, are insufficiently acknowledged, and in popular culture, actively avoided.

In some sense this is a continuation of my interest in human relatedness, its pleasures and its disappointments, and the development of healthy human personality -- a mother's, a child's, or anyone else's.

mmo : october 2006

Also on MMO:

Getting to the heart of the matter
MMO review of Maternal Desire: On Children, Love, and the Inner Life

By Daphne de Marneffe

Beyond the motherhood mystique:
An interview with Angela Barron McBride,
author of "The Growth and Development of Mothers" (1973)

"Because becoming a mother is such a profound experience, the role regularly brings to the fore a host of emotions and unresolved ambiguities. In confronting this assortment of thoughts and feelings, one moves away from the simplicities of 'they lived happily after' to the hard-won maturity of dealing with difficulties as best you can."

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