Questioning the Quantified Life   /   Summer 2020   /    Essays

Tell Me About Your Mother

or: You Should Come Twice a Week

Claire Jarvis

Mother and Child (detail), 1923, by Fritz Burmann (1892–1945), private collection/© Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images.

Curio · The Hedgehog Review | Tell Me About Your Mother


Melanie Klein’s work in psychoanalysis was precipitated by the sudden death of her mother in 1914, a few months after the birth of Klein’s third, and last, child. The shock of losing her mother led her to undergo analysis, which in turn led to her initial forays into clinical observation. Five years later, in 1919, she began analyzing children—casually at first, observing her own daughter and two sons as they played, and then more formally, using play as a pathway into the child’s struggles, into the child’s mind.

Today regarded as central to psychoanalysis’s theorization of early childhood, Melanie Klein (1882–1960) was married at twenty-one, had her first child at twenty-two, and her last at thirty-two. She didn’t start her life’s other work until she was nearly forty and her life neatly separated into two thick halves. The first half was dominated by thwarted ambitions, an unhappy marriage, child rearing; the second, by rapid intellectual gain, divorce, and other peoples’ children.

Klein’s matter-of-factness stands out in her essays. She is clear-sighted about children’s behaviors and motivations, illuminating, especially, on their earliest activities—eating, defecating. But there is a strange haze around the figure of the mother, particularly around her responsibilities and experiences. Klein is, for instance, an evangelist on behalf of breastfeeding, seeing it as a key source of stability as the child grows:

A really happy relationship between mother and child can be established only when nursing and feeding the baby is not a matter of duty but a real pleasure to the mother. If she can enjoy it thoroughly, her pleasure will be unconsciously realized by the child, and this reciprocal happiness will lead to a full emotional understanding between mother and child.11xMelanie Klein, Love, Guilt, and Reparation and Other Works 1921–1945 (London, England: Hogarth Press, 1975), 300.

The mother must not simply complete the task, she must enjoy it. More than that, she must “enjoy it thoroughly,” because her baby will sense her pleasure and feel comforted and secure. But of course, nursing is not always a pleasure. Sometimes the baby wants to nurse at inopportune times, or is distracted, or bites. How does any woman manage to sublimate herself enough to ignore the disruptions built into any experience that depends on two wills?

Klein continues: “But there is another side to this picture.” Good, this question will be answered. But no: “The mother must realize that the baby is not actually her possession, and that, though he is so small and utterly dependent on her help, he is a separate entity and ought to be treated as an individual human being; she must not tie him too much to herself, but assist him to grow up to independence.”22xIbid. If the mother must remember that she is not the owner of the baby—that he is a separate being from her—the baby never quite manages to reciprocate.

It’s hard to square some of Klein’s prescriptions with the knowledge she possessed, at the time of their writing, as a mother raising three children, though her earliest forays into analysis were her observations of her own offspring. One wonders if Klein herself would have termed herself a “mother.” It is as hard to think about Melanie Klein as a mother as it is to think about oneself as a mother. Because motherhood seems, in almost all psychoanalytic thought, something that happens to someone else on the way to making you a person, it is almost impossible not to identify with the child while reading psychoanalysis. Of course, we all have been children; we aren’t all mothers.

The ideal mother, as countless novelists have known, is a dead one. It’s only when she is no longer living that the mother can function as a creature fully devoted to her child. Anything less than full, obliterating devotion is troubling: If she wasn’t willing to sacrifice everything—her relationship, her sleep, her career, her bodily integrity, her life—she should never have chosen to have a child. Spend a little time wallowing in the comments section of any online article about mothers, and you’ll see this formula. Motherhood is supposed to be all-encompassing and all-transforming. Except that now women are also required to maintain their sense of self—as manifested by their relationships, their bedtime routines, their jobs, their bodies—as a sign that they love their children enough to be good role models, exemplars of having it all. So, obviously: Mom is screwed from the start. She is never devoted enough to her child, never willing to transform herself entirely into her child’s helpmeet. She is also not separable enough—too worried about letting her child go, too occupied with her child’s life to live her own.

Birth Brings No Clarity

Before becoming pregnant, when I read about the experience of “quickening,” I imagined it to be something that happened after four or five months and then stayed the same for the remainder of the pregnancy. The feeling of carrying a child would be a constant little flicker, a tiny candle flame inside my belly, a fairy-like reminder of the important journey upon which I was embarking. Instead, the feeling got stronger, and more pronounced, as I went along. The startling—almost Frankensteinian—realization that you are feeling a foot, or a hand, or a hiccupping back is of a very different order from the gentle washes I had expected. When, in time, it occurs, birth at first extends this collaborative sensation: Both you and the baby are working toward the same goal.

But birth brings no clarity. At a certain moment in childbirth, the body “transitions”: The cervix opens to ten centimeters—the diameter of a small bagel, my midwife helpfully suggested—and the uterus takes over. Here is what happens after transition, if you are lucky: The uterine muscles push the fetus through the birth canal. But babies can get stuck. The pregnant person pushes alongside the uterine muscles for hours and nothing happens. In theory, though, the body—as an animal body—pushes the other person from within its borders. The image of repulsion is a hostile corrective to the image of subsumption. Or, in truth, these are two hostilities: Repulsion is one, absorption the other. My nurses kept telling me to lean into the contractions, something that at first seems to suggest that if you give yourself over, the process will be smoother, less self-destroying. But you lean in because there is no choice: Your muscles, fascia, and skeleton are in charge, despite any illusions you may have otherwise.

What do we look at when we look at a pregnant person? Do we see one person, or two? This conundrum is perhaps made more explicit when we dig into our current moment, in which abortion rights are under attack. Recent philosophical arguments for reimagining pregnancy and reproductive work, such as Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now, pick up a line of thinking fomenting in feminism since at least the 1970s. But while it is easy to imagine the dislocation of a family structure that reinforces capitalism’s hold on daily life, it is perhaps harder to think through the embodied problem of pregnancy and childbirth from a perspective that is critical of patriarchal capitalism. Even more, with clear guidelines on gender transition, women’s bodies aren’t the only ones that can gestate and birth babies. In particular, the involuntariness that defines the experience for anyone who has been pregnant or given birth makes ideas of compensation and reproductive exchange poor solutions for the potential disruption to the self.

One of the nagging problems at the heart of reproductive feminism has to do with the way in which birth—and the process of birth in particular—causes psychic and social dislocations for the people who experience it. The involuntary quality of uterine work—both the process of holding the embryo and the contractions that expel the fetus—creates a conceptual problem for feminism. Unlike that of the vagina and the breast, the uterus’s place in childbearing is indifferent to consent. And also unlike these other symbols of womanhood, the uterus is strangely undertheorized. Psychoanalysis has lots to say about the vagina and the breast, parts of the body with heightened social, sexual, and cultural meaning. Both the vagina and the breast became, in theories as diverse as those of Freud, Krafft-Ebing, and Klein, synedoches for womanhood, especially the double persona of the woman as sexual agent and mother.

In psychoanalysis, the uterus is not the sign of womanhood; nor is it the sign of motherhood, exactly. It’s not really presented as a sign proper in any vein of psychoanalytic thought. It is, of course, there in the root of hysteria, wandering around the body, moaning and complaining. There it is, too, in the way sexology and then psychoanalysis differentiated their models of feminine malaise from earlier renditions. The psychological uterus, after all, stays put: It does not roam about in psychoanalysis. In fact, psychoanalysis shies away from considering it, vastly preferring the formal aspects of the vagina’s conduit from nonlife to life, or the breast’s centrality, the source of all early nourishment, from which the baby is eventually banished, a first kind of loss. The uterus, alternately, has one purpose: to hold a child and then release it from its mother. The uterus is not implicated in a psychosexual drama, and its action, unthinking and animal, carries with it the threat of involuntariness.

The uterus is the dense, irreducible sign of this basic failure in psychoanalysis’s search for symbolic fungibility. While it may not be true for much longer, every person on earth still must come into the world from within a uterus. The uterus asserts itself again and again in the cycle of reproduction: From the uterine cramps felt during a menstrual period, to the agony of contractions, to the wincing pain that accompanies the earliest days of breastfeeding, the uterus is a secret, but potent, reminder of the dumb biology at the core of childbearing.

In A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Freud tell us that

we think it is birth itself which combines that complex of painful feelings, of a discharge of impulses, of physical sensations, which has become the prototype for the effect of danger to life, and is ever after repeated within us as a condition of fear…. The first fear was therefore toxic. The name anxiety—angustial—narrowness, emphasizes the characteristic tightening of the breath, which was at the time a consequence of an actual situation and is henceforth repeated almost regularly in the emotion. We shall also recognize how significant it is that this first condition of fear appeared during the separation from the mother. Of course, we are convinced that the tendency to repetition of the first condition of fear has been so deeply ingrained in the organism through countless generations that not a single individual can escape the emotion of fear; not even the mythical Macduff who was “cut out of his mother’s womb,” and therefore did not experience birth itself.33xSigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis: Part Three: General Theory of the Neuroses. XXV: Fear and Anxiety (New York, NY: Boni and Liveright, 1920), 343.

But here, notice that the person experiencing anxiety is the child. The subject is synonymous with the child; the anxiety that comes with birth comes from entering a narrow tube from which there may be no escape. And Freud makes an exception of the child brought into the world via caesarian section, but not of the mother whose womb—the muscles that should have propelled the new life forward—is cut open. When the choice is between involuntary muscular force and a kind of temporary disembowelment, well, this is not a choice anyone should have to make. But birth, itself, is not a choice. Not really.

Is the Uterus Involuntary?

Uterine contractions, despite what you might have seen on television, are utterly involuntary. The pushing the woman does is above and beyond the pushing her body does on its own. In my second viable pregnancy, I felt discomfited by the strangeness of the uterine world I once again occupied. The uterus expands from its small, bell-shaped stasis to accommodate not only the fetus but also an entire new organ. What is this squat, powerful piece of muscular tissue in our symbolic life? Anything? Nothing? Is the uterus’s involuntariness—the fact that its muscles push us into life despite the will or actions of the body that contains it—the source of our ambivalence about mothers? Do we suspect, at the root, that mothers, because of that involuntariness, don’t want us, or didn’t want us at the very moment of our birth?

The strongest sense-memory from my second birth is a slip of a moment, two-plus days into the process of inducing a recalcitrant baby to join the world. I had been waiting and waiting, and then, suddenly, the contractions began in earnest, and very soon after that, I remember this: I was on my side, gripping the bed with both hands on one handle, twisted onto my left hip, really and truly bellowing. I saw, almost out of the corner of my body (not my eye), the attending doctor and the labor nurse exchange a look, almost mocking, definitely amused, and I knew I was in transition. The process is unlike any other: The line between the voluntary body—I did this, I wanted this, I asked for this, and I continued this once I’d begun—and the involuntary body—the muscle takes over—is hazy, but it is a line. And once you’ve crossed it, the only thing that gets in the way of the birth is mechanical: your skeleton forbidding a movement, your body not opening itself wide enough to let the new life out. I’m not sure what the feeling is that I have when I recall that moment. It’s something adjacent to shame, something like a misfiring, which makes sense because you are—bloodied and nude, writhing—not the person you know yourself to be. But it isn’t shame, exactly. More like a sheepishness, a feeling that you have exposed yourself to strangers, but that you did it necessarily, because you had no choice in the matter. Transition’s involuntariness gives you cover from shame, but it doesn’t mean that you aren’t mortified by the memory of it.

The challenge of recognizing that one’s mother is a body beyond one’s own is a central tenet of Kleinian thought, and that process of maternal recognition is the source of the infant’s most powerful desires, both positive and negative. For Klein, a baby’s earliest “phantasies” are “first of all focused on the breasts of his mother, but gradually extend to her whole body. Greedy, erotic and destructive phantasies have for their object the inside of the mother’s body. In his imagination the child attacks it, robbing it of everything it contains and eating it up.”44xKlein, Love, Guilt, and Reparation, 293.

It’s not clear to me that babies ever really stop doing this. Part of the confusion of a nursing maternity is that, for the first long while, you are both one of the baby’s people—a nurturer and comforter, someone who soothes and holds—and the baby’s food. How can it be any other way when the project of motherhood, to encourage the baby to grow and to delight in his body, and then to delight in the world around him, is also a project in which you become a walking meal? One frustrating thing about weaning a child is the sense that your body’s function has changed, but then changed back. Is there a residual sense of nursing that remains in the body? When that experience—that sensation—is over, how do we, mothers, understand our bodies? You take a body that has been fulfilling two functions and reduce them to one. How can that not be registered as a loss?

As I began writing this, I weaned my second son. Only, I didn’t. I tried, and failed, to separate myself from him fully. I wasn’t ready for the loss that weaning brings. I wasn’t ready—am not ready yet—to turn to new forms of motherhood, away from the involuntariness of the body to something more inchoate, if not more demanding. I failed then because it was easier to keep going. It wasn’t until a few months later that he weaned himself. I didn’t get to make the choice, then, either. Embodiment, for me, has been a fraught space of mothering, one that doesn’t allow for the fullest version of myself. But it has also been a solace from thinking, from managing my life according to a plan. In its involuntariness, in its biological compulsion, it’s been, strangely, something of a relief. Perhaps this is why Klein leaves the mother’s will out of her discussion of weaning. Because perhaps, when she’s first a mother, a woman has none.