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.

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