Ch. 4 A Sociological and Psychoanalytic View

Chapter 4 of Motherhood Mythology

by Glenys Livingstone

This permeating mythos of the Mother in Western European culture is certainly not preferable for those who must be Her.

My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience … sometimes I seem to myself, in my feelings towards these tiny guiltless beings, a monster of selfishness and intolerance. Their voices wear away at my nerves, their constant needs, above all their need for simplicity and patience, fill me with despair at my own failures, despair too at my fate, which is to serve a function for which I am not fitted. And I am weak sometimes from held-in rage. There are times when I feel only death will free us from one another…[i]

Rich, like most other mothers, assumed that a “natural” mother was a person without further identity, who could be gratified to spend all day with small children, “living at a pace tuned to theirs”; that there was nothing else but for mothers and children to be isolated together in the home; that maternal love is, and should be, quite literally selfless; that children and mothers are the ‘causes’ of each other’s suffering. She writes of being hunted by the stereotype of the mother who loved her children all the time, of the inequality of balancing her needs against those of a child … “and always losing.”[ii] She writes:

I remember being uprooted from already meagre sleep to answer a childish nightmare, pull up a blanket, warm a consoling bottle, lead a half asleep child to the toilet. I remember going back to bed starkly awake, brittle with anger, knowing that my broken sleep would make next day a hell … because … I would rage at those children for no reason they could understand. I remember thinking I would never dream again.[iii]

She notes that in the snapshots of the first decade of her children’s lives, the young woman gradually stops smiling, “wears a distant, half-melancholy look, as if she were listening for something.”[iv]

As she writes the book Of Woman Born she realises it all might have been different, i.e. tolerable for her-Self to have coexisted with the Mother, and she grieves at the waste of herself in those years, and rages “at the mutilation and manipulation of the relationship between mother and child …”[v]

The mothers of this century, in white Western culture, have been carrying the still heavy weight of the ideal of Victorian motherhood which, it could be said, was the epitome of the evolving maternal image in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Bernard presents some of the paeans written to her:

Mother … is a synonym of all that is good. It is a balm for every wound. It is the life of the young, the guiding star of manhood, the joy of old age… [vi]

A mother’s calm strength, her sense of humour in the small tragedies, her courage, her justice, her loving service to each family member – these are the things that build a home … the mother who is truly the heart of the home has achieved that selflessness which enables her to rise to the need of each member of the family… [vii]

(She) … who is adored for her sweetness and gentleness and purity of life and character … whom we glorify for her steadfastness and sublimity of faith which more nearly approaches the divine than anything else we know in life … her face abeam with joy the world cannot give nor take away.[viii]

And ultimately, there is the story of the young man who killed his mother and tore out her heart for his loved one, back to whom he races, tripping and causing the heart of his mother to fall on the ground.

And it spoke, in accents mild:

‘Did you hurt yourself, my child?[ix]

Whereas before, woman had been kept from the “real world” of men and public affairs by being denigrated as “the devil’s gateway” and what-have-we, she is now, as idealised woman in the home … mother … kept out because she is “too pure” … “to step out of her moral shrine to work or to vote, to attend universities with men, and mingle with them in the forums of power is to sully her virtue…”[x] Reuther says that this religious veneration in Victorian society must be seen in the context of escape and compensation for the threats posed to religiosity, spirituality, emotionality and intimacy, by the industrial revolution.[xi] The fierce world of industrial competition was more than ever creating a need for a mother to suck up to, who would make all the wrongs right, “supply the healing balm to victors as well as the victims”[xii] … maintain a sanctuary.

And what were women getting out of it – this new overlay of value on their maternal role? What they were getting in part, was the consolation prize for becoming non-productive members of the society. Previous to industrialization, woman’s worker role and mother role were “all of a piece” – where the paid role ended and the non-paid started was not clear.[xiii] But in the industrial society women had lost their “cottage industries to the outside world – to be producers they now had to leave their homes, which many working class women were obliged to do. For the first time ever, motherhood was becoming a career in itself. “The Science of Motherhood” was being invented, educated motherhood was being given the status of a profession.[xiv] Harrison spoke of it as woman’s highest endeavour –“it demands of her that she become a physician, an artist, a teacher, a poet, a philosopher, a priest.”[xv] And childhood was being extended too. But there are indications that even back then, one hundred years ago, middle-class women were not satisfied with their confinement to the motherhood pedestal. Newtown records in 1881, women who “once dreamed of great things”, “and who sighed” sadly in the thought of nursery bondage, “who fretted under the burdens of motherhood, who threw off from them in every way possible their divinely inspired charge” in order to “escape from the home to society, to find for themselves pleasure, or to make for themselves work other than that providentially ordered” – (and unpaid).[xvi] In 1879, Ibsen’s Nora no longer believed that before all else she was a wife and mother –she says to her husband, “I believe that before all else I am a human being, just as much as you are – or at least that I should try to become one.”[xvii]

While these affluent women protested the doll’s house, the poor women were protesting the underside of the middle class motherhood myth –the having of too many children, with too little money, and too little care for themselves. The letters from working class women collected by the Women’s Co-operative Guild early this century, testify to their nigh intolerable existences.[xviii] They write: “For twenty years I was nursing or expecting babies … I could fill sheets of paper with what I have gone through …”[xix]; “In my early motherhood I took for granted that women had to suffer at these times, and it was best to be brave and not make a fuss”[xx]; “I could forgive a woman… giving herself and the children a drug which would end everything. I was an invalid for six years through getting about too soon…”[xxi] Out of 386 women, 346 had 1.396 live children, 83 still births, and 218 miscarriages.[xxii]

In 1903 Charlotte Perkins Gilman published The Home, a piercingly honest treatment of what she would have called the senseless dewy-eyed emotion around the whole topic at the time. “Our eyes grow most with emotion as we speak of our mothers –our own mothers- and what they have done for us. Our voices thrill and tremble with pathos and veneration as we speak of ‘the mothers of great men’. – Who, in the name of all common sense, raises our huge and growing crop of idiots, imbeciles, cripples, defectives, and degenerates, the vicious and the criminal … ?”[xxiii]

She protests that if all human mothers inherently had the power to rightly care for their children, as the society piously believed at the time, then they would – but she illustrates in her book that it doesn’t seem that they do. She spoke out strongly against the isolation of mothers from normal human contact, and against the idea that it served any useful purpose, let alone deserving adoration. In her book Herland, she developed her idea of a utopia, wherein she “transforms the private world of mother-child, isolated in the individual home, into a community of mothers and children in a socialised world.”[xxiv]

In 1899, Kate Chopin published her novel, The Awakening, about a Mrs. Pontellier who “was not a mother-woman” for mother-women “were women who idolised their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves ad individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.”[xxv] She realised “she would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for anyone.”[xxvi] “She began to do as she liked and to feel as she liked”[xxvii] and “she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested.”[xxviii] Though she loved her children, and after visiting with them on one occasion, “their presence lingered with her like the memory of a delicious song”[xxix], “they need not have thought that they could possess her, body and soul.”[xxx] She in the end eluded them by committing suicide.

More recently, women have written again of “the mother knot,”[xxxi] realising that most have still believed the “lie that if a woman is really a woman, she will bear (and rear) children gracefully”.[xxxii] Lazarre writes of the sting of the loss of her selfhood,[xxxiii] how she one morning threw her books all over the house, “destroying them, tearing them. Then I threw James’ books all over, hating him for still being involved in his work, … for forgetting to put the dirty diapers out that morning … for having become a parent and still having remained – in the eyes of the world and himself –a person too.”[xxxiv]

Tillie Olsen has written of the vulnerability of the mother-artist to loss and diminishment since “motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, responsible”[xxxv] , of the angel who “has dwelt in the house of men” making possible their creativity, productivity.[xxxvi] G.B Stewart pleads from the daughter’s and the mother’s point of view “for a release from ‘mothering’ that devours instead of nourishes.”[xxxvii] Paul Olsen speaks from the son’s point of view of the difficulty of disentangling himself from the powerful mother figure, of seeing his mother as a woman unto herself and “making his life his own.”[xxxviii]

Then there was Alta, who made “a start on all the untold stories,”[xxxix] for whom history seemed “so much simpler,”[xl] who wised she could “avoid the real story… maybe I don’t have to say how I have mistreated my children, how I love them, how I need them as much as privacy, how I have felt trapped for so many years, like nearly all mothers… maybe all mothers forever, since the false history of the world began.”[xli] She notes that child beating is the number 1 killer of children “in the good old u. s. of a.,”[xlii] and writes of walking:

… past those houses

& hear the

mothers striking the


(i am one of those



                                               the children)[xliii]

She asks “why must i be a watchdog for 24 hours?”[xliv]

Bernard speaks of how “our way of institutionalising motherhood breeds guilt into the very fabric of a woman’s character … and the only way some can assuage their guild is by constant dedication to the child: they permit themselves not one moment away from it”.[xlv] She notes that a growing number of less articulate women are making their case against our style of motherhood by “voting with their feet,” i.e. they are running away.[xlvi]

Penelope Washbourn makes a case of how the motherhood myth “causes a woman to be unable to relate to her genuine rightful destructive feelings”[xlvii]; prevents her from coming to terms with her own problems and possibilities[xlviii]; of how the motherhood mystique “represents a false understanding of personal power and pride”[xlix]; and that “too much that is given the name maternal love reflects the needs of the woman as she seeks to find meaning for herself through the child”. Wahsbourn warns that she will expect a return, she will demand repayment in the form of affection, dependence, worship –by the man (if there is one), as well as the children.

Finally, I would like to add to the evidence the profound insights of two psychoanalysts, Dorothy Dinnerstein and Nancy Chodorow, who have both recognised that “motherhood is the great mesh in which all human relations are entangled, in which lurk our most elemental assumptions about love and power.”[l]

Dorothy Dinnerstein argues in The Mermaid and the Minotaur that the arrangement of female-dominated childcare has “always been a major source of human pain, fear and hate … (causing) … a sense of deep strain between women and men.”[li] She calls the prevailing symbiosis between women and men a neurotic device for coping “with massive psychological problems that lie at the heart of our species’ situation.”[lii] She calls attention to the fact that it is a woman who provides almost every living person with their main initial contact with humanity and with nature, thus inevitably deeply associating her with the pain of life and the fear of death.[liii] To put these things away, society need only put Her away –leave Her/her far behind in the nursery with all the other “baby” things such as tenderness and care, aspire to the sanctuary of the father’s world beyond, never to be dominated by woman again.[liv] She points to “motherhood” as the reliable source of childish men, unsure of their grasp on life’s primitive realities and childish women unsure of their right to full worldly adult status[lv] – resulting in an emotional interdependence of male and female who are quasi-adults, letting the fate of our species slip through their fingers: the males – who make public policy – through inadequate emotional contact with survival-essential considerations; and the females –who have better contact with these considerations – through inadequate authority to make public policy.”[lvi] She illustrates how women and men collaborate “to keep history mad”[lvii] – she, by embodying a naiveté, a passion for life, an intuition which they both believe keeps the world partly sane, and he by believing it necessary to go on making the kind of history he makes, she says we must stop playing “lethal charades” and “contain … our central ambivalence toward what we are … inside each individual human skin,”[lviii] where it belongs. Each must take the risk of entering into the heretofore proscribed world of the other.

Nancy Chodorow seemingly develops on Dinnerstein’s work with a precise, close-up look at the actual mothering situation. Her interest is more specifically the “relational capacities and sense of self” of women and men, how this is affected by the fact that women mother, and goes to reproduce mothering as we know it.[lix] Chodorow claims that “the constitution of different forms of ‘relational potential’ in people of different genders” is the main importance of the Oedipus complex.[lx] She goes on to articulate the female and the male resolutions of their particular oedipal conflicts. She says that mothers tend to experience a continuity with their daughters, who are more like themselves, thus girls tend to remain part of the primary dyadic mother-child relationship for longer. Boys, on the other hand, who are experienced by their women-mothers as opposite, are often pushed out of the preoedipal relationship and have to “engage in amore emphatic individuation and a more defensive forming of experienced ego boundaries.”[lxi] Thus girls, who have less need to deny preoedipal relational modes, emerge with a stronger basis for empathy, and “come to experience themselves as less differentiated than boys, as more continuous [lxii] with and related to the external object world.” Because women mother, girls develop the capacities for participating in parent-child relationships and further, because a girl originally establishes relation to a man in a triangle (mother, father and herself), she as a woman in relation to a man “requires on the level of psychic structure a third person,”[lxiii] that is, she comes “to want and need primary relationships to children … which men tend not to provide both because of their place in women’s oedipal constellation (remote fathers) and because of their difficulties with intimacy.”[lxiv] But, Chodorow notes that there “very capacities and needs which create women as mothers create potential contradictions in mothering”[lxv] – are “precisely those which can make mothering problematic.”[lxvi] What is the mother’s sense of continuity with her infant may become too much connection, resulting in difficulty for the children to develop a sense of autonomous self and leading to the mother’s loss of sense of self. That children become the third person in the relational triangle means mothering “invested with a mother’s often conflictual, ambivalent, yet powerful need for her own mother,” and it means an expectation from infants and children “to fulfil a mother’s emotional and even erotic desires un-met by men or other women …”[lxvii] This results in defensiveness (of ego boundaries) and repression (of emotional needs) in sons, and insufficient individuation in daughters. In sum, Chodorow says that women’s mothering:

Produces socially gendered women and men who enter into asymmetrical heterosexual relationships; it produces men who react to, fear, and act superior to women, and who put most of their energies into the non-familial work world and do not parent … it produces women who turn their energies toward nurturing and caring for children … in turn reproducing the sexual and familial division of labour in which women mother … (Women) thus contribute to the perpetuation of their own social roles and position in the hierarchy of gender.[lxviii]

(c) Glenys Livingstone 1984


[i] Rich, Of Woman Born, p. 1 –entry from her journal.

[ii] Ibid., p. 3.

[iii] Ibid., pp 12-13.

[iv] Ibid., p. 13.

[v] Ibid., p. 14.

[vi] Jessie Bernard, Future of Motherhood, p. 5, quoting Edgar J/ Schmeideler, O.S.B., ‘Blessed Art Though Among Women,’ in The Mother, the Heart of the Home. Ed. Edgar J. Schmeideler, O.S.B. (St. Meionrad, Ind.: A Grail Publication, 1955) p. 1.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Jessie Bernard, Future of Motherhood, pp. 5-6 quoting Junious Moreland Martin, Mother, Heart Songs in Prose and Verse (Salem, Iowa: Published by the Author, 1932) p. 1.

[ix] Ibid., p. 4. Quoting Jean Richepin, translated from Severed Heart by j Echegaray, a Spanish poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1904.

[x] Rosemary Radford Reuther, ‘Home and Work: Women’s Roles and the Transformation of Values,’ in Women: New Dimensions. Ed. Walter Burkhardt, S.J. , p. 76.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Bernard, Future of Motherhood, p. 11.

[xiii] Ibid., p 111.

[xiv] Sheila M. Rothman, Woman’s Proper Place, p. 103.

[xv] Ibid., quoting Elizabeth Harrison, a Study of Child Nature for the Kindergarten Standpoint (Chicago, 1895), p. 10. Rothman later suggests (p. 107) that this ideology became one way of justifying college training for women, though the National Congress of Mothers declared “the higher branches of book learning” t be secondary to a young woman’s education for motherhood (p. 106).

[xvi] R. Helen Newton, Womanhood (Putmans, 1881), p. 123, cited by Bernard, Future of Motherhood, p. 13.

[xvii] Bernard, Future of Motherhood, p. 13.

[xviii] See Margaret Llewellyn Davies, ed. Maternity: Letters From Working Women (New York: Norton, 1978).

[xix] Ibid., p. 19.

[xx] Ibid., p. 33.

[xxi] Ibid., p. 35.

[xxii] Ibid. P. 9.

[xxiii] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Home, p. 58.

[xxiv] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland p. xxiii.

[xxv] Kate Chopin, The Awakening (New York: Avon Books, 1972), p. 16.

[xxvi] Ibid., p. 79.

[xxvii] Ibid., p. 95.

[xxviii] Ibid., p. 97.

[xxix] Ibid., p. 158.

[xxx] Ibid., p. 190.

[xxxi] Jane Lazarre’s term, The Mother Knot.

[xxxii] Ibid., p. 44. Brackets mine.

[xxxiii] Ibid., p. 34.

[xxxiv] Ibid., p. 83-84.

[xxxv] Tillie Olson, Silences, p. 33.

[xxxvi] Ibid., p. 34.

[xxxvii] G.B. Stewart, ‘Mother Daughter and the Birth of the Female Artist,’ in Women’s Studies 6, No. 2, P. 143.

[xxxviii] Paul Olsen, Sons and Mothers: Why Men Behave as They Do (New York: M. Evans & Co., Inc., 1981), p. 14.

[xxxix] Alta, Momma: a start on all the untold stories, (New York: Times Change Press, 1974).

[xl] Ibid., p. 6.

[xli] Ibid., p. 10.

[xlii] Ibid., p. 41. And “what provokes child beating? An incredible sense of aloneness, worthlessness, and … desire for the child to take care of the unheeded needs of the attacker’s own yesterdays.” See David Gill, Violence Against Children, Physical Child Abuse in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 33, cited by Bernard, Future of Motherhood, p. 87.

[xliii] Ibid., p. 54.

[xliv] Ibid., p. 75.

[xlv] Bernard, Future of Motherhood, p.79.

[xlvi] Ibid., p. 84.

[xlvii] Washbourn, Becoming Woman, p. 118.

[xlviii] Ibid.

[xlix] Ibid., p. 120.

[l] Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets and Silences, p. 260.

[li] Dinnerstein, Mermaid and Minotaur, p. 5.

[lii] Ibid., p. 7.

[liii] Ibid., p. 34.

[liv] Ibid., p. 176. She notes on p. 197 that instead of running from one tyrant to another of a new gender we need to face and outgrow our original dependency … “put tyranny in its place instead of trying to keep woman in hers.”’

[lv]Ibid., p. 81.

[lvi] Ibid., p. 82. She notes the film Dr Strangelove as a “major, comically chilling, contemporary depiction of the male incapacity”.

[lvii] Ibid., p. 221-227.

[lviii] Ibid., p. 228

[lix] Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering.

[lx] Ibid., p. 166. She says the main importance of the Oedipus complex is not “primarily in the development of gender identity and socially appropriate heterosexual genitality”.

[lxi] Ibid., pp. 166-167.

[lxii] Ibid., p. 167.

[lxiii] Ibid., p. 201. Chodorow notes that a man’s relation to women does not require this. “His relation to his mother was originally established first as an identity, then as a dual unity, then as a two-person relationship, before his father ever entered the picture.”

[lxiv] Ibid., p. 203. Brackets mine.

“Most women emerge from their Oedipus complex oriented to their father and men as primary erotic objects, but it is clear that men tend to remain emotionally secondary, or at most emotionally equal, compared to the primacy and exclusivity of an oedipal boy’s emotional tie to his mother and women.” Chodorow says that because women experience heterosexual relationships in a triangular context, men tend not to be exclusive objects for them – and this is “confirmed by cross-cultural examination of family structure and relations between the sexes, which suggests that conjugal closeness is the exception and not the rule.”

[lxv] Ibid., p. 211.

[lxvi] Ibid., p. 205.

[lxvii] Ibid., p. 212.

[lxviii] Ibid., p. 209.

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