The Editors

Good-Enough Mothers

ISSUE 48 | DEAR MOM | JAN 2015

“Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; but thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”
—Genesis 3:16

I then decided to put aside my best garments, fine food, and fancy headdress. But this was still a very shameful and burdensome thing for me to do, for at this point I was not feeling any love. During this period I was still living with my husband, and it was bitter for me to put up with all the slanders and injustices leveled against me. Nonetheless I bore these as patiently as I could. Moreover, it came to pass, God so willing, that at that time my mother, who had been a great obstacle to me, died. In like manner my husband died, as did all my sons in a short space of time. Because I had already entered the aforesaid way, and had prayed to God for their death, I felt a great consolation when it happened. I thought that since God had conceded me this aforesaid favor, my heart would always be within God's heart, and God's heart always within mine.
—St. Angela of Forigna, Memorial


The mother has been both over- and under- appreciated by the husbands and children of western civilization for a very long time. Take this disturbing parable of mother-love — the giving tree. A tree is kind and supportive to a young child, who also loves it, or seems to. But when he forgets about Puff the magic dragon he also forgets about her, and goes off into the World (where your mother never is). Later, he needs her again, and so, progressively strips her of her resources until she is nothing but a stump, which he sits on. A touching display of tenderness at the culmination of a beautiful sacrifice, right?

And that's what we expect of our mothers— Erich Fromm, to take one example, characterized mother-love as natural and unconditional, as dependable as soil. They just give and give, and all we can do is take and take. We both need the idea and find it faintly disgusting.

Mother-love is the walled Paradise we need to escape lest we remain forever, humiliatingly, children--and so, although constantly idealized, it is also fraught with contradictory anxieties: that the mother may love too little, leaving her child with an empty space where the heart of his nostalgia should be, and that the mother may love too much, trapping her child in a claustrophobic womb. For this reason mother-love, although supposed to be the most instinctive and natural of human affections, has produced an industry of well-meaning advice from qualified experts. In the 1960s, psychoanalysts instructed mothers not to be too cloying and touchy with their sons, lest those sons turn into effeminate homosexuals; fifty years later, the exponents of “attachment parenting” recommend that mothers wear their babies on their backs as much of the time as possible lest they become miserable psychopaths for lack of constant affection. Meanwhile legions of opinionators worry that “helicopter parents” (let's face it: mothers) are destroying their children's chance at independence. A quick glance through a mothering community board will convince you that both imperatives are alive and well in the anxieties of young mothers: love too little and your child will die of cold, love too much and she'll never grow up. In either case, she'll be irreparably damaged, because the most beautiful, simple and “natural” relationship in a “normal” person's life will have been fucked up for her by her irresponsible controlling and/or distant harpy of a mother.

Are we to call for “balance” here--just enough affection, but not too much? That would be idle: we face a contradiction. The relationship between mother and child is supposed to be eternal, and it is also supposed to end.

There's something in mother-love that's always simultaneously excessive and deficient. Like, there's the smothering mother, and there's the frigid mother, but which one is the “mother” in Psycho? She's both, right? Maybe mother-love is just doomed to be excessive on one axis and deficient on the other—she's omnipresent and she used to wipe your ass (excessive), but you can't sleep with her and have to leave her anyway (deficient).

This contradiction echoes another fundamental contradiction. Femininity-in-the-age-of-feminism is wholly constituted by the contradiction between production and reproduction--i.e. capitalism needs workers to produce (for compensation) and to reproduce (themselves as the source of value--reproduction here meaning not just having children but all the things you need to do every day to reproduce yourself as a worker, sleeping, eating, washing, etc.). This is a contradiction because capital always wants more of both, and there are only so many hours in a day. And Woman--more specifically, the mother--is the figure of this contradiction embodied. So absent this contradiction (“after the revolution”) femininity would simply disappear without a trace.

The question of whether women can “have it all” is, like, the question “can women be exploited by both their husbands and their bosses, or do they have to pick one person to be primarily exploited by?” Shulamith Firestone said that the feminist revolution wouldn't come until all babies were gestated in vitro and raised communally.

The mother. The mother is seeking her freedom. The mother is ready to be known as an adult by an adult. The mother knows how much death is produced by her womb and does not pretend life is nature. If you think you have overcome this, when was the last time you expected your mother to call at your bidding, to loan you money or to just help you for nothing? When was the last time you treated your mother in a way you would never treat anybody else?

Sometimes your mother is sort of a silly person. Not a mass murderer, not abusive, not even frigid or ungiving--just a run-of-the-mill delusional adult, whom we cannot forgive her foolishness and vanity. Who has ever forgiven a woman for growing older, anyway? And who has ever forgiven an older woman for her childishness and neediness? Our mothers at sixty, sixty-five, seventy still yearn for True Love, for some man to appear from nowhere and Truly Cherish them. The chorus is familiar: Twenty-five years caring for you; now it's my turn. And we want it to be her turn, but we also want to keep our hands clean of the off-putting stuff that might be our mothers' real inner life. For women, there is a real fear surrounding the mother: she is what you will be.

What can we do to save motherhood? Haha. No but, A) have relationships with women your mother's age who aren't her. Find out what they care about and how they spend their time. B) Don't call your mother. At least until you are not motivated by anxiety and guilt. C) Introduce her to your friends. D) Live like fellow veterans living together in peacetime. Your past is your past, but now you’re just swinging canes around at each other, sometimes playfully, sometimes not.

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