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‘The literary truth of motherhood is yet to be explored’ – Elena Ferrante, quoted in Jacqueline Rose, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty

In Milton’s Paradise Regained (1671), Mary puzzles over her situation as the mother of Jesus. How can she be called ‘blessed’ when her lot is in reality so cursed? Of what use is the high point of the Annunciation to her now? (‘O what avails me now that honour high, or that salute / “Hail highly favoured, among women blest”’.) There is a mismatch between the image of glorious motherhood given to this Galilean girl, and the painful, paradoxical reality she finds herself confronting, 30 years on. An unexpected ironist, she observes: ‘this is my favoured lot, / My exaltation to afflictions high.’ It’s a minor episode in the poem. But it stays with me because it was the text I was reading in the hospital waiting room before my first-ever pregnancy scan. Again, something was wrong with the image. This time, literally. The baby looked like a spaceman drifting untethered, lost in the immense and silent blackness now – the case hopeless. An astronaut’s greatest fear. My positive pregnancy test-stick was suddenly about as relevant as the Annunciation. A week later, I would be teaching Paradise Regained to my Cambridge undergraduates, pointing out the irony, concealing the irony.

The complexity of motherhood has long been recognised – even in the places you might least expect to find it (Milton’s poetry is often written-off as misogynistic, though some feminist critics embrace it). Mary’s situation, uniquely strange and yet historically foisted on women as exemplary motherhood, could be taken instead as a parable illustrating that it will be different for everyone, every time. Who but Mary, after all, really knew what it was like to mother Jesus? Jacqueline Rose has therefore chosen a very good title for her new book: Mothers, not Motherhood.

But you are about to see the world in monochrome. Again, something is wrong with the image.


Was Philip Larkin unusually even-handed about who fucks us up? Is it rather mothers who are invariably blamed for ‘everything that is wrong with the world’?

This is the extraordinary claim of Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers. And it’s a claim that comes with a health warning: unless we recognise what we are doing to mothers, ‘we will continue to tear both the world and mothers to pieces’.

There is no doubt that Rose draws our attention to important, sometimes intriguing, topics. If it is true that ‘77% of pregnant women and new mothers face discrimination in the workplace compared with 45% a decade ago’, then we need to know it. And if ancient ‘Athenian women uttering obscenities and handling pastry models of genitalia during the winter Haloa festival at Eleusis may have acted as a safety valve’ for their more subversive desires, then I would like to learn more. Or what about this complex ethical and legal question: ‘Can a child sue his mother for what she did, or failed to do, before he was born?’

Rose begins, however, with more familiar territory. Sun and Daily Mail articles on Nigerian mothers’ use of NHS childbirth facilities: ‘One health tourist’s £350,000 bill – and you paid!’ Rose mentions implicit racism here. But her real interest is in using these cases to advance (or rather leap to) her large central claim. Apparently, mothers are the group therefore held responsible for everything – ‘from the funding crisis in the UK NHS to the influx of foreigners on our shores’.

Hold on: isn’t that the government? For Rose, though, ‘The figure of £350,000 must have been carefully chosen since it echoes the £350 million that Brexit campaigners had falsely claimed would, on a weekly basis, revert to the UK from Europe straight into the coffers of the NHS (which makes the broken promise somehow these mothers’ fault).’

Somehow? Rose’s deduction that mothers are being blamed for this broken political campaign promise seems a little tenuous. (Who would have thought it was possible to exaggerate a Daily Mail headline?) Unfortunately, it isn’t a one-off example. In the first part of the book, the cultural analysis is hampered by its own thesis: mothers are always the scapegoat and an anti-maternal stance is everywhere. It’s the world in monochrome, with mothers the inevitably blackened figures. Consider, for example, this fuzzily Freudian speculation:

Perhaps when right-wing politicians screw up their noses at scroungers, asylum seekers and refugees, it is their own vaguely remembered years of utter dependency [on their mothers, as infants] that they are trying, and instructing us, to repudiate. The one who most loudly promotes the ideal of ironclad self-sufficiency must surely have the echo of the baby in the nursery hovering somewhere at the back of his or her – mostly his – head.

Surely? It feels like a bit of a stretch. The very broadness of the claim has a tendency to weaken it, although it may well appeal to those who already feel thus embattled on every front. And it isn’t necessary, of course, to argue that anti-mother feelings are ubiquitous, with mothers allegedly blamed for absolutely everything, in order to write an illuminating book about some things being deeply awry.

Why did the mothers of the so-called Calais jungle children rarely get news coverage? Rose argues that mothers’ pain is depicted only if it fulfils certain conditions: ‘the mother must be noble and her agony redemptive.’ The bleak actuality is unacceptable: ‘As if a mother’s loss, which is so often the hidden face and precondition of these children’s fate, is the truly unbearable torment, too glaring a testimony to the cruelty of the modern world, and therefore impossible to contemplate (some of these mothers will have died).’ That parenthetical, more pragmatic explanation is disconcertingly bathetic. A tragic fact awkwardly refusing to fit Rose’s eager overarching theory: that mothers are either reviled or ignored, too much i’ the Sun (to misquote Hamlet) or too little. She praises Colm Tóibín’s novella The Testament of Mary (2012) for having ‘Mary flee in horror at the sight of her crucified son, which makes the Pietà image, the mother holding and cherishing the dying Christ’s body – which is meant somehow to make it all okay – a complete lie’. In fact, maternal ambivalence (as psychologists like to call it) is already established in the artistic tradition. Two Renaissance paintings – Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin and Tintoretto’s The Crucifixion – provided Tóibín’s starting point for the novella: ‘I was absolutely struck by the difference between the two images’, he explained in interview on National Public Radio in the US (13 November, 2012). ‘One pure, the way they wanted her to be, arising into heaven; and the other impure, chaotic, cruel, strange, unforgettable.’

Why do mothers rarely hold top political offices? According to Rose, ‘Today’s queens and wives of presidents have their realm restricted to interior design’, a strangely inaccurate description inapplicable to the lives of, say, Queen Elizabeth II or Hillary Clinton or Indira Ghandi or Golda Meir or Mrs Bandaranaike. No one can plausibly dispute that there are far fewer women than men in politics, nor they obstacles they face to gaining senior positions, but Rose is an unreliable guide to the evidence that exists. She writes, for example, that in most countries today:

Mothers can be leaders and fully enter the polis, although it’s worth noting that neither Angela Merkel nor Theresa May have children. In the case of May, when Andrew Leadsom, one of her rivals for the role of prime minister after the Brexist referendum of June 2016, suggested that this fact rendered her [May] unfit for office she [Leadsom] had to withdraw from the leadership election.

An accusation of unfitness for office is not what Leadsom said about May’s childlessness. It was reported that Leadsom believed she had the ‘edge’, relatively speaking, as a mother with a stake in her children’s futures, over childless May (Times, July 9, 2016). Rose might have quoted Leadsom’s later remarks: ‘what I specifically said, is that motherhood should not play a part in the campaign’ (Telegraph, July 11, 2016). ‘Having children has no bearing on the ability to be PM’ (Times, July 11, 2016). Rose believes, contrariwise, that motherhood should have everything (that ‘everything’ again) to do with political life. She poses it, however, as one of a series of rhetorical questions: ‘Why are mothers not seen as having everything to contribute, by dint of being mothers, to our understanding and ordering of public, political space?’ But the answer isn’t self-evident (at least, not to this reader and mother-of-two). Mothers can also be politicians, but it would be nice to hear in some detail what Rose thinks motherhood can specifically contribute to political and public life. If she were to make the case, that is, rather than assert it.

This case would need to address the potential divisiveness of suggesting that women who are mothers have something to offer that the childless do not. To write of mothers’ ‘secret knowledge’ seems unhelpfully mystifying, especially in a book that laments our already-divided world. True, Rose does suggest that ‘If they [mothers] really entered the [political] world without let or inhibition, they would see and lay bare its intolerable cruelty for what it truly is’. (This revamps an assertion she previously made, in her 2014 book Women in Dark Times, about women in general. Allegedly, ‘women have the gift of seeing through what is already crazy about the world, notably the cruelty and injustice with which it tends to go about organising itself’ (Rose, ‘We need a bold, scandalous feminism’, Guardian, 17 October 2014).)

On the other hand, Mothers is written to disabuse us of the myth that mothers are necessarily good, let alone goodness incarnate. It discloses maternal hatred, violence and cruelty as part of a truer, completer, less sanitised picture of motherhood. Mothers, we are reminded, are no better or more creative than anyone else. How, then, can we be confident that motherhood is so automatically relevant to the political good and that mothers would ‘see and lay bare’ the world’s ‘intolerable cruelty’ in a way that others have failed to? Rose never tells us – nor indeed seems to notice this argumentative contradiction. It appears that in this part of the book she is giving mothers the benefit of the very cultural idealisation that she later argues is placing such insupportable demands on them.

Indeed, by drawing attention to the childlessness of prominent female politicians, she seems unaware that she is involved in further stereotype-reinforcement about the relationship between motherhood and politics. In 2015, the front cover of the New Statesman depicted Nicola Sturgeon, Theresa May, Liz Kendall and Angela Merkel standing around an empty cot containing a ballot box. At the time, Sturgeon tweeted, ‘Jeezo… we appear to have woken up in 1965 this morning!’ (Rose, incidentally, writes mostly as though the internet had never been invented. As though tabloid headlines still hold their former sway in opinion-formation and the Guardian is the last word in image-correction. Five out of the first six footnotes direct us to the paper and Rose’s research often gives the impression of ‘Things I read in the Guardian that interested me…’ Apart from a mention of the website Alternamons, no notice is taken of the obvious fact that the global village will now be defining perceptions of motherhood. How can a book that hopes to be a ‘rousing call to action’ (from the blurb) possibly afford to neglect how we now communicate?) But back to the New Statesman. It was this front cover that later prompted Sturgeon to disclose that she had in fact suffered a miscarriage at the age of 40. Again, something was wrong with the NS cover image. It ‘reinforce[d] the very stereotypes’ she talks about and Sturgeon ‘did not want young girls who consider her a role model to conclude that she had deliberately sacrificed parenthood to success as a politician’. Childless women politicians, as the New Stateman article itself pointed out, are sometimes vilified for selfishness. To the question of whether having children would have prevented her from going on to become first minister of Scotland, Sturgeon replied, reasonably, that it was ‘unanswerable’ – but she hoped not (Guardian, 4 September 2016).

None of this is discussed in Mothers. (The recent announcement of Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand’s pregnancy, will of course have come too late for inclusion in the text.) On mothers’ relative absence from political life, Rose instead opines: ‘It is not just so that men can keep their hands clean – to which some men would fairly reply that today they share the housework and change nappies.’ It is rather because ‘The shameful debris of the human body, familiar to any mother, must not enter the domain of public life and spill onto the streets’. Not entering the domain of public life is, it will be granted, true of the end-products of defecation more generally. Nor does it typically spill onto UK streets. We call this sanitation. Again, the rhetoric about the ‘visceral mess of child-rearing’ isn’t taking us very far toward understanding the many factors potentially debarring mothers from politics. Or indeed fathers. There is no mention, say, of the surprising fact that UK MPs, whether they are mothers or fathers, currently have no formal rights to maternity or paternity leave. So the problem is two-directional: if mothers struggle to enter politics, then conversely there are practical obstacles to current politicians becoming parents.

Perceptions of mothers are also more complicatedly various than Rose allows. Our feelings, attitudes and reactions toward the people who began us, and/or brought us up, are bound to be anything but uniform. Buck Mulligan to Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses: ‘You could have knelt down, damn it, Kinch, when your dying mother asked you.’ Rose’s oversimplified notion that mothers are invariably blamed for everything, and impossibly burdened, risks promoting another persistent self-image – women as the world’s unofficial saints, unjustly and much-put-upon by all. Margaret Atwood writes within this stereotype (see Issue 48, ‘In My Beginning is My End: The Poetry of Margaret Atwood’).

Rose’s central metaphor of the mother-as-scapegoat has a religious origin, not explained in Mothers. In biblical times, there was an annual Day of Atonement, when a goat would be symbolically laden with the sins of the whole community and then driven into the desert to ‘take them away’. For Christians, this foreshadows Jesus’s sacrificial death and he is considered the ultimate scapegoat who takes away the world’s sins. For anthropologists, the mechanism of the scapegoat is a societal reflex that typically victimises and expels the outsider: foreigners, lepers, kings. Rose would have us believe that mothers are the target in
modern society.

There are, however, cultural images of mothers as politicians, with mass influence, that do not fall into the trap of re-mythologising them. We needn’t even look to great literature or art for this: the hugely popular historical fiction of Philippa Gregory, for example, has for years been dedicated to showing women’s presence in medieval political history. These mothers are active, in a world that would generally prefer them passive, but not idealised. They hate and they kill like everyone else. Stereotyping is shown to be part of human behaviour, with sometimes harmful and sometimes benign consequences. The approach appeals to anyone who has ever been human and it does not take a literary genius to realise it. Another example: the popular American TV series Madam Secretary depicts a highly talented politician, the right-hand woman of the President, who regularly resolves tricky international diplomatic crises, when she is not busy signing her children’s school permission slips. Rose would no doubt see this as another promotion of the myth, in the tradition of Mary, that mothers can and should save the world. An impossible burden to bear, with damaging consequences. But ‘saving the world’ is of course a well-recognised staple of American screen culture, with the saviour generally male, so dads must be labouring under it too. Here, it’s given a decidedly feminist spin, and the mother-politician is thriving.


Rose attributes, then, a depressingly monochrome view of motherhood to the world around us. Mothers are ever to blame. She depends on this straw man (the cliché feels especially apt) as the foil to the rest of her argument – about what is to be done, and where we may look for corrective images. How to get the mess of chamber-pots emptied into our streets once more, so to speak?

Rose does indeed take us back into history. She reminds us that mothers in ancient Greece could hold priestly office with parity to men – though without acknowledging that religion has been, more often than not, a force for oppression in the lives of women. She tells us of the eighteenth-century anglophone tradition of ‘seeing motherhood as part of civic life. The role of the mother was to generate the new citizen’. But this seems a regressive (and again divisive) step for feminism, harking back to the maternal feminism of early feminists and implying that parturition is the essential precondition to women’s political engagement. She reveals that Attic and Shakespearean drama have ‘helped’ her personally ‘to envisage alternative ways of thinking about the real and imagined political selfhood of being a mother,’ though they are ‘admittedly written by men’. A case is made for the benefits of learning from Medea and Volumnia (the latter Coriolanus’s mother in Shakespeare’s play). ‘They have both tapped into a way of thinking, lost to our time, that does not require motherhood to purify and blind itself to the world’s violence, or to our own.’ And don’t forget the cheering ‘agency’ of women accused of witchcraft in fourth-century Athens.

‘But it is the mother’s sensuality towards her own children’, Rose repeatedly argues, ‘that is the greatest taboo’:

even where there is no question of abuse, the eros of the mother-child relationship, of which mothers speak to one another under their breath, still tends to be frowned upon or rarely talked about. On this matter, Ancient Greece and Rome can be seen as rather more progressive.

It becomes a recurrent motif in the book: maternal eroticism is identified from the Aeneid to the writings of Elena Ferrante. What exactly is non-abusive eros in a mother-child relationship? Rose looks especially for artistic and literary depictions of the erotic pleasure that some mothers reportedly experience during breast-feeding. The fifteenth-century Italian artist Liberale da Verona’s drawing of ‘Sleeping Mother with a Child at her Breast’ shows a nursing mother, head thrown back, which Rose compares to Bernini’s ‘orgasmic’ St Theresa. She complains, however, that ‘the pleasure a mother might experience from a baby at the breast is either unspeakable or makes her accessory to a crime’. On the other hand, she later celebrates the ‘rare testimonies’ that exist ‘to [breastfeeding’s] scandalous, incestuous sensuality’ [my italics] – as a corrective to the conventional, saccharine cultural narrative of its wholesome joys. So which is it? Evolutionary biologists theorise (though Rose does not tell us this) that the pleasure is compensatory. It is certainly not ‘news’, according to Cristina L H Traina’s 2011 study Erotic Attunement: Parenthood and the Ethics of Sensuality Between Unequals. Traina points to erotic language used by medieval women to describe mystical experiences of nursing Jesus. Keen to be iconoclastic, Rose is constantly opening the bag to let out cats that escaped long ago (e.g. the ‘rage of mothers somehow continue[s] to be one of the best-kept secrets of our times’).

We have moved well beyond the known pleasures of breastfeeding, however, when Rose turns to cases of mothers with incestuous feelings for older children. In one of the book’s oddest speculations, she suggests:

A mother who admits to sexual desire for her own child can, for example, throw the whole professional network into disarray, especially when it is impossible to predict with any certainty whether such a mother is more or less likely to enact her feelings and actually abuse her child. The social worker listening to her may be appalled, but also find herself envying this woman’s freedom to speak her mind.

More or less likely than who? Than a mother who hasn’t experienced and/or declared such feelings, I presume. Following Adrienne Rich’s Of Mother Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976), Rose is encouraging us to empathise, and to imagine the worst-case scenarios of motherhood as potentially our own. I imagine most readers would prefer to read any good nineteenth-century novel to these dully earnest imperatives and pronouncements on behalf of all: ‘Never turn away – being social inclusive follows from a willingness inside the heart to hold on, however painful, to everything. No mother is alien…. To be a mother is to be saturated with the good and evil of the day.’

Toward the end of Mothers, Rose makes some autobiographical disclosures that may account for the book’s peculiarities and emphases. Why does Rose make the unlikely claim that mothers are blamed for everything? She tells us about her mother, one of a post-war generation who suffered from an unnecessary guilt complex. ‘No one seems ever to have explained to [them]… that they were not, and should not feel, guilty for a war whose every lingering trace the bright, glittering home in which they had settled down was meant to wipe away forever’. Rose appears to have written this book to reassure all mothers that they are not to blame (for everything) either.

And what do tabloid headlines about health tourist births have to do with the alleged blaming of mothers for immigration and Brexit campaigning claims? The leap becomes explicable (though no more plausible) once you know that Rose adopted her own daughter from China. ‘It was basically seen [by Social Services] as a form of immigration bringing unwanted future citizens, orphans as they were, to the UK’. When Rose flew to Paris with her new baby, ‘border officials… would not let me through as they could not be sure I was not planning to leave her in France… as an illegal immigrant who might start claiming housing and work benefits (she was not yet one year old).’ She might have told us this in the first instance; instead, her tendency to come at things obliquely is symptomatic of the literary-theoretical approach, where everything is read through something or somebody else, like marmalade on a lens. Rose is a particular believer in psychoanalysis (there are numerous anecdotal mentions of her therapists) so I assume she is well aware that Mothers leaves the reader some clues for diagnosing its author. She also remembers her experience of ‘an inverse pregnancy’, perhaps uniquely attested to here in the catalogue of motherhood: ‘in the days after bringing [my adoptive daughter] home, I would suddenly jolt awake at the sensation that she was lying on top of me, only to realise that she was in fact inside me – a close-on crazy thought of overwhelming delight – whereupon I would drift back into sleep. I was… letting her in’. With such experiences to describe, Rose might have taken up the challenge she twice quotes from Elena Ferrante: ‘The literary truth of motherhood is yet to be explored.’ Instead we are left with a largely unpersuasive polemic.


Jacqueline Rose, Mothers. An Essay on Love and Cruelty, Faber and Faber, 256 pp

Julie Maxwell is the author of These Are Our Children (Quercus, 2013) and the co-editor of Shakespeare and Quotation, published by Cambridge University Press this spring.



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