Doubt. Distrust of oneself. Deference to others. These are the backdrop of false mothering and reasons why I needed to write this paper. Like so many women, I learned to be a good girl by being pliant, bending myself around the knowledge and wishes of others. This extended into mothering. Despite my original intentions, mothering became a place where I felt a strong pull to doubt my own beliefs and instead be agreeable with others when there was conflict.
Not only myself but many mothers in Western society continue to internalize a sociocultural mandate to appease others. This is problematic insofar as it does not result in affirmative desire, but a recapitulation of a hierarchical, traumatic narrative negating the mother’s self. To heal this trauma, mother work requires the dissenting articulation of The Maternal No; that is, acknowledgment of maternal subjectivity and limitation.
The Maternal No comes in response to psychological and social history that identifies father as the one who holds both knowledge and desire as symbolized in the phallus (Freud, 1910; Lacan, 1966/2006). This narrative also suggests that it is the father who allows a child to separate from the mother and become an autonomous adult. In such a history, the mother is the one who lacks autonomy or her own identity. She must provide acceptance, and struggle to maintain unity. To whatever extent psychological theory intended a symbolic rather than literal division of genders, in practice, it has reinforced the gender divisions of a patriarchal culture. For every culture-prescribing No that father gives his child, the mother is expected to offer her Yes, accommodating the child-other and father-other regardless of the cost to those others and regardless of the cost to the mother herself.
For generations, there has been an upswell of feminist psychological theory that seeks to remedy this false dichotomy, often by focusing on feminine presence through affirmative desire. In the interest of space, I won’t be discussing these in-depth, but it is important to note major figures in this history. Karen Horney (1967/1993) initiated this movement by observing that penis envy isn’t the only area of desire but has its counterpart in womb envy. Nancy Chodorow (The Reproduction of Mothering, 1978) and Juliet Mitchell (Psychoanalysis and Feminism, 1974) worked to liberate family narratives from the Freudian Oedipal drama, seeing this as a constructed rather than necessary history, and thus paved a way for women to create their own narratives on mothering. Adrienne Harris broke apart the gender binary and explored the vicissitudes of gender differences through the reality of subtle bodies (Gender as Soft Assembly, 2009). From a different vantage, Rosemary Balsam (Women’s Bodies in Psychoanalysis, 2012) spotlighted the female body and its own form of active fecundity and power. Galit Atlas (The Enigma of Desire, 2015) and Jill Gentile (Feminine Law, 2016) have both emphasized female desire, not as a lack of self, but its own kind of capable, holding presence grounded in a strong sense of self.
I include this history because making room for active, desiring, creative feminine presence is essential in re-writing motherwork. Elsewhere I have called this The Feminine Yes (Sidesinger, 2019), signifying any space in which women are able to articulate and assert our desires in our own voices.
But here, I want to focus on the sister of this yes, the Maternal No. It does the work of protesting and undoing that which is confining and wrong. It too is essential because, as Gilligan and Snider wrote in Why Does Patriarchy Persist (2018), entrenched narratives resist being re-written. Patriarchal narratives take feminine desire as agreement with existing, oppressive social constructs of mothering, and don’t make room for real change. Dissent is so antithetical to most narratives of mothering that it is often overlooked, but this omission is a function of oppression itself. The Maternal No does the radical work to effectively, consciously, and affirmatively carry the Maternal Yes.
Emphasis on consent in sex education has further muddled our cultural understanding of feminine and maternal identity, by masquerading as a means of achieving equality while in fact perpetuating inequality. Consent assumes the primacy of another’s desire. It does not allow room for the equal assertion of a woman’s desire, but in a lesser way asks whether or not there is agreement with an a priori other. For this reason, dissent must precede articulations of desire.
Below I use examples to show that dissent is both psychologically inhibited and necessary in the private madness of internalized maternal suffering (see Rose, 2018 for a contemporary polemic on the demands and disappointments falsely projected onto mothers). There are some clinical snippets— and while the themes in this paper are so ubiquitous that I literally could have chosen any mother from the last 15 years of my clinical practice as exemplary— I have minimized these to protect confidentiality in a diverse audience. In their place, I offer examples from my own life.
In the process of birthing three children naturally and adopting a parenting style centered around saying Yes to the child’s needs on demand, I assumed many manifestations of the sacrificial mother role. As Badinter (2012) noted, excessive self-denial is often inherent in Western aspirations of the so-called attachment parenting I ascribed to. This writing occurs 12 years after the birth of my first child, and at a time when I am a starkly different mother: divorced, with 50% custody of my children, contending with an emotionally distant co-parent on every aspect of my children’s lives. Sometimes I wonder if the difference is compensation for those early years.
My first child was hospitalized at birth, and our early weeks were characterized by him being wired and monitored in a special care unit. I did everything I could to be with him, including sleeping in a nearby storage room to be phoned awake whenever he awoke and could nurse or have contact with my skin. While saying Yes to my son, my presence required me to say No a lot, too. “No,” I said in response to a hospital protocol that would have me go home while they formula fed him inside his tiny isolation chamber. “I am not leaving this hospital or stopping breastfeeding him, regardless of if you think it would be medically easier.”
Even though my son recovered quickly, his first few weeks of life undoubtedly set the stage for extended on-demand breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and babywearing. When I had my second child two years later, I tandem nursed. These were all deep pleasures and novel experiences of my womanly body power, and I miss those shared body moments between my children and I. Even as I question the extent to which those choices became sacrifices of my own identity, I also don’t regret them. Breastfeeding, for example, was not a normalized choice for me. I spent my early social outings nursing on toilet seats. In my circles, I felt I was doing something radical by making choices according to my child’s need for attachment, not adhering to socially prescribed norms of how I should be a mother. In no way did I feel I was complying with social mandates that woman become a sacrificial mother-housewife. Long-standing feminist criticisms of motherhood as socialized loss of self (Chodorow, 1978; Friedan, 1963; and Rich, 1976/1995) didn’t seem applicable then. Rather, I realized I was powerful in ways I never had before. I felt led by the force of what my body was showing me it could do, and by an attuned responsiveness to the ever-changing needs of my children.
Many of the years since are a blank. At some point, I realized I was dying while living— as in, the only discernible parts of me were enraged and terrified that there were no discernible parts of me. I left my marriage without initially realizing how much I was also leaving my children. I could only follow the trail of air, air, air to breathe again. With the perspective of time, I see that my maternal choices came to be distrusted inside the marriage bond, both by my co-parent, and by myself. Those choices on behalf of my children initially seemed impossible to deny. The ability to assert such choices was initiated in me by the maternal role itself, but then these types of choices became harder to make, the longer I found myself in a maternal role. When my maternal voice crossed that invisible line from compliant with social norms, to dissenting against cultural norms, there was a strong push back. I initiated decisions that always seemed to get vetoed, like what school my child would benefit from attending, and I used another’s distrust of me as an excuse to let go too easily of the fights on behalf of my children. The self-doubt that’s always been there started to dominate.
This paper is a re-awakening of the fact that over time in that lulling pushback to maternal compliance, I did wake up. I woke up and realized I had to leave that bondage to doubt, to get to know myself and what I know. Unapologetically, I said No a lot.
But, in a certain way, I also lost something of the essence of mothering. Saying No sometimes took me further away from my children and from knowing what I know through them. Doubt about my choices as a mother persists. I might catch myself giving up on visions I had for their futures, or not listening to what they really need in the moment, because their father, or their school system, or x-y-z doesn’t agree with me. I’m exhausted for trying. It’s been cleaner to focus on myself where fewer people have a say.
Why is it so hard? I’m not the mother who has the food bought before the kids get home, or who takes them to all their activities seamlessly, or who plans or even attends their school events. I will be honest that my time is not entirely organized around my children’s needs. Because they are not the central organizing node of my life, I often feel like I am not one of the “responsible parents.” Engaging to make the choices alone as a divorced parent feels easier. Except, half the time (which really means all the time because my children aren’t split people) I’m confronted with the realities that dispute my maternal choices and now no longer have the faith, however brittle, of a commitment to work towards shared knowledge. When those rain boots are left again at their father’s house on a rainy day, for what feels like the 100th time and that’s just the beginning of what won’t materialize, all my efforts feel useless. Sometimes I stop trying.
This is where maternal engagement as dissent gets confusing. Dissent with distrust and exhaustion, when there is no tolerance of the Maternal No, can become disengagement. What we need instead is a space for maternal dissent as engagement; knowing in its own voice.
II. Gendered Division of Connection v. Separation
Although the words “sacrifice” and “appeasement” aren’t directly used in psychological theory to describe the ideal mother role, they are at the heart of it. We are not clean of our history which operates in a patriarchal, interlinked division of genders, where women play the role of object so that men can be the knowing subjects. In the supposedly ubiquitous Oedipal drama, the male child competes with the male father for ownership of the mother, learns to identify with father rather than conquering him, and in so doing can go out into the world, initiated into the world of men and capable of having his own intellectual and physical pursuits.
In this drama, father is the authoritative bearer of No which gives meaning: “No you cannot stay unified with your mother; no you cannot have her, you must be separated; let’s go play baseball instead.” For Jacques Lacan (2006/1966), the paternal is the order of logos, intellect, meaning, the created structure of everything ranging from family to culture and civilization, which requires division and categorization. We lose something of what is possible in this division, and for Lacan, the feminine is the representative of this as “lack.” Yes, lacking a penis, but furthermore, lacking certainty and the necessity of division. Without going into the important ways in which naming the feminine as “lack” has further sidelined mothers as unimportant in their own right, we can generously understand feminine lack as the enigmatic space between divisions where more always remains possible (Gentile, 2016). The feminine (and especially the maternal) is nuanced, preverbal, primordial. She is the ground of our connection and the eternal reminder of our unity. In this capacity, mother brings all under her wing and says Yes.
United as we are in the blood and in the milk, we sometimes confuse our only tasks with unifying ones. There is also a conscripted demand at play, and like the “unexamined assumptions” Adrienne Rich (2018/1966, p 87) observed she was operating from so many decades ago, we don’t necessarily know what we are saying yes to. Often, we say yes to the norms set in place by culture and the desires of those around us who we want to keep close through harmony. Yet over time, we may realize that these overt harmonies are in conflict with a groundswell of deep maternal knowledge.
III. Need for Both Paternal and Maternal No
The paternal order is a necessary order of logic and understanding. But, with French feminists Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clement (2001/1975), I am not afraid to observe that this is only one logic, to question whose logic it is, and to re-write our own alongside it. The maternal does not lack its own understanding, as a misappropriation of Lacanian philosophy would suggest, nor is it only in the service of unifying others. The maternal has her own voice of dissent to claim what she uniquely knows. Carol Gilligan (2003) observed that when we say No, we are also articulating what we “know” (p. 25).
No is the voice of differentiation. It is the voice of limits and parameters that structure understanding and opportunity. Included in this is what is not acceptable, as well as what is. The father has often been deemed the arbiter of this limit, as when a patient tells me her “friend’s husband was an army colonel, so all their boys are in the military.” Here, the word so as conjunction demonstrates how much the father’s identity and understanding of the world structure that of the children. Father is cause. He affects the outcome of what can be, and Lacan (1996/2006) importantly observed that this happens both through spoken language and in the subtler forms of nonverbal family and social order.
However, the father is not the only one who asserts limit because in life— unlike in the Oedipal drama— differentiation does not happen from the mother only. Often, cultural norms and existing practices are the very things that need differentiating from. Dissent enters in because it sees where the existing structure misses information or misunderstands, and it opposes these misses in order to restructure and reorient. Within a patriarchal context where the white male voice is taken as one of original cause, the Maternal No is first one of dissent. Mother has to disrupt what is wrongly taken as a given.
When mothers refuse to comply with the path of socially conscripted mothering, we always face resistance. This is because we used to serve the patriarchy. We used to be subservient, accommodate the demands of a husband’s job or a father’s wishes so that any deviation from that reads as untrue to the script of mothering. As women have become increasingly dissatisfied with living according to a paternal logic, there can still be a denial of maternal knowledge that is filled instead with a tendency to project knowledge and meaning onto our children.
Chodorow (1978) set the tone for maternal dissent in The Reproduction of Mothering. She proposed that women allow ourselves to be conscripted into primary caregiving because it is, for a time, the place of exclusive significant love that male partners fail to provide. Chodorow believed that male partners make themselves insignificant in love’s satisfaction for women due to the repression of their own intimate capacities. While nevertheless arguing for a reversal of this trend, she wrote, “[M]en’s lack of emotional availability and women’s less exclusive heterosexual commitment help ensure women’s mothering” (p. 208).
Reorientation of maternal identity away from socialized gender roles comes through dissent. This comes in the form of acknowledging her limitations— as when she cannot appease two children at once. Dissent also comes through articulating her subjectivity— as when she allows herself to have desire and seek fulfillment outside of the mother-partner or mother-child bond alone. While it is essential to note that the child cannot be the exclusive satisfaction of the mother’s desire and capacity for love if she is articulating her own subjectivity, her awareness of the world is also likely to inform her desires for her child.
Acknowledging maternal subjectivity requires fortitude and liberation from doubt — doubt that is perpetuated by a patriarchy comfortable and sure of itself. It has taken me over a decade of mothering to really have the confidence that sometimes I know what I’m talking about, even when my children or others disagree with me. At the moment of writing this, my children were with me at a family yoga retreat which they sometimes enjoyed and sometimes resisted. In a moment of my son’s resistance, I steeled myself and reinforced his need to be there, in the knowledge that he needs physical discipline, community, and opportunities for spiritual discovery that are supported within our family. My son conceded in his own humorous cover of the popular song I Fought the Law. He changed the lyrics to: “I fought the law / And my mom won.”
At times, the Maternal No is simply a re-drawing of the lines such that order is instated by the mother. Dissent from an obfuscating patriarchy can create an equal playing field for his-and-hers laws. In fact, a number of mothers more confident of themselves than I have told me they were always the ones to say No in their families. There is a structure in maternal knowing, like maintaining feeding-sleeping rhythms in early childhood. However, even this aspect of maternal structure is minimized by a paternalistic culture, as evidenced by a continued stance from art and publishing gatekeepers that male subjectivity is determinative of form (Jess-Cooke, 2017).
Maternal structure has first to be acknowledged as existing and relevant. But more importantly, the Maternal No offers a different kind of order. Where the Paternal No is concerned with categorical division and structuring things as independent from one another, the Maternal No fosters a kind of self-definition based in authentic connection to the extent that it acknowledges and does not repress intimacy. It often traverses the fluid lines between categories more than being bound to any categories themselves. Another name for this is relational knowing, which at its best occurs when a person deeply rooted in their own self-knowledge can guide the needs of another whom they also deeply know. It is in the space of that linking that the knowledge occurs. Precisely because the maternal is attuned to that which is subjective, uncategorical, and intuitive, it is freer to dissent with where the lines are conventionally drawn, create new alternatives, and see into the spaces between.
IV. Examples of Maternal Dissent and Knowing
Given that women have been conscripted under patriarchy to comply with a path that is already set in the service of others, oftentimes a woman feels paradoxically that it is becoming a mother that allows her to assert herself through dissent when she otherwise wouldn’t. She often finds herself in the middle of her child and a third other, and this triangulated conflict means that she can no longer sacrifice herself to appease the other. The fact of maternity creates the No.
Where Chodorow (1978) argued that maternity is, due to factors of socialization, likely to result in a preoedipal exclusive love bond that preempts further articulation of the maternal self, social resistance since the time of her writing has made it possible to develop this love bond as an articulation of self that also opens to further knowing and desire. Mother-child love has the opportunity to take relating out of the realm of hierarchy. Mother can know what she knows about the child through simultaneous connection and separateness from the child. In my experience recounted above, this was initially true. Having a child and developing a love bond with him acquainted me with both desire and knowledge that I had not experienced before. In the early years of motherhood, this love did not preclude knowledge. It was only with the addition of time, doubt from others, and socialization into more and more mother-child love that I ever felt myself and maternal love were mutually exclusive. We can consider this space of simultaneous knowing and love that happens early in maternity, to hold it open as a lasting articulation of the Maternal No.
My patient Beatrice knows she wants to have a child. She finds herself in a romantic relationship with a man she loves but who is not yet ready to have a child. In her late 30’s she undergoes fertility tests and learns that she has few viable eggs left. Only at the narrowing possibility of her future child does she become insistent about her desire: we will have a baby together, or I will leave.
Another woman, who has had a child with a man she both needs and hates in a cycle of emotional violence, comes to know her No through the perspective of her daughter. “I would never want my daughter to be with someone like him,” she says while holding herself with nausea and disgust. She is thinking about the times he has slept with prostitutes during their marriage, or yelled her into a corner, while she has continued to say yes to these as acceptable parameters of a partnership.
For me, too, it was the fact of becoming a mother that first initiated me into dissent. When I became pregnant and then went through that first unbearable labor which in fact could be borne, I began to confront all the lies I was accepting about my body (and the truths that lay hidden in my body). No, I am not weak. No, I am not invisible. No, I cannot let someone else do all the work instead of me. And No, I will not let falsities stand for truth because I am “agreeable.”
Now, as a relational psychotherapist, I also consider how it might benefit my patients to be aware of my subjectivity. Early on, professional influences focused on the analytic ideal of neutrality, or not disclosing aspects of personal identity in order to facilitate free exploration in the patient. It has been easy to fall into this trap of ideal neutrality, especially as it coincides with demands on women to consent, comply, and accommodate others without originary discernment of our own. However, movements within relational psychology have suggested that neutrality is not entirely possible, nor is it necessarily beneficial to obscure oneself to a patient, and sometimes the most relevant clinical awareness comes through personal experience (Kuchuck, 2013).
As a cyclist, I decided to bring my bike to the office to allow for both commuting and safekeeping in New York. This was a very deliberate No to the mandate of neutrality. Many patients were curious about it. One in particular, a male in his 30’s, was shocked. “Wow,” he said, “this is a whole new world. Now you have dimensions.” He said he wasn’t sure he wanted to think of me in that way. In fact, he regularly described women in superficialities that lacked dimension (“she’s cool,” “she’s funny,” “people would be impressed if they saw me at a party with her”).
The revelation of my dimensionality came at a time several years into treatment when the patient was considering his mother, specifically the devolution of her identity through motherhood. As an older woman, he saw her as lacking friends or hobbies and harboring many resentments toward others. From stories, he knew that she had been a vibrant young woman and working professional, but that identity was invisible to my patient. We wondered together, “Where did she go?” He realized that she permanently quit her job when he was born and, as her last child, she put all her hopes for athletic, academic, and social success into him. He began to see that his mother abandoned herself and lost her dimensionality as the price of relationship to her son.
The Maternal No consists of recognition of both the maternal self and of the other. It is a false trade that a mother has to lose her identity — her friendships, pleasures, intellectual pursuits — in order to accommodate the child. Such a trade results in a hollow mother who cannot be a ground of knowledge or empathic mirror. These qualities require the mother to maintain a deep sense of herself. The fact that children constantly question and change means that mirroring them otherwise would be a futility of ungrounded doubt.
Yet, limits are not only about the subjective identity and needs of the mother. The mother who knows herself knows that maternal limits are very much about recognition of the other. At various times we must assert ourselves against outside others, a co-parent, or the child themselves to foster the best interest of the other. I have worked with many mothers who suspect that their child is, for example, deeply unhappy, self-harming, abusing drugs, or sexually active when they don’t acknowledge it. Still, mothers leave these issues unaddressed because they comply with a partner or social milieu who isn’t as emotionally attuned and says, “Everything is fine.”
Patriarchy is increasingly subject to criticism for its oppression through hierarchical order and limits. However, as long as the counterpart to this is an idealized feminine which brings no limits, patriarchy persists. The feminine will be understood to suffer all, allow all, love all. But what does this kind of thinking do to the mother? It may be dressed in different clothes, but idealizing the maternal as without limits reinstates oppression just the same.
I’d like to end with a dream I had while preparing this paper. In the dream, I was partnered with my ex-husband. My son came home alone and was surprised by an intruder who neatly cross-sectioned his brain so that the right parietal occipital lobes were severed from the rest of his head. The dream ended there, with a clean removal of that part of his brain but no blood or gore or damage to my son’s face. I was horrified nonetheless. I considered this dream at length after my son and I were discussing general aspects of right and left hemisphere brain functioning. In our waking talks, we considered the broad-level interconnecting abilities of the right hemisphere, and the categorical and detail-oriented abilities of the left hemisphere, with respective reference to differences in how women and men function in our family. After the dream, I happened to speak with a neurologist who reminded me of the dominance of visual information on the right hemisphere, so that particular damage on this side can impair facial and interpersonal recognition.
Dream interpretations are metaphoric and associative extensions of knowledge. The images in this dream can be translated to suggest broadly that in a partnership of maternal doubt, not only the mother but also the child loses a certain part of their functioning. In this dream specifically, I was in a partnership that for me symbolizes self-doubt and an exclusive valuation of masculine rational thinking. My son is then framed as the product of a union that doubts the maternal and doesn’t trust the Maternal No. In this context, some of his brain function is taken away by another overly powerful, intrusive masculine force. Specifically, the right parietal occipital lobe is lost, signifying that the child lost the ability to see meaningful interconnections between things. This image encapsulates the importance of the Maternal No and its refusal of doubt and false demands. The Maternal No is necessary in order to retain and develop maternal knowledge in its own rite.
In summary, we cannot accept an idealized feminine which has no limits. When a mother undermines herself by appeasing others and refuses to dissent, she also perpetuates a loss of knowledge in and for others. The Maternal No speaks its limitations, but for the purpose of returning to where things are truly interconnected and limitless. When we speak our voices of dissent and Maternal No, we name what is outdated, incomplete, or oppressive. In turn, we can speak our voices of Maternal Yes with knowing affirmation and connection.
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