Studying Mothers In Mommy Wars. Where Do Maternal Studies Start?

Motherhood is tricky business, and studying it is no different. I used to think it couldn’t be that difficult to zoom in on mothers as particular subjects to study, but it has turned out to be much more slippery and theoretically complex. The subjectivity of the mother; the mother as subject in her own right, is not something that can be taken for granted. The maternal is a subject position so conflictual that it has been proposed as a theoretical question in itself (Baraitser el al., 2009). To jump right into the disciplinary clash between psychoanalysis and feminism, Hollway (2006) has captured the core of the issue of maternal subjectivity by asking: “Can mothers be good-enough mothers and still be subjects in their own right?” (p. 65). Any answer to this will elicit a series of new questions. If the answer is no, we must continue to question the entire concept of “good-enough mothering”. If the answer is yes, I want to know what that subjectivity looks like. Because Winnicott’s infamous concept of “good-enough mothering” that was uncritically and tirelessly referred to all through my psychology studies, is met with substantial critique the moment one ventures out of the bubble that clinical psychodynamic psychology can sometimes feel like. A concept like “good-enough mothering” does not account for a mother’s subjectivity, but on the contrary only sees her in terms of her function and capacity as the mother. The concept only looks at the infant’s needs, and the mother’s autonomy is only included in terms of the infant’s needs to be adequately frustrated as s/he is developing (Bueskens, 13). So the question of maternal subjectivity; what it is, how we conceptualize it, and how we study it, is the place to start when venturing into maternal studies, (and this is by no means an exhaustive account, but more like a taste).

Winnicott was like a holy cow during my undergrad and Master’s program. I had never thought I would come to be critical of such a seemingly friendly and warm concept (but that is not to say that Winnicott is totally out the window; his works have been re-worked in maternal studies too, by analysts like Jessica Benjamin).

Maternal subjectivity becomes especially slippery in the so-called Mommy Wars. Readers may frown upon my using this phrase, but as a clinician and scholar informed and inspired by Kleinian theory, I appreciate the reference to heated conflict. Because much more is at stake than whether a picture of a toddler being breastfed will create social media buzz. The conflicts of the Mommy Wars are concerning namely in light of the problems with maternal subjectivity. The more polarized and sensationalized the debates get, the less room will there be left for spaces for honest expressions of maternal subjectivity. When these Mommy debates become ideological, it is at the expense of the acknowledgment of the subjectivity of those involved (Vissing, 2014). Mothers’ accounts of their mothering experience turn into arguments in the debate, and personal experiences will be perceived as underpinning for these arguments (I have written about this in a chapter that will be published this Fall).

I think the first thing to note about maternal subjectivity for now, is that acknowledging its theoretical and practical importance is in itself a significant stance because of the aforementioned implications for clinical concepts like “good-enough mothering”, or for how we approach research methodology. I often encounter research and theory, especially about infants and children that does not address the issue of the mother’s subject position (and I will be demonstrating examples of that in this blog as it develops). Bueskens (2014), in her introduction to Mothering and Psychoanalysis, argues that if we recognize the mother or “the maternal” as a valuable subject from which to generate knowledge, it may not only free women from the constraint of the institution of motherhood, but also shift our “epistemological, political, social and psychic horizons” (p. 4). How is that for a promising statement?

I welcome your thoughts on and questions about maternal subjectivity, whether academic or from personal experience. There is much more on this subject, but I had to just kick off this project.


Baraitser, L., Sigal Spigel, S., Betterton, R., Curk, P., Hollway, W., Jensen, T., Miller, G., Miller,    T., Parker, R., Pullinger, K., Raphael-Leff, J., Reynolds, T., Simic, L., Stone, A., and Tyler, I. (2009). Editorial. Mapping Maternal Subjectivities, Identities and Ethics. Studies in the Maternal, 1(1).

Bueskens, P. (2014). Mothering and Psychoanalysis: Clinical, Sociological and Feminist Perspectives. Toronto: Demeter Press.

Hollway, W. (2006). The Capacity to Care. Gender and Ethical Subjectivity. London: Routledge.

Vissing, H. (2014). The Ideal Mother Fantasy and Its Protective Function. In L. Ennis (Ed.), Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood. Toronto: Demeter Press.


4 thoughts on “Studying Mothers In Mommy Wars. Where Do Maternal Studies Start?

  1. Acknowledging a woman’s subjective *supremacy* in the birthing process is tantamount to empowering women. Control and dominance is a patriarchal construct which precludes female worth. Drive theory, in which (in many ways), Klein supported Freud, acknowledges our *dark side*, rather than trying to resolve the chemistry (embodiment) of what she has called primary emotions. Klein unfortunately missed her chance to OBJECT to how women have been classically held at fault, they *must* take the blame, because it was not yet discovered that emotions are neurological chemistry….caused by physical and emotional stresses.


    • Yes, Klein aimed to align her theories with Freud, although she did also disagree with him in terms of her focus. One of her major contributions was to shift the focus to the importance of the early mother-child realm instead of Freud’s focus on only the Oedipal and the paternal. Klein’s work can certainly be critized from a feminist and contemporary psychoanalytic perspective, but it can also be re-worked, which is what psychoanalyst Rozsika Parker did. Parker re-worked Klein’s model from the mother’s perspective (I will certainly be writing about Parker here). Whether or not one subscribes to drive theory, the part about the “dark side”, although I don’t know precisely what you refer to here, is what I appreciate so much about Klein. She really wanted to bring in the aggresive and destructive parts of the psyche as crucial in order to understand relationships. I think she is often misunderstood as being overly negative or blaming. She developed her theory of the destructive parts of the psyche namely in connection to her thoughts on how gratitude, love and devotion also develop (in the depressive position). I do welcome the critical stance toward Klein. I will take it as motivation to dig into to the literature to find examples of why I still appreciate kleinian thinking and believe it has much to offer.


  2. Good to see a discussion on this topic online. I’ve been recently reading Bueskens (2014) book and I will watch your entries. Locating the maternal subject was central to my doctoral research which was based in gender and sociology though I drew in work from within psychoanalysis in terms of interpersonal connections between mothers and their infants. I understand that there will necessarily be important debates in this regard but in my survey of research from mainly midwifery (there was very, very little academic work in maternal and child health) I found very little reference to the work on intersubjectivity (and if there was this was between the nurse and mother). The primary emphasis was in assisting mothers to transition to a ‘maternal role’. There is a need for these kind of debates to be taken up by the health and welfare practitioners who are working with women and their families in those early years.


    • I think you touch on a central point here; how this emerging interdisciplinary field of maternal studies can inform health care, including (maternal) mental health. This is a question I am also very interested in, and I look forward to the chapters in Bueskens’s book that address this. It also makes me think that I think there is a caveat to maternal studies: that if it only focuses on maternal subjectivity maybe it will lose the opportunity to inform mother-infant care practices. I would love to see integration of disciplines like midwifery and pre- and perinatal psychology into maternal studies.


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