The Ideal Mother Fantasy and its Protective Function

In 2014, I had the pleasure of contributing a book chapter to the edited collection Intensive Mothering. The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood, a Demeter Press publication edited by Linda Rose Ennis.


The intensive mothering ideology appears continually present in the public debate. The judgments of the rightness of different mothering styles are debated at the expense of acknowledging maternal subjectivity. Mothers’ subjective experiences are lost in the ideology discourses and with that the voice of the individual mother’s intrapsychic experience and conflicts. Mothers and their mothering are discussed as objects rather than subjects with lived experiences. Drawing on Rozsika Parker’s elaboration of Kleinian theory and Jessica Benjamin’s intersubjective theory, a contemporary psychoanalytic perspective on maternal subjectivity is presented. The mechanisms of the maternal ideal fantasy must be understood through an examination of the mother’s emotional life. It is argued that maternal ideals of unity and presence found in Attachment Parenting philosophy is expressive of a protective fantasy of the perfect mother. Parker’s concept of maternal ambivalence can be used to illuminate the complexity of the mother’s inner world and particularly how she is at a loss in a culture that does not invite openness about the challenging emotions of motherhood. As the child is faced with the strenuous task of containing ambivalence in order to relate to the mother as a whole person, so must the mother integrate both her hatred and love for her child. Current representations of the intensive mothering ideology seem to lack sincere and uncensored accounts of maternal ambivalence and the need for maternal space. The psychological function of the maternal ideal is to block out fear of negative feelings and their destructive power; essentially a defense against ambivalence.

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