In 2013, author Zadie Smith made a bold and unexpected online appearance by commenting to a piece in The Atlantic by Lauren Sandler, that “the idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd.” In said piece, it appears that Lauren Sandler presents the idea that female writers should ideally only have one child. Sandler describes the lives of several celebrated female writers like Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Margaret Atwood, and zooms in on the question of the number of children they had and how it relates to their writing careers. She provocatively asks: “[how] do the rest of us mortals negotiate the balance between selfhood and motherhood? Is stopping at one child the answer, or at least the beginning of one?”
Smith and several of her colleagues fiercely criticized the article in the comments section. Smith brought in the question of equality, asking: “I have two children. Dickens had ten – I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too father-ish to be writer-esque?” She continued by stating that “two kids entertaining each other in one room gives their mother in another room a surprising amount of free time she would not have otherwise.” Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley commented: “The key is not having one child, it is living in a place where there is excellent daycare and a social world that allows fathers to have the time and the motivation to fully share in raising kids.” British novelist Louise Doughty also made an interesting comment, saying: “I think I have become a better writer since having children. It improves creativity, particularly because once you have children it makes you realise the story isn’t about you.” Several other writers also announced their harsh disagreement, some using snarky ridicule. The combative feel of this debate aside, it brings up the question of how maternal status and creativity are connected.
Smith’s stance against the idea that motherhood is threat to creativity and one’s professional life makes me bring up the works of the late psychoanalyst Rozsika Parker. Parker developed a thorough theory on maternal development emphasizing ambivalence as a key component of mothering, thereby making it a crucial question how ambivalence is dealt with by the mother. She argued that mothers have very limited room for expression and processing of the inevitable maternal ambivalence, both on cultural and societal levels, and internally, because of our extreme idealization of mothers. Parker emphasized how becoming a mother inevitably entails dissonance and tension between lived subjective experiences of mothering and normative ideals of motherhood. However, the good news from Parker is, that if ambivalence is acknowledged as opposed to blocked out, it actually holds great creative potential.
Parker and the Creative Potential of Maternal Ambivalence
Parker reworked the Kleinian model from the maternal perspective through her theory on maternal ambivalence. Like Klein, Parker emphasized the conflictual quality of the mother-child relationship with the purpose of illuminating the creative role of maternal ambivalence and possibilities for maternal subjectivity. Parker defined maternal ambivalence as “the experience shared by all mothers in which loving and hating feelings for their children exist side by side.” (1995, p. 1). It is frequently denied or shamed, or only partly acknowledged, for example through humor (1997, p. 17). Parker distinguished between manageable and unmanageable ambivalence (1997, p. 21). The unmanageable ambivalence arouses intolerable guilt and anxiety because the love is not felt to be strong enough to mitigate the hate. Manageable ambivalence is related to what Parker, re-reading Klein’s concept of the depressive position, constituted as the maternal depressive position: “it is the mother’s achievement of ambivalence – the awareness of her coexisting love and hate for the baby – that can promote a sense of concern and responsibility towards, and differentiation of self from the baby.” (1997, p.20). Parker suggested that maternal ambivalence is a new form of working through the capacity to contain love and hate, and not just a revisiting of the infantile depressive position. Generally, ambivalence is a dynamic experience of conflict. According to Parker, ambivalence has a special function in mothering: it is a necessity in order for the mother to know herself and acknowledge her less ideal characteristics as a mother. Parker (1995) argued that it is through the development of the capacity to accept ambivalence that a mother is able to let go of the omnipotent fantasy of the unity of the mother-child couple. Parker (1997) paralleled Klein’s idea of the baby’s feelings of loss during the depressive position with the mother’s feelings of loss. The ambivalence is not the problem in itself; it is the mother’s handling of the guilt and anxiety evoked by the ambivalence that can cause emotional disturbance.
Maternal ambivalence according to Parker is not just a reworking of the mother’s early life; it is a new developmental line with an important function. The purpose of ambivalence is that it draws the mother to struggle to think about, understand and know her baby. The suffering of ambivalence actually promotes the mother’s thinking about the baby and their relationship: “It is the troubling co-existence of love and hate that propels a mother into thinking about what goes on between herself and her child.” (1995, p. 7).
Returning to Smith, I believe she has captured the essence of maternal ambivalence in her essay “Joy”. In this essay, Smith presents her thoughts on the crucial difference between joy and pleasure. She uses her experience of mothering as an example:
Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.
A perfect capture of maternal ambivalence. To Smith, joy is an inherently ambivalent feeling, and it is the feeling she strongly associates with mothering. In light of Smith’s assertion that her maternal status as a mother of two does not work against her creativity and professional life, I find it easy to connect it with Parker’s model. However, Parker did not specifically address the question of the number of children. Which brings me to a researcher who has.
Frost and Having a Second Child
Nollaig Frost is one of the few researcher who has looked at the specific situation of mothering a second child. She has pointed out how even newer developments in psychoanalysis that aim to create space for maternal subjectivity, like the works of Parker, or psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin, still don’t offer much on the subject of the specifics of mothering a second child. In her chapter, “Mothering the Other” in this year’s most promising book on mothering and psychoanalysis, she draws on Benjamin and Parker and adds her own qualitative research to further develop an understanding of the particularities of mothering more than one child. Frost references the research that, although sparse, confirms that maternal identity develops as family size increases (p. 344). Frost conducted her own research with qualitative interviews with mothers of two. Frost’s findings showed that with the addition of the second child, the mothers began to speak of the impossibility of being an ideal mother to two children: “These mothers describe how having a second child enables them to reappraise the reality of striving to meet the demands of two children and allows a relinquishment of attempts to be a perfect mother.” (p. 347). The situation of having a second child simply does not make it possible to keep up the idea of the ideal mother as it is perpetuated in culture.
So what I gather from Frost’s thinking, is that having a second child may actually propel a mother toward more acceptance of her ambivalence because of the way the fantasy of one’s maternal ideal is so forcefully challenged. In a positive outcome, this can promote the creative potentials of maternal ambivalence. Frost concludes her chapter stating that: “The accounts gathered from the women in this study suggest that the presence of two children enables mothers to express maternal ambivalence in a way that is permitted” (p. 354). However, as Parker emphasized, there is a big difference between manageable and unmanageable maternal ambivalence. It is obvious that having a second child may not necessarily promote acknowledgement or integration of ambivalence for all mothers. Still, in line with Frost’s thinking combined with Smith’s voice in mind, I would like to entertain the idea of the emotionally creative potentials of namely having a second child.
Frost’s findings demonstrated that the mothers often felt a split in their feelings toward their children, where the negative feelings often were directed toward the demanding toddler. To take Frost’s thinking further, maybe it’s possible for mothers to make use of the triangulated situation of having a second child to compartmentalize their contradicting feelings and thereby contain their ambivalence better? For example, all the negative may be directed toward the demanding toddler so all the positive can be directed toward the youngest, like several of the mothers in Frost’s study experienced. Of course this could also be the opposite for some mothers, where the newborn may become the cruel and demanding infant and the toddler is then the stronger child whom the mother already knows, which gives the comfort and predictability of a well-established relationship. There could be endless variations to this dynamic, and the constructive use of it would include some level of acknowledgment of the ambivalence as well as emotional flexibility of the defenses. I am speaking here of the creative potentials, and I recognize it also brings up the question of what “normal” maternal development is and how problematic that idea is. Saving that question for a later examination, what I want to focus on here is this: Smith and her colleagues eagerly made the argument, that it is not the number of children that hinders a woman’s creative career, but external factors like child care and social support. The theories and research presented here add a possible psychological argument; that from an interpersonal perspective that includes the mother’s subjectivity, having a second child may indeed not be a hindrance to creativity, but on the contrary, a promotion to it.
Returning to Sandler’s article, she later indicated that she was misunderstood by a “bogus headline” to an essay about how she found inspiration in female writers. She also added that she agrees with the need to improve policies that affect mothers. This brings up another big question (for later examination) of how media contributes to the infamous “Mommy Wars” or the riling up of motherhood debates. It is telling of the sensitivities of this topic that it apparently only takes a “bogus headline” to get a group of acclaimed female professionals to eagerly engage in online debates.
Frost, N. (2014). Mothering the Other. Psychoanalytic Understandings of Becoming a Mother to a Second Child. In: Bueskens, P. (Ed.) Mothering & Psychoanalysis, 342-356. Toronto: Demeter Press.
Parker, R. (1995). Mother Love/Mother Hate. New York: BasicBooks.
Parker, R. (1997). The Production and Purposes of Maternal Ambivalence. In: Hollway, W. & Featherstone, B. (Eds.) Mothering and Ambivalence, 17-36. London: Routledge.