Rozsika Parker, Torn in Two: The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence.
London: Virago, 1995. Pp. 299.
Reviewed by Jo Nash
Torn In Two 'is an important contribution to psychoanalytic perspectives on mothering, which dismantles some of our culture's most cherished mythologies concerning maternal experience and it's relationship to child development. Rozsika Parker contrasts mothers' often surprised and surprising accounts of their child's responses to contained expressions of maternal ambivalence, with mothers' accounts of how their attempts at a repudiation of their hateful feelings towards their children often ends up imprisoning them in depression, and children in idealising/denigrating phantasy relationships to mothers.
The author's accounts of a wide range of maternal experiences are drawn from her extensive clinical experience as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist working with clients who are mothers, her own experience as a mother, various feminist and/or psychoanalytic textual accounts of mothering, and an undisclosed number of conversations with other mothers who agreed to be interviewed for the study.
Parker is arguing for a shift in focus away from the dominant concerns of traditional psychoanalytic accounts of mothering, which have tended to view the mother solely in terms of her role as the primary nurturing environment for her child. In contrast, she concentrates on the psychological processes involved in maternal development, via a recognition of the cultural pressures exerted on mothers to live up to persecutory maternal ideals. She explores how mothers responses to these pressures may affect her relationship with her developing child, especially when a mother encounters her own mixed feelings towards her child's need to negotiate issues of separation, fear of engulfment by, loss of, and difference from, her. Parker's uses an eclectic mixture of psychoanalytic perspectives plus various feminist and non-feminist perspectives on mothering to reflect upon these women's different experiences of maternal ambivalence. By attending to these accounts in terms of the development of mothers in the context of the mother-infant relationship she accomplishes her aim of a shift in focus away from the needs of 'His majesty the baby' (Freud), towards a fresh understanding of the needs and desires of women who are primary carers of children. She writes:
However, she argues that conscious experiences of maternal ambivalence are particularly difficult for mothers in our culture, who often feel ambivalent feelings towards their children are totally unacceptable and potentially dangerous. The result is that hateful feelings are either internalised, resulting in persecutory guilt and maternal depression; or split-off and carried by the child. She writes,
This points to the cultural taboo surrounding female aggression especially as a component of maternal ambivalence. This widespread taboo means that mother's become psychologically estranged from their own destructiveness and by implication, the creative potential of their own ambivalence. Parker's use of psychoanalysis shows how this split-off aggression has destructive consequences for both maternal development and mothers' creative involvement with the development of their children.
The reports of the mothers in this study demonstrate the risk involved when aggressive feelings towards children are split-off, and instead of being experienced consciously and thought about, are acted-out. This can stretch across a wide spectrum of behaviour, beginning with shaking a crying baby in despair, and ending with beating a child severely out of feelings of persecuted rage. Parker argues that this risk of abuse could be avoided if our culture allowed mothers to have their ambivalent feelings towards children without instilling shame and guilt in them. Mothers would then be able to think about what was happening in relationship to their children, and use their ambivalence creatively.
However, it is our culture's deep ambivalence about maternal ambivalence that instead reinforces the circulation of destructive passions between mothers and children. She proposes that our fear of facing the reality of maternal ambivalence is rooted in our infantile terror that a mother's hate will destroy her love and concern, leading to a child's isolation and abandonment. This fear of loss of the good mother is defended against by the idealisation or denigration of mothers, and 'provides a context which inflates maternal guilt, rendering ambivalence at times unmanageable' (p. 21). Parker argues that the social conditions of twentieth century mothering intensify the unbearable aspects of ambivalence. She writes:
She goes on to examine how the cultural fantasy of the' at-oneness' of mother and child underpins this idealisation of motherhood. As Jessica Benjamin has also argued, this fantasy encourages merging and promotes a dangerous inertia which blocks the development of mutuality and the recognition and mediation of differences. Parker suggests that this undermines a mother's capacity for creative thinking about what is going on between herself and her child. In contrast, she says, citing W. R. Bion's work, psychoanalysis has shown that the suffering of ambivalence that is the clashing of love and hate, promotes thought and acts a spur to development. Should the mother's capacity to contain her infant's (and thereby her own) ambivalence breakdown, she is incapable of experiencing what Winnicott called 'maternal reverie'. In such a situation, Bion writes, 'The tasks that the breakdown in the mother's capacity for reverie have left unfinished are imposed on the rudimentary consciousness...' (1967, p. 116)
In other words, the infant attempts to contain the mother's ambivalence rather than the other way around. This results in what Bion calls a 'precocious development of consciousness' (p. 115) in the infant. This failure to establish a benign management of ambivalence on the part of the mother, which will be affected by how she manages the power of her infants immature (uncontainable) ambivalence to evoke ambivalent reactions in her, compels the infant to fall back upon the most rudimentary means of containment, involving projections of denigrating and idealising phantasies of the breast, that further complicate the mother's attempt to contain ambivalence by splitting her in two. A malignant feedback loop of projective identification thus establishes itself between them.
This results in the erosion of the mothers capacity for reverie and containment, and the developing child's inability to distinguish truth from falsehood and phantasy from reality. In this kind of situation, it seems the primary carer is unable to tolerate ambivalence. Parker's work would suggest that the mother in this situation is responding to the call of a deeply entrenched cultural imperative to embody persecutory maternal ideals that are underpinned by a fantasy of the 'at-oneness' of mother and baby. Predictably, she finds herself failing in this task. Furthermore, the infant enmeshed in this malignant feedback loop becomes increasingly dependent on it's own rudimentary means of containment - phantasy - to make sense of what is going on between itself and mother.
Parker's work suggests that unless primary carers, usually women who are mothers, are able to think about and thus contain their own ambivalent responses to the demands of infants in their care, then the developing child has no option but to 'project and re-project omnipotent phantasies in order to sustain itself. As we exist in a culture which is profoundly ambivalent about maternal ambivalence, then it is very difficult for the majority of child-carers who are mothers to allow themselves to experience consciously both tender and angry feelings towards their children. Such ambivalence, Parker's study suggests, is felt to be uncontainable by most mothers, who split off and/or repudiate any hateful feelings they may experience. However, these hateful feelings have to go somewhere, and the result is often persecutory guilt, maternal depression (as a result of internalised anger) or the use of child as 'container'. The latter outcome will lead to an impairment in the child's emotional development and it's own capacity for creative play and reverie. The most devastating outcome for both parties involved is child-abuse.
In the light of Parker's study it seems that a new reading of Kleinian accounts of the psychodynamics of the mother-infant dyad becomes possible. Instead of a focus on the developing capacities of the infant to mediate it's own constitutional 'life and death instincts' towards mother, it seems possible to think about how the infant's 'sadistic oral-anal impulses', characteristic of paranoid schizoid stage, may perhaps be the efforts of an immature, infantile psyche to contain and process a mother's split-off aggression. Importantly for Parker, however, the mother's ordinary experience of aggression is made extraordinary within the mother child relationship, because maternal aggression is taboo and thus intolerable for most mothers. This disallows any non-persecutory recognition of maternal ambivalence, thus denying mother's any means of gaining a creative, critical distance from their mixed feelings.
Parker's study shows how our Western culture depicts maternity in synonymously idealised and denigrating terms, which are the by-product of culturally dominant phantasies of mothering, and are detrimental to both maternal and child development.
The mothers in Parker's study are persecuted by any conscious recognition of mixed feelings, and do everything they can to deny 'bad' feelings and split them off. This makes mothers estranged from their own emotional reality, and thus emotionally inaccessible to the developing child. When Bion's ideas are used in conjunction with Parker's perspectives on these issues, his work suggests that children in this situation come increasingly to depend on both their own, and culturally generated, phantasies about mothers, rather than any real intersubjective encounter with mother, to make sense of what is going on.
Inevitably, this means that the child risks developing a phantastic relationship to femininity wherein female aggression is taboo and maternal goodness is idealised. This will have different consequences for the child depending on it's gendered psychosexual identifications with mother.
These ideas suggest that the ability to contain our own ambivalence and that of others is a necessary condition for the development of thinking and creativity in general. However, Parker's study suggests that our culture remains greatly ill-at-ease with overt expressions of maternal ambivalence. This may contribute towards and also result from the general cultural taboo around female aggression. Consequently healthy child-development leading to the generation of creative, thoughtful adults remains a remote possibility.
The cure for this 'cultural neurosis' will depend largely on feminists' continuing struggle to re-conceptualise the phallocentric and homogenising categories of 'femininity' and 'mothering'. These new categories must subvert the cultural tendency to conflate 'femininity' with maternity. Luce Irigaray has argued that our Western patriarchal culture refuses any means of symbolisation, or recognition, to those expressions of 'the feminine' that exist beyond the call of a 'maternal matrix of meaning'.
Parker's work reinforces Irigaray's view. Women in general must somehow throw off the persecutory idealising phantasy constructs of women mothers that pervade our culture in order to develop as full subjects. The persecutory/idealising constraints of the maternal matrix of meaning disallows all women the right to experience consciously their own aggression without persecutory guilt and self- loathing.
Although this work is written about women's experiences of mothering who seem to hold cultural attitudes toward maternal experience that reflect predominantly Eurocentric, bourgeois expectations of mothers, Parker's study further upholds the conclusions of those of us holding the 'third wave' feminist view that the recognition of women's autonomous subjectivities, and sexual differences (from differently positioned women, from men, from children) is a necessary condition of creative, more equitable relationships between all of us.
It seems that a dismantling of the taboo surrounding maternal ambivalence such as Rozsika Parker prescribes could lead to a fuller, more creative, autonomous experience of female subjectivity in general, whether women choose to become mothers or not.
To appear in Free Associations.
Copyright: The Author and Publisher
Address for correspondence: c/o Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies, University of Sheffield. 16 Claremont Crescent, Sheffield, S10 2TA
The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM