After my previous enthusiastic thoughts on Rachel Cusk’s classic ‘A life’s work’ (2001) I was alarmed when I heard that she had received many negative responses to her book. I had considered it This is what I found: her own reaction to the responses to her honesty. I was both thrilled to read more about the book’s and the writer’s context and amazed (how naive!) at the mother-bashing. Cusk’s liberating honesty clearly does not have a place in the frameworks that dominate our culture. What a shame. And what a pressure on mothers.
My paper ‘Liberating the Pregnant Body: disempowerment and disembodiment in maternity care’ on my new research project on a care ethical view of maternity was enthusiastically responded to by the audience of the Global Carework Summit in Toronto last week. One response came from a mother present together with her baby. She responded as a carework researcher and a mother. She had never realized, and was now stunned at, how little she had thought about the pregnant body with regard to carework, even during her own recent pregnancy. Like myself she was amazed at how it is largely lacking in philosophy, sociology, and political (care) ethics.
Symbolically, for 9 months a group of committed researchers cooperated closely to write a grant proposal for a research project into ethical controversies in the mother-midwife relation during childbirth. This CARE-study (Controversies surrounding Autonomy and Responsibility: a care-Ethical study into the mother-midwife relation) is now granted, which means that a young and gifted researcher, philosopher and midwife Rodante van der Waal, is funded to perform her four year PhD study. Next to an empirical research into the advancements of respectful maternity care, the project involves a philosophical study into the ontology and history of pregnancy, childbirth and midwifery care. The project will be performed at the University of Humanistic Studies (Utrecht, The Netherlands) under the supervision of prof dr Carlo Leget. I am proud to be involved in this as co-supervisor.
So many influential traditional birth stories and myths are told depicting the mother as a container, a vessel, from which a special person was born. The emphasis in these stories lies on the latter person, and his importance can often be considered as the reason for the myth. Yet these same stories can be turned around, allowing them to become powerful stories in which women’s experiences through the ages can be expressed. Here is a link to a wonderful reversed story of the birth of the child Siddharta, who would grow up to become the Buddha, retold, this time including, not excluding, what makes up the experience of a birth-giving mother.
In preparing my lecture for next week’s conference ‘Concerning Maternity’ I will draw upon Sarah LaChance Adams’ book Mad Mothers, Bad Mothers, & What a ‘Good’ Mother Would Do. The book’s main point, that mothering (as well as parenting) is always full of conflicting values and ambivalent being, remains important and deserving of more attention. The way in which society, but also researchers and ethicists, often seem to have a clearcut idea on how mothers should behave, dividing them quickly into ‘bad’, mad’, or ‘good’, ignores how deeply conflicted mothers (and parents in general) might be on what a ‘good’ mother (parent) might do. LaChance Adams’ approach of bringing mothers’ voices that express their own experiences in a dialogue with care ethics and (phenomenological) philosophers, is fruitful in understanding the depth of the internal and external conflicts of mothers (and parents).
The point of departure is a wonderful presentation of the mothers’ own expressions of their experiences, for which LaChance Adams draws upon a vast amount of empirical research. This is an excellent overview of the key problem of ambivalence. It is not often the case that researchers in the field of maternity draw upon care ethics and phenomenology. LaChance Adams presents a broad range of care ethicists next to the works of Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Simone de Beauvoir. These sources are helpful for a multilayered analysis of maternal ambivalence. LaChance Adams is loyal to phenomenology by aiming for a deep understanding of this phenomenon, instead of seeing it as a problem that needs to be solved.
A less strong point is how Lachance Adams quite closely connects her own search for understanding maternal ambivalence to the philosophers’ views, by paying (too) little attention to their own key problem. Thereby she risks the incorrect suggestion that their philosophical undertaking was about maternal ambivalence as well. Nevertheless the book is an important and good read on a most relevant and undertheorized topic.
The research network Concerning Maternity has organized a third international conference on the 7th of May, where we will analyze and explore the lived experience of both pregnant and maternal subjectivity, as well as that of midwifery, in order to consider the question: what are pregnant and maternal subjectivities and how can maternity care attune to them adequately?
With Stella Villarmea (Spain), Mavis Kirkham (Scotland), Jonna Bornemark (Sweden), Lisa Baraitser (UK), Beatrijs Smulders (NL), Bahareh Goodarzi (NL), Neske Beks (NL) and others. Chaired by Rodante van der Waal, PhD student, philosopher and midwifery student (NL).
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During the last days of March I had the honor of giving the key note address at the colloquium ‘Quelle place pour les proches dans le soin?’ organized by the Swiss Network of Ethics of Care (SNEC), in Lausanne, Switzerland. I learned that the French word ‘les proches’ and the Dutch word ‘de naasten’ are more adequate to indicate those who are relevant for clients, patients or residents than the English terms ‘partner and family’. In care ethics and many other disciplines the idea gains ground that these close ones cannot be ignored in health care. Fot this it takes a critical look at how health care is usually organized. Many examples were given of ‘les proches’ being ignored, informed too late or misinformed, etc. A field of often painful and irrepairable experiences that requires professionals and institutions to become more caring, also in the wider relational network.