Maternity demands ambivalent ethics

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.

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