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.

Upcoming conference on Maternity

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).
Click here for more information and subscription.

The role and position of ‘les proches’

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.

Postpartum despair epidemic

One of many examples of how women who recently gave birth are not receiving support, neither given recognition nor adequate care, left by themselves in this entire new and very vulnerable state, as other tasks, roles and positions have higher priority in the way that Western society is organized. This is mean in itself, as stated in this article, but it is also mean how an apparant and most expensive solution is quickly given entrance into the market: a new drug. This article speaks of the US, but postpartum depression is not only underrecognized there. Alternatives from which women around the globe would benefit include TLC, personal support, longer leave, flexibility and suitable accommodations for breast-feeding when a mother returns to work. Cheaper, more substantial. However, it takes a different kind of world, one that puts care central.

Mother and Artist Shira Richter

Recently I had the honor to meet Israeli mother and artist Shira Richter. We immediately connected as mothers of twins. In our research network ‘concerning maternity’ she showed many of her works which are artistic interpretions and expressions of the many aspects concerned in mothering: the bodily marks after pregnancy, the pacifying effect of pacifiers and baby bottle teats, the not so helpful comments and advice offered by others. Admire her work and read this interview and this interview.

She is also an activist in a country where becoming a mother means producing a soldier for its defense. She showed an image of a fetus making a military salute and wearing a military baret. It was from an advertisement from an Israeli maternity hospital (that appears in this YouTube video). A shocking social imaginary. In this militarized context, maternity means something else than in a peaceful context like my own, and it came as a shock to me to learn this.

Review of ‘Mother’ by Sarah Knott

Reading with much interest The Guardian‘s review of ‘Mother’ by Sarah Knott, written by Laura Feigel (also an author I must look up). Knott stands in the tradition of Rachel Cusk and others, describing mother’s experiences in the months preceding and following giving birth. But Knott adds something special: historical research into these experiences, as far as she can find it. That is interesting! She shows how these experiences have changed yet can be communal over time. For even though mothers have lived in quite different circumstances, many aspects of ‘being a mother’ are similar. This comparison sheds a clarifying light on our present culture, in which the working and mothering culture are quite separated and not supposed to have an impact on each other. Knott concludes with a plea that we need to join forces as mothers to make space for caring and create a culture of interruption, where caring is allowed to have priority,, and on the other hand mothers neither need not be totally involved in caring but are allowed to have their attention interrupted too. I quote Feigel’s review:

At the end, she asks herself if she has a political vision for motherhood and suggests “a defence of caring under late capitalism”. She doesn’t expand on this, but I found that there was a cumulative political force in the argument she makes for valuing interruption, given that it is the rhythm of so many of our lives. This means no longer privileging the kind of working culture that assumes that our children must be excluded, or the kind of mothering culture that assumes that our children must be the centre of our thoughts during every hour they’re in our company.

Matrescence: changes in the mother and father brains

Matrescence is the term coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael in 1973 for the fundamental changes women go through when becoming mothers. She compares it to the other, common, and well described transition to adulthood: adolescence. In this Ted talk reproductive psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks reinvigorates this term for her own practice. She tells that postpartum women are calling her, saying that motherhood ‘isn’t supposed to feel like this’. They feel discomfort and wonder whether they have a disease. ‘Matrescence’ to her is helpful to describe the transition to motherhood, e.g. the normality of it. It is amazing how little we know about it in common life as well as in academia.

The same amazement is expressed in this Dutch TV-show by brain researcher Elseline Hoekzema, neuro endocrinologist Peter Bos and pedagogue Marian Bakermans, who researched both mothers’ and fathers’ reaction to becoming a parent. At delivery women do have a head start to fathers because of hormonal changes during pregnancy. Their brains show substantial differences that remain for two years, and never disappear completely. However, if fathers are (substantially) involved in babycare, they can easily catch up in becoming attentive, responsive parents. This is not what a few days of father’s leave can help accomplish, I think.

Interesting: women who are mothers are still quite ‘terra incognita’ for research, and what traditionally has been reduced to a gender or hormonal difference can now be refuted: it is an involvement in practices of care that makes the difference.