Bad Mothers – the worst taboo?

What a relief to hear the writer Ayelet Waldman, author of Love and Treasure, exhort mothers to tell the truth, “even – no, especially – when the truth is difficult”. (Guardian, 19/04)

Not only is motherhood not always what it’s cracked up to be, but women are left isolated and sometimes, children put at risk, as we are too afraid to ask for help or let off steam by talking honestly. It’s time to tell the truth. Mothers, shout it from the rooftops.

We don’t want to hear a mother’s truths: we don’t want to know about her struggle with herself as she wrangles her children. We don’t want to know about her resentment or even hatred for her child; we close our ears when she lets slip that she finds motherhood boring, unfulfilling or terrifying. We want mothers to hide their complexity because complexity maketh a monster.

As a mother, I, too, have hidden behind the lies and half-truths, been ground down by the political and patriarchal policing of motherhood that Waldman writes about. I, too have been a member of that exhausted congregation, soaked up each commandment on perfect parenting. You’re not feeding them right. You didn’t breastfeed long enough. You’re allowing too much screen time. You swear too much. Let alone the questions that trap women in the good-bad, angel-monster dichotomy of femaleness: are you back in your pre-baby jeans? Bonding with the child? Having enough sex? How’s that career? House looking beautiful?

Despite having close relationships with other women in which I can discuss many intimate details of my life, there exists a taboo against admitting that we might not find motherhood as satisfying or riveting as we’d hoped. Though I adore my children there have been times when if I could have, I’d have handed them back. But would most women admit that? Not a hope.

As a daughter I have viewed my own mother through the lens of fear and loathing because she didn’t fit the “good mother” mould. As a little girl I remember my horror as she told me not to call her “mum” and warned me off having children. What freak would describe being a mother as “hell on earth?” Raising three children alone, she was no freak, I see now, but a young woman under pressure who sometimes resented her children.

As a young girl I couldn’t see her as human, as having needs that weren’t being met. As a woman, and now, as a writer, I see the horrendous strain she was under.

As a novelist I’ve freed myself. My need to understand my mother’s ambivalence, to reclaim my own complexity and to find empathy, led me to Cora, the protagonist of my novel, Wounding.

Cora is, in fact, the everywoman; the ‘everymother’. She is knotty, broken in parts, confused; so damaged by what she perceives as her “lack” that she looks for punishment in self-harm. She, like so many mothers, is at risk of being completely subsumed.

“She pictures the children, their demanding, clutching limbs, their hungry faces, their toes and fingers, grasping, grasping. Natural demands that ask too much of her. She is defined by what she is unable to give. She is defined by her lack. She is lack, a void, a blank space that devours. Takes, takes, takes. She cannot give.”

I created Cora because I wanted to write from a female point of view that wasn’t simplistic. I didn’t want to reduce her to a stereotype. I wanted to test the reader: can you feel compassion for this flawed woman? Cora struggles to fit the expectations of her family and wider society. Does this make her normal or deviant? Unnatural? An aberration?

I was prepared for some backlash to Wounding but I’ve been surprised by how many readers, in particular, women readers, have identified and empathised with her struggles.

There’s nothing ‘natural’ in our current blueprint for motherhood; as Waldman tells us too, women are the primary authors of our own subjugation. I want the story of motherhood to be rewritten, for just as women have begun to claim some equality we are reminded that we aren’t ready yet to be individuals, with our own motivations, tastes, passions and fears. We are trapped in the dichotomous territory of femaleness: good or bad, angel or monster.

‘Think, we had mothers’ Troilus and Cressida.

A box arrived in the post today.  Pretty big, a couple of feet wide and a foot deep, it was taped shut, the corners perfect, no ragged edges. The address was written out in a small, curling hand. I have no real interest in graphology, but the handwriting suggested the script of someone kind and gentle. I read too much into things. Of course. I opened the box, tearing at the brown tape and released a cloud of stale cigarette smoke, furniture polish and lavender perfume; the scent of my grandparent’s home, my childhood home. They died a couple of months ago and my aunt and uncle have been clearing out the house, emptying it of all the objects and detritus that made it a home; slowly, laboriously they are reducing it to a house. They’d sent me some of my grandmother’s dresses and some costume jewelry. Her things lay there, folded and packed carefully, torn loose from their proper place. I closed the box and went to work. Still unable to confront my grief, I prefer to side step it, as if it were an obstacle that I could pass by and forget.


In A Berlin Chronicle, Walter Benjamin* writes about drawing a diagram of his life and that he knew exactly how it should be done, initially his diagram was of ‘a series of family trees’ however after losing that piece of paper, he realized when trying to reconstruct the image in his imagination that rather than resembling trees, more properly the diagram would be a labyrinth. He writes about the ‘primal relationships’ that make up this confounding tangle that produces him.


It’s this Labyrinth, the dead-ends and blind corners of memory and relation that this project is about. It makes sense then to start with the first relationship we mammals have. Though in my case (as it is for many others) that’s not straightforward, my mother was a teenager when I was born and so we lived with my grandparents and her younger brother and sisters – So I was mothered by aunts, my Nanna, Granddad, as well as my mother… But it is my grandmother – my Nanna – that I remember clearly. Her patience, her tender care. I remember being loved and cherished. Safe. A psychiatrist recently told me that it was my relationship with my grandmother that enabled me to survive my childhood and teenage years; years spent living with my mother, away from my grandparents.


Not long ago I watched a documentary about Mitochondrial Eve, the mother of us all, the woman from whom ALL modern humans descend. It imagined her making an epic journey across Africa that resulted in spread of her offspring across every continent. I don’t know if it’s believed that she did make that journey herself, or if it was a metaphor for the future proliferation of her offspring, but it was comforting to think about the connection to her, a mother I imagine to be a benevolent mother, untroubled by complex language perhaps, and therefore incapable of the cruel and excoriating criticisms and barely concealed disappointment that I inspired in my own mother. The caustic, dangerous or neglectful mother is hardly unusual, or new, despite the mythic image of the angelic and altruistic mother with whom we are said to experience infinite plenitude and a lack of all lack (I forget if it’s Freud or Lacan or both that we should thank for that observation), with poster girl the Virgin Mary and her unfailing devotion to her holy offspring (a displaced libidinal urge perhaps?) as the unassailable standard for maternal behaviour.  


In European fiction, the fecund female has often been associated with monstrosity and deviance. This characterisation was established with the creation of Scylla in Homer’s Odyssey: encoded as an emblem of lust, the fecund female and her squawling, parasitic progeny evoke the seemingly uncontrollable nature of femininity, and unsurprisingly, the image functions as a locus of disgust with, and fear of, sexuality and reproduction. The Christian tradition continued the negative reading of fertility; the female body as the site of reproduction is the sign of sin, for reproduction evokes, if not reenacts, the initial fall from grace.  We have the evil stepmothers in fairy tales – Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and the mothers whose own needs come before their children’s – Medea, Gertrude, Addie Bundren, Mrs. Bennett, Corinne Dollanganger etc. etc. etc. And then there are the vain, over-weaning, possessive mothers that love just that little bit too much – Sophie Portnoy from Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, is the perfect example. 


The most dreadful mother in literature to top all others is, for my money, Erika Kohut’s mother, the protagonist of Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher. For Erika K, her mother is the epitome of the law. ‘She puts Erika against the wall, under interrogation – inquisitor and executioner in one, unanimously recognised as Mother by the State and by the Family.’ (PT, 3) Erika internalises her mother’s endless cruelties and uses self-harm  – cutting into her own flesh – as a release, or perhaps as an expression of rage, or just to do the job of harm for herself.

Jelinek writes ‘By not encouraging injuries, a mother avoids having to close wounds later on.  Erika’s mother prefers inflicting injuries herself, then supervising the therapy’ (PT, 9). Erika’s mother is a vindictive and controlling sadist and the sadistic mother is perhaps our most primal fear, our trusted caregiver having infinite power over us – literally over whether we live or die.

Deleuze places masochism directly under the auspices of the mother, rejecting the classic depiction of the dominus as phallic or father figure. The three types of mother figure encountered in Deleuze’s maternal scene are the Oral, Uterine and Oedipal.  The Oral mother is perceived as nurturing and providing nourishment (in the Imaginary scene of reading, text and reader could be said to constitute a maternal unity), the Uterine mother describes a prostituted and public sexuality that is available to all and the Oedipal mother is perceived as the didactical disciplinarian. The perfect or good mother is a balance of the three archetypes; when she is damaged, by her own experience of poor mothering, or poverty, violence or mental illness (or all of these factors), the balance is lost.


Wherever we turn it seems the mother figure gets a rough time of it, blamed for all our personal and social ills. It appears to be another stick to beat women with, another demonization (or over-simplification) and for most people their mothers are ‘good enough’ to use Winnicott’s phrase. Ordinary and loving, providing ordinary care.  The mother is a person in her own right after all, doing the best she can with what she’s got. But while I shrink from adding to the tradition of maternal blame and its undercurrent of misogyny, this untangling of self, of following the shadows of memory through the labyrinth of relation, has to deal as honestly as possible with my remembering.  The question I keep coming back to is this: what kind of mother was my grandmother to her own children? Was my experience of receiving tenderness and unconditional love from her very different from that experienced by her own children? How else do I understand our family’s history of abuse and cruelty?


In the end, I’m hostage to a simple phrase, from a simple, ordinary scene. A mother is alone with her daughter. The girl is around 17 or so. Perhaps they look alike; perhaps the girl is a little taller. They are watching TV.

The mother turns to her child and says –

‘You are very, very difficult to love.’

And it’s this that stays with the daughter, fixing her in place, like a beast in a tar pit, struggling for release.


  • I know it’s an intellectual cliché to quote Benjamin – like invoking the gods before launching an expedition across the seas.  Forgive me, I’m nervous, I need the back up.

**  Gilles Deleuze, “Coldness and Cruelty,” Masochism trans. Jean McNeil, (New York, Zone Books, 1991), p.196