‘The definition of motherhood in our culture is one in which the mother sacrifices herself to the child. She sacrifices her self,’ argues Susan Griffin in ‘Feminism and Motherhood’, an essay she originally published in the 1970s. Like many of her influential contemporaries, such as Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, or Adrienne Rich, Griffin is interested in the idea of ‘maternal finitude’, which subverts the traditional ‘belief that she [the mother] could satisfy our desires if she really wanted to’.
“The murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness.”
Although motherhood implies ‘a space shared with the other’, the aforementioned feminist theorists renounced the concept of the mother and the child as a unity ‘expressing the original unity of the world’, claiming that such definition only reinforces the Christian ideal of ‘kenosis or the loss of self’ traditionally encouraged in mothers. Instead of idealising the mother as a selfless martyr suppressing her own needs to fulfil those of the F/father and the child, second-wave feminists perceived motherhood as ‘the field of contradictions’, a space for ‘ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness’. Hence, the second-wave feminist theory subverts the myth of the selfless mother who has an infinite capacity to give and nurture. Furthermore, it highlights the complexity as well as the finitude of maternal love and selflessness.
Despite the fact that the volume of feminist research on mothering has grown since the 70s, the twenty-first-century mass media and culture still mostly ‘idealize and glamorize motherhood’. This leads to the bifurcation of mothers into either good or bad, based on whether they comply with the selfless paradigm mother or not. To demonstrate how literature can defy this oversimplification and instead highlight the ambivalence inherent to motherhood, I have analysed feminist writing of the 70s, particularly of Jane Lazarre’s memoir The Mother Knot — which, I argue, offers a complex portrayal of mothering otherwise underrepresented in twenty-first-century fiction.
“Did you hurt yourself, my son?”
Lazarre is not shy to discuss the less glamorous sides of motherhood. ‘Now I’m a mother and that means I’m nothing,’ she writes, implying that, according to society, a mother’s life is to be fulfilled once she surrenders herself to the absolute selflessness, just like Mary did for Christ, in other words dies for her offspring, either literally like the mother in the following poem or figuratively by giving up her own self.
Feminist theorist Sara Ruddick discusses this internalised rhetoric of maternal selflessness by analysing a Jewish folk poem in which a son rips out his mother’s heart; when he stumbles and falls still holding the heart in his hands, it asks him: ‘Did you hurt yourself, my son?’. While Ruddick considers this folktale in terms of maternal powerlessness in ‘any society’, she does not mention its most disturbing subtext: the poem not only illustrates that the maternal body is a site of violence and sacrifice but also embodies the irony of the Virgin Mary myth. According to Kristeva’s interpretation of this myth, mothers are ‘crucified beings’ forced to commit a ‘self-sacrifice involved in becoming anonymous’ in order to stabilise the (patriarchal) society.
Interestingly, maternal self-sacrifice is almost always tied not only to a mother’s psyche but also to her body. In her memoir, Lazarre, too, thematises the realities of maternal finitude by focusing on the mother’s body and its limits. For instance, Lazarre complains about her weak back and ‘a nagging pain’ from carrying the baby carriage down the stairs every day. In another scene, Lazarre admires the physical beauty of another mother whose breasts ‘seemed very round for someone who had given birth’. Here Lazarre allows herself to mourn rather than celebrates the physical sacrifices she made for her son.
“She knew, I was certain, or should since the signs where there that I was an inadequate mother.”
However, the realities of maternal finitude are often silenced by society. As Michelle Walker Boulous suggests, ‘women are silenced most effectively by their association with maternity. The maternal body operates as the site of women’s radical silence’. In many cases, this silencing becomes particularly prevalent, since mothers in literature represent themselves mostly by their inner dialogues rather than voicing their thoughts aloud. On the other hand, some maternal characters, such as Eva in Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, draw attention to maternal silencing by their silence: they find agency primarily in their mothering-related memories that often disrupt the present narrative, and thus portray motherhood as a fragmented experience — a depiction contrary to the Christian ideal of maternal unity.
Lazarre too thematises maternal silencing, namely by pointing out society’s tendency to divide mothers into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. When Lazarre admits to another woman — whom she idealises as the ‘good’ mother — that her baby cries through the night, she is immediately overcome by maternal guilt: ‘She knew, I was certain, or should since the signs where there that I was an inadequate mother.’ Only when Lazarre joins a group of mothers who openly discuss the ambivalence of motherly love and finitude of maternal sacrifice does she feel free from the social pressure to perform as the ideal mother because ‘there [is] no one to impress’. In the end, what an authentic story about mothering should illustrate is that the ‘good mother’ and the selfless mother are a myth; in fact, a mother would become useless if she had given her life away — both literally and figuratively — for her children.
In conclusion, it is the ambivalence of love and selflessness that Lazarre feels towards her son and that, merged with feelings of helplessness, worry, and exhaustion, lead her towards the epiphany of maternal finitude. The specific moment of revelation is noted in her memoir: ‘I would die for [my son] […] but he has destroyed my life and I live only to find a way of getting it back.’ Lazarre concludes her meditation by accepting that the ‘growing ability to tolerate ambivalence […] is what motherly love is like’.
 Susan Griffin, ‘Feminism and Motherhood’, in Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood, ed. by Moyra Davey (New York: Seven Stories P, 2001), p. 37.
 Kaja Silverman, Flesh of My Flesh (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009), p. 94.
 Silverman, p. 94. Original emphasis.
 Katerina Bauerova, ‘Motherhood as a Space for the Other: A Dialogue between Mother Maria Skobtsova and Hélène Cixous’, Feminist Theology, 26:2 (2018), 133–46 (p. 134).
 Bauerova, p. 135.
 Bauerova, p. 134. Original emphasis.
 Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: Norton and Company, 1976), p. 21.
 Rich, p. 13.
 Valerie Heffernan and Gay Wilgus, ‘Introduction: Imagining Motherhood in the Twenty-First Century’, Women: A Cultural Review, 29:1 (2018), 1–18 (p. 3).
 Katherine N. Kinnick, ‘Media Morality Tales and the Politics of Motherhood’, in Mommy Angst: Motherhood in American Popular Culture, ed. by Ann C. Hall and Mardia J. Bishop (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2009), p. 3.
 Kinnick, p. 3.
 Jane Lazarre, ‘Excerpt from The Mother Knot’, in Mother Reader: Essential Writings on Motherhood, ed. by Moyra Davey (New York: Seven Stories P, 2001), p. 74.
 J. Echergray, ‘Severed Heart’, quoted in Sara Ruddick, ‘Maternal Thinking’, Feminist Studies, 6:2 (1980), 342–67 (p. 342).
 Ruddick, p. 343.
 Julia Kristeva, ‘Stabat Mater’, in The Kristeva Reader, ed. by Toril Moi (New York: Columbia UP, 1986), p. 178.
 Kristeva, p. 183.
 Lazarre, p. 62.
 Lazarre, p. 73.
 Michelle Walker Boulous, Philosophy and the Maternal Body: Reading Silence, 1998 (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 1.
 Anna Rotkirch, ‘Maternal Guilt’, Evolutionary Psychology, 8:1 (2009), 90–106 (p. 91).
 Lazarre, p. 65.
 Lazarre, p. 70.
 Lazarre, p. 75.
 Lazarre, p. 75.