The World’s Toughest Job

“The perfect mother” is a cudgel to cut down the flesh-and-blood variety.

Illustration by Esther Aarts

In 2014, the advertising firm MullenLowe launched a campaign, “World’s Toughest Job.” The ad firm listed a fake job, “Director of Operations,” in newspapers and online, and held interviews with a variety of hopefuls. The inter-viewer then went over an extensive roster of requirements: working on one’s feet for most of the day, no breaks, excellent negotiation skills, availability to work through the night, increased workload on holidays, and, the pièce de résistance, “the position is going to pay absolutely nothing.” The interviewees look appropriately eager, then surprised, then incredulous. Billions of people already do this job, the interviewer says: “Moms.” Cue the piano and strings. “Moms are awesome!” one of the interviewees shouts after the reveal.

Probably unintentionally, “World’s Toughest Job” zeroes in on the conflicted nature of motherhood. Just how selfless are those late nights with a sick child and hours spent pushing swings? As we fixate on the obviously contrived figure of mother-as-cheerful-martyr — the mother we want to remember — what levels of their resentment, pride, boredom, and rage do we suppress or refuse to acknowledge? Expressions of these motherly affects are allowable only in the tiniest doses, or else they make us squeamish.

In her latest book, Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, Jacqueline Rose examines these complex dimensions of motherhood. Her ambi-tion thunders in its opening question: “What are we doing — what aspects of our social arrangements and of our inner lives, what forms of historic injustice, do we turn our backs on, above all what are we doing to mothers — when we expect them to carry the burden of everything that is hardest to contemplate about our society and ourselves?” Striving towards an answer, Rose’s text ranges across sensationalist headlines about migrant mothers in the British tabloid the Sun, ancient Greek tragic drama, the works of Edith Wharton and Sylvia Plath as well as their relationships with their mothers, and the fiction of Elena Ferrante, Simone de Beauvoir, and Adrienne Rich, to name a few.

Impossibility emerges as one leitmotif of this diverse survey. Across millennia, it seems to be the inescapable condition of mothering. According to Rose’s framing, mothers are the origin points of all people, and hence the origin of all the world’s problems, as well as their scapegoats. Cultural ideals of motherhood from which no deviation is acceptable keep mothers trapped in this bind; as Rose wisely repeats throughout the book, to idealize is the surest way to punish oneself and others. “The perfect mother” is a cudgel to cut down the flesh-and-blood variety.

This quandary is hardly breaking news, though perhaps no one plumbs its primal sources, its literary expressions, its darkest psychic manifestations as elegantly as Rose. She describes the problem meticulously, from numerous angles. Mothers sits primarily within the realm of psychoanalytical and literary inquiry — Rose’s home terrain. The feminism of Mothers is, fundamentally, a feminism of the seminar room. As such, the book feels slightly out of step with some of today’s most dynamic women’s movements, which have gained traction by enjoining themselves to workers’ movements and tangible political projects, such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance — an organization dedicated to winning better pay and conditions for domestic workers while also spotlighting the sexist devaluation of care work.

On the other hand, there is no denying that mothers loom large over not only our material, but also our psychic lives. And that how they figure in both affects their own earthly and interior lives. A dynamic left can handle shoe-leather organizing and primal questions of the variety Rose asks: are humans doomed to keep demanding the impossible of mothers, and then punishing them in turn when they flinch at the burden?

Early in Mothers, in her discussion of right-wing panics over migrant mothers, Rose artfully balances the broader, almost eternal questions about motherhood with contemporary oppressions like militarized borders and the deliberate underfunding of public health services. It is such moments when the book is especially illuminating — when she provides glimpses into how the untenable situations of mothers and their children are exacerbated by political decisions.

Rose dares to journey into the forbidden corners of motherhood. She writes frankly about abandonment and even infanticide, not to excuse such behavior, but to confront us with the idea of mothering as struggle — a struggle that can sometimes end tragically. In the most compelling section, “Hating,” Rose argues for not merely lifting the taboo on airing the negative emotions brought about by mothering, but embracing them, publicly. She writes, “It is this demand — to be respectable and unexplosive — which I see as most likely to drive mothers and by extension their infants crazy … if a mother cannot hold things together, who can?” And more saliently,

For if Western culture in our times, especially in the US and Europe, has repeatedly conspired to silence the inner life of the mother, by laying on mothers the heaviest weight of its own impossible and most punishing ideals, and if the term “mothers” is so often a trigger for self-willed perfection that crushes women as mothers before anyone else, then how can they be expected to hear their children’s cry — not as wailing babies, which is of course hard enough — but as protest and plaint?

As Rose clarifies, in constraining mothers not to feel their frustrations, or to be ashamed when they do, we create a rift between them and their children. The question then becomes, how do we create a society in which every aspect of the “inner life of the mother” finds some expression?

The now-famous “whisper network” of the #MeToo movement is hardly the only such surreptitious chatter that has percolated among women for generations. Those sweet-looking mother-and-baby groups frequently serve as venues for voicing the rage and despair that new mothers often find themselves stewing in — the frustration that one’s body is no longer one’s own (and never will be again), the sleep deprivation, the Sisyphean laundry loads. But as we’ve learned with #MeToo, whisper networks are unreliable and structurally flawed by dint of their being inaccessible to those without an “in.” The real problem is that they exist because there is no publicly validated venue for what they communicate. Because our culture either renders certain motherly emotions unacceptable or pathologizes them, mothers are left to understand these experiences as monstrous, only to be horrified at themselves.

This situation is hardly helpful to mothers or children. But why, Rose asks, should such experiences of mothering be censored, or when voiced, whispered? Why must they be kept private?

Rose echoes Ferrante in her fascination with two infamous mothers of the ancient Mediterranean world, Medea and Dido, who exploded their grief into the public realm, committing political assassinations and vowing enmity between kingdoms. But of course, Medea and Dido are royalty. We are left to ask, how might a poor migrant mother separated from her children make cities quake with her anguish?

Ferrante and Rose view Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina as the stifled descendants of Medea and Dido, left to curdle in their frustrations rather than unleash them onto the world. Fair enough, but the cloistered conditions of modern and contemporary mothering didn’t just blow in like the wind. They were put in place by those with an interest in reproducing patriarchal traditions to facilitate the accumulation of capital and close down dissent. Bourgeois values that fomented a cult of consumerist feminine domesticity; suburbanization and its dearth of sidewalks and parks; public transit that’s barely usable by the able-bodied, let alone those with mobility needs or strollers; and, more recently, employer and social media prodding to project ceaseless happiness are all socially engineered conditions that isolate all people, especially caregivers of children. All of these conditions physically impede or socially deter the airing of motherly dissatisfaction that Rose so astutely articulates.

A powerful antidote to the privatization of motherhood that Rose describes is on view any given day in Copenhagen, Denmark. Outside almost every cafe is a pram or four, containing snoozing babies. Their parents are often found inside, usually near a window affording a pram view, enjoying a precious moment of calm with a coffee and a magazine with the passive support of those in proximity. Street life carries on next to and around the prams, with no one calling the cops or disturbing the nappers. For those new to this routine, it’s a remarkable sight — a society unsentimentally acknowledging their youngest members’ claim to the public sphere as well as their parents’ need get out of the house.

A coffee during junior’s nap won’t cure postpartum depression, end sexism, or completely calm the psychic storms Rose describes. But practical gestures such as accommodating the street-side pram snooze bring children and caregivers into the world, which is where they belong. Articulating problems is essential to solving them, or, failing that, determining ways to live with them humanely. Rose’s book is useful in this respect, particularly as she describes the poisonous interplay between the idealization and privatization of motherhood, and how it harms mothers and children alike. It is an important insight. Nevertheless, one wonders how well her book will speak to those who aren’t showing up to class already.

Recent events such as the 2018 wave of American public-school teachers’ strikes and Donald Trump’s surprising portion of the women’s vote in 2016 have upended conventional wisdom about what feminist issues are, who constitutes the working class, and which people can or will get on board with progressive causes. Within this context, writers like Barbara Ehrenreich, Nancy Fraser, and Naomi Klein, whose work exposes the ways in which a profit-driven world establishes and entrenches sexist oppression, have invigorated new generations. Most critically, they are able to speak to and beyond the choir in a way that Rose’s Freudianism does not.

Fraser’s emphatically materialist approach to examining the impossible conditions of motherhood is a useful addition to Rose’s. Fraser observes that contemporary mothers, suffering from a poverty of time and crushing pressure to earn enough to support a family in a society with meager public goods, are presented with technological fixes — that they can purchase on an individual basis. Egg-freezing technology, which Google and Facebook subsidize for their female employees, makes up for the fact that conceiving a child, or even exploring relationships with possible partners, might be necessarily de-prioritized for a student-debt-saddled woman during her most fertile phase of life. Mechanical breast pumps allow wealthier women to follow “breast is best” dictates while returning to work as early as possible: “No longer a matter of suckling a child at one’s breast, one ‘breastfeeds’ now by expressing one’s milk mechanically and storing it up for feeding by bottle later by one’s nanny.” Fraser demonstrates how care, and mothering in particular, is dehumanized and rationalized to its most basic functionality, leaving no room for mother or child to experience the love and pleasure, as well as the frustration that Rose describes as the complex richness of motherhood.

Working-class projects that tackle political economy head on and articulate specific, tangible goals with broad social reach, such as the fight for an increased minimum wage and an end to mass incarceration, have been those with the greatest traction. Most critically, these have been the platforms from which feminists have expanded beyond the predictable — and small — cliques of university circles and corporate mentoring groups.

None of this is to say that historical or literary analysis has no role in the fight to create a less constrained existence for mothers and children. Nor is it necessary to fly a Marxist flag to do so. French feminist writer Élisabeth Badinter, who Rose cites, set out in her 1980 book, Mother Love: Myth and Reality (L’Amour en plus), to demolish the essentialist notion of maternal instinct. Badinter argues that the staggering rates of infant mortality in eighteenth-century France owed to maternal preoccupation with other aspects of their lives, noting that many of these infants died away from home, while lodging with poorly paid wet nurses providing (understandably) half-hearted care.

According to Badinter, it was Jean-Jacques Rousseau and like-minded contemporaries who characterized children as precious, unique creatures — the stars around which French family life orbited. They advocated hyper-attentive mothering, which they cast as “natural.” Though eagerly adopted in nominally leftist counter-culture groups, similar ideas about “natural” or attachment parenting are, for Badinter, nothing but the systemic oppression of women, who through breastfeeding on demand, co-sleeping, and responding personally to every infant whimper, must subordinate themselves completely to their child’s demands.

Other feminists have pointed out that despite its granola-and-tie-dye connotations, attachment parenting is a lifestyle possible only for families who don’t require the mother to earn an income. Ultimately, attachment parenting, or any other prescriptive child-rearing regime, is only another ideal for mothers to fail to live up to. While critics and historians have quibbled with Badinter’s interpretation of the past, her success in charting a liberatory path for contemporary mothers renders her a commendable, and formidable, feminist voice.

In the end, a more humane motherhood will not be one devoid of impossibility, frustration, conflict, and fatigue. But it will be one in which these conditions unfold in a society of mutual care and empathy — a society that lets these aspects of motherhood shape it rather than try to stifle them.