Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty

Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty

by Jacqueline Rose


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A daring and provocative book-length essay on why we both romanticize and vilify mothers

A simple argument guides this book: motherhood is the place in our culture where we lodge, or rather bury, the reality of our own conflicts. By making mothers the objects of both licensed idealization and cruelty, we blind ourselves to the world’s iniquities and shut down the portals of the heart.

Mothers are the ultimate scapegoat for our personal and political failings, for everything that is wrong with the world, which becomes their task (unrealizable, of course) to repair. Moving commandingly between pop cultural references such as Roald Dahl’s Matilda to insights on motherhood in the ancient world and the contemporary stigmatization of single mothers, Jacqueline Rose delivers a groundbreaking report into something so prevalent we hardly notice.

Mothers is an incisive, rousing call to action from one of our most important contemporary thinkers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374538477
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/21/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 254
Sales rank: 823,095
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.57(d)

About the Author

Jacqueline Rose is the author of numerous books about feminism, psychoanalysis, literature and culture and the Middle East, including Women in Dark Times, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, and The Question of Zion. She is Codirector of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, cofounder of Independent Jewish Voices, and a fellow of the British Academy. Rose is a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books and The Guardian, among many other publications.

Read an Excerpt




On 12 October 2016, The Sun's front-page headline was 'Here for maternity'. According to its report, splashed over half the page, a National Health Service hospital had been used by nine hundred pregnant 'health tourists' in the previous year at a cost to the UK taxpayer of around £4 million in unpaid bills. Officials (unidentified) were quoted as stating that deliveries from non-EU 'mums' accounted for a fifth of all births in St George's Hospital in Tooting, South London. The hospital – read the nation – was being 'deluged', an 'easy target' for 'fixers in Nigeria' who were charging women to use the NHS. The Sun leader, entitled 'Unhealthy cost', described the 'scandal' as 'sickening' (the puns on 'unhealthy' and 'sickening' presumably intentional), and railed against the £2 billion 'blown' on 'foreign tourists with no right to free NHS care' each year.

In response to this crisis, the hospital was planning to request ID or proof of asylum from incoming patients in the maternity ward. The article was illustrated with a photo of Bimbo Ayelabola, a Nigerian mother who gave birth to quintuplets by caesarean section at Homerton University Hospital in 2011 at a cost of '£200,000' to the NHS. Despite the nod to 'fixers in Nigeria', the image of Ayelabola, holding her five babies, had clearly been chosen to reinforce the age-old stereotype of blacks and the poor reproducing irresponsibly and to excess. Abandoned by her wealthy Nigerian husband, The Sun wrote, she was believed to be still living in the UK with her children, and no doubt claiming benefits, to which, it was implied, she would not be entitled. The subliminal – or not so subliminal – message of the article was therefore: Get this mother out (the paper just about refrained from suggesting that she should be hunted down). The unions may baulk at medics acting as 'border guards', the leader commented, but the NHS has an 'army' of administrators who need to 'toughen up'. Apparently, a military response was needed to deal with the scheming dereliction of foreign mothers, who were a threat to the nation's values and resources alike. In The Sun online (12 October 2016), the article was re-titled 'Up the Bluff', as if these women might not even be pregnant.

Why are these mothers so hated? Why are mothers so often held accountable for the ills of the world, the breakdown in the social fabric, the threat to welfare, to the health of the nation – from the funding crisis in the NHS to the influx of foreigners on our shores? Why are mothers seen as the cause of everything that doesn't work in who we are? We are living in an increasingly fortified world, with walls, concrete and imaginary, being erected across national boundaries, reinforcing the distinctions between peoples. From all sides, in Europe and the US, we are accosted by increasingly shrill voices, telling us that our greatest ethical obligation is to entrench our national and personal borders, to be unfailingly self-regarding and sure of ourselves. It is a perfect atmosphere for picking on mothers, for branding them as uniquely responsible for both securing and jeopardising this impossible future.

The Sun was not alone in this particular brand of vitriol. A few months later, in January 2017, the Daily Mail headlined its front page: 'One health tourist's £350,000 bill – and you paid!' with reference to another Nigerian mother who had come to the UK to give birth on the NHS, this time to twins. Inside its pages the paper reprinted the photo of Ayelabola with her five babies: 'Haven't we fallen for this before?' The figure of £350,000 must have been carefully chosen since it echoes the £350 million that Brexit campaigners had falsely claimed would, on a weekly basis, revert to the UK from Europe straight into the coffers of the NHS (which makes the broken promise somehow these mothers' fault). The Sun and the Daily Mail are the country's most right-wing newspapers, but such rhetoric is not without wider effect. According to charity reports from across the UK, hundreds of pregnant foreign women were avoiding antenatal care because they feared being reported to the Home Office or facing costly medical bills. One NHS trust has been sending letters to women with complex asylum claims saying that their maternity care will be cancelled if they fail to bring credit cards to pay fees of more than £5,000.1 It is also worth noting that, without qualification or apology, The Sun and Daily Mail felt able to issue this onslaught on mothers on the verge, or indeed in the process, of giving birth – the minimal requirement of motherhood, one might say. In this, they are by no means unique. As we will see, tormenting mothers is something of a pastime in the so-called civilised world.

'Here for maternity' echoes the title of the 1953 Fred Zinnemann film From Here to Eternity, a phrase which has passed into common parlance in the English-speaking world to evoke a love that will follow its object to the ends of the earth, even if the price is death – the eternity/ maternity echo of the Sun front page suggests that, without drastic action, we are stuck with this problem, with these mothers, for ever. The film is set in the days before Pearl Harbor. Montgomery Clift plays a boxer who refuses to fight with his army mates and prefers to play the bugle, is subjected to cruel treatment by his captain, and is finally killed during the attack. A sergeant (Burt Lancaster) who befriends the Clift character starts an affair with the captain's wife (Deborah Kerr). The film therefore has all the ingredients for 'locker talk' combined with heterosexual passion. But there is a dark side in relation to mothers. In the novel the film is based on, the captain's wife had a hysterectomy after her unfaithful husband infected her with gonorrhoea. To meet Production Code standards, the film changed this to a miscarriage (there could be no mention of venereal disease). In the film, the husband is still a philanderer, but it is the woman's own body that has failed her, robbing her of the possibility of motherhood. The fact that male sexual licence during the war might be putting potential mothers at risk could not be spoken. In a film that goes some way to exposing the cult of masculinity in the army, motherhood is an aside, like the irritating drip of a tap. At the opposite end from the Sun article, although drawing on some of the same degraded impulses, mothers in this film slip in and out – mostly out – of focus. This, I will be suggesting, is a pattern. In modern-day Western culture, mothers are almost invariably the object, either of too much attention or not enough.

The Sun's targeting of foreign mothers came at a time when the image of children without mothers, care or sustenance was at the forefront of the news. Unaccompanied minors were being held in the Calais Jungle, as it came to be known, waiting for the British government to complete the process to allow those who qualify entrance into the UK. In Europe as a whole, there were an estimated 85,000 lone children and young people since the migration crisis began in 2015, roughly one thousand of them in Calais, living 'feral' lives: tents housing up to eighteen children or minors, no mattresses, no heating, no blankets. Several of these minors were killed as they made their bid for freedom in the UK – attaching themselves to the underside of trucks, hiding in refrigerated containers or running into the path of cars they often hoped would drive them to Britain. Despite frequent invocations of the Kindertransport that saved German Jewish children from the Nazi genocide by bringing them to England, the process of admitting these children was painfully slow, stalled by the Conservative government at every turn. In February 2017, the government halted its agreement to resettle three thousand child refugees after just 350 had been allowed entry (a figure subsequently revised to 480, although by July 2017 not one unaccompanied child had entered the UK since the start of the year).

The migration crisis of recent years is by no means confined to Europe. But the Calais debacle has special resonance as a monument to inhumanity in our times. Historically, 'women and children first' has been accepted practice in moments of high risk. But it is one thing to declare this as a principle, quite another to act on it by letting into the country fragile human beings whose glaring vulnerability will stand as a reminder of the utter nonsense, not to speak of the inhumanity, of pretending that we can save ourselves at the cost of everybody else. 'The reality, of course,' commented Bernard Cazeneuve in 2016, when he was French Minister of the Interior, on the breakdown between France and the UKon how to deal with the crisis, 'is that neither government has chosen to leave people with the right to refugee status in the cold and the mud – women and children least of all.' The actions of both governments spoke otherwise. Nor did he seem to register the contradiction between calling for a humanitarian gesture on the part of the UK and insisting that, in the longer term, the borders must be made 'impenetrable'.

Where are the mothers of these children? Behind each and every child there is a story of mothers to be told, but they rarely get a mention. For the most part, they are wiped out of the picture. As if a mother's loss, which is so often the hidden face and precondition of these children's fates, is the truly unbearable torment, too glaring a testimony to the cruelty of the modern world, and therefore impossible to contemplate (some of these mothers will have died). One sixteen-year-old boy in the camp, who had fled the war in Sudan, had not spoken to his mother for two years. She did not know if he was dead or alive. A thirteen-year-old simply referred to himself as 'Mammy's No. 1'. And after being removed from the Calais camp when it was closed, Samir, seventeen, died of heart failure in January 2017 at the Taizé reception centre in the Saône-et-Loire department of France not long after hearing that his application to join his brother in the UK had been rejected (there have been others – thirty asylum seekers are buried in the Calais graveyard, many in graves without names). His mother could not travel to the funeral. She requested he not be named in full for fear of putting the family in danger from the Sudanese authorities.

These absent, missing mothers are the other face of the pregnant 'health tourists' lambasted by The Sun – mothers who are either overlooked completely or are the target of blame, with migration and its miseries being the true story behind both. At the same time, suffering motherhood, a mother bereft of her child, is also a staple of maternal imagos – Niobe lamenting the murder of her fourteen children, killed by jealous gods; and the Pietà, the Virgin Mary grieving the dead Christ, are two of the most well-known examples. But the mother must be noble and her agony redemptive. With the suffering of the whole world etched on her face, she carries and assuages the burden of human misery on behalf of everyone. What the pain of mothers must never expose is a viciously unjust world in a complete mess.

* * *

Using the agony of mothers to deflect from our awareness of human responsibility for the world has a long history. Lamenting mothers have been and often still are the hallmark image for so-called 'natural' catastrophes such as earthquakes. In these images, mothers are not, like Bimbo Ayelabola, held responsible. Nevertheless, there is a connection, as their misery is being exploited, shoved in the face of the world, so that others will get off scot-free: contractors who put up buildings that collapse, town planners cutting corners to cram as many people as possible into an inhumanly crowded space. For that reason, Bertolt Brecht objected to the Niobe-like faces plastered over newspaper front pages after the Tokyo–Yokohama earthquake of 1923 that killed an estimated 140,000 people. He praised instead, as the only fully political response, a single newspaper photograph depicting a few solid structures standing among the rubble with the headline: 'Steel stood' (only reliably constructed buildings had survived). In earthquakes it is almost invariably the poor who die first, the victims of unscrupulous builders and landlords. And not just in earthquakes, as other disasters have made all too clear: the ongoing tragedy of the hurricanes to have swept the US (New Orleans in August 2005, Haiti in September 2008 and October 2016, Houston in August 2017), and in the UK the Grenfell Tower fire disaster of June 2017. Brecht's point was that looking at steel structures would not make you weep. It would make you think. And then, hopefully, act, organise, demand redress.

Brecht carried his own political point across into the world of mothers. Perhaps my favourite of his plays on this subject is The Mother (1932) – less known than Mother Courage – in which the mother of the title opposes the war she knows will kill her son. In a key scene, she argues with mothers who are waiting in line to donate their pots and pans for ammunition, in response to a government call announcing it will help to bring the war to an end. She simply points out the obvious – albeit suppressed – fact that their gesture will rather provide the means for the war to continue. This mother is not agonised, even though her son's life is at stake, but focused, stubborn, articulate. She speaks the truth. Her self-appointed role is to strip deceit from the official dross.

In similar vein, Colm Tóibín's novella The Testament of Mary (2012) tells the story of the Crucifixion from Mary's point of view, undoing centuries of glorified maternal pain. Tóibín gives to Mary the last, iconoclastic word in relation to the dead Christ: 'I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.' In the Broadway and London Barbican 2014 production, these are the last lines, spoken by actress Fiona Shaw through her teeth with unerring, barely controlled precision. The Testament of Mary also has Mary flee in horror at the sight of her crucified son, which makes the Pietà image, the mother holding and cherishing the dying Christ's body – which is meant somehow to make it all okay – a complete lie.

How often are the mothers of lost soldiers and children given voice? How often is the grief of a mother allowed to wander outside the frame of the requisite pathos? Why is it so hard to listen to such a mother, to dignify her with the story she might have to tell? The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina are famous – they started gathering in 1977 to protest the disappearance of their children under the military regime of 1976 to 1983 (in April 2017, they marked the fortieth anniversary of their protest). In the UK, Doreen Lawrence, mother of Stephen Lawrence, murdered on a London street in 1993, has become a campaigner and activist against race crime and also racism in the Metropolitan Police. She has turned the death of her son into a civic task (that in itself was enough to have her and her husband spied on by undercover police). She is a reminder that political agency and the grief of a mother can coexist – a 1998 painting by Chris Ofili depicts her weeping, with the image of her son in every tear. But mothers who expose misfortune as injustice, to use philosopher Judith Shklar's suggestive formula, by telling the world of the political and social ills behind the death of a child, still struggle to be heard. To put it at its crudest, a mother can suffer, she can be the object of heartfelt empathy, so long as she does not probe or talk too much.

When Gillian Slovo was commissioned by Nicolas Kent to write her verbatim, testimony-based play Another World: Losing our Children to Islamic State, performed at the National Theatre in 2016, she chose to make the voices of three mothers – Samira, Yasmin and Geraldine, each one the mother of a child who had gone to fight against Bashar al-Assad in Syria – her central focus. No mothers in the UK would speak to her; in an atmosphere of strong-arm vigilance and heightened racism against Muslims, they felt that they would place themselves at risk, so she spoke to mothers in Molenbeek in Brussels. (This was after the Paris Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, but before Molenbeek became infamous as a centre for terrorists following the Paris Bataclan attack later that year and the subsequent Brussels attacks in March 2016.)


Excerpted from "Mothers"
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Copyright © 2018 Jacqueline Rose.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

Opening 1

1 Social Punishment

Now 5

Then 39

2 Psychic Blindness

Loving 75

Hating 111

3 The Agony and the Ecstasy

Elena Ferrante 145

Inside Out 183

Coda 209

Acknowledgements 211

Notes 213

Index 229

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