I have been taking therapy and often I talk about my foremothers in my sessions. I can see how their anxieties are part of my skin. While I thought I would have anger and resentment towards them for what I ended up inheriting from them, I have come to terms with deeper empathy and care for them; for they too were exhausted just like I am. They too probably didn’t want to be a mother…
When I watched The Lost Daughter earlier this year, something about the film was so resounding that I had to pause and play multiple times. Beyond the cinematic brilliance, what I saw in the film was the visual space it allowed to the exhausted mother who doesn’t really want to mother. And it did so without furthering judgement.
I too have made the mistake of seeing mothers only as a mother, and sometimes as the daughter-in-law, mother-in-law, a wife and a sister. But have we ever closely paid attention to who she is in her complete being, as an individual? Who was she in her youth? Could she keep her dreams alive?
What I believe felt uncomfortable to a lot of viewers when it came to the film was to see the mother not wanting to be a mother. Leda, a professor, and Nina, the woman she meets on vacation, are both dealing with their discomfort and guilt of not wanting to be mothers – but also an inability to acknowledge the same. Their explorations with sexuality, freedom and agency are what make them the ‘not-mother archetype’.
Culturally, society lays down a set of invisible ways of being when it comes to motherhood. And only if one is capable of embodying these ‘ways of being’ a mother, she is truly considered a ‘good mother’.
Cultural narratives of the good mother in India are portraits of pure embodiment of the concept n of ‘mamta‘. We have all seen many boisterous expressions of the ways of being a mother – the one that waits, the one that forgives, the one that sacrifices, the one that gets teary-eyed at the mere sight of the child.
The modern good mother reads books to understand mothering, she excitedly posts photographs of her child and expresses love in whatsoever forms – despite the exponential physical work she has to take up, she is constantly thinking, loving and tending to the child. Many good mother narratives exist across the world.
If there is a good mother, there has to be a bad mother archetype too.
When Avni Doshi’s book Burnt Sugar came out, it took readers on a long unsettling journey of generational trauma. But sometimes, what makes us feel unsettled is also something that we have been conditioned to believe is not the right way of being.
In the book, the attire of the mother is repeatedly described to put across the point of her ‘maternal rebellion’. White, loose kurtas and open hair on a woman from upper-middle class India is nothing but symbolism of renunciation. And society has made it clear time and again that it does not like a mother who has ‘no attachment’.
There is a scene described in detail where the mother is engrossed in her mystic practice and dance form, and her young daughter loses sight of her mother. We readers empathise with the lost child. “What kind of mother is she?” we think.
The lost child and the abandoning mother are seen multiple times in films. A more recent example is from the movie Sunday’s Illness, where the abandoned young girl waits by the widow for years until she decides to find her mother when she is diagnosed with a terminal condition. Here, the mother abandons the child for wealth and status. While an extensive amount of screen space is provided to understand the plight of the daughter, very little character arc is provided to the mother. For her, we only reiterate the old dichotomy of virtue versus greed or selflessness versus desire.
We all know the bad mother cinematic archetype, even from western movies and TV shows. The one who somehow always has a glass of wine and cigarette in her hand. The one who falls asleep on the couch in the glow of a television. The one who dances clumsily in bodycon dresses. The one who forgets to cook. She is the woman with “issues”. She is either depressed or bipolar, depending on the scriptwriter’s mood on that day. She also sometimes has a boyfriend or abusive men coming over. She is the one who never gets custody when fighting a divorce case because the court has evidence against her for ‘being the bad mother’.
But beyond this stereotypic lens, we don’t know her – whether she dealt with postpartum depression, losses in her life, has been sexually assaulted or simply been denied opportunities in life over being a woman. We are not allowed to see what makes her tick.
The vilification of the bad mother character is harsh, while the accountability of same actions by the fathers is quite minimal. The burden of motherhood comes from the expectations of motherhood that we too unconsciously take up even before we start reading the cultural discourses on good versus bad mother. Notions of motherhood have been further emphasised by research on the importance of mother-child relationship. Despite studying and teaching psychology for most of my life, I would still stand my ground on saying that the discipline in its mainstream research formulation fails to understand womanhood.
We need to pull out the stance that motherhood is something deeply entrenched in womanhood. This formulation serves the patriarchy, not womankind. Motherhood, just like all relational bonds, is built over time and is not as “instinctual” and hormonal as we like to believe.
Anthropologist Nancy Scheper Hughes, in her book Death Without Weeping, takes a controversial stand on this. She argues that ‘mother love’ is a bourgeois conceptualisation of motherhood and a luxury that cannot be afforded by many struck by poverty. Perhaps it is time to listen to the women on what is ‘mothering’.
Although contemporary therapeutic spaces have allowed the child to speak about the anger towards the mother, the mother is yet not allowed to say that she hates her child and doesn’t have any attachment. Exhaustion by caretaking professions is yet another discourse that has opened up in recent years, yet we don’t give the recognition that motherhood demands an absolute devotion to a quadrupled task. The rhetoric of “choice” in motherhood too is utopian, available to a privileged few.
This piece is a dedication and an empathetic letter to the exhausted mother, and to to the mother who does not want to mother. We understand your anger and anxieties.
Jahnabi Mitra currently works as a Research Associate and she is pursuing her PhD in Psychosocial Clinical Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi.