Mummy issues: the reproduction of motherhood in Elena Ferrante’s Troubling Love

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‘The heritage of motherhood’ (1904) by Gertrude Käsebier. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The mother-daughter relationship can be the greatest cause of vexation in a woman’s life. This is a platitude no doubt and a sweeping generalisation as many are lucky to have a really splendid mother-daughter relationship. Happy or not, it is characterised by maternal projections of hope, insecurities, anxiety, and disappointments. A mother conceives not just a daughter but undertakes a vicarious project of constructing a Mini-Me whilst must heroically come to terms with the fact that the daughter is a unique individual. Mothering is thus a projection and project that plays out in proximity and across great distances through hugs and long-distance calls.

A daughter’s greatest fear is that they become their mother. Turning into one’s mother confirms a woman’s destiny and annihilates the notion of self-determination and individuality. All women will be become their mothers, thus all women are the same. In Elena Ferrante’s first novel Troubling Love (1996, Original title in Italian, L’amore Molesto), Delia is every daughter who must resist visible signs of becoming one’s mother, as this particular passage demonstrates:

Now that [my mother] was dead, someone had scraped away her hair and had disfigured her face to fit my body. It had happened after years in which, out of hatred, out of fear, I had wanted to eliminate every root I had in her, even the deepest: her gestures, the inflections of her voice, her way of taking a glass or drinking from a cup, her method of putting on a skirt, as if it were a dress, the arrangement of the objects in her kitchen, in her drawers, how she did her most intimate washing, her taste in food, her dislikes, her enthusiasms, and the language, the city, the rhythms of her breath. All of it remade, so that I could become me and detach myself from her.

On the other hand I hadn’t wanted or been able to root anyone in me. Soon I would lose even the possibility of having children. No human being would ever detach itself from me with the anguish which I had detached myself from her, only because I had never been able to attach myself to her definitely

Ferrante, 64-65

Delia seeks the truth behind the unexplained death of her mother, Amalia. In an attempt to solve the mystery behind Amalia’s death – presumably by drowning – Delia unlocks repressed memories of a childhood scarred by domestic violence and leery male neighbours. Her detective work involves not just discovering startling clues that shed light on her mother’s death but also a woman’s life suppressed by domesticity.

But as Delia makes discoveries of her mother’s identity she never knew, she finds that that they mirror her own repressed desires to be the kind of woman Amalia was. Delia is a disheveled comic strip artist, unmarried but clearly not so young anymore; unlike the glamour of old age eclipsed by the self-abnegating image of Amalia the mother. Amalia had also abandoned a violent marriage and sought to reconstruct herself in middle age as a lover and wearer of sexy underwear. Delia tracks Amalia’s decrepit lover Caserta down, determined to get to the bottom of a possible foul play. However, her confrontation with Caserta would undo the barricade of sexual repression and fantasy that distorted her childhood memories. Who is Caserta in Amalia’s life but simply an unconsummated admirer rather than lover, as it turns out. Still, Delia as a child was jealous and protective of male attention towards her mother. She would tell her father of an imagined affair between her mother and Caserta and unknowingly unleash patriarchal rage. Like the children in The Go-Between and Atonement, Delia would grow up living with the consequences of interfering with the emotional life of adults. It seemed as if Delia would atone by continuing the life of Amalia by being Amalia.

In her classic text, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (1978), Nancy Chodorow argues that ‘mothering’ is more than a biological reality and continuation of practices after childbirth. Even without biological mothers performing the act of mothering, women in general take up the role in poorly paid or unpaid capacity.

Responding to Freud, Chodorow develops a feminist analysis of psychosocial development and how women become mothers. All babies perceive their mothers as their ‘external ego’ because they have yet to develop their own individuality separate from their primary caregiver. But as they grow into maturity, separation and the development of the ‘self’ set in in different ways for boys and girls. For boys, Freud postulates the necessity of the Oedipal drama and the threat of castration by the father to result in the psychic rejection of the mother. Rather than fearing castration, daughters already see themselves as castrated like their mother. Thus without the threat of castration and urgent need for separation, daughters maintain an undifferentiated connection with their mother, going as far as duplicating ‘many features of their mothers’ psychotic symptoms’ (Chodorow 1978: 100).

In his symbolic penis-baby equation, Freud would see a woman’s desire to be mothers as a substitute for the phallus, resolving her penis envy. Suggesting a more powerful psychic bond between mothers and daughters, Chodorow goes on to say children do want to unite with their mothers and return to that place of safety and bliss:

Children wish to remain with their mother, and expect that she will never have different interests from them; yet they define their development in terms of growing away from her. In the face of their dependence, lack of certainty of her emotional permanence, fear of merging, and overwhelming love and attachment, a mother looms large and powerful

Chodorow, 82

Mothers in Elena Ferrante’s novels are torn in opposing directions; by their asexual domestic calling and raw feminine sexual desire. Somewhere in between this polarity the mother (in Days of Abandonment) at first fumbles, then confidently carves a space for herself to be both mother and sexual being. Mothers die in Ferrante’s work; the death of mothers results in the reconciliation between mother and daughter (My Brilliant Friend) and awakening of a daughter’s femininity (Troubling Love). I do not need to rehearse the tedious assumptions that Ferrante’s novels are somehow mined from her own life. The themes of the ‘personal’ – motherhood, female friendships, divorce – are said to be depicted with such realness that Ferrante could only write from her own life and that of course Ferrante is a woman, a guess that was shattered in 2016 by the expose of Ferrante’s identity.

What is it about Ferrante’s novels, of her incessant focus on the feminine domestic sphere, that pull in millions of readers? As Margaret Drabble states, there is something quite retro and Second Wavey about her novels. I would also add that there are strong hetero psychosocial dynamics of the private sphere that the novels contend with. And yet, they remain as fresh as the morning dew because the vexed question of the feminine, gender inequalities, and male dominance remains unresolved and returns the next day, like the morning dew that greets us.

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Women’s exodus from the work force: Not a simply matter of brain drain

An article I wrote with Clarissa Lee, Dahlia Martin and Fiona Lee, published on The Malaysian Insider, The B-Side, and Loyar Burok.

A recent BFM podcast episode, “The New Brain Drain,” discussed the relatively low rate of women’s participation in the Malaysian workforce, focusing specifically on the challenges faced by mothers working outside the home. The government is showing an interest in women’s contribution to the national economy: Prime Minister Najib Razak recently commented that women’s participation in the workforce should be improved to aid growth.

However, the discussion in the episode is underscored by several problematic assumptions and generalisations about gender roles in parenting, as well as other work equity issues, that need to be corrected. Foundational inequities must be addressed with the aim of empowering women and challenging societal views of gender norms; otherwise, discussions on revamping the workforce and on measuring productivity and contributions by women would only lead to cosmetic changes.

The podcast began by highlighting the low level of women in the workforce – 46 per cent compared to 70 per cent in Thailand and 60 per cent in Singapore– before noting that one challenge for several women in the workforce was that they also had to juggle roles as mothers or carers. It also noted the decreasing number of women in higher job positions, and discussed some methods to increase the number of women in the professional workforce. Co-sponsored by the Economic Transformation Program, the podcast highlighted flexible working arrangements as a solution, as advocated by TalentCorp Malaysia under its Talent Wanita programme.

Johan Merican, TalentCorp’s CEO, provocatively described the exodus of women from the white-collar workforce to stay at home to care for the family in terms of a “brain drain.” Conventionally, “brain drain” is used to describe the phenomenon of highly trained workers leaving their home countries (often in so-called developing economies) to seek employment opportunities elsewhere (“developed” countries) that provide not just higher earnings, but greater potential for professional growth. The growing numbers of Malaysians leaving the country or remaining abroad to work upon finishing their studies is widely viewed as an obstacle to the nation’s goal of achieving a “high-status income” economy, an issue TalentCorp was founded precisely to address. As such, Merican’s framing of the low retention rates of women in the white-collar workforce suggests that TalentCorp is taking the issue of women’s participation in the professional workforce seriously.

At first glance, it appears that TalentCorp, as indicated by its efforts to increase women retention rates in the workforce, has a progressive stance on gender equality. However, a closer look at its initiatives, primarily on creating flexible work arrangements targeted at women, suggests otherwise. While such arrangements may benefit TalentCorp and other companies that implement them, they do not necessarily benefit women in the same way because the double burden of working and caring for the family remains on women. In other words, while it seem as if the reason for creating flexibility is to ensure that women might have time for work and family, the underlying implication is that women are still expected to fulfil double responsibilities, now both possibly from the home, while no mention is made of the role of men in the household.  Similarly, while the government’s introduction of a 90-day maternity leave policy is welcome, it nonetheless excludes fathers’ or partners’ parenting role. Why not paternity/partner leave, too?

Entrenched ideas about parenting and gender roles have direct and real implications on who, in a heterosexual partnered family unit, will take long periods of time-out from full-time work; the responsibility, unfairly, almost always falls on women. The podcast unquestioningly adopts this view, focusing on mothering rather than parenting, omitting the often overlooked role of fathers.  Interviews with women mentioned the difficulty of time management in balancing work and home responsibilities, as well as the lack of good childcare support options, as reasons for “opting out.” However, there was little discussion on how societal views of gender norms and work equity issues affected their decisions to stay at home. Did the women have a higher salary than their husbands, or is it the reverse? What does the “support” of the husband consist of: working harder and / or just giving his blessing? Does he help out with the household chores?

Moreover, the idea that women leaving the workforce to raise families is equivalent to a “brain drain” and not good for national “economic growth” is problematic because it assumes that the unpaid work of domestic management and childcare  has no economic value; it also does not mean that mothers are not properly utilizing their skills. In 2005, UNICEF estimated about 75 per cent of women, as opposed to 24 per cent of men, are involved in “care” work that are unpaid; if we were to measure that monetarily, that would be equivalent to a loss of RM76 billion, or 12 per cent of Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP). This persistence of views that allow for unpaid work to not have economic value borrow on an understanding of motherhood as being exclusive with womanhood and families. This in turn perpetuates long-held beliefs about gender roles, and also contributes to attempts to depict ideal womanhood. There must be more emphasis on shared parenting duties to help improve workforce participation rates and career opportunities for women.

Indeed, while flexible work arrangements benefit the companies, the question remains: will they equally benefit working mothers? What are the effects of flexible work arrangements on women’s careers in the long term? For example, are flexible workers viewed in the same way as their full-time colleagues or would they be considered merely as part-timers? Is there job security in flexible work arrangements? Moreover, although presented as a convenience, flexible work arrangements also require setting up home offices. Who is responsible for these overhead expenses? And, since work and home spaces are no longer separate in such arrangements, how do flexible workers draw boundaries on how much time is spent at work? Telecommunication technologies such as email and mobile phones have had the notorious effect of prolonging the work day, seeing as the worker is expected to be on call or reachable at all times even when outside the office. Given that flexible work is highly reliant on such technologies, do such arrangements necessarily deliver the work-life balance they promise?

The podcast also pointed out that women mainly occupy entry-level positions as opposed to middle-management and board positions. This issue cannot be seen as separate from women’s labour participation; for instance, although the podcast noted that Singapore has a higher female workforce participation rate, it didn’t mention that the rates of women in the boardroom there are similar to here. Discussing participation rates alone is problematic; there should also be a discussion of what jobs women have (this podcast did touch on that) to properly give it context. The underlying issue, then, is not that there are not enough capable women, but that the way companies are structured often prevent women from climbing up the career ladder. Within this context, quotas become an urgent form of action: they have been implemented in many companies and for many government boards too, and work well in that they acknowledge structural inequalities and help lay the ground for definitive mechanisms to tackle them.

Finally, the episode appeared to concentrate on a specific working class of women characterized as using their “brains” in very specific job functions (as high-earning “cognitariats”). The women interviewed, for instance, appear to be partnered. Women without partners or in lower-paid work have children too and probably cannot afford childcare. How do they do it?  If the professional working woman is forced to choose between staying at home or working, the working class woman, or even a single mother, usually does not get to choose. If the latter does not work, her children cannot eat. Also excluded from the picture are cases of foreign (mostly female) domestic workers having to leave children to work abroad–nobody calls that a “brain drain,” pointing to how bourgeois the term is–often to support other families and households.

Although we applaud the attention to a consistent and unabating problem, the conversation on addressing women’s challenges in the workplace should not only concern a professional class of women workers. The reasoning behind the policies implemented need to account for the gendered and class politics involved in the workforce. Furthermore, it is in the best interests of Malaysian women that policies, whether implemented by the government or private sector, take into consideration the demographics, labor, and cultural conditions of all women. The need for greater equity for all regardless of gender in Malaysia should not play second fiddle to an uncritical drive towards a “high-income” society without careful consideration of the consequences.

Open thread closed

With the possibility of being completely inundated with complaints, diatribe, and vitriol, I declare the Dummy Mummy open thread closed, until I return to the subject with a more in depth analysis of the subject.

I completely understand that parents can be particularly sensitive about their role and their children, and that having a childless critic talking about them and their parenting methods can be unfair. But my beef with dull mothers comes from personal experience, and that perhaps I had met the most extreme example that gave rise to such extreme views.

Though I make no apologies for my attitude towards child-obsessed parents – I have very little patience for people who impose every detail of their lives on others and who hold bigoted views themselves in the interest of their children. But parents are not the only ones who fall under this category.