Julia Kristeva on Motherhood

The following interview Mothers Possess the Key to Freedom was published in the Russian online version of the magazine PSYCHOLOGIES in November, 2013

(Юлия Кристева: «Матери владеют ключом к свободе», Psychologies, November 4, 2013 http://www.psychologies.ru/people/razgovor-s-ekspertom/yuliya-kristeva-materi-vladeyut-klyuchom-k-svobode/)


January Jones as Betty Draper in ‘Mad Men’

Why are you so interested in the topic of motherhood?

J.K.: Because the gospel message ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’, to my mind, has a direct connection to the mystery of maternal passion, the mystery Donal Winnicotte called a ‘good enough mother’. A good enough mother lets a child create a transitional space where they can think for themself. From the cultural reproduction point of view this is what a female genius is all about.

What do you mean by ‘maternal passion’?

J.K.: It is a very strong, fierce attraction that cannot be controlled and borders with suffering and madness. Psychoanalysts talk much about the function of a father but motherhood is not a function, it is, indeed, a passion. It transforms emotions that can be explained biologically (affection and aggression at the same time towards a fetus and later a baby and a child) into a conscious love (by which I mean idealization of a child, loyalty to them, a project to live together for a long time). This kind of love has a dark side — a hidden hatred. This dramatic union of biology and meaning begins at the moment a woman starts expecting a child. Pregnancy aggravates and at the same time makes her doubt her narcissistic self-love. She feels that she is losing herself, her identity, because as a result of intrusion of her lover, father of her child she is doubling up: in her womb an unknown third one is hiding now. So, the first stage of maternal passion is directed into herself. Then there appears the passion of a mother towards a new independent creature, which the child will be if they stop being an extension of a mother, if a mother lets them become autonomous. Mother and child are in a state of a fight and by means of mutual banishment they try to obtain independence. Motherhood can be considered a prototype of the development of relationships with another person. Here we are dealing with a projected identification: a mother projects her ‘bad’ side to a child and makes them behave in accordance with that given trait. It allows her to possess and control them. At the same time a mother’s attraction is not being realized: after all, very few mothers end up sexually harassing their own children. A ban on sexual realization of attraction allows mothers’ affects to transform into tenderness, care and amiability.

What is the value of such experience?

J.K. I’m risking to shock many, but, I’d say that without this experience, without such two-faced maternal passion (the narcissistic focus on self and the relationship with another) a woman can hardly establish a connection with a man or anybody else at all. Without experiencing it she cannot open up in love, unable to become, I’m going to say, an ‘ideal lover’. She cannot love another person in a way that doesn’t dissolve them in that omnipresent emotion, which is an attachment, rivalry or complete indifference. In order to overcome indifference, attachment, and rivalry that are part of our relationships with sexual partners the experience of transformation of passion into tenderness is ultimately important.

You probably base this on your own experience of motherhood. What about those of us who don’t have children?

J.K. When I speak about maternal passion I don’t mean only biological mothers. Even without carrying and giving birth to a child we can have this experience through adoption or surrogacy. Such experience also manifests itself in care — teachers, family relationships and even in social life, like volunteering. But until we invent an artificial uterus the majority attributes maternal passion to a parent. This passion remains a prototype of sexual relationships, which later a mother can recreate in her relationships with a partner.

Does it mean that maternal love is ideal?

J.K. No, not at all. These ambiguous relationships have nothing in common with the idyll: they are always unstable, always risk sliding into a state of exaltation, into depression or aggression, or turning into drama, but they also give us a chance. Precisely because passion is so intense and so traumatic for those who experience it, it can allow a mother to work out a possible connection and not only with a child, with other objects of her affection as well. This is how a chance appears to transform, “to melt down’ the destructive aspect of passion that every human relationship has and that we touch like an open wound in our experience of motherhood: ‘I love him, I hate him, but we are going to live together’. Female sexuality is hiding in motherhood, to live out its perversions and insanity in there.

And how can maternal passion be a support for a child?

J.K.: Only after turning into dispassionateness, acquiring a distance. When passion is over it becomes support in life. Something in the very structure of maternal experience fosters this parting with passion. I think, the three things are important here — the role of a father, the mode of experiencing the time and language acquisition. There has been enough said about the father’s role but we don’t talk enough about the fact that a child’s learning a language is also a mother’s new learning of a language. Speaking the language of her child a mother is curing a so-called incongruence (dissimilarity, nonoccurrence) between affects and meaning. She begins with an adult language, which has become too abstract for her and turns to an infantile language, which is physiological, physically felt. Because of this regression she is able to connect her attraction and her ability to abstract, her affects and meaning. However, the passing on of the language has another side to it. It is to do with a mother’s ability to sublimate, to transform her sexual energy into a different state. I’d say, that the sublimation of maternal passion makes a child capable of thinking and creativity.

And how do mothers perceive time?

J.K.: In western philosophy the time is perceived as the approximation of death. We live with time, time is passing, where is it going? Towards death. But a mother’s time is not the approximation of death it is the time that lasts because of renewal. Naturally, the fear of death is present in maternal experience. There is probably no woman who, having just gotten pregnant doesn’t lose her mind at the thought that something might happen to the fetus and later to a child. But I think, that death is absorbed by another tear in time — the beginning. Of course, both parents realize that conception and birth are the main acts of initiation that with that something new will enter the world when their child will. But the mother feels it more acutely, because her own body is involved in childbirth. For her this new beginning is not only the postponement of death, it is also the ultimate freedom. The essence of freedom is in the ability to start anew, to conceive, not in the breaking boarders and rules. According to the modern philosophy of Kant and Heidegger, the true freedom is not a rebellion, but an initiation, a beginning as an act. The prototype of such freedom is an act of childbirth. In this sense, the mothers possess the key to freedom.

You say that passion should transform into dispassionateness. But what about the omnipotent maternal love?

J.K.: I’m probably asking for a scandal but I would say the following — a good enough mother doesn’t love anyone in particular at all. Her passion has evaporated having turned into dispassionateness, a state very akin to serenity and wisdom. Such mother doesn’t cultivate too eagerly any select connections, because she is open to all sorts of connections and bonds. A writer Colette has a character named Sido.[1] Instead of going to her daughter’s wedding she preferred to stay home and watch a cactus blossom. For Colette, who is completely mesmerized by this story, a good mother is the one who doesn’t love anybody or anything, but loves to watch a flower open up. I understand this scene in this way: the frames of the only passion for Sido are too narrow and the ideal passion is a nature’s reproduction, a renewal. She did not abandon her daughter by not coming to her wedding. Instead, she passed on to her the passion to observe the world and talk about this world, the passion to turn your passions into constructs of your mind, making them a part of your psychological life… The ability to divide your passion by means of words is a more liberating, more protecting maternal presence than the physical presence of a chaperon mother near her daughter, who will forever need her.

But many of us feel that children always need us, that we should always be near them. Don’t you agree?

J.K.: It is so, but only at first glance. In reality, through the gradual liberation from passions by means of sublimation a mother lets a child adopt an idea of a mother’s presence but of a mother’s absence. Besides, a mother should cooperate with a child to be able to achieve that absence. Under condition that she is available enough for a child, of course, so that a child could adopt a mother’s thinking, lean on it while building their own views on it. Thus, a good enough mother is able to abstract herself to make for a child some space for the pleasure of thinking. In theories of maternal self-sacrifice, that often have religious (Christian) roots, a mother is given a passive role, but I suggest that a mother should actively encourage a child to throw her off the throne.

How do you see a role of a mother in modern society, in our culture?

J.K.: Motherhood is nearly the only institution that is still sacred. At the same time, when it comes to women and mothers, our secular humanistic thought is directing all the attention to the social (sexual freedom and equality) and biological. And at the same time we are the first civilization that lacks the discussion about the meaning of motherhood. It is my new motto, that I’m not tired of repeating: ‘We need to talk more about maternal calling.’ Society doesn’t recognize maternal sexuality, it perceives motherhood as a useful function. That is exactly why, I think, the feminist movement revolted against motherhood at the time — it was a protest against the idea of motherhood as a norm. Now, on the contrary, we see a lot of young women eager for motherhood (it includes gay couples too) as if it’s the right remedy from depression. But this tendency is also trying to take out sexuality from motherhood. I’m dreaming of psychoanalysis to rehabilitate a different way of reliving maternal sexuality. A woman-mother is different from a woman-lover, but she’s not devoid of sexuality. Maternal passion gives birth to internal conflicts (but here we, the psychoanalysts, can help), but it also provides the passing of the culture from generation to generation. I think, that if we could explain the essence of maternal calling it would be a huge contribution to the new basics of humanism.

[1] Sidonie Colette, Sido