Podcast Interview on Mom & Mind

I just had the pleasure of being interviewed for the podcast Mom & Mind; a great podcast resource for mothers as well as anyone interested in Maternal Mental Health. The podcast is created and hosted by Dr. Katayune Kaeni, who is a fierce advocate for mothers and parents.

I was grateful for this opportunity to discuss some the things I am passionate about. I talk with Dr. Kaeni about the topic of maternal ambivalence and the bodily changes of motherhood. Yes, that can of worms, or tsunami of psycho-somatic stirrings, or wave of mixed pleasures and anxieties. Because the feminist psychoanalytic and somatically focused literature and research that inform my work offer a great deal of insight and, more importantly, hope for anyone going through the transition to motherhood.

We can broaden our understanding of parenthood by exploring the ambivalence, or rather the several areas of ambivalence that come with mothering. Maternal ambivalence is often understood as “the experience shared by all mothers in which loving and hating feelings for their children exist side by side.” (Parker, 1995, p. 1). However, ambivalence arises about almost any aspect of mothering, and not just in relation to the child. A mother’s attitude towards her new identity as a mother, towards the infant she herself once was, towards her own mother, or her partner; all these areas stir up intense conflicting feelings. And namely the body changes of motherhood can evoke this polarity of affect. Her body now forever changed, just like it was irreversibly changed by puberty, and like it will be changed again by menopause. These major transitions connect mind and body in the journey of the female life experience like nothing else. The bodily reactions, fantasies, concerns, or preoccupations often hold emotional content that is yet to be articulated. If we are able to unearth and unravel this emotional content, we might discover longings that seem raw, aggressive, infantile, brutal, primitive, or competitive. All of which do not make them less important. On the contrary, it makes them very important because they, more than anything, hold our humanness.

It is this concoction of bodily and emotional transitions that I am dedicated to exploring. But not just for the sake of exploring. The reason is one of offering hope, because through this exploration, mothers (and anyone close to a mother) might understand themselves better and thereby adjust and cope better. Or heal through what needs to be healed. There is always more to the story about the changes a woman goes through when becoming a mother. Her life story is imbedded in her psychological and somatic reactions to motherhood. That is why we need to listen closely and with an attitude of compassionate curiosity.

Take a listen and let me know what you think.


Parker, R. (1995). Mother Love/Mother Hate. New York: BasicBooks.






Zadie Smith, Having a Second Child, and Creativity

In 2013, author Zadie Smith made a bold and unexpected online appearance by commenting to a piece in The Atlantic by Lauren Sandler, that “the idea that motherhood is inherently somehow a threat to creativity is just absurd.” In said piece, it appears that Lauren Sandler presents the idea that female writers should ideally only have one child. Sandler describes the lives of several celebrated female writers like Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Margaret Atwood, and zooms in on the question of the number of children they had and how it relates to their writing careers. She provocatively asks: “[how] do the rest of us mortals negotiate the balance between selfhood and motherhood? Is stopping at one child the answer, or at least the beginning of one?”

Smith and several of her colleagues fiercely criticized the article in the comments section. Smith brought in the question of equality, asking: “I have two children. Dickens had ten – I think Tolstoy did, too. Did anyone for one moment worry that those men were becoming too father-ish to be writer-esque?” She continued by stating that “two kids entertaining each other in one room gives their mother in another room a surprising amount of free time she would not have otherwise.” Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley commented: “The key is not having one child, it is living in a place where there is excellent daycare and a social world that allows fathers to have the time and the motivation to fully share in raising kids.” British novelist Louise Doughty also made an interesting comment, saying: “I think I have become a better writer since having children. It improves creativity, particularly because once you have children it makes you realise the story isn’t about you.” Several other writers also announced their harsh disagreement, some using snarky ridicule. The combative feel of this debate aside, it brings up the question of how maternal status and creativity are connected.

Smith’s stance against the idea that motherhood is threat to creativity and one’s professional life makes me bring up the works of the late psychoanalyst Rozsika Parker. Parker developed a thorough theory on maternal development emphasizing ambivalence as a key component of mothering, thereby making it a crucial question how ambivalence is dealt with by the mother. She argued that mothers have very limited room for expression and processing of the inevitable maternal ambivalence, both on cultural and societal levels, and internally, because of our extreme idealization of mothers. Parker emphasized how becoming a mother inevitably entails dissonance and tension between lived subjective experiences of mothering and normative ideals of motherhood. However, the good news from Parker is, that if ambivalence is acknowledged as opposed to blocked out, it actually holds great creative potential.

Parker and the Creative Potential of Maternal Ambivalence

Parker reworked the Kleinian model from the maternal perspective through her theory on maternal ambivalence. Like Klein, Parker emphasized the conflictual quality of the mother-child relationship with the purpose of illuminating the creative role of maternal ambivalence and possibilities for maternal subjectivity. Parker defined maternal ambivalence as “the experience shared by all mothers in which loving and hating feelings for their children exist side by side.” (1995, p. 1). It is frequently denied or shamed, or only partly acknowledged, for example through humor (1997, p. 17). Parker distinguished between manageable and unmanageable ambivalence (1997, p. 21). The unmanageable ambivalence arouses intolerable guilt and anxiety because the love is not felt to be strong enough to mitigate the hate. Manageable ambivalence is related to what Parker, re-reading Klein’s concept of the depressive position, constituted as the maternal depressive position: “it is the mother’s achievement of ambivalence – the awareness of her coexisting love and hate for the baby – that can promote a sense of concern and responsibility towards, and differentiation of self from the baby.” (1997, p.20). Parker suggested that maternal ambivalence is a new form of working through the capacity to contain love and hate, and not just a revisiting of the infantile depressive position. Generally, ambivalence is a dynamic experience of conflict. According to Parker, ambivalence has a special function in mothering: it is a necessity in order for the mother to know herself and acknowledge her less ideal characteristics as a mother. Parker (1995) argued that it is through the development of the capacity to accept ambivalence that a mother is able to let go of the omnipotent fantasy of the unity of the mother-child couple. Parker (1997) paralleled Klein’s idea of the baby’s feelings of loss during the depressive position with the mother’s feelings of loss. The ambivalence is not the problem in itself; it is the mother’s handling of the guilt and anxiety evoked by the ambivalence that can cause emotional disturbance.

Maternal ambivalence according to Parker is not just a reworking of the mother’s early life; it is a new developmental line with an important function. The purpose of ambivalence is that it draws the mother to struggle to think about, understand and know her baby. The suffering of ambivalence actually promotes the mother’s thinking about the baby and their relationship: “It is the troubling co-existence of love and hate that propels a mother into thinking about what goes on between herself and her child.” (1995, p. 7).

Returning to Smith, I believe she has captured the essence of maternal ambivalence in her essay “Joy”. In this essay, Smith presents her thoughts on the crucial difference between joy and pleasure. She uses her experience of mothering as an example:

Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.

A perfect capture of maternal ambivalence. To Smith, joy is an inherently ambivalent feeling, and it is the feeling she strongly associates with mothering. In light of Smith’s assertion that her maternal status as a mother of two does not work against her creativity and professional life, I find it easy to connect it with Parker’s model. However, Parker did not specifically address the question of the number of children. Which brings me to a researcher who has.

Frost and Having a Second Child

Nollaig Frost is one of the few researcher who has looked at the specific situation of mothering a second child. She has pointed out how even newer developments in psychoanalysis that aim to create space for maternal subjectivity, like the works of Parker, or psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin, still don’t offer much on the subject of the specifics of mothering a second child. In her chapter, “Mothering the Other” in this year’s most promising book on mothering and psychoanalysis, she draws on Benjamin and Parker and adds her own qualitative research to further develop an understanding of the particularities of mothering more than one child. Frost references the research that, although sparse, confirms that maternal identity develops as family size increases (p. 344). Frost conducted her own research with qualitative interviews with mothers of two. Frost’s findings showed that with the addition of the second child, the mothers began to speak of the impossibility of being an ideal mother to two children: “These mothers describe how having a second child enables them to reappraise the reality of striving to meet the demands of two children and allows a relinquishment of attempts to be a perfect mother.” (p. 347). The situation of having a second child simply does not make it possible to keep up the idea of the ideal mother as it is perpetuated in culture.

So what I gather from Frost’s thinking, is that having a second child may actually propel a mother toward more acceptance of her ambivalence because of the way the fantasy of one’s maternal ideal is so forcefully challenged. In a positive outcome, this can promote the creative potentials of maternal ambivalence. Frost concludes her chapter stating that: “The accounts gathered from the women in this study suggest that the presence of two children enables mothers to express maternal ambivalence in a way that is permitted” (p. 354). However, as Parker emphasized, there is a big difference between manageable and unmanageable maternal ambivalence. It is obvious that having a second child may not necessarily promote acknowledgement or integration of ambivalence for all mothers. Still, in line with Frost’s thinking combined with Smith’s voice in mind, I would like to entertain the idea of the emotionally creative potentials of namely having a second child.

Frost’s findings demonstrated that the mothers often felt a split in their feelings toward their children, where the negative feelings often were directed toward the demanding toddler. To take Frost’s thinking further, maybe it’s possible for mothers to make use of the triangulated situation of having a second child to compartmentalize their contradicting feelings and thereby contain their ambivalence better? For example, all the negative may be directed toward the demanding toddler so all the positive can be directed toward the youngest, like several of the mothers in Frost’s study experienced. Of course this could also be the opposite for some mothers, where the newborn may become the cruel and demanding infant and the toddler is then the stronger child whom the mother already knows, which gives the comfort and predictability of a well-established relationship. There could be endless variations to this dynamic, and the constructive use of it would include some level of acknowledgment of the ambivalence as well as emotional flexibility of the defenses. I am speaking here of the creative potentials, and I recognize it also brings up the question of what “normal” maternal development is and how problematic that idea is. Saving that question for a later examination, what I want to focus on here is this: Smith and her colleagues eagerly made the argument, that it is not the number of children that hinders a woman’s creative career, but external factors like child care and social support. The theories and research presented here add a possible psychological argument; that from an interpersonal perspective that includes the mother’s subjectivity, having a second child may indeed not be a hindrance to creativity, but on the contrary, a promotion to it.

Returning to Sandler’s article, she later indicated that she was misunderstood by a “bogus headline” to an essay about how she found inspiration in female writers. She also added that she agrees with the need to improve policies that affect mothers. This brings up another big question (for later examination) of how media contributes to the infamous “Mommy Wars” or the riling up of motherhood debates. It is telling of the sensitivities of this topic that it apparently only takes a “bogus headline” to get a group of acclaimed female professionals to eagerly engage in online debates.



Frost, N. (2014). Mothering the Other. Psychoanalytic Understandings of Becoming a Mother to a Second Child. In: Bueskens, P. (Ed.) Mothering & Psychoanalysis, 342-356. Toronto: Demeter Press.

Parker, R. (1995). Mother Love/Mother Hate. New York: BasicBooks.

Parker, R. (1997). The Production and Purposes of Maternal Ambivalence. In: Hollway, W. & Featherstone, B. (Eds.) Mothering and Ambivalence, 17-36. London: Routledge.



Studying Mothers In Mommy Wars. Where Do Maternal Studies Start?

Motherhood is tricky business, and studying it is no different. I used to think it couldn’t be that difficult to zoom in on mothers as particular subjects to study, but it has turned out to be much more slippery and theoretically complex. The subjectivity of the mother; the mother as subject in her own right, is not something that can be taken for granted. The maternal is a subject position so conflictual that it has been proposed as a theoretical question in itself (Baraitser el al., 2009). To jump right into the disciplinary clash between psychoanalysis and feminism, Hollway (2006) has captured the core of the issue of maternal subjectivity by asking: “Can mothers be good-enough mothers and still be subjects in their own right?” (p. 65). Any answer to this will elicit a series of new questions. If the answer is no, we must continue to question the entire concept of “good-enough mothering”. If the answer is yes, I want to know what that subjectivity looks like. Because Winnicott’s infamous concept of “good-enough mothering” that was uncritically and tirelessly referred to all through my psychology studies, is met with substantial critique the moment one ventures out of the bubble that clinical psychodynamic psychology can sometimes feel like. A concept like “good-enough mothering” does not account for a mother’s subjectivity, but on the contrary only sees her in terms of her function and capacity as the mother. The concept only looks at the infant’s needs, and the mother’s autonomy is only included in terms of the infant’s needs to be adequately frustrated as s/he is developing (Bueskens, 13). So the question of maternal subjectivity; what it is, how we conceptualize it, and how we study it, is the place to start when venturing into maternal studies, (and this is by no means an exhaustive account, but more like a taste).

Winnicott was like a holy cow during my undergrad and Master’s program. I had never thought I would come to be critical of such a seemingly friendly and warm concept (but that is not to say that Winnicott is totally out the window; his works have been re-worked in maternal studies too, by analysts like Jessica Benjamin).

Maternal subjectivity becomes especially slippery in the so-called Mommy Wars. Readers may frown upon my using this phrase, but as a clinician and scholar informed and inspired by Kleinian theory, I appreciate the reference to heated conflict. Because much more is at stake than whether a picture of a toddler being breastfed will create social media buzz. The conflicts of the Mommy Wars are concerning namely in light of the problems with maternal subjectivity. The more polarized and sensationalized the debates get, the less room will there be left for spaces for honest expressions of maternal subjectivity. When these Mommy debates become ideological, it is at the expense of the acknowledgment of the subjectivity of those involved (Vissing, 2014). Mothers’ accounts of their mothering experience turn into arguments in the debate, and personal experiences will be perceived as underpinning for these arguments (I have written about this in a chapter that will be published this Fall).

I think the first thing to note about maternal subjectivity for now, is that acknowledging its theoretical and practical importance is in itself a significant stance because of the aforementioned implications for clinical concepts like “good-enough mothering”, or for how we approach research methodology. I often encounter research and theory, especially about infants and children that does not address the issue of the mother’s subject position (and I will be demonstrating examples of that in this blog as it develops). Bueskens (2014), in her introduction to Mothering and Psychoanalysis, argues that if we recognize the mother or “the maternal” as a valuable subject from which to generate knowledge, it may not only free women from the constraint of the institution of motherhood, but also shift our “epistemological, political, social and psychic horizons” (p. 4). How is that for a promising statement?

I welcome your thoughts on and questions about maternal subjectivity, whether academic or from personal experience. There is much more on this subject, but I had to just kick off this project.


Baraitser, L., Sigal Spigel, S., Betterton, R., Curk, P., Hollway, W., Jensen, T., Miller, G., Miller,    T., Parker, R., Pullinger, K., Raphael-Leff, J., Reynolds, T., Simic, L., Stone, A., and Tyler, I. (2009). Editorial. Mapping Maternal Subjectivities, Identities and Ethics. Studies in the Maternal, 1(1).

Bueskens, P. (2014). Mothering and Psychoanalysis: Clinical, Sociological and Feminist Perspectives. Toronto: Demeter Press.

Hollway, W. (2006). The Capacity to Care. Gender and Ethical Subjectivity. London: Routledge.

Vissing, H. (2014). The Ideal Mother Fantasy and Its Protective Function. In L. Ennis (Ed.), Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood. Toronto: Demeter Press.


New Books in Maternal Studies: Mothering & Psychoanalysis


I had the pleasure of reviewing the impressively thick book titled Mothering & Psychoanalysis: Clinical, Sociological and Feminist Perspectives for the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative. It is edited by Petra Bueskens; a remarkable writer, researcher, and psychotherapist from Australia. It will be no surprise to maternal scholars that a book with such a promising title is published by Demeter Press, which is arguably the most important publisher in motherhood research.

I have been looking forward to this book. As a maternal scholar with special interest in psychoanalysis, this is not only of interest to me, but also extremely helpful to my ongoing project of getting an thorough overview of the complex layers of “the maternal” as a theoretical question and a research area. The intersection between psychoanalysis, feminism, and motherhood is wide. In my experience, it tends to get wider as you study it. So I must admit I have high expectations for this book’s explanatory potential, especially since the table of contents include names like Nancy Chodorow, Alison Stone and Lisa Baraitser, just to name a few.

It is reassuring to see the interdisciplinary approach already in the subtitle. As Bueskens describes in the introduction, it is an “impossibly eclectic book”, but make no mistake of associating the word eclectic with something negative. My experiences of studying motherhood in the clinical psychology world (and in psychoanalysis in particular) have repeatedly left me with a feeling of finding more corners and fewer openings. The topic in question seems to demand constant disciplinary transgressions, and it is my goal with this blog to dig deep into that disciplinary mess. I have yet to civilize my thoughts on this, but a teaser would sound something like this: in order to develop a solid psychology of motherhood, I see a (potentially harsh) break away from psychoanalysis, a tour through several disciplines (that I will not list just yet), and then a movement back  to a new psychoanalysis of our time. I am sure I will be much better equipped to speak to this after reading my new 500 pages brick of concentrated wisdom.

Buy Journal of the Motherhood Initiative 6.1 with my review here.