Thoughts in blog-form by Rosalind Howell
There is a picture book that’s currently very popular with my three young children, called The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett. In it a duck finds an egg to hatch having apparently failed to lay her own.This is observed closely by a group of various birds (including a parrot, goose and flamingo) who wind around each other, clutching their own ‘normal eggs’ and look on suspiciously as Duck’s out-sized and green-spotted egg appears not to want to hatch.
Eventually Duck’s egg cracks open and a huge baby crocodile emerges with a “snap!” its already sharp teeth lunge at the watching gaggle of judgemental bird parents before contentedly wandering off behind Duck with a gentle call of ‘mama!’. With each reading all of us gleefully anticipate that ‘snap!’ as the gaggle of bad/bird mothers get their comeuppance.
Also this month I went to see Rachel Cusk‘s updated version of Euripides greek myth, Medea, which played at the Almeida theatre in London. It tells the story of a woman (a mother of two), whose rage, at the betrayal of her husband and the cruel and rejecting society she is abandoned to has terrible, fatal consequences. In this contemporary version Cusk reconfigures the traditional greek chorus as a gaggle of hostile and judging fellow mums. As in the traditional greek chorus these woman dress the same, speak as one and move in and out of each other. They carry identical doll babies and create a kind of multi headed single organism that judges, dismisses, mocks and fears Medea, refusing to identify with her or empathize with her pain.
At times it has been my experience of becoming a mother that anticipation at feeling part of a cozy tribe of motherhood coexisted with a fear of gang culture. The possibility of togetherness, connection and support is at times overshadowed by a fear of difference, intolerance and rejection. In discussions with other mothers we all recognised the stereotypical image of the impenetrable gang of other mothers at the school gate. All of us identified at points with being ‘Duck’ or ‘Medea’, perceiving ourselves the object of hostility from the group. We were less inclined though to identify with being part of a group ourselves that disavowed difference and kept individual mothers and their different experiences firmly out.
In her memoir, Things I Don’t Want to Know, writer Deborah Levy paints a picture of mums at a school gate divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’. The difference being the ‘them’ give their children nicer things to eat, like sweets and chocolate. It portrays vividly the conflicted and confused experience of mothers who can feel envy, fear and suspicion towards other mothers as well as themselves, all at the same time. Ins Freud’s theory of the Narcissism of Minor Differences he postulates that those groups with the most in common often become the most fiercely apposed. Small differences became inflated so connection becomes impossible. According to this theory it is not the differences between us we can’t stand but the sameness, which this fear and dislike of difference only masks.
In Cusks’ Medea it is the chorus of mothers we are supposed to despise. Their identical clothes and mannerisms, their shared views uttered mindlessly, which delighted the audience, become synonymous with a kind of collective stupidity and fear mongering. When groups of mothers are perceived as gang-like by other individual mothers a very real sense of violent aggression can be felt. Yet I was struck by how surprisingly life-like were the doll babies that the chorus held. Something in the way they held, rocked, lay down, even briefly shook their babies was recognisably real. Yet identifying with them felt like the real taboo.The ease with which a negative image of a group of mothers such as the chorus in Medea can be received shows how culturally acceptable it is to hate mothers, even if you are one. In other words, there’s nothing worse than being just another mum.
The collective noun for a group of mothers is a consternation. The word suggests an experience of impending danger, and the meaning, a sudden feeling of anxiety when something unexpected and unpleasant happens. Whilst arguably there are likely to be many moments that the experience of being a mother or mothering makes a woman feel consternation herself, this word as the collective noun, tells us much about how mothers are perceived by individuals and society at large.
The psychotherapist Rozsika Parker has made much of the interaction between a mother’s internal processes and the pressures that exact on her from society. Ubiquitous but conflicting cultural ideals of motherhood contribute to women colluding with each other in a denial of maternal ambivalence. She defines maternal ambivalence as the coexistence of loving and aggressive feelings within the mother towards her child. Parker believes that manageable maternal ambivalence can lead to creative development in both mother and child. But because society finds maternal ambivalence so intolerable an idea, mothers are still under enormous pressure to live up to cultural ideals of motherhood which deny their difficult feelings towards their children and their role. In what Parker calls ‘looking for absolution’ from other mothers, as mothers we can then attribute all those difficult, unbearable feelings to some other individual or group.
It is inevitable then, that the differences and conflicts within us between our ideal mother self and the real life flesh and blood one must somehow be tolerated. Likewise must our differences as mothers. Women, with young children particularly, are compelled to negotiate a complex web of relationships often involving other mothers, that comes from the practical and emotional demands of raising children. As group analyst Farhad Dalal says, groups come together for practical reasons and to do with context, therefore difference, as well as similarity will always be present.
To adapt a phrase by Dalal, groups of mothers in our culture get a bad press, and so does imitation. Strong cultural pressure is exerted on mothers to be independent, unique individuals as well as, paradoxically, to maintain the accepted cultural collective face of the perfect mother. Our society pits mother against mother in fear and competition. And a fear of difference can hide a something more tricky; our similarities, and our shared humanity. This becomes all the more obscured at a time of heightened widespread political fear of the other.
At the end of the Odd Egg, Duck walks off defiantly, followed by crocodile. They have ‘won’, they have each other. It seems to suggest they can leave behind the unwelcoming, imperfect group to a fantasy of mother-child symbiosis where difference and conflict need not be acknowledged or born. It is a triumph of individualism as well as a fantasy of mother/baby union. Yet as the story ends we can only imagine what might be the very real challenges of a crocodile actually living with a duck.
Dalal, F. Taking the group seriously. (1998) Jessica Kingsley.
Figlio, K .The Dread of Sameness: Social Hatred and Freud’s ‘Narcissism of Minor Differences’
Levy, D. Things I don’t want to know. (2014) Penguin.
Parker, R. Torn in Two: The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence, (2002) Virago
From Mumsnet to Medea – Discussion at Almeida Theatre (Oct 2015)