By Lauren de sa Naylor |

This piece is part of an ongoing series on housework.

To speak of maternal ambivalence; to examine the passionate conflicts and ambiguities of the mother-daughter relationship, and the role of the mother in indoctrinating her daughters to subservience and her sons to dominance; to identify the guilt mothers are made to feel for societal failures beyond her control […] is to challenge deeply embedded phobias and prejudices. [1]

In her 1976 essay Motherhood in Bondage, Adrienne Rich identifies a trinity of motherhood: ‘one possible and profound’ experience for women;  ‘enforced identity’; and ‘political institution.’ A passionately ambivalent aggregate, pointing toward the psychic-somatic and the socially constructed aspects of motherhood, she invokes the mother’s conflict, its reproduction through enforced acts of patriarchal mothering and its maintenance through continued prejudice.  Psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch identifies the sine qua non of ‘normal’ motherhood as ‘the masochistic-feminine willingness to sacrifice’ – a sacrifice made easy by the instinct of maternal love, whose ‘chief characteristic is tenderness. All the aggression and sexual sensuality in the woman’s personality are suppressed and diverted by this central emotional expression of motherliness’. [cf. Susan Robin Suleiman] These views still leave many lacunae. I begin this autoethnographical detour through the domestic maternal as myth, enactment and ordeal. Through the lived experience of embeddedness (enclosure) in a maternal/domestic web, the nexus of this essay is a knot incorporating desire and resistance. Can these strands be radicalised? Or are the threads incontrovertibly normative and only intelligible as essentialist, categorical, operating in the frame of desire as negation or absorption into a preconceived subject position.

This reading of maternal ambivalence takes place in the over-wrought, overdetermined and affectively vacillating sphere of the domestic. Here, the mutual exclusivity of private/public, work/leisure is enacted. I speak from a position of complicity with domestic structural servility, from the predicament of maternal subjectivity intersecting with the structural conditioning, comfort, pleasures and power dynamics implicit ‘homemaking,’ praxes. The home or ‘domestic’ as boundary of the private, the nuclear or dysfunctional family, and structural normativity is also, crucially, a scene in which affective labour is dispersed across multiple modes or sites of discharge: writing, lovering, mothering, for example, are all taxonomies of love’s labour. The home is a cauldron of tensions, elevated/depressed states, holding and being held; it is the scene upon which so many attachment-relations, rites and rituals play out. In this essay I counterpose my inhabitation of the domestic – as a territory – with its corollary occupation of my body, my self, a site on which, in the emotive and psychic registers, I can trace mechanisms of presence and absence, resistance and desire, concealment and exposure. The thinking of this essay emerges at the conjunction of gesture, performativity and complicity, the trinity of social-psychic actions, instincts and resistances that I hold to constitute the maternal figure. The mode and practice of domesticity generates desire, ambivalence and antipathy – indices that I map onto a broader conception of ‘maternality.’ As a practice with ambivalence at it’s core, a state of being that refuses to be contained in an ‘either/or’ duality and instead occupies the very boundaries of sensory and affective experience, I am dedicated to living and articulating ‘maternality’ as ‘an ethic, an affect, an aesthetic and a public.’ [2]

To love invokes caring: a nurturing of the other, a nourishing and a desire to facilitate mutual flourishing, which is to say a hospitality to the other in spite of its inherent imbalances, exchanges and taken for granted invisibility. Hospitality incorporates loss of self, self-interest and security and also facilitates self-abasement, mortification and martyrdom: bringing the other in whilst maintaining difference; negotiating that difference in pursuit of more proximity; at the same time not consuming, not violating, not pushing away: accommodation, inhabitation and holding.The intersection of hospitality and solidarity would seem to be the fulcrum of a domestic revolution, the impulse to care being reciprocated by an equivalent but not necessarily identical impulse to appreciate, take pleasure from and yet not be dependent upon the affective labour that is so exhausting, sapping energy from its subject, entangling her into a knotted subjectivity marked by ambiguous, burdensome pleasure, a dedication to servitude, it’s enactment eroding the possibility for resistance.

The domestic-maternal is a contested territory whose reach goes beyond feminist utopias and attempts to embarrass ‘maternal qualities’ like caring, empathy, and sacrifice; cooking, cleaning and comforting. I have observed its meditative instrumentalisation: transcendental psychic liberation can be found in ritualised gesture, and the choreography of the body in space, be that exterior or interior, has potential for the expansion of this inner space (which isn’t to say that housework hasn’t also the quality of enslavement, doldrums or degradation). I have produced for myself a strategic sort of maternal hubris: having a child as a violence done to the self, a psychic rattling and testing, an erotic-poetic boundary nudging which is the least manipulable by me: the other from whom I cannot ever be free.


A [generally stifled] desire to articulate the practice of domesticity and ‘matriarchal space’ – its limits and boundaries – is born out of the ongoing conflict inside an overbearing public/private structure that demands consistency and coherence and passes judgement on divergent subjects. A desire to articulate the domestic in this register is stifled: this has something to do with disaffection and frustration and underachievement; I encounter mainly tense alliances between motherhood/domesticity, frequent disbelief and very often resistance. I am confounded and disordered by ‘carework,’ ‘labours of love:’ the conjunction of [domestic] affective labour and pleasure, the spirit of giving oneself over to the other, the impulse to nourish and be nourished, which is the reciprocal mark of potential radicalisation of ‘patriarchal mothering’.

The radical desire and indifference that are generated by praxes of normative or liminal domestic structures collide here, in this highly charged and at the same time banal, too-quixotic sphere, in which experiences are dispersed across a spectrum of differentiated affects. The desire to bring in, be hospitable, nourish and protect, as well as to keep, maintain and contain, are manifested by intimate gestures striated across minute practices: why does it mean so much that the shirt is folded just-so? or that the food is served in such a way? How do these gestures begin to stand in for other, perhaps more personalised forms of love/care; could these gestures be viewed as infecting the scene with the will to power of the controlling matriarch, with whom none shall dispute, for her investments are discharged everywhere, and with them she too is atomised and, consequently her desires attenuated.

“I was hanging the clothes when I was working and going to school but in anger, like I was stabbing the clothes on the line. My mother used to say, “’ain’t you ashamed to hang them out like that?” I said “ashamed? I gotta be ‘ashamed’?””

In Clotheslines, a 1981 documentary-film in which women talk candidly about their relationship to domesticity and, by extension, attachment to their mothers, the intensity of domestic ambivalence is summarised by a daughter remembering her mother’s ‘perfectionism’ in her washing habitude:
“there was a very strict ritual for the way in which the clothes were going to be folded and put away and put aside and they were done beautifully, with a skill and a craft and a kind of mastery that she did not enjoy. She did not enjoy it.”

A woman’s voice expresses grief and regret at time wasted carrying out domestic work with excessive pride: “the laundry will never mean that much to me again in my whole life. Never.” The speaker is a working-class mother and wife, who rejected her own mother’s pleas to provide domestic assistance, “there’s ways women just do it, and I have to find it.” This pressure is a consequence of the post-1970s era in which the film was made, and in particular a shift in the dependency of woman to man, and wider social structures one could designate patriarchal (inclusive of the patriarchal model of ‘the family’). Internalised social pressure at the beginning of a neoliberalisation of public/private life : pressure to be a working woman, pressure to be a housewife (rarely separable, especially in 1981), “how could I be so stupid.”


The willingness and indeed active desire to practice love’s labour, particularly in the sphere of the domestic under a classic patriarchal family structure, is generally presumed, by virtue of its enactment by a feminine body, to emerge naturally in the practices of motherhood. At the same time, such domesticity is often denigrated by radical feminists as complicity with patriarchy, a practice of enslavement and servitude that deepens inequality and disavows the potential for female subjects to rise up out of domestic doldrums that have historically kept them in their place. How complicit are these subjects in the promotion of a ‘maternal mythos’ that perpetuates the idea that women by their nature realise, carry out, accomplish (corporeally, emotionally) maternal acts that could just as easily be said to be ‘naturalised’ through the performative social practice of mimesis by subjects other than biologically female or else ‘feminine’ identified.’ In other words: how can it be that a particular set of behaviours are designated a gender, when that very social group, girls-to-women, are aggressively constructed through processes of performativity and mimesis, both locally in their own families and in the wider sense through figures in the broader social sphere. Nothing is more constructed than the so-called ‘natural’?

Contingency serves to specificate a tendency that is clearly more generalised: the ‘feminine’ subject is presumed to have a natural affinity with the domestic space, either the ‘home’ or indeed, in the case of reproductive female-sexed bodies, the ‘space’ of her womb, which is a kind of accommodation. The metaphorical figure of the womb-space points towards a tendency of the feminine figure to turn inwards into the empty space of her uterus and also outwards to the self-containment of the home. Interiority: bodily and spatial, women’s spaces, women’s places in which she can hone, perfect and display processes and practices that are by their nature cyclical, banal and invisible, and yet provide pleasure, comfort and security.

I am sniffing about for a consolidation of a radical maternality that expects ambivalence and ambiguity, in doing so marginalising the shame, guilt and doldrums that dominate my own experience of mothering. At its core is the idealisation and denigration of [presumed] ‘feminine’ gesture, that persists in general, instrumentally, as a culturally conditioned reality for many that is not entirely unpleasurable, disconsolate or punishing, totally contingent on the individual and/in their context. Why ‘should’ one ‘give up,’ relinquish or reverse practices of caring, nurturing, compassionate desires? Why be complicit in a denigration of the principles and actions of hospitality?’

The instrumentalisation of ‘labours of love’ implies exploitation, but not exclusively. This instrumentalisation does not usually take the form of forced servitude, but of complicity in a structural type of labour that comes with perceived benefits (co-dependent child – mother love, sovereignty in the sphere of the home, financial security). Is structural oppression, innate to the patriarchal ‘family,’ simply reversed in the ‘matriarchal’ sphere of the home? I want to unfold a poetics of the domestic (without sentimentality) and its elements of degradation (without violence to the subject), in the register of desire (‘pleasurable labour’) at the edges of agency. My sensitivity to the ambivalences that constitute this highly conditional agency in the body of the mother and her practices present fundamental questions about agency itself; we are complicit in our own struggle as we sense that our sovereignty is both challenged and itself a type of cultural construct or even mythos.

Conjuring from memory my mother’s strong manicured hand sweeping the iron rigidly over crisply laundered and folded sheets: the meticulous care with which she folded – corners touching corners with absolute symmetry – and the order of towels in the airing cupboard: unthinking practicality in conjunction with an aesthetic sensibility. Conjuring the artistry with which my mother pressed and folded the laundry, a systematic method apparently passed down to her from her own mother. This from a time when a woman’s place was in the home, from a time when wifely domestic servility was ostensibly some kind and innocent thing, an extension of self-sacrificing maternal love, unproblematic, ‘natural.’


Self-sufficient and selfless, the “good mother” is always happily working, balancing her time between her children and her colleagues. She appears to have it all—the ability to choose when to have children, the means to choose how to raise those children, and the know-how to succeed in an increasingly precarious workforce. She is, in this sense, upholding feminist ideals of choice while molding herself into the perfect neoliberal subject. This mythic mother is an aspirational figure, every iteration of which further legitimizes the lie that this life is possible for everyone—or anyone. [3]

The bodily, psychic and social sacrifices that mothers must make can hardly be refuted, even in a feminist assessment of the ontology of maternality. However, the idea that motherhood consists of a marginalisation of aggressive impulses to pave the way for tender ‘motherliness’ falls short of accurately encapsulating the ambivalences that also characterise motherhood.

According to psychoanalysis, the maternal is a natural instinct, as opposed to being cultural or constructed. Freud’s conception of sexual difference is founded on the much older archetype, moreover, of a nature/culture split, which allocates to women the realm of nature (symbolised by mother nature’s fecundity and chaos), and to men the realm of culture (philosophy, politics, art etc). The mother’s role as caregiver and safe hands is recast is some mythology as a threat, a dark continent of menacing motherhood, implying, for the daughter specifically, a Snow White-esque rivalry for the attention of men, a mother’s violent envy of her daughter’s burgeoning sexuality. At root one can perceive a judeo-christian conditioning of the mother to a social function that requires the disavowal of her sexuality, and raising her to the level of saint, having been cleansed of the Eros of impregnation by gestation, pregnancy and childbirth. A mother can never ‘win,’ she must always be brought to account for her very existence.‘The majority of us suffered from overprotective mothers,’ writes Luce Irigaray, ‘because this investment corresponded to a prescribed and guilty mothering and not to a relationship of desire and love between two people.’

Recalling Sunday afternoons in the utility corner of the kitchen, the space allocated to cleaning, drying, pressing and folding: a sacred space of sorts for the compartmentalisation of the laundry process/laundry practice. The scrupulous procedure (the trial) of ironing a man’s shirt, consisting in an exact sequence of bodily gestures and fabric tensions: first, the shoulders, second, the arms, third the front (one uses the snub nose of the board to tauten the fabric at this juncture), and finally, the back; the widest expanse of fabric. Saving the least arduous section for last. My feet in socks sliding across the mock-terra cotta linoleum on which the clunky ironing board stood, having been violently click-clacked from it’s usual erectile verticality in the cupboard under the stairs, barely processing the data for a future in which I would never instrumentalise this tuition. Always shirts, some of them school shirts, but mostly 16” neck circumference denoting that the shirts were to be worn by my stepfather, who couldn’t iron his own shirts because this is woman’s work, and it is love’s labour – cleaning for your man, serving him, investing your love into his laundry. And one must learn the tricks of the wifely trade – my mother’s mother advised her to “always greet your husband with a fresh blouse” – one day you will have a husband of your own and his shirts will need ironing, my mother said.

In his 1914 essay On Narcissism Freud writes that a mother responds to the call of her child narcissistically, and she gives freely of her mind and her body in a dedicated nurturement, because, not in spite of it being a protrusion from herself. The feminine as essentially narcissistic is thus extended into the maternal function. The mother’s natural narcissism is thus ‘reborn as object-love.’  After Freud, Helene Deutsch persists that female sexual difference is fundamentally masochistic and ungratifiable (other than perversely) by any other route. Ambivalence – a complex interstitial state that straddles synthetic dualities, such as sadist-masochistic – acts as a counter-narrative to this assumption by focusing on dynamics, relations, processes as opposed to fixed modular or programmatic ‘states’ of being.

However organised around the mark of ‘caring,’ a mother is forever measured against it in a dualism of ‘too much’ or ‘not enoughness’ that is categorically not a spectrum. A new critical discourse on the maternal must enter into ambivalence, and, moreover, reject coherence. It must not merely acknowledge, pity or sublimate the ‘tearing and healing’ [4] of maternal love, but also avow maternal ambivalence, in spite [or because of] it fundamentally aporetic, poetic entanglement of subject to its circumstances, an ordeal.

‘To mother’ is to imply the ultimate hospitality, signified by the corporeal maternal. During pregnancy the gestation of an other within takes place, and the postnatal phase that commences with the absolute dependency of a newborn baby instigates a series of self-sacrificing bodily and affective gestures, comprehensible by the idiom “a mother’s work is never done,” and complicated by her absent or inward looking gaze. According to Julia Kristeva, ‘she “looks” without “seeing” and is ‘elsewhere.’ [5] Somewhere? Nowhere? Out of reach? Locked-in? Locked-out? The figure of the mother is an ideation, a corporeal/psychic landscape onto which desire, violence, pain and love are inscribed; she is a figure In thrall to a passion that is unnameable [in Kristevan terms] and suffering from this passion in ways that may be disturbing to that subject’s intrapsychic as well as interpersonal flourishing.

The maternal body instrumentalizes fears and desires of the socially constructed feminine, alongside the ‘phantasmatically’ experienced instinctual drive, questionable in its ‘naturalness.’ Maternality is disordering: it challenges the sovereignty of the subject in terms of coherence. Kristeva purports that ‘pregnancy is the abandonment of agency;’ her lauded theory of abjection is rooted in the rejection of the mother. This rejection is a prerequisite for emerging into language and therefore culture: she must first be abjected, ‘turned away from.’ A culture that designates the child as parasite is itself parasitic, since expectations around maternal behaviour/practice permeate and manufacture social life, which is itself leeching off an imaginary, phantasmatic or genuine maternal urge to care.


M. STORTI/O.DELACOUR: Because a mother isn’t just anyone. She’s someone who gave me life, who fed me, with whom I had my first physical contact.
L.IRIGRAY: Yes, but this relationship is most often lived passively and silently. It lacks exchanges, gestures and words which would leave, and even provide, each woman her own life mobility. [6]

Clotheslines presents an elliptical vision of women’s domestic work in the innovative form of an audio-visual collage, overlaying 35mm footage and women’s voices to weave an intimate, experientially universalised and yet heterogeneous, personalised maternal poesis: a concept with which I am thinking through the ambivalences, aesthetics and ethics of maternal domesticity in this essay. Clotheslines presents a ‘found’ folklore, a hymn or memorial to undervalued and invisible labour. The film’s form incorporates a programmatic set of tasks that are cyclical, temporal, and unfinishable: housework as endless, unwaged, affective labour.

Contextualised by the varieties of the domestic family unit, or wider community, and pivoting around the symbolism of the washing line ‘connecting’ women to each other, Clotheslines vindicates what is ‘aesthetic’ and indeed ‘public’ about housework, without promoting women’s labour as edifying, but rather in the register of shared experience, ritual and pain/pleasure. It is also an ode to our uncomfortable and troubled relationship with our mothers, to the intergenerational maternal body, to anonymous workers for whom complex feelings about their ‘labour of love’ are variously repressed, spoken or self-censored for the greater good of the family unit, or their own fragile will to power. Maggie Nelson writes that ‘[…] most worthwhile pleasures on this earth slip between gratifying another and gratifying oneself,’ [7] and this ‘ethics’ seems at the complex heart of love’s labour: not simply benevolent, not simply self-sacrificing: who does this process and practice actually serve? what are the inter and intra-subjective parameters and complexities at stake in the domestic relation?

Clotheslines’ narrators, whose voices sweep in and out, sometimes dissolving in laughter or fading, are New Yorkers – many of them working class, others suburban. The women who speak narrate the construction of domesticity as a practice inherited from their own mothers; their recollections taken as a whole are ambivalent, sequentially (indeed, for some, consistently) nostalgic, grateful and resistant to the modes of a past time that nevertheless produced them. These daughters’ memories, from the embodied maternal vantage point, seem to connect the women across generations (and across dimensions of the living and dead); they relate to one another anew, but with the crucial interpolation of 1970s feminism having given language to the younger generation with which they are able to acknowledge and articulate their struggle and the [presumed] struggle of previous generations. They speak from memory, which is the orientation of the film: memories cascading forth in the spoken register containing all of the emotions of growing up female in a domestic sphere, memories tinged with regret and guilt for the inter-generational, socio-cultural ruptures that position these blood-ties in tense alliance.

Theirs are the voices that, like apparitions, drift across the grainy footage of rows of sheets blowing on washing lines in the desert, in the country, in the suburbs, in China, in the Middle East, and in New York City, elevated in tiers high up above the streets. A young woman emerges with her washing basket from a dark staircase interior into the bright, burnished light of her apartment building’s roof, where she begins to hang her washing: “The roof was my special spot. There’s something about hanging washing on the roof that’s not really like work. It’s a pleasure. Outside in the air. Not in the dirty house. Something liberating about it.”

The far-off voice that enmeshes with the young mother on the roof calculates her relation to culture – it is the ‘world’ that she witnesses from her rooftop, and she is situated in the realm of ‘nature’, doing the ‘natural’ thing; instead of questioning the structure in which she is caught, she describes her condition with maternal metaphor: instead of resistance, she brings it closer, brings it in. The cyclical schema of washing is re-calibrated in its comparison with childbirth as ‘new beginnings;’ cleansing is equivalent to ‘a fresh start.’ The domestic realm cannot be taken away from her, the laundry “belong[s] to her,” and these cycles by which she lives give her “satisfaction in existence,” a “spiritual feeling.”

Maternal desire can and does incorporate a more generalised ‘nesting’ desire that can be seen as at least partially culturally conditioned. The desire to weave a ‘family,’ to ‘make’ a home; to nourish and to thrive, are culturally coded as ‘feminine.’ To ‘construct’ a framework and an environment, to ‘build’ a familial structure are culturally coded as ‘masculine.’ Man builds; woman makes. However these are active gestures of making, as opposed to passive gestures of receptivity to an externally constructed reality. Attentiveness to care of others, demonstrations of which encapsulate domestic concerns, are persistently taken up by the ‘maternal figure,’ regardless of sex-gender; the denigration of domestic labour is encapsulated in the denigration of the maternal [figure], and of the ‘feminine’ more generally.

Maternal desire and ‘matriarchal’ deportment seem connected by strings of the psyche and the body that manifest in care, the desire to nourish and touch. ‘Hospitality,’ etymologically linked to ‘host’ and ‘healing,’ is frustratingly proximate to ‘being servile.’ One can easily slide across the porous membrane from serving, nourishing, and carrying into the slavish state of the domestic martyr or self-abasement. There are criss-crossing expectations inherent in the dynamic of care-giver and cared-for, which exist in all intimate relations but in displeasure are experienced, bodily and in terms of attachment and loss, and the oscillations of ambivalence are more or less vehemently embodied by the maternal subject.  One conclusion to this lacuna, according to [Eve] Sedgwick, is that pleasure ‘becomes accretive as well as autotelic: the more it’s felt and displayed, the more proliferative, the more possible, the more habitual, it becomes.’ [8]


The laundry – washing, ironing folding, putting way – is my least gratifying substrata of domestic labour, but I am a terminal rearranger of things; I keep/maintain houseplants; I am a frantic floor-sweeper; I cook well and enjoy feeding others; I am adept at creating comfortable environments, which I prefer to be occupied. I carried out  all of these gestures before I had my daughter and became a mother; whenever I lived in shared spaces I prefered ‘family’ dinners and have been the first to ‘keep communal house,’ vacuuming, washing dishes, cleaning the bathroom. I prefer the construct of intimacy to the reality of distance and temporality, even if it is ‘only’ a construct, even if it tends to (re)produce affective familial dynamics into which participating subjects become mechanised. How can we approach these moments and states of internalisation in a way that brings them, and us, to account? How can we promote and nourish a domestic intimacy that isn’t reproductive of the violences and wounds we have ourselves witnessed/endured?

The contemporary, neoliberalised economic/social dynamic, with its liberation through consumer objects, a round-the-clock work ethic and the promise that work be ‘more’ than ‘just’ a job, discretely intersects with the problem of maternal labour/the domestic. If labour cannot be separated from the body that labours, how is the subject not an object of its labour: in other words; how can a sense of the subject’s autonomy be recuperated from a seemingly total atomisation into the structure which it serves and in which it is enmeshed? How can they thrive apart from the work they do; how can the mother, for example, be who she is as an individual (being a mother is part of who she is), without denigrating or reducing the significance of the mothering role. Perhaps the domestic sphere is a [annexed] curatorial space, an object constructed for contemplation.

The conjugation of the domestic and ethical spheres, oriented around the collapse of private and public, is a radical stance that harks back to the Ancient Greek tradition, emblemised by Hestia, Goddess of hearth and home. A wise woman and a sage, chaste and virginal, Hestia is a chthonic, Earth-centred priestess, Goddess of domesticity and also the state. Her name means ‘hearth,’ ‘fireplace,’ ‘altar,’ and she represents the polis – public life – and the oikos, a Greek word for ‘economics’ that is the equivalent to ‘family,’ or ‘household,’ signifying the ancient conjunction of public and private that has since been divided. The hearth was at the centre of Greek life, used for cooking, keeping warm, rites and rituals. Negligence in tending the domestic fire symbolised failure to one’s family; similarly, failure to maintain the public fire (at Hestia’s temple or shrine), symbolised failure to one’s whole community. In Ancient Greece, extinguishing and relighting of the domestic or public fire was accompanied by purification rituals, in Hestia’s name. She reifies the weaving together of the social, religious and political, by way of the domestic hearth, thus elevating the idea of ‘home, private’ to the level of ‘public.’ The sibling of Hera (Goddess of marriage, childbirth and the family) and Demeter (Goddess of fertility and the harvest), Hestia and her sisters represent femininity, fertility and the proper ordering of the family and the polis. Hestia symbolises the matriarchal order of home and city, weaved together as one, whereas the patriarchal order divides and splits these realms into asymmetric dualisms, one dominating the other. Public life is henceforth viewed as important, home life as trivial.

The domestic sphere, a site of resistance and over-determination, devalued by many who view it as sapping or even dangerous to women, nonetheless generates pleasure, for millions of women and mothers reproduce ‘labours of love,’ and are satisfied by the practice of what may be a ‘calling.’ Its marginalisation, in fact, plays into the equally dangerous attitude which discourages a coalition of motherhood with other forms of engaged practice, such as art-making. “Having children and being a mother…it would be a compromise to be an artist at the same time,” said Tracey Emin, vexing intersectional and other feminists in defence of artist-mothers (perhaps failing to attend to the nuances in Emin’s argument: indeed, to be a mother would ‘compromise’ her work). The reality of maternal sacrifice that cannot be refuted, alongside an exploitative work culture that seems incompatible with ‘good’ mothering, have contributed to a contemporary repudiation of maternal desire amongst artists and politically conscious members of my generation. The marginalisation of the maternal for artists in the post-1970s period, taking in Thatcherism, New Labour and this contemporary, atomised, neoliberal age, could be deemed the afterbirth of that ‘fertile period’ of 1970s art and politics; precarity itself prohibits commitments and responsibilities beyond the immediate body and its expanded landscape of affects.

There is a fissure between the feminist-art of the 1970s, which incorporated, desired motherhood – negotiating the apparently foreclosed alliance of feminism and the maternal – and now.The 1970s generation of artitsts/thinkers who reified the motherhood/artist dyad, include Kate Walker, Nancy Spero, Monica Ross (“Portrait of the Artist as a Housewife,” ICA, 1977), Mary Kelly, Griselda Pollock, Margaret Harrison (whose riposte to Tracey Emin’s stance on the incompatibility of motherhood and the contemporary art world – a proclivity of many contemporary artists – can be found here. The ‘neo-maternalism’ of the next generation, with today’s intersectional feminism, seems to have conjugated the maternal in a whole new way to the idea of marginality: Catherine Opie and Maggie Nelson spring to mind as examples of non-heteronormative maternal subjects for whom the practice of mothering operates, not entirely unproblematically, outside of structural normativity. Whether or not woman artists/poets/cultural commentators are ‘good mothers’ (and they are certainly rarely considered ‘great artists’) is supplementary to the fact that they dare to risk [making] both their art and their homes and families, often normatively but also at the edge. I formulate this ‘risk’ as poesis, an attribute that supplements the phenomenology of quotidian existence with a desire, approximate to Eros, that ‘tears and heals,’ displaying itself as a constellation or landscape of differing affects, extremes to which one is is constantly at some sort of mercy.

It seems that previous generations’ recognition of the daily struggles inherent in the practice of ‘maternal’ work combined with new feminisms, informed by neoliberalism, that compartmentalise work, parenting and leisure whilst at the same time diffusing these roles in a confusing, amorphous fog that can congeal into the negation of maternal desire. Andrea Liss writes that ‘women [make] agonising choices about whether to mother, or to accept the impossibility of mothering for political, sexual, bodily or other reasons.’

In the midst of [ordinary] lacerated relational tissues, I remember the neatness and order of wardrobes, shelves and drawers and how the control of these potentially disorderly corners of life might have served as anchors, securing my mother’s identity in a spatio-temporal vacuum as wife and mother and in turn her intelligibility to herself. The self she had chosen for herself coming into being, professional ambition collapsing inside it, because of and indeed in spite of past a history littered with the debris of fatal, blemished or wounded praxes of heteronormative monogamy and maternal domesticity.

What distinguishes the feminist mother from the patriarchal model of the mother is that the feminist mother struggles to break the yoke of centuries of expectation. She cannot carry the myth of the all-loving, all-forgiving, and all-sacrificing mother […]It is not a matter of “balancing motherhood and work,” as the media culture likes to insidiously simplify matters, as if we are really living in a “postfeminist” world, disavowing the inter-generational, cyclical aspects, bound in the collective mind to the passionate struggle between mothers and their daughters. It is the feminist mother’s admission that ambiguity is often the norm, and ambiguity that constantly tears and heals between the mother-self and her professional self, between the mother-self and her sexual self, between the mother-self and her own child self.’ [9]



Works Cited

[1] Rich, Adrienne. On lies, secrets, and silence: selected prose, 1966-1978. New York: Norton, 1979. Print.

[2] Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts, Greywolf 2015.

[3]  Adelaar, Nadine Ella Bedard, Natalie Childs, and Cynthia Spring. “Editorial Note: Mom’s Issue.” Guts Magazine.

[4] Liss, Andrea. Feminist Art and the Maternal. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Internet resource.

[5] Kristeva, Julia. “Motherhood Today.” Oct. 28, 2005. Web.

[6] Irigaray, Luce, and Mary Green. Luce Irigaray: Teaching. London: Continuum, 2008. Internet resource.

[7] Nelson, 2015.

[8] Sedgwick, Eve K, and Adam Frank. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Print.

[9] Liss, 2009.






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