Maternal Desire; On Children, Love, and the Inner Life (Book Review)

Author:  de Marneffe, Daphne
Publisher: New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004
Reviewed By: Mary Pharis, Summer 2005, pp. 63-64

What makes a book an analytic book? When we decide as we turn the pages of a book that the author has an analytic perspective, what is it that makes us think so? I’m not thinking of books in the professional domain, like those published by the Analytic Press, or Guilford; Aronson or Brunner/Mazel; or Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. I’m referring to nonfiction books published by the popular presses, those that might hope to compete for a spot on the New York Times book lists. I recognized that Daphne de Marneffe’s sensitive, thoughtful, passionate book, Maternal Desire; On Children, Love, and the Inner Life, was analytic by the time I had read five pages. I knew she must have an analytic perspective when I found her describing the issues that surround the question of how caring for children might fit into one’s life, and how one might talk about that with others, in this way:

There is a complicated blend of emotions at the heart of these issues and a complicated overlay of social messages. They are a minefield, where we step gingerly around our own feelings and those of others, balancing self-revelation and self-concealment in an effort to respect other’s choices, maintain friendships, not offend (p. xiii)

She observes, “The early years of our children’s lives give us a unique opportunity to embrace living fully, in all its fatigue, moodiness, laughter, inconvenience, pleasure and mess (p.329).” And then she raises the question as to what a mother might do when she finds it is hard to hold onto the joy, the positive spectrum of emotions, and keep her equanimity in the face of the array of demands of motherhood that make that equanimity hard to retain.

I thought her answer clearly revealed her analytic perspective: “A first step that any of us can take is to sit with the problem, whatever form it takes in our lives. We need to listen to the stirrings of our own soul, take responsibility for all our different feelings, and work toward greater discernment of our desire amid the clamor of voices. How do we do that? First, we notice. We notice the clench in our stomach or the low level spaciness we feel when we leave our baby for the day. We ask ourselves what we can learn from it. We notice our sense of relief when we get out the door and leave our screaming toddler. We turn that sense of freedom over in our minds, trying to learn all we can about its sources…. Noticing does not make bad feeling go away, but it creates slightly more breathing space for our intimate experience, giving us a moment of honest specificity amid the self-persecuting half-truths that usually clog our minds. It can make us more compassionate toward ourselves, and less lonely” (pp. 329-330).

Just at the time I finished de Marneffe’s book, Newsweek magazine published an issue (February 21, CXLV no. 8: 42-49) with a cover photo of a mother holding a baby, rigged to look as if the mother had eight arms, all of them busy with diverse activities. The banner read “The Myth of the Perfect Mother: Why It Drives Real Women Crazy” and inside was an essay on motherhood by Judith Warner. Warner’s article, we were told, was taken from her forthcoming book Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety (New York: Riverhead, 2005). In her Newsweek article, she reported that she had decided to name her book Perfect Madness because so many women told her of their “lives spent shuttling back and forth to more and more absurd-seeming, high-pressured, time-demanding, utterly exhausting kids’ activities (p. 44).”

I could tell that Warner was passionate too, but certainly not in the same way that de Marneffe was; the tone of her article left me with the impression that she probably did not have an analytic perspective. I decided that it might be useful for me to read her book as well, to help me clarify those elements that lead me to conclude an author’s thinking seems to be analytic or not. In her book Warner opines that “a longing to get things under control” is “the real reason why we mother the way we do. It gives us a feeling of control that is very comforting (and very familiar). It suits us psychologically. It allows us to assuage our anxiety (Warner, 2005, p.158, italics in the original).

Now this is not analytic. Nor is her strange, possibly even bizarre rhetoric in the closing paragraph of her book: “I still believe in that dream of American womanhood: the sense of limitless possibility, that unique potential for unbounded self-creating. I tell my [daughters] this (in so many words) all the time. And I will always tell them that – no matter how many doubts I have to suppress, no matter how much cynicism I have to swallow, no matter how many defeatist escape fantasies I nurture, in the moments when I feel the most impotent” (Warner, 2005, pp. 282-283).

These two books helped me to clarify my own thinking about what kind of writing seems analytic to me. First and foremost, authors with an analytic perspective are those who can think deeply about the astonishingly varied ways that humans reason, feel, and behave as they do. And because they can recognize the immense complexity of human behavior, thought, and affect, they are more likely to reveal in their writing an appreciation of the nuanced, complex variation in themselves and others.

I also think an analytically informed writer shows respect, even admiration, for the enormous diversity in the human species wrought by biology, gender, culture, and historical era, to name only a few of the forces working on each of us to shape our development and the course of our lives.

Analytically informed writers are likely to show considerable ability to observe their own inner life, especially their feeling states, and to recognize without too much discomfort the wide spectrum of emotions, including both positive and negative emotions, as well as the annoying truth that sometimes we feel more than one way about particular issues or people or events. In a similar vein, I think analytically informed authors are likely to feel comfortable with uncertainty, and so they are probably less likely to make unqualified, absolutist pronouncements.

de Marneffe’s writing shows her capacity for analytic thought throughout, no matter what topic she addresses, as in her impressive chapters on Pleasure, on Ambivalence, on Time with Children, on Midlife. The reader is welcomed into her careful, complex, sensitive thoughts and feelings, but there are no catch phrases or war cries. The reader comes to cherish the way in which de Marneffe shares the complexity of her thinking on such topics, as much as her conclusions. It is like having a marvelously deep exchange with a new friend who seems open to a vast array of both ideas and feelings, and can sit with the swirl, and let time and experience sort them out to find what rings true, what “works” for her. And she comes across as one who would be just as eager to hear about your thoughts on the same topics, to know how you have found your way through the swirl, too.

This complex and absorbing book deserves careful attention. A close friend, a psychotherapist and mother of a charming daughter who goes to preschool half a day each week, tells me she wrestles constantly with her longing to be with her daughter which clashes with her deep love of her professional work. She received a copy of Maternal Desire last Mother’s Day, and reported to me “I love it!” When I asked her to tell me why, this articulate woman had a hard time putting into a few words what it was that made the book so precious to her. I understood completely, for as I worked on this review I have found it hard to capture what has made it so precious to me, as well.

Perhaps another characteristic of an analytically informed writer, or reader for that matter, may be the an ability to tolerate, without falling into despair, those occasional moments when life seems totally unfair, or the world seems devoid of wisdom and justice. As I contemplated the sales statistics for de Marneffe’s book, and compared them with Warner’s, I found I had to call up that ability within myself. For Warner’s decidedly polemical book ranked 952nd in sales on Amazon.com in the third week of June, while de Marneffe’s wonderful book was 211,281st

But I could soothe myself by noticing that the Amazon.com reviewer ratings favored de Marneffe’s book: the ten individuals who had written reviews and rated Maternal Desire on Amazon.com gave her an average of 4.5 out of a possible 5 stars. But the 49 reviewers of Warner’s book gave an average of 3 stars, because her book drew about as many negative reviews as positive ones. There must be more analytically informed readers out there than I suspected.

References

Warner, Judith (2005). Perfect madness: Motherhood in the age of anxiety. New York: Riverhead Books.
Warner, Judith (2005). Mommy madness. Newsweek, (February 21) CXLV no. 8: 42-49.

Reviewer Note

Mary Pharis is past president of the Austin Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology.

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