What Do Mothers Want? Developmental Perspectives, Clinical Challenges (Book Review)

Author:  Brown, Sheila Feig
Publisher: The Analytic Press
Reviewed By: Johanna Krout Tabin, Vol. 27, No. 4, pp. 41-42

The title of this book may be a sly reference to Freud's perplexity about what women want. It might better be called "What Could Mothers (and Their Therapists) Use If They Knew It?' As such it is an interesting exploration of issues that pertain to motherhood. Editor Sheila Brown organized fourteen varied papers into three sections: What Mothers Want and Need, Women's Bodies: Choices and Dilemmas, and Pulling It All Together.

'What Mothers Want and Need" offers a range of topics. The first chapter opens with Daniel Stern's ideas about the landscape of the mother's psyche. He cleverly parallels a mother's experience with her new baby with the scenario of lovers. It inescapably suggests that the experience of lovers, when deep enough, parallels the earliest affective attunements of their lives. Stern integrates well his descriptions of these characteristic behaviors with the latest discoveries of neuroscience, such as mirror neurons.

As a second main point, Stern emphasizes the importance to a new mother of being monitored by an older, respected woman. He relates this to developmental factors and natural changes in the psychology of a pregnant woman. His conclusion is valuable, pointing out that in our increasingly fragmented society, our providing experienced and caring older women to mentor new mothers may be an important contribution as well to the welfare of babies.

Rosemary Balsam continues in the next chapter with exploration of the new mother's relationship with her own mother, but from the standpoint of the burdens this introduces. Later, Sara Ruddick brings this relationship back to the need of mothers for a mother's mentoring and considers the compound role of grandmothers. Her ruminations lead her to literature, feminism and the subject of peace.

Continuing with the importance of the relationship of the new mother with her own mother, Benjamin follows with theoretical application of the concept of thirdness (the role of a relationship She is at pains to downplay any significance given to the place of the oedipal father in what transpires. It is the still more primordial attunement of a mother (within herself) and her own mother that Benjamin sees as basic for new mothers and in the analytic experience.

James Herzog's chapter leaps to the defense of the father's role. Stern already informed the reader that the pregnant woman loses interest in men. Herzog calls on women to co-create with the father the space for their child to develop his or her selfness. He sees the father as actively affirming the reality of essential diversity and difference. Citing research, Herzog reminds the reader that less than perfect attunement between mother and baby is necessary for healthy development of a new individual. He goes to primordial, neurological roots, also, stressing the fundamental importance of the parents' sexuality with each other. In two clinical vignettes, Herzog illustrates the value of mothers and fathers working together, and the unique contribution fathers make.

Two more chapters in this section deal with motherhood as an abstraction. It becomes the focus of a chapter on households with same sex couples as parents, defining motherhood according to behavior, not gender. The first, by Jack Drescher, Deborah F. Glazer, Lee Crespi and David Schwartz, has a bit of a polemic ring. It ends, however, with the need for research to understand the ramifications of such parenting.

In a balanced presentation in the next chapter, Adria F. Schwartz reports her experiences with "two mother" parenting. These experiences were with families where one parent was her patient, but they allow Schwartz to speculate more generally on issues regarding rivalries and other complicating feelings that emerged in the treatment process. She underscores, also, the importance of good research as nontraditional families occur more and more frequently, in order to understand better the developmental consequences of these new arrangements.

The section rounds out with Daniel Gensler and Robin Shafran's considerations about what mothers want from their children's therapists. They point out that regardless of the degree to which the mother may or may not be involved directly in a given child's treatment, underlying respect for the mother is necessary, even to maintaining treatment of the child for the course. One might think that this lesson need not be provided here; but it is plausibly an excellent stroke to include it when thinking of something mothers should have.

The next section of the book is devoted to matters of the body. Nancy Chodorow offers a remarkable instance of a major theorist who admits what more she has come to realize since her earlier work profoundly influenced the field. Her perspective on feminism has changed to the extent that she is now seriously impressed with the importance of "the inevitable working with or through of the developmental challenge of bodily reproductivity and generativity..." (p.134). She ruefully recognizes how her early work can provide a cover for internal conflicts and fears (p.137). Much of her discussion focuses on ramifications for a woman in the passage of time that can carry her past the possibility of becoming a mother; and the need for mindfulness on the part of therapists as to the importance of exploring the complexities that arise from those developmental issues that lead to denial of the passage of time.

Allison Rosen is likewise aware of the time factor as she deals with the issues created by infertility. In this chapter, she stresses that infertility is never simply about biology. Her discussion is brief but brings light to many facets of the feelings around becoming pregnant or finding that pregnancy is not possible. She includes the issue of when to bring up the subject of fertility when a woman who is older than thirty seems to ignore it, and counter-transference issues of therapists. This particularly well-written chapter concludes with a noteworthy statement inspired by the significance of being able to produce progeny and the fantasies as well as realities that one might face: "While we are used to the idea that we remember the past through the filter of the present, I am suggesting that we also evaluate the present and experience ourselves in the context of the future" (p.188).

Sharon Kofman and Ruth Imber directly explore feelings around and during pregnancy. Clear as to the expectable readership for this volume, they emphasize treatment of women who are pregnant and treatment by women who are pregnant. What they have to say does, of course, apply to the importance of the subject of pregnancy to everyone.

Finally in the section on women and their bodies, Jean Petrucelli and Catherine Stuart shed light on what they call the complicated terrain of eating disorders and the mother-child relationship. Their clinical contribution is to elucidate the role of anxiety in this relationship. They find that terror of awareness of anxiety pushes both mother and daughter in the direction of symbolic behavior. They present a case which illustrates the value of confronting anxiety in enabling a girl and her mother to deal with the underlying issues that culminated in the girl's eating disorder.

The final section of the book is called "Pulling It All Together." It is more like finding a space for two more interesting viewpoints. Nonetheless, they are interesting. The first is by Jane Lazarre. She is known for her book describing motherhood of a White woman with Black children. In this chapter, she offers a poignant memoir of what this has been like for her. She ends with a heartfelt plea for compassion.

Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip A. Cowan provide a final chapter for the book. Their chapter is a departure from the format the other authors have chosen. They summarize valuable research, done over many years, about couples' relationships. As therapists we can take heart from a fact they discovered: When new parents engage in therapeutic intervention, they are significantly less likely to be divorced by the time their child is three years old. The most important finding from the Cowans' research is probably this: "The transition to parenthood tends to have its most negative effects on the fault lines that already exist in the couple relationship terrain" (p. 232). Their concluding statement is that "[I]f mothers can have some time each week with the fathers of their children, they night find that their reality comes a little closer to what they want" (p. 246). This reminds one of Herzog's chapter, but there is nothing in any of the chapters that contradicts the possible wisdom in this idea.

What Do Mothers Want? is written for our profession. It belongs in courses on feminism. It is sophisticated enough theoretically and clinically applicable enough to be worthwhile for anyone's study of what it means to be a woman.

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