On martyrdom and motherhood 

As I write this I sit in the Mcdonalds-open from 6am- 10 minutes walk from my house. The boys are at home together, and I have negotiated an hour of thinking before propelling myself into a busy day with my toddler.
The opportunities for martyrdom in motherhood are seemingly endless. The invitation to the cross, the disembowelling, the Via Dolorosa, the flagellations, the confession, the wheel, the stake, present themselves hour by hour, minute by minute. I’m well schooled in the taking up of the invitation: my subjectivity, my bloodthirsty tastes for masochism were formed in the gawping at macabre deaths of saints in my religious upbringing, the identification with the slain lamb of god, the reading of tragic greek heroes, the bindings of my received femininity. I realise I’m probably a bit more extreme because of the way I was brought up, but there is a question mark to what extent is everyone a bit masochistic? Maybe that way of relating drives us all to greater or lesser extents. There’s a great new books in Psychoanalysis interview in which Leo Bersani develops Freuds notion of masochism which might be developmentally inscribed in us. That we have a evolutionary, biological need in infancy to turn the relentless stimuli that is quite painful to the infant into pleasure for the purpose of survival.
This way of relating is inscribed in our Western imaginations, its been lovingly handed down from mother to child for generations, its inscribed in our figures of speech and some of our conceptualisations of female sexual practice.

I’m trying to choose martyrdom less often. 

It’s a dead end, a false solution and a boring way of relating. I’m over it. It hollows me out and distances me from my hunger and any sort of desire, so that I am disembodied, with only the outline of me looking after whoever I have martyred myself for. I’m not really there, and it makes it impossible for those I love to reach me, or for me to connect with them.

I know how to sigh and roll my eyes, or lie back and think of England. I know how to dull my appetite and survive on three hours sleep and half a banana whilst tending to the needs of others. No one is home because Atlas is on top of the mountain, holding up the world. No one is at home because I’m on the Cross, giving up my life. There’s a brilliant moment in Scorceses film, The Passion of the Christ, where Christ is faced with the choice of whether to remain and die or get down and make a home for himself in the world. That is the important moment: the split second before the martyrdom.
One of these moments presented itself in technicolor, ripe for scrutinising, frame by frame. There was a week recently where nothing was right for baby R. He was teething, he was mid-flu, he had a bit of nappy rash. He was waking early with discomfort, maybe even pain. He is learning to talk. He can’t stop moving. He had feelings of ambivalence when I picked him up: he wanted to cuddle, he wanted to go. He was awkward in body and soul and couldn’t stop crying and clinging and pushing me away. That particular week it was exhausting. By 9 am I could feel my limits. I’d listened to him all morning, from 5:30. I’d been a pretty good mum. I showed him sympathy, I was patient, we were taking the day slowly, one minute at a time. I could feel my desire for a shower, a lovely hot shower, by myself, 15 minutes of breathing, smelling nice soap and letting my shoulders loosen under the hot water. And I almost didn’t take it because I knew R. Wasn’t going to be happy about being chucked in his cot with some toys and a Rod Stewart playlist.
The moment before the martyrdom is a complex moment. I tune into the textures of it, the complexities- its dizzying. There are so many strands, so many histories embedded in it. Its not just me deciding to not take the shower, its millions of women before me, and my mum maybe and Jesus and all the heroes and saints. If it were a moment in a sci-fi film, what would be at stake is the extinction of the world, and the task would be a synaptic re-writing of the ship: She would be suspended beautifully in space, a few seconds before a cosmic absorption into a black hole or implosion. There would be a breathless hypothesis in techno-gibberish(‘this should work captain!’) a wrenching of wires- hopefully they pulled the right one.
I imagine, in the moment suspended is space, what will happen if I don’t have the shower. As Auden famously noted, ‘the dreadful martyrdom must run its course’. I know the feeling of barely suppressed resentment, the dullness, the impatient sigh, the enforced chirruping, the feeling of being well and truly cocooned. For the rest of the day, and if I continue the practice, maybe longer.
And the price, maybe, is connectedness? Or the message that the baby is barely tolerated. That’s the one that frightens me, at least. Or knowing that I’m so full-almost bursting- that I can’t possibly take anymore crying in, that he’s going to be on his own because I can’t be an ego support anymore, I can’t reflect him back to himself. And the one that really frightens me: I’m isolating myself too. From me, from him. I’m climbing up the mountain to hold up the universe. There’s great choice at the heart of this dilemma: hold up the universe or hold the baby. The price of perfection, of being a perfect mom holding everything together being eternally omnipresent is connectedness.
The worst thought of all is that I’m handing down this way of relating to baby R. I’m teaching him that if there are two people with competing needs in the room, in relation to each other, someone’s needs must be swallowed. There’s no way out of the bottomless, vacuuming black hole. There’s no negotiating the need to be alone and write for a few hours at dawn with a kind but tired partner who will need some time to himself later, in exchange.

Copyright Diana Smith 2017

WH Auden, Musée de beaux arts, http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk/poems/musee-des-beaux-arts/

New books in Psychoanalysis podcast http://newbooksnetwork.com/leo-bersani-and-adam-phillips-intimacies-university-of-chicago-press-2008/

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