Freakin’ out: Freud, The Uncanny and motherhood

Often when I have a quiet moment to myself, my mind wanders to the freaky fact that I grew a whole human being inside of me. I mean, he spent 9 months nestled among my vital organs. I grew him cell by cell, one sausage sandwich at a time. I spent the better part of a year amassing a human body inside me. And in those tender months just after his birth when I took him to the weighing clinic and the midwife told me he was growing and thriving and gaining weight I was shocked every time that he was becoming more baby and more body and more himself just from my milk. I kept expecting her to say, nah, just kidding, you can’t actually grow a baby just by boobs alone. It seems weird in this day and age that you grow a body with another body. It seems unhygienic or kind of backwards- like homeopathy. The first eighteen months of body -from fetus to weaning- his bones, his teeth, his skin- his substance- is me. And this is a weird thought but it is not the weirdest. Parenting has, so far, invited me to many uncanny encounters.

Today, for example, I was just thinking, oh I must remember to ask my friend Robert if I can borrow his phone charger. No sooner had I thought this thought than the the three year old turned to Robert and asked for the phone charger. This happens all the time. I think about my husband and suddenly R is asking when daddy is going to be home. His little mind-reading shenanigans are never a product of our chats together – it is always after a silence. Ever since he learned to talk he sometimes voices my unvoiced thoughts. I don’t know if there is some unconscious communication between us or if maybe we spend way too much time together talking about the same stuff over and over or if maybe we’re just really attuned to each other. I don’t know how to explain it but it freaks me out every single time.

Or a few months ago I was clearing out some baby stuff and I came across my breast pump. As I opened the box to inspect the contents, I felt a surge of – what? A let-down reflex? Milk ducts firing up? An oxtytocin party in my boobs? Whatever it was, my body- which hasn’t produced milk for years- was suddenly that of a nursing mother. The sensation of it was a visceral momento- all triggered by glancing at my old breast pump. This is more understandable, maybe, though I didn’t know it was a Thing. I was suddenly propelled into mammal memory.

Or I find it really weird when I wake up suddenly in the night a few minutes before R wakes. Just as I begin to think oh, I’m lucid dreaming or maybe I’m sleeping lightly, he calls to me from his cot down the corridor. Are our bio rhythms in sync? Has my ‘sleep architecture’ shifted because of hormones or something? Do I just startle in my sleep at the same environmental noises he does? I don’t know the answer but I do find it strange that often when he cries in the middle of the night I’ve woken up a split second before- he hardly ever wakes me from a really deep sleep.

Freud’s notion of the uncanny is a useful frame to interpret these encounters. Motherhood brings me cheek-to-jowl with my reptile self, the ‘strange yet familiar’ mammal life I could easily disregard in my waking 9-5 post- latte, sitting down and talking targets existence. The gift of the uncanny is that when it rears its head I am reminded I am not in control: I am subject to unconscious processes that both delight and bewilder me. When my kid eerily asks me why I am sad when I’m walking along silently, absorbed in processing a bit of grief, it is a treat to feel astonished. I am suddenly an outsider in my own life, controlled by forces that I sometimes experience as totally other.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Freud wrote the classic essay ‘The Uncanny’ in 1919 which has dazzled art students ever since

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