The maiden, the mother and...the other one

The changing faces of female power

It’s been a busy month, in which I wrote (among other things) about interwar attempts at utopia, how we’re all now Britney Spears, why perverts should make the case for respectability politics and the self-absorbed, ahistorical philistinism of much ‘woke’ writing.

More happily, two friends recently had babies: the original act of creativity. I’ve seen many photos of friends with newborns, and the mother’s face always has an otherworldly quality. These were no exception: some mixture of enraptured, exalted, triumphant, serene. Growing a new human literally in your viscera, and then seeing that new life transfer from merged to separate, perhaps gives a sense of the worlds’ thinness that is absent from much of everyday life.

But even after they’re born, babies aren’t really separate. We think of people as separate individuals; and yet babies remain a kind of conjoined ‘other’ that we don’t really have words for. The psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott famously said ‘There’s no such thing as a baby, only a baby and someone’. That is, a baby doesn’t exist as a separate person, only as one part of a caretaking relationship. Left alone, it will die.

This raw biological truth is reflected even at the cellular level. In her excellent recent book Mom Genes, which examines the science of motherhood, Abigail Tucker recounts a phenomenon known as ‘foetal microchimerism’, in which a baby’s DNA floats around its mother’s organism long after the baby has been born (and even if the baby is stillborn). These cellular traces of the once-profound symbiosis of mother and unborn baby continue at work in the mother’s body, and congregate where repair work is needed, for example in wound scar tissue.

Tucker recounts further the sense in which mothers and their children co-create one another, in complex feedback loops. Becoming a mother induces fundamental, permanent changes in brain and body chemistry, and the ways in which we mother aren’t formed in a vacuum but rather reflect our mothers and grandmothers before us. And the ways we attend to our babies shape them in turn, in ongoing dialogue between people and across both cultural, psychological and physiological terrains. Tucker doesn’t harp on the profound implications of what she recounts, preferring to stick closely to her own experience and what the science reports, but my hunch is she’s not unaware of the wider ramifications.

The transition between maiden and mother that Tucker recounts is the first of three different but interconnected life stages most women experience: a trajectory quite different from that of men, even those men who are fathers. Neopagans draw on many mythological roots to characterise this as the maiden, the mother and the crone: together, the Triple Goddess. Or, as in the Terry Pratchett novel Maskerade, ‘the maiden, the mother and…the other one’ because no one dares call Granny Weatherwax a ‘crone’ to her face.

We might refer instead to the maiden, the mother and the matriarch. Tucker’s book doesn’t discuss it in anything like these crystals-and-woo terms, but nonetheless effectively gives an account of all three, through a synthesis of the kind of scientific research that would run a million miles from association with Neopaganism.

Mom Genes shows how transitioning from ‘maiden’ to ‘mother’ doesn’t just change our social role or daily schedule, but our hormonal, neurological and physiological makeup. She describes the intricate interconnections between mothers and their babies. And at the other end of life, she reflects on alloparenting and grandmotherhood, showing how crucial a role the matriarch plays in the wellbeing of her own daughters, when they become mothers in turn.

It’s often claimed that feminism must be ‘intersectional’ because the alternative is a doctrine that pretends the specifics of only some women’s lives are some sort of Universal Female Condition when in fact they’re culturally specific. There’s a some justice to this: the struggles of impoverished Muslim women in sub-Saharan Africa self-evidently don’t have a great deal in common with those of wealthy East Coast liberal women, for example, even if they both have challenges that relate to being female. Similarly, I can’t really avoid writing mostly from a white, middle-class, English woman’s perspective, something that will doubtless come with blind spots I’m not aware of.

But one of the blind spots I’ve noticed across even many of these ‘intersectional’ perspectives, as applied in the West, is that of time, and of relationships - especially the relationships that shape this triple archetype. By framing women’s liberation as a matter of unpicking us from relationships, and sidelining the three archetypal stages of womanhood, we end up imposing a male-standard Hero’s Journey on women - where you set forth on your own, vanquish demons and dragons, and return with the prize - that for many is not a comfortable fit with how life actually plays out.

Liberal feminism centres the maiden, a character we all know well. She’s young, fertile and beautiful; she’s the one at the sharp end of #MeToo workplace difficulties, the one ascending the career ladder, the one wrestling with modern dating etiquette and trying to decide whether marriage is an outdated holdover of patriarchy. ‘Girl power’ tells her she can do anything, ‘sex positive’ feminism tells her she can fuck anyone, and ‘girlboss’ feminism says she can rule everything.

The mother will obviously take a different form in different cultures and times, but in a way the maiden doesn’t need to be, the mother is embedded in a web of relationships. You don’t become a mother except via a relationship (however fleeting) and by taking on the care of a dependent child. (Tucker shows in Mom Genes how many of the neurological changes associated with this caretaking also occur in adoptive moms, as well as - albeit more slowly - in males who adopt a caretaking role.) Being a mother is about the everyday grind, the work of keeping things ticking over. Being in charge of the routine that gives a toddler’s life a feeling of safety. The everyday warmth of making somewhere a home. Most mothers, through time and geography, also work in other ways, but the beating heart of it is relatedness. As you might expect, and as Tucker points out, the strongest predictor of depression for mothers is a lack of wider social support - in a word, the less related and more atomised a mother is, the more likely she is to be miserable.

Pregnancy prepares you for that relatedness, slowly, as the weeks go by and you get more and more ungainly, your body overtaken by the work of creating a new person. By 40 weeks it feels as though your whole organism has been co-opted by the work of creating. Birth is a relief, but the feeling of being inhabited doesn’t go away - it just becomes the Mum Bluetooth: that indefinable hunch that your child needs you, and that’s right more often than not. I’m 42, and my mum still sometimes calls me moments after I’ve thought of her.

Liberal feminism doesn’t have as much to say to the mother, who is often measured against the maiden and made to feel a failure on those terms. Her midriff is spreading thanks to a few emergency biscuits after sleep-deprived nights. Her boobs have nursed several kids and don’t bounce like they did. She maybe didn’t get her highlights done so recently, and there are small plastic toys in her once-glam handbag. Maybe she’s not really feeling the ambition either; the truth is, spreadsheets weren’t always so exciting, and the baby human you grew in your literal entrails still feels a little bit like part of your body and she needs you so you’re trying to find a balance. Aren’t you, already, mentally turning away from this frumpy nobody?

Now see if you can picture the next Pokémon evolution of the Triple Goddess: the matriarch. She’s the hardest to imagine of all, because you rarely see her in the media. Women who reach matriarch age tend to be politely retired; think of what happened to Jenni Murray when she refused to pretend she believed humans can change sex. See if you can think of words for the matriarch that aren’t derogatory or condescending: ‘old biddy’ or ‘gossip’ or ‘hag’ or ‘old bag’, ‘old trout’ and so on.

The matriarch’s priorities and orientation are different; she might be caring for aged parents or grand-children, but her time is mostly her own. Her children have grown up. She’s often reflective, might start a new career or volunteer. The matriarch is often the backbone of local communities. She organises things, tracks social relationships, keeps events ticking over, and keeps a beady eye on the young.

Liberal feminism, again measuring women on the yardstick of the maiden, very little to say to this matriarch, except to try and recoup her for ‘sexiness’ or mutter (fearfully) about the way she’s invisible in the media. But at the same time, it’s busy disappearing her: she’s a ‘TERF’ for knowing that humans can’t change and a ‘SWERF’ for having the life experience to advise against turning youthful beauty into a commodity.

This is a perspective that sees women peaking in mid-twenties or at a pinch early thirties, when we’re still hot and career-driven and maybe unencumbered, and it’s all about sex-positivity and girl-bossing. This maiden rejects the idea of letting time flow on: she bridles at any suggestion that motherhood is full of pleasures, or that the passing bloom of youth and beauty is a fact of life and biology, rather than a cruel injustice perpetrated by sexism.

This is understandable, perhaps, in a world that so elevates the male-standard Hero’s Journey and so disregards other types of heroism. And it’s only as a maiden, unburdened by the commitments of a dependent child, that you can fully pursue a do-or-die Hero’s Journey. There are plenty of fantasy-fiction novels now with female heroines, but have you ever read one in which this heroine is a mother? I haven’t. This is not a coincidence, but it’s one that is carefully downplayed by the maiden-centric world of liberal feminism.

And so it’s understandable that some of us cling (as I did, for a long time) to the maiden-hood in which a Hero’s Journey is possible. The most poignant image I associate with this is a moment in Sex and the City, where one of the characters (I forget who) sees an ex-boyfriend she misses, walking away from her, and hurries toward him calling his name. He turns - and he’s carrying a baby in a sling. In that moment her maiden hope of rekindling love is dashed by the fact that this man has already made a mother of someone else.

It’s of course absolutely not the case that women cease to be women if we don’t have babies. There have always been women who are infertile, or who choose childlessness. The Triple Goddess is not the only female archetype. (Had I been born in the Middle Ages, where women faced a straight choice between a life of the mind in a convent, or having loads of babies, I’d probably have opted for the convent.)

But stepping aside from the Hero’s Journey only looks like a failure if you measure Mother and Matriarch by the yardstick of Maiden. They may appear less sexy, less independent, less career-focused. But they’re powerful in other ways. And when 80% of UK women will have at least one child, the Triple Goddess in truth describes a majority of women - and yet is rarely spoken of, at least by liberal feminism, save in the first of her aspects, the maiden.

A trillion trillion tiny acts of heroism are performed every day, by mothers and matriarchs. We all know this, but it’s become unspeakable: acknowledging it is somehow an act of sexism. Instead they’re treated as a set of inconveniences or at best opt-in categories, that place women at a disadvantage relative to men. I think there’s a more positive story to tell, about a distinctively female Hero’s Journey. We need to invite the mother and the matriarch back into the conversation.