A Thought Adventure

Sunday, October 4, 2015

7. The Return of the Repressed

Because she conforms to the prevailing pattern of male privilege, a mother earns rewards for indulging her son’s whims. In reality, though, this behavior not only does the child a disservice, it’s committing a hostile act against him. First, it fails to perform the most fundamental task of parenting, which--besides giving the child affection and basic protection--is encouraging him to stand on his own two feet, secure in himself and reliant on his own authority. Second, it prepares him badly for a world that expects him to postpone gratification, face challenges and take responsibility, i.e., be an adult. Especially today when men can no longer count on having wives to serve them.

What mother gets out of pampering her son is an opportunity to show what some would call maternal sacrifice (protectiveness, forbearance, love). To me it seems more like masochistic martyrdom--a cover-up for an underlying antagonism against the kid--because it exposes him to the risk of becoming either over-dependent on female reassurance or unwilling to enter a close relationship with a woman. In the most extreme case, a mother’s instinct to love her child turns into a passion specific to all forms of sadism--having absolute control over a living being.

The terms sadism and masochism were first introduced as sexual perversions by the German psychologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing. He saw power rather than pain as central in both syndromes and showed that sadism is often masked by reaction-formations like over-goodness and over-concern. Bribed with material things, assurances of love--anything but being allowed freedom and independence--a child of such a parent may become fearful of love, yet cover it up by compensatory feelings of eminence and perfection.

Inflated motherhood
Time is greatly overdue for us to face the monstrosity we’ve created out of the maternal role. From having originally been an important natural, yet always finite, source of power for a woman, motherhood mutates into a legitimate outlet for many of the frustrations inherent in being female. Although there certainly are mothers who hit their sons (who then in turn hit their wives), I propose that most maternal behavior illustrates what Freud called the “return of the repressed,” i.e.,it expresses in an indirect way the aggression that’s never confronted directly. Because it is in the practice of motherhood that most of the injustices ever done to womankind come home to roost. 

Lacking properly drawn boundaries, the maternal role includes features like mother spending most of her time in physical closeness to her children, concentrating her major energies on them and deriving the bulk of her prestige from their achievements. This relationship is unfair to both mother and child, because while only remotely concerned with the good of the kids, it makes mom responsible for whatever goes wrong with them.

There’s a tendency, especially here in the West, to think that everything a mother does is an act of love. When she smothers her kids with attention, we say she “loves them too much,” and when she pays them little mind she’s “good and firm.” Is romanticizing motherhood a way for men to expiate guilt for sins committed against the female sex? Or is it simply wishful thinking on their part? As French writer George Sand puts it, “The virtue of woman is a fine invention of man.” Whatever it is, seeing proofs of motherly love also in the most outrageous child-rearing practices, is to condone a category of child abuse that I call ‘soul rape.’

The mother complex
I consider the illusion about an inherent maternal goodness to be one of the most important reasons why men’s inferiority complex endures, because it perpetuates the misperception that women have a higher rank than men. A misperception that goes all the way back to the magical belief that women create children on their own, but which is also kept alive by men's envy of the closer bond women have to their children.

Isn’t it highly ironic, then, and even amusing that so many men feel threatened today when new opportunities are saving women from having to make a career of motherhood? When a primary source of men’s sense of inferiority towards women is finally drying up! And along with it also the not uncommon sequel to wifely subservience: the shameless manipulation of husbands?

Now to understand how an archaic superstition about female superiority can still haunt men--if only on a subconscious but therefore so much deeper level--we must face what to me is another hugely consequential truth. Far from having a destructive effect only on sons, the inflated maternal role overflows its banks into neighboring territory to also knock the bottom out of the paternal role. That father isn’t considered to be as necessary for children nor valued as highly as mother (despite some latter-day progress in this regard) is a strangely overlooked fact, and one we need to examine. See next post.

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