I Theorizing the Absent Mother
The Lady Vanishes: The Rise of the Spectral Mother
Western literary history is populated with dead, absent, and missing mothers—and with mothers in the process of marginalization even if they are alive and at home.1 Odysseus learns that his mother Anticlea is dead when he visits the underworld on his way home from Troy in Homer’s Odyssey (1997); an archetypal spectral presence, Odysseus desperately tries to capture her in his arms, and cannot (XI:95-100, 233-256). In Virgil’s Aeneid (1990), Aeneas is told by a vision of his wife Creusa—the mother of his son Ascanius—that she must be left to die in the ruins of Troy so that he and his son can pursue their destiny (II:1000-1025). Telemachus claims his maturity by ordering his mother, Penelope, to her room in The Odyssey, displacing her within her own home (I:409-419). Fathers abound in Shakespeare’s plays—as monarchs, patriarchs and arrangers of marriages— but mothers are notably absent. No word from Lear’s queen, who is the mother of his three daughters, or the mother of Prince Hal (Henry IV’s queen) in the Henry plays—or from the mother of Miranda (Prospero’ s wife) in The Tempest, or Jessica’s mother (Shylock’s wife) in The Merchant of Venice, or from the mother of Hero (the wife of Leonato) in Much Ado about Nothing. Children evidently have fathers, but seemingly not mothers.
M. Francus (*)
© The Author(s) 2017
B. Astrom (ed.), The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-49037-3_2
This is not to say that mothers never appear in Western literature—or appear only to disappear—but when mothers are portrayed in literature, it is clear that they are deviating from expectation. In ancient Greek literature, mothers murder their children (like the eponymous heroine in Euripides’ play Medea, and Agave from Euripides’ The Bacchae), or commit incest, like Jocasta in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (2010). In Shakespeare’s plays, mothers onstage are devilish—think of adulterous Gertrude in Hamlet, or vengeful Tamora in Titus Andronicus—or they are unable to protect their children, like Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. It is not surprising that it has been suggested that the best mother in literature is a dead one. Nor is it surprising that when maternal presence is deemed to be dangerous to family and society, maternal absence becomes desirable. I contend that maternal absence takes many forms in literature, but they all lead to a spectralization of motherhood as the mother and her point of view are displaced, if not erased, from the cultural landscape.2 Mothers are physically removed and psychologically marginalized from narrative, only leaving traces behind of their characters and actions as parents. In this essay, I will present some frameworks to explain how and why dead, absent, and missing mothers became so popular in Western literature, and then consider some of the ramifications of this cultural preoccupation.
Let us begin with some operating assumptions. First, mothers are often viewed as archetypal females, starting with Eve in the Bible—which means that the assessment of mothers has implications for all women. Second, there is a common conflation of femininity and domesticity in the Western tradition. Women are expected to be at home, enacting a code of female conduct: of modesty, chastity, piety, charity, duty, compassion, self-control, and virtue. Third, this image of the domestic woman is idealized— and serves as cultural shorthand for Western standards of female behavior regardless of age, class, region, ability, or character. The domestic wife and mother is expected to care for her children (attending to their physical and psychological health, and moral and social education, or supervising those who tend to her children), to oversee the domestic budget, to supervise the workers in the household (if there are any), and to defer to her husband. Fourth, women who embodied the conduct code and fulfilled the duties of mothers were considered ‘good’, and those who did not were ‘bad’. I want to emphasize that I am using ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as relative rather than absolute terms—which is why I have placed them in quotation marks—but it must be recognized that these terms function as a cultural shorthand, for they do not capture the maternal experience or the multivalent responses to mothers and mothering. ‘Good’ mothers may parent badly, and ‘bad’ mothers may be good parents at times, and the ways that women mother may or may not be consistent with their behaviors in other roles and contexts. But Western society tends to be absolute in its judgments of mothers and mothering, and that must be recognized as we trace the cultural rise of dead, absent, and missing mothers.
As my title indicates, I am designating all absent mothers as spectral mothers. I contend that the term ‘spectral mother’ brings to the forefront the issue of haunting, which marks the ideological work of these maternal narratives: whether it is mothers who are haunted by absent children, or a preferred motherhood they cannot enact; or children who are haunted by an absent mother or a maternal ideal that their mothers fail to embody; or a society that is haunted by an ever-desired, ever-receding maternal ideal that domestic ideology cannot bring into being. The Western ideology of motherhood is aspirational, marked by hope, effort, loss, and desire.
But how did spectral maternal narratives become so prominent in Western literature? Part of the answer lies in the displacement of the narratives of ‘normative’ and ‘good’ mothers from public discourse. Certainly, mothers spoke to each other about parenting, and consulted with midwives, relatives, and doctors about their children. But female codes of modesty and privacy worked against mothers discussing mothering in public—and worked against documenting those discussions when they did occur. (The Marquis of Halifax advised his daughter in 1688 not to discuss her children in public, for to do so would be like putting them out to parish—that is, speaking about her children in public would be comparable to turning her children into charity cases.)3 Modesty and privacy work as strategies of containment, as ways to normalize the absence of maternal discourse—and that absence is a precondition of specialization. It is worth remembering that female literacy was not commonplace for centuries: in the early fifteenth century, Margery Kempe did not write The Book of Margery Kempe (1994), but dictated it to scribes, who edited it. (And Kempe, a mother many times over, rarely mentions her children while documenting her spiritual quest.) In England, female literacy increased in the eighteenth century, and mothers wrote about their children in their correspondence, diaries, and journals— but these narratives were not intended for publication nor were they circulated to the public.
Female conduct manuals, which gained popularity in the seventeenth century, often refused to acknowledge motherhood as a distinct aspect of female experience, and this too displaced maternal narrative from the public. Comments about motherhood were subsumed under a woman’s roles as a wife or widow, which shifted the narrative attention away from a woman’s role of mother to that of spouse. The Bible—the female conduct manual long before the seventeenth century—acknowledges motherhood as a distinct aspect of a woman’s life: think of the stories of infertile women who are changed by becoming mothers, like Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth (Genesis 21:2-8, 30:1-24; 1 Samuel 1:4-22; Luke 1:5-44, 57-60). But the Bible frames motherhood within patriarchal imperatives for the production of legitimate heirs. There are glimpses of mothering in the Bible: Rebecca’s preference for Jacob over Esau (Genesis 25:28); Hannah’s care of Samuel before his weaning (1 Samuel 1:20-24)—but the Bible is more concerned about fertility than about mothering. The Bible also provides the most idealized vision of motherhood in the West, in the Virgin Mary—a maternal standard that haunts women, and that makes ‘good’ maternal narrative seem inadequate and unworthy of discussion.
Nurturing and educational practices—well within the expectations of the maternal role—also tended to displace the maternal narratives ofupper class mothers (and increasingly over time, middle class mothers), as the proliferation of wet nurses, nannies, and governesses makes apparent. Clearly, mothers could be replaced. And as children aged, and went off to school, work, or apprenticeships (depending on their gender and class), maternal narrative was displaced by the narrative of the growing child.
If this mix of female literacy, conduct codes, and nurturing practices were not enough, literary imperatives also worked against the representation of normative and valorized motherhood. If maternal worth was based on attending to a child’s needs, then dramatic attention moved from the mother to the child, who was the source of need—and consequently, narrative. The child was the subject, the protagonist. Maternal subjectivity, and the mother work of assessing and fulfilling children’s needs, did not sustain dramatic interest. (Evidently authors and readers assumed that they knew what was involved in being a mother—undoubtedly to the dismay of mothers everywhere.) The perennially popular narratives of and for the younger generation—like fairy tales, the Bildungsroman, and courtship narrative—all displace the parental generation, and consequently, maternal narrative.
Just to be clear: I am not suggesting that normative and ‘good’ mothers did not exist, or that they lacked narrative. I am arguing that their narratives were largely absent from the cultural landscape—and this absence not only destabilizes the maternal ideal and domestic ideology, but leads to the rise of spectral motherhood. By displacing normative and good maternal narratives, mothers are spectralized in their homes, their families, and their lives.
The Western predilection for ‘bad’ mother narratives also contributes to the rise of the spectral mother. Tolstoy remarked in the opening of Anna Karenina (1878), ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ (2000, 3). Apparently, the ‘good’ mother lacked the narrative possibilities that ‘bad’ mothers had. It is easier (and admittedly more fun) to produce narratives of ‘bad’ mothers. ‘Bad’ mothers are dramatic. Daring. Devious. There are so many ways for mothers to get things wrong—and the telling of the ‘bad’ mother tale allows the author and the reader the pleasure of moral superiority: to expose the ‘bad’ mother, and to criticize and punish her for her ‘bad’ behaviors. Like the conduct manuals and the Bible, ‘bad’ mother narratives serve a policing function, by passing judgments over mothers and their actions. More importantly, ‘bad’ mother narratives construct spectral motherhood as desirable. The narratives of ‘bad’ mothers implicitly invoke ‘good’ motherhood—the judgment of the ‘bad’ mother is made by invoking the values of the ‘good’ mother, usually without representing her. (Think of the wicked stepmother narratives in the many versions of Cinderella and Snow White—all of which pass judgment on the stepmother by expressing the desirability of, and nostalgia for, the ‘good’ dead mother.) So ‘bad’ mother narratives can be read as promoting a form of spectral ‘good’ mother narrative. ‘Bad’ mother narratives also make evident the problems with maternal presence: because the ‘bad’ mother is present, she can wield her power dangerously. Or put differently: ‘bad’ mother narratives make maternal absence desirable—which is a precondition for spectral motherhood.
I believe that spectral motherhood thrives in the West because it presents the best of both worlds: the desired ideology of the ‘good’ mother and the narrative fecundity of the ‘bad’ one. Many events lead to spectral motherhood: death; accidental separation; and separation because of economic necessity, paternal prerogative, or maternal choice. But maternal absence invariably leads to questions of maternal activity (what is the mother doing while she is gone? Is she missing, taken or willingly absent? If she is dead, is she watching over her child from heaven?), and leads to questions of maternal return (is the mother coming back, and if so, when?).
Maternal absence also leads to questions of maternal character, and concerns about the effects of maternal absence on the children. These questions and concerns generate narrative—absent narratives that depict ‘good’ mother values for the audience. (I have yet to find an evil spectral mother. There are angry spectral mothers, like the Princess Halm- Eberstein in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876), but not evil ones.) Spectral narratives reaffirm maternal goodness without the sloppy immediacy of dealing with mothers. That is how spectral motherhood becomes dominant in the West.
Having outlined the process of the rise of spectral motherhood, it is important to turn to the causes of spectral motherhood—from how spectral motherhood becomes dominant, to why it dominates Western culture. First and foremost, spectral motherhood satisfies an ideological and cultural need. Through its paradoxical fulfillment of domestic ideology, spectral motherhood responds to the many fears, hopes, and anxieties that mothers elicit. Mothers elicit anxieties about female sexuality and desire, and the inability to control female sexuality and desire. Mothers also elicit the fear of abandonment, and related fears of maternal indifference toward the child. And mothers elicit the fear of uncontrollable maternal power that threatens the child, and consequently, the family and patriarchal imperatives. All of these fears recognize maternal autonomy: that a mother has an identity and a self—not only in her role as a mother, but as an adult female. The overarching fear is that a mother will not subsume herself or her needs to those of her children. That is the narrative of the ‘bad’ mother. The fear is that a mother will be—or choose to be—a ‘bad’ mother instead of a ‘good’ one.
Spectral motherhood mitigates these fears and their effects in a variety of ways. Spectral motherhood assuages fears of female sexuality and desire because the maternal body is absent. Whether the mother is dead (and no longer able to have sex or experience sexual desire) or absent (and not depicted as a sexual being)—spectral motherhood papers over anxieties about maternal sexuality, anxieties that have been theorized in the West since Freud. Most women become mothers by having sex, but society was (and is) uncomfortable thinking about mothers having sex.4 (Once again the popularity of the Virgin Mary comes to mind.) This discomfort with maternal sexuality extends to mothers having children out of wedlock, for that disrupts legitimacy, inheritance, and property transfer. Accordingly, the narrative of the spectral mother does not depict maternal sex, pregnancy, or labor—even as it relies on all of those events to produce the child. The child as the result of sex is the key, not the process of generation. Once a mother has had a child—particularly if the child is male—she has done her job in a patriarchal society. Furthermore, before the advent of modern medicine, childbirth could often lead to maternal death, which became a convenient narrative device to explain the birth of the spectral mother.
Spectral motherhood also assuages the psychological anxieties inherent in maternal relations: the fears of abandonment and excessive maternal power. Spectral motherhood acknowledges maternal power because that power is limited by the mother’s status as a specter. As will be discussed below, mothers can parent at a distance—manifesting the agency, authority, and will that are needed to mother from afar—but the very limitations imposed upon mothers by distance ease anxieties about maternal power. That the narrative of the spectral mother also alleviates the fear of abandonment is ironic, for one would think that separation from the mother would exacerbate the fear of abandonment. But more often than not, absent mothers enable the autonomy and agency of children—they make it possible for children to develop and grow. (Which raises the question: to what extent does a child need a mother? This is a difficult question, and one that proponents of traditional domestic ideology do not want to think about.) Here the spectral narrative shifts: from the mother leaving the child, to the child leaving the mother behind. This narrative recasts maternal absence as a form of ‘good’ mother behavior rather than indifference; this allays concerns about rejection by the mother, and generates desire for the spectral mother rather than blame.
With these factors in mind, I would like to develop an anatomy of spectral motherhood, to demonstrate the tactics and implications of spectral narrative. I posit that spectral motherhood takes three forms: the absent mother (who is alive, but separated from her child); the surveilling mother (whose child does not know her identity); and the dead mother (whose history shapes her child’s destiny). Eighteenth-century British literature will serve as my prooftext—because the eighteenth century, which is often posited as the age of the rise of the domestic woman in England (and Europe generally), is in fact the period in which we can document that the lady vanishes, and the rise of spectral motherhood occurs.
The absent mother makes her spectral agency evident in the letters, books, and memories that guide her children. Sarah Pennington (1770), who was separated from her children by her husband, published An
Unfortunate Mother’s Advice to her Absent Daughters in 1761—a popular text that had seven editions by 1800. Epistolary novels like Sarah Maese’s The School: Being a Series of Letters Between a Young Lady and Her Mother (1766-1772) and Maria Susanna Cooper’s The Exemplary Mother (1769) depict maternal love for children, and the maternal desire to parent at a distance. Mrs. Milton’s first letter to her daughter in Maese’s The School expresses her ambivalence over her separation from her daughter (even for the benefit of her daughter’s education), as well as Mrs. Milton’s anxiety about fulfilling her obligations as a parent. In The Exemplary Mother, Mrs. Villars’s epistolary advice to her son and daughter centers on their respective experiences in Oxford and London, their associates, courtship, and marriage. These texts are compensatory for both mother and child; they remind children of maternal support despite her physical absence, and they try to allay maternal anxiety about parenting and maternal expendability. These absent mothers are displaced but not forgotten, and their advice is useful, moral, and informed, reflecting their devotion to their children.
But sometimes the writing of texts may cause rather than reflect maternal displacement. In Amelia Opie’s novel Adeline Mowbray (1805), Mrs. Mowbray spends her time writing an educational tome for her daughter Adeline, absenting herself from Adeline’s childhood and her parenting duties. The results are disastrous: not only does Mrs. Mowbray fail to finish her text (like Walter Shandy’s incomplete Tristapedia for his son in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1766)), but her relationship with her daughter is fractured from the beginning, leading to discontent and alienation. A crucial factor here is that Mrs. Mowbray chooses to be absent; she chooses to be an author, which distinguishes her from Pennington and the mothers in Maese and Cooper, who turn to authorship to compensate for maternal absence imposed upon them. Of course, there are legitimate reasons for a mother to choose to be absent, as in the case of Mrs. Tyrold, who leaves her family in Frances Burney’s 1796 novel Camilla, to tend her ailing brother in Lisbon; her absence is justified by the maternal nature of her activity. Sometimes absence reveals anxiety about motherhood, as in the case of Lady Delacour in Maria Edgeworth’s 1801 novel Belinda: Lady Delacour sends her daughter Helena to live with Lady Anne Percival, because she doubts her ability to mother at all—doubts that are concretized in her diseased breast. But unlike Mrs. Tyrold and Lady Delacour, Mrs. Mowbray appears to be evading responsibility. Aside from the obvious problems with
Mrs. Mowbray’s rationale for her absence (how can she write a book about children’s education without spending time with her daughter, who lives with her?), Mrs. Mowbray’s actions reveal her investment in her authorial ego at the expense of her daughter.
Mrs. Mowbray’s narrative underscores two key elements of the absent mother’s story: the maternal relationship to textuality, and haunting by the maternal specter. The maternal text can successfully substitute for the mother only when she is absent, as in the cases of Pennington and the mothers in the novels of Maese and Cooper; the maternal text and the mother do not successfully coexist in the same time and space. Seemingly, maternal presence mediates against writing a text—or should, as the case of Mrs. Mowbray suggests. Once again, this is not to say that mothers lack narrative when they are with their children, merely that capturing that narrative is difficult, for the implication is that mothers should live their narratives rather than write them.5 The rise of female literacy—a consequence of the printing press, and the socio-economic rise of the middle class in the eighteenth century—ironically advances the rise of the spectral mother. Maternal and textual bodies repeatedly displace each other: as texts are signs of the absent parent, so too bodies and presence seem to eliminate text. (A signal instance occurs in Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad (1742) in which the powerful presence of the maternal goddess Dulness leads to armageddon and the end of textual production in the poem.) There is an important corollary to this binary of text/mother: active mothering often leads to narrative closure. In Burney’s Camilla, Mrs. Tyrold’s absence is felt keenly by her children and her husband, who fails to keep the family out of trouble while she is gone. When Mrs. Tyrold returns, domestic order and narrative resolution soon follow. Similarly, once Edgeworth’s Lady Delacour is wooed back to her maternal role in Belinda—largely through the revelation that she does not have breast cancer—she repairs her relationships with her husband and her daughter, and arranges narrative closure through proper matchmaking.
The second element of the absent mother’s story is her ability to haunt her child, which is evident in all of these novels. Adeline, Camilla, and Helena are constantly haunted by their absent mothers, even when they find surrogate mothers and even when they recognize their mothers’ flaws. The experience of maternal absence elicits from the child desire and nostalgia for maternal presence, guidance, and approval—along with the fear of parental judgment, and anxiety about independence and personal responsibility. The narrative of emerging adulthood is one of the most compelling narratives of human development, and these novels (particularly Camilla and Adeline Mowbray) focus on the child’s reaction to maternal absence rather than the mother’s narrative, which may be dramatic but remains largely unknown because she is absent.
Like her absent counterpart, the surveilling mother is characterized by choice, motive, her uneasy relationship with textuality, and the power to haunt her child. But physical absence does not define the surveilling mother—she lives near (and often in) the vicinity of her child, who does not perceive her as a parent or her surveillance. This maternal haunting has a completely different effect on the child—who is supported by the surveilling mother but does not feel the weight of that obligation, because the child does not recognize his or her benefactor as a parent. This maternal haunting has a completely different effect on the mother as well, for it allows her to maintain a non-maternal narrative, while participating in delineated maternal obligations. In other words, the surveilling mother negotiates the competing demands of maternity and autonomy by partaking in a conscious spectralization of her maternal self. The surveilling mother has the desire to parent, but either she does not fit the conventional, domestic profile of a mother or does not want to. By ‘passing’ as a non-mother, she wields authority over her children without ongoing interaction, and without being subject to criticism for her parenting.
Unlike her absent counterpart, the surveilling mother must be an actress, for she is playing at least two roles at any time. (Daniel Defoe’s 1724 novel Roxana, about a courtesan, is among the most acute portraits of the struggles of the surveilling mother in British literature.) There are few questions about her absence or her return, for the surveilling mother’s narrative is largely provided in the text, even if it is not recognized as a narrative of a surveilling mother. In Sarah Scott’s novel Millenium Hall (1762), Lady Emilia Reynolds provides financial support for her daughter and orchestrates Miss Selvyn’s move to London, where Lady Emilia becomes her unwitting daughter’s mentor as she enters society. Similarly, Bridget Allworthy ensures the care of her illegitimate son Tom and saves her reputation by choosing spectral motherhood in Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones (1749). The frequent vacillations in Bridget’s behavior toward Tom (like Roxana’s with her daughter Susan) signal some of the difficulties in playing the role of the surveilling mother. Nevertheless, these narratives suggest that the benefits of spectral motherhood outweigh the liabilities, as Lady Emilia and Bridget Allworthy control their spectral selves until death. The revelation of the dead maternal specter is a convenient literary device, for it triggers narrative resolution (as children learn their true parentage) and sentimental drama (as they mourn the loss of the mother they never knew they had). Of course, once the living surveilling mother is identified she is no longer spectral, and no longer able to engage in surveillance without being noticed. Defoe’s Roxana is a case in point: when she is exposed, she loses control over her personae, her narrative, and her child, unable to enjoy the secret satisfactions of her spectral self and the social freedoms it facilitated. Roxana cannot explain these pleasures when confronted by her daughter Susan—nor can she justify her preference for spectral maternity over a mother-daughter relationship.
Roxana’s difficulties in explaining the spectral experience are echoed in other texts, in which the experience of the surveilling specter is represented retrospectively. In Millenium Hall, Lady Emilia hands Miss Selvyn the narrative that explains their family history while she is on her deathbed. She is the author, but it is characteristic that Lady Emilia cannot tell her story to her daughter, only write it—and only present it as she is dying. Here too the acknowledgment of maternity signals a body/script problem: as the mother’s body fades, her history as a mother is brought to life, each evoking yet excluding the presence of the other. Bridget Allworthy is completely silent about her role as a surveilling mother, unlike Roxana and Lady Emilia—she never tells her story in Tom Jones. But she too demonstrates the body/script problem, as her story is revealed by Jenny Jones, whose belated rendition of her dead mistress’ story reveals the spectral motherhood of the novel. Bridget’s posthumous ‘reappearance’ illuminates the power of the maternal specter, as she reorients the novel completely: Bridget’s spectral narrative reinstates Jenny’s social status and facilitates comic closure by enabling Tom to claim a place in society.
Arguably, the absent mother and the surveilling mother achieve their apotheosis in the dead mother, whose influence extends beyond the grave. As icons of absent presence, dead mothers haunt their children, and they attempt to anticipate and fulfill the child’s needs through legacies, wills, and instructions. The dead Caroline Evelyn in Frances Burney’s novel Evelina (1778) shapes her daughter Evelina in crucial ways: through her cautionary narrative of courtship, distress, lost reputation, and abandonment by her husband; in choosing the Reverend Villars as Evelina’s guardian; in her letter to Sir John Belmont, identifying Evelina as his heir (and herself as his faithful spouse); and most compellingly, given eighteenth-century theories of the maternal imagination, by imaging herself in Evelina’s face. Evelina is unquestionably her mother’s daughter, but she will not repeat Caroline Evelyn’s narrative; Evelina struggles to navigate courtship culture, but ultimately her place in society is ensured by her dead mother’s actions.
Mary Raymond is also shaped by her dead mother’s history in Mary Hays’ novel The Victim of Prejudice (1799). Here too the dead mother provides her daughter with a cautionary history, a guardian, a text, and a genetic inheritance, but with radically different results. As an illegitimate child of a mother who was executed as an accessory to murder, Mary is raised by one of her mother’s former admirers at her mother’s request. Despite her middle-class upbringing, the specter of maternal history prevents Mary from marrying the man she loves. (And it is telling that Mary, like Evelina, learns of her true identity during courtship, by reading her dead mother’s letter to her guardian.) Mary’s beauty, like her mother’s, draws masculine attention that she cannot control; Mary is abducted and raped. Like her mother, Mary struggles to support herself; socially and economically disenfranchised, Mary is sent to jail, which leads to illness and death.
The dead mothers in Evelina and The Victim of Prejudice serve as negative exemplars for their children, and they raise important questions about the social norms that frame female experience. (For instance, what are the risks for a woman who is not connected with, or protected by, a man? How does a woman protect herself? Who is responsible for the care of her children?) Yet the determination of these women to ensure the safety of their children posthumously is compelling—and that they are accorded the authority to do so is startling, given their questionable social status at the time of death. It is one thing to grant authority to dead, angelic mothers—and quite another to assign authority to ‘bad’ girls. That British society was willing to separate their maternal role from their unconventional behaviors is striking, and signals the power of any woman attempting to enact the maternal ideal.
The dead mother may be the most potent of the spectral mothers, because she elicits desires that she cannot fulfill. She cannot be recuperated into domestic narrative, unlike the absent mothers who return or the surveilling mothers, who have been engaged in covert domesticity all along. At most, the dead mother can voice her allegiance to motherhood and the domestic ideal through her letters, her autobiography, and her will—like the others, turning to text to represent and recreate what she cannot. Her legacy shapes her children far beyond the powers accorded to her while living and present. The dead mother has the power to haunt her child forever, unlike the other maternal specters who acquire presence and then lose agency and narrative. (Sarah Fielding’s 1749 novel, The Governess, often considered the first English novel for children, exemplifies ongoing maternal haunting as Jenny Peace, the protagonist, tells stories of her dead mother’s lessons to her fellow students to teach them the manners. When Jenny leaves school, the students not only tell stories about Jenny—who acted like a parent to them—but of Jenny’s dead mother.) As the most resilient of maternal specters, the dead mother is especially subject to nostalgia and fantasy, which compensate for her unchangeable absent narrative, and attempt to satisfy the desire for mothers and domesticity.
So what are the consequences of the cultural dominance of spectral motherhood? The ongoing spectralization ofmotherhood implies that containment of maternal identity and agency was—and remains—incomplete. (Which I would argue is a good thing.) The legacies of dead, absent, and surveilling mothers suggest that there is a residue of maternal authority, narrative, and will that cannot be erased—and as long as there is maternal power, there will be anxiety about it. As a result, the impetus to write spectral motherhood reflects society’s ongoing ambivalence about the need for mothers and the desire to control them.6
With these issues in mind, I would like to offer some concluding thoughts about ways to advance the cultural conversation about motherhood and maternal absence. First, the dominance of spectral motherhood obscures the conditions of real mothers mothering, and maternal narrative. (After all, most mothers are not absent, missing, surveilling, or dead.) To understand motherhood in the West we need to interpret the cultural data of the spectral mother, and recuperate maternal data that is not usually represented culturally—including narratives of the maternal body, maternal sexuality, and mother work. These narratives contextualize the anxieties that spectral motherhood assuages—and will bring motherhood and its cultural representations into sharper focus. Television programming in the West has made some headway in representing mothers and motherhood, as Rebecca Feasey has shown (2012)—but modern film, especially popular film, still tends to marginalize and spectralize mothers. It is telling that top ten grossing films worldwide in 2015 were Star Wars VII:
The Force Awakens; Jurassic World; Furious 7; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Minions; Spectre; Inside Out; Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation; The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, and The Martian—a group largely characterized by maternal absence and marginalization (The Numbers 2015).7 And a corollary here: as we recuperate maternal narratives—spectral or not—we need to do so from the mother’s point of view. Spectral narrative tends to focus on the effects ofmaternal absence on the child, and to a lesser extent, on the patriarch. But with the proliferation of websites and blogs by mothers on the Internet, there is a means to regain maternal voices, experiences and perspectives in the contemporary cultural conversation.8 We will never fully understand family dynamics, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, or motherhood until we recover the mother’s point of view.
Second, we need to acknowledge that spectral motherhood is a fantasy—and while it allays anxieties about maternal power, it also puts valorized motherhood beyond women’s reach. It is impossible to be a ‘good’ mother, for to do so is to live a paradox: to embody domestic ideology by being disembodied, and to mask female agency and authority as they are being wielded. Spectral motherhood appeals to idealism and sentimentalism, but it characterizes present mothers as mean, inadequate, or invisible—even as it advocates a domestic ideology in which mothers are central. So we need to redefine the ‘ good’ mother, her cultural and social narratives, and the conditions in which she can exist and thrive—which ultimately means redefining domestic ideology as well.
And that leads to my third and final point: as motherhood is changing in our society—through technology, and new definitions of family—it is likely that anxiety about mothers and motherhood will not only remain, but flourish in new ways. Maybe someday we will engage in parenting that is not bound or assessed by gender roles. The evolution of the stay-at- home dad in the United States suggests that such changes are occurring (Livingston 2014). One can hope. But we have already seen a backlash, as traditional domestic ideology is invoked in response to non-traditional motherhood and parenting, and the mommy wars rage on. Mothers have debated and defied gendered behavior and maternal expectation in the past, and continue to do so—whether they are raising their children at home, or doing so while working outside the home, as single parents, as lesbian parents, as bisexual parents, or in any number of ways. The narratives of motherhood are expansive, and expanding right before our eyes—and as versions of motherhood proliferate, mothers also contest mothering that varies from their own. The cultural silencing of their challenges to domestic ideology and maternal variation—through spec- tralization, marginalizing or damning maternal perspective, or simply refusing to represent it altogether—does not mean that the ideological contest is resolved, or that maternal compliance with social norms has been achieved. Far from it. As long as motherhood is necessary to maintain and perpetuate society it will be an ongoing site of critique—and as long as mothers have a say in the matter, the strategies to domesticate mothers will never quite succeed.