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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination : Missing, Presumed Dead


  • 1. This essay is based upon my keynote address at the Missing, Presumed Dead: The Absent Mother in the Cultural Imagination conference at Umea University in June 2015, which derives from my research in Monstrous Motherhood: 18th-Century Culture and the Ideology of Domesticity, especially the introduction and chapter 7. I would like to thank Associate Professor Berit Astrom for organizing the conference and this collection, along with the Umea Centre for Gender Studies and the Department of Language Studies at Umea University, and the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences for their sponsorship of the conference.
  • 2. The displacement of the maternal perspective characterizes swathes of psychoanalytic discourse, as Freud’s emphasis on the Oedipus complex as the model for child development marginalizes mothers and motherhood. See Madelon Sprengnether’s The Spectral Mother (1990) for an analysis of Freud’s insistence on the primacy of the patriarchal in his case studies, and his knowledge of, difficulties with, and resistance to work on matriarchal societies and figures. Sprengnether also traces maternal displacement in the work of object relations theorists and Lacanians, who respond to and build upon Freud’s writings. More recently, Elissa Marder (2012) traces ‘maternal function’—the appropriation of maternal metaphor and reproductive function, ‘the technological, and non-anthropomorphic aspects that are often latently inscribed within the concept of birth’ (2)—in The Mother in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. This analysis also reflects the cultural displacement of human maternal perspective and experience.
  • 3. See George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, The Lady’s New-years Gift: or, Advice to a Daughter Second Ed. (London, 1688): ‘You may love your Children without living in the Nursery, and you may have a competent and discreet care of them, without letting it break out upon the Company, or exposing yourself by turning your Discourse that way, which is a kind of Laying Children to the Parish, and it can hardly be done any where, that those who hear it will be so forgiving, as not to think they are overcharged with them.’ (original italics; 76).
  • 4. Obviously surrogate mothers (like stepmothers) can become mothers without having sex, but the dominant model of motherhood in the West was (and is) based on biological, rather than legal or social, relation.
  • 5. See the personal writings of Hester Thrale (1741-1821), particularly Thraliana (1776-1809) and her Family Book (1766-1778), which is interspersed in Hyde’s The Thrales of Streatham Park (1972), for the difficulties of writing parental narrative while parenting. Thrale experienced a dozen pregnancies, a handful of miscarriages, and raised four children to adulthood.
  • 6. For an elaboration of this argument, see Francus, Monstrous Motherhood (2012).
  • 7. There is a passing mention of General Lei’s motherhood in Star Wars as she expresses regret over her son, and references to pregnancy in Furious 7. Motherhood gets a bit more consideration in Inside Out with Riley’s perspective of her mother, and in Claire’s awkward efforts to take care of her nephews in Jurassic World, but these are still highly limited representations of mothers and mothering.
  • 8. For instance, see Working Mom Blogs (2016), Huffington Post’s Mom Blogs (2016), and Top Mommy Blogs (2016), which archives motherhood blogs on the Internet.
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