Weaving the Threads of Maternal Subjectivity: Working Non-Verbally in Creative, Therapeutic Groups

Rosalind Howell

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This project began as a much-needed reflective space for me, a mother of three young children, to think, read and write about motherhood. My new organization Maternal Experiences based in the UK is offering writings, reflections, Dance Movement Psychotherapy (DMP) and group work that explore the meaning of motherhood for women today.

In discussing elements of two groups I have run this year, I suggest in this paper that group work with mothers involving elements of creative, non-verbal exploration, including movement, the use of props and the co-creation of images and metaphor, may be an effective medium in shedding light on their subjective and intersubjective experiences. The paper also suggests, however, that when individual experiences differ from our cultural ideals of motherhood these processes can be impeded by the emergence of shame. Jacqueline Rose describes the powerful feeling of shame as the loss of an internal ideal: a sense of having failed the group or ourselves and of having being exposed doing so (4). When shame is ushered in by the dual pressures of internal and external ideals of self our ability to learn from experience is compromised. As Susie Orbach puts it “When one is drenched in shame, it prevents other kinds of thinking and feeling from happening” (2016).

The psychotherapist Rozsika Parker noted a tendency in some psychoanalytic writers to offer a less complex and rich picture of motherhood when they wrote as clinicians and theorists as opposed to when they wrote as mothers-who-experience (203). With this in mind, this author/practitioner/mother wishes to enquire what happens if thought, feeling, theory, discussion, movement, image making and bodily felt sensation can combine to inform research in the field of motherhood and the maternal more widely. In this paper, I draw upon my own experiences, and my observations of the group process. Additionally, I include examples from the literature of contemporary psychoanalysis and dance movement psychotherapy to set a context for the groups and to explore some of the themes that emerged as I reflected upon them.

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As my children are still small and we are often at home together, I have had to be creative in the ways in which I construct meaning about my maternal experience. Reading, something I love to do, seems to me to be one of the most incompatible things with having young children. As Lisa Baraitser has noted, mothers face an inordinate amount of moment-by-moment interruption from activities, thoughts and feelings by their infants or small children. One of the day to day challenges for mothers is to find internal reflective space in an environment that as Baraitser says, repeatedly forces the mother back to the present moment by the infant or young child’s demands (67). The sight of mother reading for the narcissistic small child can become an image immediately associated with them being read to. My positioning in the chair, my hands holding a book that I’m looking intently at, elicits a powerful impulse in my children to squeeze into the chair next to me and replace my book with one of their own. Rather than a reading subject, I am to them, an object that reads.

It is this particular perspective, that of the mother as object rather than subject who experiences, that contemporary feminist psychoanalysts (Benjamin, 1988; Chodorow, 1999; Parker, 1995) as well as psycho-social theorists (Baraitser, 2009; Rose, 2004) have attempted to redress. Whilst developmental psychology (Stern, 1995) and post-war object relations (Ainsworth, 1969; Bowlby, 2005; Winnicott, 1990) have given us a rich language to explore what the infant needs most from her environment, and in particular from her mother, this widening of the lens is now filling in gaps in our understanding of adult maternal development. In addition this paper also utilizes ideas drawn from Dance Movement Psychotherapy, where its evolution from the “sensitive mover-centered perspective in dance” also offers a way to explore the point of view of she-who-experiences (Wengrower, 160).

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Back at home now, and unable to read more than a page or two, brief snatches of theoretical ideas, so tantalizing, have to be taken up inside me and explored as I move about. A state much more suited, it seems to me, to being around small children. As I move between sink, fridge, school, washing machine, bath, computer, sink, front door, toy box, fridge and sink, I am much less conspicuous to my children somehow, and because of this have some freedom to internally, and secretly, explore and process ideas, thoughts and feelings. I become a researcher under the cover of movement.

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In March, 2016 I facilitated a workshop called What Does Being a Mother Mean to You, an afternoon of creative exploration into individual and group experiences of motherhood. The model for the workshop environment drew on my psychotherapy training. It aimed to provide a safe ‘holding’ environment that allowed for the exploration of personal processes, whilst at the same time being akin to what Allegranti calls a ‘Lab’; a place to unpack and deconstruct cultural assumptions – in this case Motherhood – and co-create new ones (19-20). In other words, it is a space to subvert the cultural reproduction of the maternal ideal (Vissing, 107).

The workshop was held around the time of Mother’s Day in the UK, as an antidote to a national celebration that revels in the cultural idealization of motherhood as a safe, all providing container, and the idealization of the relationship between mother and baby, by seeing it as conflict free (Benjamin, 211). Mother’s Day, for women in a nuclear family setting at least, can feel like both a consolation prize in the form of a bunch of flowers, and an act of silencing by encouraging mothers to spend extra time in bed and to eat large stultifying traditional meals.

The workshop, in contrast, aimed to offer a place of reflection that was enlivening, rather than simply soothing, and could open out internal, and intersubjective spaces. Jessica Benjamin, in expanding Winnicott’s concept of ‘potential space’, paints a picture of female subjectivity where what is created between, in shared feeling and discovery, is then made available for use by the woman herself. Intersubjective space, she says, is that ability to identify with another’s position without losing one’s own (20). This challenges Mother’s Day as an institution that in effect, functions as an overbearing mother who smothers subjective experience under the smell of hyacinths and roast meat.

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We begin in a large, bright room and I invite the group to join me in a meditation, a way of thinking into the body by focusing firstly on our physical and physiological sensations, then on the functions and uses of different body parts in our mothering and how those could be symbolized in movement, and finally to an imaginative space inside where there may be shape, texture and colour that represents or illuminates the part that mothers. For the women in this group the images include raspberry pink crushed velvet, the large wings of a bird of prey that beat in the air, and a spiral that gets increasingly bigger and wider. These self-created or uncovered images engage the group and spark off some lively associations and discussion.

Reproduction, Joan Raphael-Leff reminds us is a three way process; physiological, socio-cultural and emotional, and the fantasies and preoccupations we all have of maternity incorporate what is both mythical and universal and also highly individual. For this group, interpreting their personal image, making sense of it and having others associate to it seemed important and fruitful. I also wonder about the act itself of conjuring an image and how that has the potential to enliven us as mothers. As faith in one’s creativity and capacity to make meaning increases, does the sense of motherhood as a creative practice also strengthen? As Lisa Baraitser said in her call for the creation of new metaphors to describe maternal subjectivity, and therefore resist the reproduction of the maternal ideal, “We need accounts of maternal experience that move the mother away from containers and receptacles … that have other shapes and contours, and which may allow us to think about the other things mothers do for, and alongside their children” (21).

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As the conversation within the group, inspired by the created images, goes on however, it falters. There is a loss of liveliness. It develops into what feels like an attempt to create a group consensus on parenting, carefully selected anecdotes designed to reassure that we are all feeling the same, and doing it the same. I begin to feel frustrated and rather shut out as I want us to move on but I feel somehow unable to interrupt.

Eventually I offer everyone in the group a ball of wool. In DMP ‘props’ are used both to facilitate movement and to be a site outside of the body for thoughts and feelings to be projected onto (Meekums, 44). I invite the group to secure one end of their ball and then to weave through the room by tracing a path, following a thread and leaving a trail and securing the wool whenever they feel like it to make a web. I suggest they can cross other threads, move in and around each other, use as much or as little of this large room as they like as they follow their own flow. In this case, the wool, and the act of moving through space with it as it unravels have been offered out for the group members for use as potential metaphors for an aspect of maternal experience. The combination of embodied experience of movement and projected symbolism through use of props has the potential to bridge conscious and unconscious processes and offer alternative ways of thinking and feeling (Meekums, 24-25).

One woman covers the whole room in large zigzags of purple wool. Someone else stays close to some chairs, weaving in and around them so in the end they can no longer be sat upon. (“I hate chairs,” she says enigmatically later). After fifteen minutes I ask the question “What was interrupted when you became a mother?” and ask everyone to sit with her wool web and draw an image. The creative discussion that comes from these images that came from the playing with wool, feels to me like a new beginning. We are back to thinking about motherhood and have managed to hang up, for a while, the perniciously strong thread of how-to-parent.

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What follows is an extract of my reflections after doing the wool exercise at home for myself.

Standing, staring at the small kitchen every cupboard handle covered with two or three threads, feeling there’s nowhere else for me to go, then diving underneath and taking the wool along the floor … aha! I’ve found a space where I thought there was no space … !

I find the feeling of wool snagging on my hair irritating, restrictive … how does the spider not get entangled in her own web? The invitation is there to get permanently tied up in my wool construction.

Then the rubbing of wool against my skin is irritation to the point of torture, the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Mother overload is sensory overload. One more touch and I will break/ break down/break it all up.

I run out of steam and go and hang out some washing. When I come back some threads are hanging limply. It looks a bit less impressive. I feel a bit less triumphant.

Some unexpected surprises cheer me though. A thread has hooked round a packet of dried beans and stayed firm without the need for a cupboard handle “yes!” I think, satisfied for a moment.

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Lisa Baraitser has said that flow is defined as flow by the breaks or inserts of interruption within it (68). The wool path I trace through the room can be seen as something continuous because of the possibility that it might get broken, tangled or interfered with in some way. At the same time, something surprising, like the bean packet that functions as a hook creates a successful culmination and a new beginning.

Baraitser has also described how Motherhood can involve holding this paradox of experiencing being interrupted as both challenge and opportunity. In one way, we may feel a violent tearing or puncturing of the experience of being in our flow, having been following our own thread. Yet the same moment also contains the possibility that something new could be created. New, because one is being forced to break out of the circular loop of being only with oneself in one’s own mind and instead encounter another, in the form of one’s child (89).

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The second group I draw on for this paper is a four week Creative Support group for moms (with their babies or young children) ran in conjunction with a local community Children’s Center. Here, the same tools of movement play, the use of props and the co-creation of individual and group images led by the facilitator/therapist are employed except this time moms and children are both in the group, and they come back for several sessions.

The setup of the space mimics a toddler group of the kind where parents attend with their child. Cushions in a circle, paper to draw with, music on and some toys in the corner. This offers a familiar environment to both mothers and children but also confusion in the invitation that the space be used differently, for the active emotional development of the mothers, rather than the children. When one mom says it is ‘frustrating’ to even try and share the space, the implication is in part that it’s easier to offer the whole space to the child than attempt to bring one’s own needs into the picture whilst with them, that the pain of interruption feels so unbearable as to be avoided.

At times it feels like the children are used as an available distraction from the women focusing on their own experiences, and at other times they become a resource. During a game that develops where each group member takes it in turn to initiate an action using a chiffon scarf which we then all then reflect back to them, the children’s contributions and enthusiasm for the game seem to free up the group to enter more fully into the activity. Again, the presence of her child offers the women both a sense of foreshortening of experience and new possibility.

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Part of the traces that I was left with after facilitating this group of both mothers and differently aged children, were strong and powerful feelings of success and satisfaction on containing and juggling many different needs. On reflection I wonder if this was partly an unconscious enactment by me of one of the very cultural ideals I hoped the group would explore: That of the self-reliant superwoman. I had even enlisted the help of a very inappropriate volunteer at the beginning that compounded a sense of ‘I can do this better all on my own’.

Helen Vissing has emphasized how much the western idealized mother image, with her insistence on the conflict-free and self sufficient serving of other’s needs can elicit shame in the individual mother when she inevitably fails to live up to it (107). In addition, as Rose has noted, “shame… seems to be ashamed of itself”, resulting in some of the most difficult experiences being hidden from ourselves and others (1). As I described in the workshop, one manifestation of this phenomenon can be that conversations about mothering end up serving to underpin ideological stances on parenting which works as a kind of cover story, making it even harder for women to speak about experiences of motherhood which differ from the ideal. The ideal mother then, has an effect of breaking up the intersubjective space in the room.

The invitation, in facilitating groups or workshops exploring maternal experience, then is to name some of these dynamics overtly in the session to heighten the group’s awareness of their impact and avoid more shame being created (as in the shame of not participating fully and honestly in the group). Part of my ongoing project is to see whether non-verbal creative explorations can circumnavigate some of those well-worn routes to either silent shame or ideological justification.

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In her essay tracing the theme of mothers through the work of psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas, Jacqueline Rose asks the question “Can we think about mothers and keep an open mind?” (151). She argues that there is a paradox that Mothers carry for society. On the one hand, they are seen as a dead end: the site of all culpability, where everything in one’s life, both good and bad leads back to her mothering. It could be partly this sense of doom-laden finality that can lead us all to return repeatedly and anxiously to the subject of parenting rather than attempt to redefine the experience of motherhood. The concept of parenting often disproportionately refers to what mothers ‘do’ or ‘don’t’ do to their children. Our reluctance to speak/hear/show/see and reflect maternal experiences comes in part from the cultural terror of maternal ambivalence and the fear that were the good mother ideal not there to guide us, hate will outweigh and subsume love (Parker, 24).

At the same time however, and with some hope, Rose says that Mothers also represent the place of the unconscious and the acknowledgement that there is a limit to what we think we know about ourselves and about each other (151). This acknowledging of the unknown and the not-fixed and approaching it with less fear and more curiosity is an antidote to the maternal idealization and psychological reductionism that are two sides of the same coin (Vissing, 109).

Creating reflective spaces for both individual mothers and groups of mothers then, may allow us to see the value in dropping the threads of the limited cultural meanings of motherhood for a time. And when the subsequent meaning making incorporates both the nonverbal and verbal, that which is not fully conscious can be perhaps given form in a way that is engaging and enlivening. And when these individual stories are explored along with our group stories something new may be woven from what has emerged.

Works Cited

Allegranti, Beatrice. “Embodied Performances of Sexuality and Gender: A Feminist Approach to Dance Movement Psychotherapy and Performance Practice.” Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy 4:1, (2009) 17-31. Print

Ainsworth, M.D S. “Object Relations, Dependency and Attachment: A Theoretical Overview of the Mother-Infant Relationship.” Child Development 40. (1969): 969-1025. Print

Baraitser, L. Maternal Encounters: The Ethics of Interruption. UK: Routledge, 2009. Print

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problems of   Domination. New York: Pantheon, 1988. Print

Bowlby, John. A Secure Base. London: Routledge, 2005. Print

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. California: University of California Press. 1978. Print

Meekums, Bonnie. Dance Movement Therapy. London: Sage. 2002. Print

Orbach, Susie. In Therapy: Harriet. UK: BBC, 2016. Radio

Parker, Rozsika. Torn in Two: The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence. UK: Virago, 1995. Print

Raphael-Leff, Joan. “The Dark Side of the Womb: Imaginary Scenarios in Family Formation.” Symposium on Assisted Reproduction Emotional and Identity Implications. Society of Analytical Psychology. Wellcome Trust, London. April 2016. Lecture

Rose, Jacqueline. “Of Knowledge and Mothers: The Work of Christopher Bollas.” On Not Being Able to Sleep. Jacqueline Rose. London: Vintage, 2004. 149-166. Print

—. “Shame”. On Not Being Able to Sleep. Jacqueline Rose. London: Vintage. 2004. 1-14. Print

Stern, Daniel. The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. London: Karnac, 1985. Print

Vissing. Helen. “The Ideal Mother Fantasy and it Protective Function.” Intensive Mothering: The Cultural Contradictions of Modern Motherhood. Ed. Linda Rose Ennis. Canada: Demeter Press, 2014. Print

Winegrower, H. “Widening Our Lens: The Implications of Resilience for the Professional Identity and Practice of Dance Movement Psychotherapists.” Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy 10.3 (2015): 155-168. Print

Winnicott, Donald. The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment. London: Karnac, 1990. Print

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