Irish Times

Tuesday, June 6, 2000

Women wanting to be wanted

Idealisation of full-time motherhood is damaging to mothers and children alike, argues US therapist and author Polly Young-Eisendrath, who is lecturing in Dublin this week. She talks to Kathryn Holmquist

By Kathryn Holmquist
Irish Times

For many Irish mothers, there is no choice. We work outside the home because our families need the money, all the while regretting that we can't bilocate, to be both perfect mothers and perfect workers. This conflict between the storybook image of the "ideal" full-time mother and the reality of the "coping" working mother causes the most devoted mothers to feel irresponsible, when they are anything but. We have trouble accepting the idea that maybe the perfect mother is one who is independent and works outside the home, sharing the care of her child with other responsible adults - even though this arrangement may actually be healthier for children.

"Most of the psychopathology I see in my practice is as a result of a child being trapped with a lone woman and having to take on her emotional needs without any siblings to help spread the pressure," says Dr Polly Young-Eisendrath, a Jungian psychoanalyst, a Buddhist, the author of 10 books and the parent/step-parent of six children. In Dublin this week to conduct a series of workshops, such as "Hothouse Mothering and the Divine Child", Young-Eisendrath asserts that the idealisation of full-time motherhood is damaging to mothers and children alike. Children reared solely by a mother have warped views of their own significance in the world and lack a sense of social responsibility because their mothers protect them from the consequences of their actions, she believes. "The mother's preoccupation with her children produces a child that is narcissistic and self-interested with a false view of his or her self-importance," she says. The "me" culture of the US, where every child wants to be king or queen, is usually blamed on too much California-style soul-searching, psychoanalysis and the liberal agenda. However, Young-Eisendrath thinks that "hothouse" mothering is actually to blame. A generation of children after the second World War were reared solely by their mothers for the first time in human history. Before that, motherhood was always combined with work of various kinds, and children were cared for by numerous family members in an extended family structure. The isolation of the nuclear family - and the placing of the mother on a pedestal in the centre of it - is artificial and destructive for mothers and children alike, yet women buy into it because they are more concerned about their image than about their genuine desires, she argues in her latest book Women and Desire: Beyond Wanting to Be Wanted (Harmony Books, $23 in US). Using Jungian principles, her own life experience and those of her clients in both individual and couples therapy, Young-Eisendrath examines the notion that women feel stretched between a desire to be loved and a desire for personal identity. In 20 years of practising psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, Young-Eisendrath found that most women were bewildered by the question, "what do you want?" The answer to this question, according to French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan is that most women want to be wanted, not to be loved. That is to say, women become who they believe others want them to be, rather than following and fulfilling their own desires.

Young-Eisendrath became intrigued by the idea that women might be driven by the desire to be desirable, rather than by the desire to be known and loved. This concept became the background music for much of what she heard about female desire both in and out of psychotherapy for the next 10 years.

"Wanting to be wanted is about finding our power in an image rather than in our own actions," Young-Eisendrath states. "We try to appear attractive, nice, good, valid, legitimate, or worthy to someone else, instead of discovering what we actually feel and want to ourselves. In this kind of conscious or unconscious arrangement, other people are expected to provide our own feelings of power, worth, or vitality, at the expense of our authentic development. We then feel resentful, frustrated, and out of control because we have sacrificed our real needs and desires to the arrangements we have made with others."

Many women find that their sexual desire has been dampened by their self-consciousness and desire to please and so they take little pleasure in sex, which has implications for relationships and marriage. In terms of the motherchild relationship, however, this insight has its own resonance. "If a mother gives her life for her child, she is going to expect - consciously or unconsciously - that she is going to get a life back. But she doesn't," says Young-Eisendrath. "Children suck you dry, then they leave and don't want to know anything about you," believes Young-Eisendrath, who has reared two biological children by her second husband, and played a part in rearing four step-children belonging to her first and third husbands. Her own past as the only child of older, immigrant, "slightly paranoid" working-class parents in the insular community of Akron, Ohio has also informed her beliefs. Picked out as a gifted child early on by her teachers, Young-Eisendrath benefited from grants and scholarships, and grew away intellectually from her parents, whom she feels never understood her strivings.

THEY were appalled when, at 21, Young-Eisendrath became the third wife of a much-older professor at Ohio University. She quickly outgrew him and married a second time - again to a professor many years her senior, with whom she had a boy and a girl in quick succession. At 25, she learned the hard way about the isolation of motherhood. "There's very little social support for mothers. Every mother thinks she's doing something wrong," she says. When her second marriage ended, Young-Eisendrath married her current husband Ed Epstein, a contemporary whom she met in 1969 while both were students at Ohio University. In 1982 they became reacquainted and have been married for 16 years. Ed acts as his wife's manager when she tours the world from their home in Burlington, Vermont, doing workshops on themes such as "Couples in Dialogue: Love After the Romance Has Ended". In a previous book, You're Not What I Expected, Young-Eisendrath looks at the challenges of heterosexual intimacy, considering that 50 per cent of US and British marriages don't last. "Never before in human history have men and women attempted to be long-term, intimate friends," she comments.

Taking part in rearing six children while building a successful career has, for Young-Eisendrath, meant sharing the parenting with three fathers, as well as other significant people, and that's how it should be, in her view. The extended family arrangement with multiple parents and role models is part of the reason why the six children in her life - now aged in their mid-20s and mid-30s - have been so successful.

"It's in your child's best interest [for you] to keep working," she concludes, "and to integrate mother substitutes into your life."

Dr Polly Young-Eisendrath is giving a public lecture organised by the Irish Analytical Psychology Association on Friday at 8p.m. en- titled "Women and Desire: Beyond Wanting to be Wanted", and a public workshop, "Hothouse Mothering", on Saturday, 10 a.m.1 p.m. in Milltown Park, Sandford Road, Dublin 6. Information: 01-6715828. She is also leading a one-day retreat, entitled "Zen and The Intimacy of Every- day Living," at All Hallows College, Dublin on Sunday. Information: 01-8315919