Featured post

Contemporary Narratives - Photography: A Short Guide to History, Theory, and Practice: Online Course Starting April 27th 2022

  Sign up to my new series of talks on Contemporary Narratives - Photography: A Short Guide to History, Theory, and Practice .  Starts on Ap...

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

All Quiet: paternal ambivalence

I saw this picture by Cecile Walton at the Queer Art exhibition at Tate Britain the other week. It's  a homage of sorts to Manet's Olympia.

In Romance, Cecile Walton paints herself holding up her baby son Edward like he's an alien, and her other son Gavril is standing sad-eyed at the end of the bed clutching the black cat. And of course the thing is the baby does look like an alien because there is nothing as other-worldly as a newborn baby.

While I was getting feedback on All Quiet on the Home Front, Susan Bright, who curated the Motherhood exhibition a few years back (and did a phd on the subject) told me about maternal ambivalence - which can be expanded to be parental ambivalence. She was also kind enough to write an endorsement for the book, which I absolutely love. This is part of what she said:

All Quiet on the Home Front takes the little explored subject of a father and daughter relationship.  It covers the ground of parental ambivalence - a term which legitimizes feelings such as fear, boredom, anger, confusion and other conflicting emotions in relation to having a child. It is usually referenced in terms of the mother, as if the father has none of these emotions at all.

This is because it is usually mothers that do the bulk of child care - especially in the early years - and they have the myth and societal pressure of the selfless mother to contend with. This, of course, does not mean that fathers are immune to such feelings.  

Maternal Ambivalance exemplifies ideas of motherhood that go beyond conventional (patriarchal) idealisations of mothers, that recognise that mothers experience a whole range of emotions relating to their child, emotions that don't just include adoration, love and endless self-sacrifice, but in the social and psychological turmoil of family might include hatred, disgust, contempt and despair. It's not easy being a mother in other words, and all women (however loving and adoring they are on the surface) live this emotionally jagged life while being held to these plastic idealisations. (Buy Home Truths for more on this.)

Maternal ambivalence is at odds with the myth of the selfless mother, an ideal that at its extreme ends up in a Handsmaid's Tale hell where a woman becomes nothing but a child-bearing vessel. the dilemma for women is this version of motherhood is one that is repeatedly reinforced wherever you look; in newspapers, magazines, television, family, religion, it's everywhere like a bad smell. And it's destructive and a myth, pure and simple. But we all believe in myths, so we let them destroy us.

There's also paternal ambivalence, something that for me was in particular manifested in the four walls of the home, in the confines of what is suddenly an alien domestic environment (I'll write more on this later. It's a big part of the idea of All Quiet on the Home Front).

The flipside of that ambivalence is an ideal of fatherhood where the ideas of what it is to be a father are limited, confusing and ultimately nauseating, a testosteroned individualisation of a sports team on tour, with a big jaw and a fine line in self-serving justifications of cruelty. Think the Commander in the Handmaid's Tale.The dilemma for men is how to escape all these emotionally illiterate fatherhoods and make life better for everybody, especially if you have a daughter (Robert Webb talked about this in the UK the other day).

And that's what All Quiet on the Home Front is about - how to become the father that you want to be, not one you don't want to be. It's not easy. 

No comments: