Since 2008, I have been working as a psychologist and Clinical Director at the Day Centre for the Care of Women’s Mental Health of the NGO Fainareti. Fainareti was the name of Socrates’ mother who was a midwife, hence his midwifery method. The Day Centre is aimed at expectant parents or those who have recently become parents, are in IVF treatment or have experienced foetal or neonatal death. The Day Care offers psychotherapy and psychiatric support and also, midwifery courses and care. The interdisciplinary team consists of midwives, psychologists and psychiatrists.
The announcement of a pregnancy is often enough to declare that there is no such thing as a relationship between mother and father, with one’s family of origin, with one’s body, and with one’s child. In the Centre, we accompany the subject in the different phases of the perinatal period up to 1 year after childbirth, and we become recipients of the unbearable – whether it is localised in the subject or in the other. We are witness to an ongoing update on the particularity of jouissance that emerges with wanting a child.
The traces of each subject’s fantasy and jouissance permeate the different phases of the perinatal period, from the birth of the idea to the birth of the child itself. Wanting a child is not necessarily translated into wanting to carry a child, to give birth to or to raise one. Wanting to conceive is different from wanting a pregnancy, from giving birth, breastfeeding or eventually, from having a child. A woman may struggle to conceive but she may not be able to bear the pregnancy, the labour, or her own child. I will never forget Ansermet’s reference to a woman who after years of IVF treatments, decided to have an abortion. Another example is of women who refuse to accept their newborn as being their own child if this child is the product of egg donation. In the name of the law that defends human diversity and rights, we are increasingly dealing with a one-to-one jouissance that is necessarily legislated retrospectively to provide for children that are born of all modern forms of reproduction and kinship. These inventions challenge the Symbolic to use or produce new signifiers to describe the jouissance of the modern subject.
Even when we are dealing with a normal conception, there are women who testify that they do not feel like mothers unless they give birth naturally or breastfeed, thus indicating that their wanting a child has more to do with an enjoyment of their own body through childbirth or breastfeeding than with actually having a child. Some declare they have been deceived because pregnancy is not what they imagined; their body has become a hetero causing repulsion or sickness or disability.
Modern scientific discourse has brought pregnancy much closer to death. The foetus is likely to be aborted if it does not pass an array of tests. IVF in older women often leads to miscarriage or multifoetal gestation, with an increased likelihood of extreme preterm birth or foetal chromosomal abnormalities. Amniocentesis is more dangerous in multifoetal gestation, while reduction or selective termination procedures endanger the healthy foetus or result in the woman carrying a living and a dead foetus at the same time. Sometimes this is an unbearable decision to take. Scientific discourse causes new parents to “measure” the child, suspecting it of being retarded even from the beginning of intrauterine life. Often, the announcement that there is even the smallest possibility that a foetus may suffer from an abnormality will condemn the child to the position of waste for the rest of its’ life. The subject-to-be is then at risk of being captured in the ferocity of the maternal fantasy.
For some women the experience of birth can be traumatic, regardless of the mode of delivery. This can mark the beginning of a serious destabilisation, with repetitive intrusion of indelible images of the caesarean section procedure, the unbearable feeling of the incision, the sensation of something being pulled out of the body or of being violated by the doctors. In some cases, we need to talk to the obstetrician to help them understand a woman’s fears of birth or to recommend that the nurses do not allow a woman’s mother-in-law to visit, if this drives her crazy.
Even when genetic affinity is certain, having a child is sometimes not enough for a subject to be represented by the signifier ‘mother’. Natural childbirth and exclusive breastfeeding are then the prerequisites for a subject to consider herself a mother. Attachment parenting or lactivism (activism for exclusive breastfeeding) and co-sleeping are movements with fanatical supporters who equate any kind of separation with a violent cut that irreparably traumatises the child. On the other side, there are those who suffer from guilt because they do not achieve the ideal of complete dedication to their child.
Thus, we become embarrassed witnesses of breastfeeding and co-sleeping that continue into later childhood, since it is up to the child to decide if it desires to stop using its mother’s body. The question is whether such a desire can be generated. Unfortunately, with the blessings of psychology we are often faced with a there is a mother-child relationship and mother knows it. Modern mothers manage to validate their unregulated jouissance by consulting manuals on how to become an effective parent. The child as a living being derived from the mother’s body is likely to realise the very object of her fantasy. The child may then well be a condenser of maternal jouissance, in a way that its’ birth does not necessarily imply the emergence of a desiring subject, especially when the mother becomes the law, thus leaving no room for desire, as in the paradigm of the holophrase.
When the child is the partner-symptom, a ravage or when it becomes a sinthome for the mother, allowing her to have a body, an identity, and a destination, then what kind of operator will introduce any lack? Psychoanalysis in the institution comes to propose a different reading of separation as non-traumatic, to introduce a lack and to smooth the edges of the Ideal. What is at stake is making the subject endure being a “bad-enough mother” rather than an ideal one. As Éric Laurent reports in his text Institution of the Phantasm – Phantasms of the Institution, the psychoanalyst is fighting to extract the particularity of each case, without trying to deliver it into the next case in an application of ideals. This does not mean that a mother can tyrannize the entire world, which is the subject-to-be in this case, in the name of her particularity.
To date, over 9000 people have received our services in the Day Centre. which shows that new parents gain much relief from the discourse and care offered to them. The same also happens to some infants who begin to eat and sleep better or to respond differently to their mothers. From the point of view of a discourse that might not be an Ideal, I take this opportunity to propose the creation of an observatory of wanting a child and of parenthood during the perinatal period within the fields of psychoanalysis.
Review: Caroline Heanue
Photography: ©Sofie Vangor – https://sofievangor.blogspot.com/
 Ansermet, Francois. The Art of Making Children: The New World of Assisted Reproductive Technology, 2017, Karnac Books, London, p. 13.