By Anna Johnson
The demands made on mothers by the institution of motherhood are impossible to achieve, which accounts for why failure has come to be seen as an inevitable part of mothering. Moreover, to succeed within such an institution means to be deemed successful by inherently misogynistic, racist, and classist measures. (Lane 77)
Failure as embedded alternative
In this essay, I will explore the connection between failure, haunting and structures of power, and of care, by talking about the shared failures of the ghost and the mother. My wider research proposes parallels between the figure of the ghost and the (figurative and real) mother. I see many of these parallels as present in the ‘failures’ (I can’t stress the inverted commas enough) that I believe these figures end up sharing, and this will be my focus here.
Failure is, I would argue, a fascinating lens through which to view many things, in particular structures of power. As Jack Halberstam puts it in their study of failure’s potential, The Queer Art of Failure: “As a practice, failure recognizes that alternatives are embedded already in the dominant and that power is never totally consistent” (88). These ‘embedded alternatives’ that Halberstam suggests failure illuminates might be seen as haunting dominant structures, making a bit of trouble now and then against the apparent coherence of these structures. As such, we might find ourselves fascinated by what failure destroys, what it opens up or reveals, even what it creates. We might be fascinated by its violence and its inevitability, or by the way it is always relative, conditional, and constructed by a notion of ‘rightness’. Some notions of rightness are gentler than others (which may be brutal) but all are restrictive.
As such, failure might even act as critique or rebellion. To quote Halberstam again, “We can [..] recognize failure as a way of refusing to acquiesce to dominant logics of power and discipline and as a form of critique” (ibid.). That said, I feel it is essential to make clear that any engagement with failure’s generative potential, such as this essay, must simultaneously manage to hold and recognise failure’s inherent hardships, loss, damage and exclusions. These are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, are tightly bound together, as we shall see in the work of Lisa Baraitser and Denise Riley.
Failure and care
Lisa Baraitser’s Enduring Time addresses the temporalities of care, including motherhood. Reflecting upon the relationship of failure to care, Baraitser writes that:
Love itself is always already ambivalent, being experienced as distinct from destructiveness at the very point that one can recognize that the two have come together, when we come to understand, that is, that care entails understanding failures of care. (16)
In this formulation, failure, or at very least an understanding of the consequences of failure, is necessary for care to exist at all. Care is the prevention or mitigation of destruction (even if that destruction is entirely passive), so failure is always, necessarily, present. Often, for mothers especially, terrifyingly so. I wrote this, when my son was a few months old,
To this day I feel unconvinced that milk passes almost entirely unseen between our bodies in quantities great enough to sustain his rapid growth. I was never one of those new mothers whose breasts leaked in the shower – our baby had a tongue-tie, which got things off to a halting and painful start, but I faked the faith I needed to keep going and here we are, feeding as I type (endlessly, in his sleep, to sooth a sore ear). But I am haunted just now and then by an almost unspeakable vision where I wake from this delusion to find there was never any milk and I am the Miss Haversham of breastfeeding. (Johnson 92)
Equally, in my experience, the care of motherhood, no matter how committedly undertaken, is never enough to keep love pure of destruction. Failure is, as Lane suggests, inevitable.
Failure as haunting
Both Halberstam’s and Baraitser’s perspectives seem to posit failure not as pure opposition to of success or adequacy, but more a kind of haunting of these positions which is always present and always telling us something. Through such haunting, failure can be seen to reveal structures that might otherwise remain invisible, as the ghost so often does. In fact, what the ghost might be said to do best of all is fail. The ghost is only successful on its own terms, as a ghost, but by most normative measures of personhood, citizenship, or even existence itself, ghostliness fails woefully. Even as a ghost it fails, by its very nature, to be ‘okay’, to be at peace. It is by its failures that we know it to be a ghost, it is by its failures that it haunts; because it does not fit in, cannot assimilate and cannot remain silent. As Avery Gordon puts it in Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination:
Haunting and the appearance of specters or ghosts is one way […] we are notified that what’s been concealed is very much alive and present, interfering precisely with those always incomplete forms of containment and repression ceaselessly directed towards us. (xvi)
The ghost fails to obey the rules of myriad normative structures – social, scientific, linguistic, temporal – which might themselves represent such “forms of containment and repression”. The ghost is too much (obsessive), too little (not quite there), uncontrollable and, therefore, trouble/troubling. If these ‘failures’ sound familiar, it is because they are the ‘failures’ of women too, mothers especially, within normative, patriarchal structures. Our position, therefore, might be akin to that of the ghost and, equally, we might feel a particular vulnerability to its haunting.
As I suggested earlier in relation to Halberstam’s account of failure’s potential relationship to dominant structures, the ghost’s practice of failure troubles what is dominant and as such the ghost might be imagined existing as a kind of ‘embedded alternative’ in every structure. The structure is always haunted by such embedded alternatives. And when the ghost gets out, becomes loud and unruly (simply by its presence, by its failure to remain unseen), it is to critique, or at least make visible, the structure within which it cannot be contained.
Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (as discussed by Gordon) and the short story The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, provide literary examples of such critiquing ghosts. These ghosts are brought into being by apparent ‘failures’ (infanticide and depression respectively) of motherhood, but what they in fact illuminate are the structures (racialization, slavery, patriarchy and medicalised incarceration, among others) that force such ‘failures’ into being. As Gordon writes of Beloved:
The ghost has its own desires, so to speak, which figure the whole complicated sociality of a determining formation that seems inoperative (like slavery) or invisible (like racially gendered capitalism) but that is nonetheless alive and enforced. (183)
The ghost is not always clear on what it is haunting, often unaware it is even a ghost, until it crashes up against the structures that do not serve it well. Again, we might, in this description of the ghost, so easily be talking about women, about mothers, and of course, other groups not privileged by dominant patriarchal, capitalist structures. Nevertheless, for my purposes here I will focus on mothers, in all their varied forms and intersectional glory.
The mother as ghost/failure
In my own life writing on motherhood, I return time and again to haunting and ghosts in my attempts to convey the experience. I wrote, for instance, when my son was an infant,
Perhaps it is the repetition that comes, inevitably, with caring for a baby that causes images or objects to seem haunting in their constant, paced returning. Or the returning of their loss. To me at least, the repetition involved in this practice is of a different texture to any I have experienced before. It is woven into our days, no matter how we spend them. (Johnson 96)
This sense of haunting or being haunted creates, for some mothers, the slow realization that you do not fit, that this world and its present structures are not for you (are you a ghost, or just a mother?). This realization may be gradual or may hit you (repeatedly) as a terrifying clearing of the mists that you did not know limited your vision. As Julia Lane suggests in her piece A Poetics of Maternal Failure:
The demands made on mothers by the institution of motherhood are impossible to achieve, which accounts for why failure has come to be seen as an inevitable part of mothering. Moreover, to succeed within such an institution means to be deemed successful by inherently misogynistic, racist, and classist measures. (77)
Myrl Coulter’s definition of the ‘institution of motherhood’ in the Encyclopedia of Motherhood, in an entry that draws on the work of Andrea O’Reilly, Adrienne Rich and Patrice DiQuinzio, is helpful here in unpicking the effect of such restrictive, ideologically based demands on the lived experience of motherhood. Coulter quotes O‘Reilly as stating that the institution of motherhood “has become the ofﬁcial and only meaning of motherhood, marginalizing and rendering illegitimate alternative practices of mothering” (making these alternatives ‘failures’) and notes that “[as] a social institution that functions ideologically and politically […] motherhood idealizes mothers” (571). O’Reilly explains the pressures of such idealization thus:
Becoming a mother means a woman enters into the expectations of idealized motherhood: self-denial, self-abnegation, inherent goodness, unwavering love, duty-bound presence. These expected qualities and associated attributes shape conventional notions of appropriately maternal behavior; they are also often unattainable. (ibid.)
This idealization is not only unattainable because its expectations would be too much to ask of anyone and because it assumes a biologically based, heteronormative form of mothering, but also because the intense labour of motherhood is not recognized or supported, in practical terms, by capitalist, patriarchal structures of power (as the campaigns of groups such as Pregnant Then Screwed powerfully illustrate). Lane sums up how this can feel as a mother:
[T]hrough our experiences of motherhood, we as mothers have come to an embodied understanding of our own oppression. We have felt it, even if we could not always name it. Furthermore, we have dreamed and written and shared about the possibility that mothering could be otherwise. (78).
More broadly, Jacqueline Rose, in discussing the vilification of mothers (in particular single mothers and racialized mothers) who inevitably step outside the confines of the institution of motherhood, contends that,
[B]y making mothers the objects of licensed cruelty, we bind ourselves to the world’s iniquities and shut down the portals of the heart. Unless we recognise what we are asking mothers to perform in the world – and for the world – we will continue to tear both the world and mothers to pieces. (2)
This impossibility of succeeding within the institution of motherhood is, I would argue, where our ghost-mirroring ‘failures’, illuminate the ‘embedded alternatives’. As such, they illuminate the ways of doing it ‘otherwise’. With this view of failure as critique/alternative (amongst other things) in mind, I made a list of the ways in which the ghost is manifested by its failures; the (necessary, creative, thrilling, devastating) failures of the ghost, or those I can imagine at least.
The failures of the ghost (and the mother)
Failure to play by the rules of time
Failure to adhere to boundaries
Failure to play by the rules of feeling (and moving on)
Failure to be okay
Failure to communicate ‘properly’ (or to stay silent)
Failure to choose between being or not being / presence or absence
The failures on this list look a lot like the ‘failures’ that I recognise in my experience, experiences shared with me by others, and experiences shared through literary offerings, of motherhood. To quote Lane again:
I feel strongly that maternal failure is such a pervasive experience – for mothers across the spectrum of socioeconomic and cultural status – that it is worthwhile to discuss the potential for failure to be otherwise, to be encountered and appreciated as something other than a devastating disavowal of our abilities as mothers. (86)
Can a re-framing of the ‘failures’ of mothers shift the meaning of failure from that “devastating disavowal” to something far more complex, ambivalent, generative, honest and unruly?
To be clear, I have no interest in trying to transform these ideas of failure into anything as simple as successes. Rather, I want to give them the space on the page to see if they might, when held up to the light, tell us anything about the structures that they haunt, the structures that make it seemingly impossible to mother without failure. To demonstrate what I mean by holding these failures, that belong to the figure of the ghost/mother, up to the light, I’ll elaborate here upon one failure from the list: Failure to play by the rules of time.
Failure to play by the rules of time
As Gordon suggests: “Haunting raises specters, and it alters the experience of being in time, the way we separate the past, the present, and the future” (xvi). Following on from Gordon’s formulation, I would argue that the ghost is not bound to the forward motion in which we (most often) imagine time to inexorably flow. The ghost is not in its ‘right’ time (the time when it was not a ghost) but nor is it really in our time. It is always that present absence, not quite outside of time (or it would not be out of place), but not in time’s imagined flow. It disregards the distinctions between past, present and future. Or, if not disregards, rails against these distinctions angrily, perhaps in incomprehension, because they are not the truth of the ghost’s experience. The ghost can wait and wait and wait, and it might seem that time is necessary for waiting, but time doesn’t erode the ghost’s patience as it should, it does not accrue, and no future awaits the ghost, so this is a different species of waiting to what we, the living, ordinarily do.
Motherhood might seem the opposite of this state; time is not redundant but marked out by so many milestones and filled with demands to be met before moving on, forward, to the next demand. And a child might be seen as futurity incarnate. But even the milestones and the ‘investment’ in a child’s imagined future are not always security enough against the strangeness of motherhood, which, I would argue, has the power to plunge us into altered temporalities, sometimes momentarily, sometimes for years, as I will explore in relation to Denise Riley’s work Time Lived, Without Its Flow. In my own life writing, the experience of altered, often layered or fractured, temporality is something that I return to over and over again. I wrote, for instance:
It is not even really summer yet. Just an unseasonably warm May. But it seems I no longer go by calendar seasons but rather live the day’s weather as a season unto itself. Today it is summer; tomorrow it might be spring again or even autumn if he needs a cardigan and his leg-warmers. I wonder if my perception of time was permanently altered by that strange otherness of the peculiar temporality of labour, when time was barely time but rather waves. Perhaps I have simply never had the call to return to time as it was before. Not that I am stuck in labour’s time but, rather, temporal options have perhaps been opened up by passing through labour’s strangeness. (Johnson 99)
As Baraitser notes, “maintenance systems […] are distinct from productive systems, in that they rely on, and to some degree produce, different temporal arrangements and temporal orderings that intervene in dominant temporal imaginaries” (50). While motherhood might be theorised as falling into the category of ‘productive’ (or reproductive), it is more often experienced as an intense system of maintenance with an ever-deferred end point (like the maintenance the ghost keeps up over whatever endless duty of care or resentment it cannot give up). Or what Baraitser describes as “care without ending” (183).
And so, I would argue, mothers, like ghosts, regularly fail to play by the rules of time. Rules that reflect what Karen Davies calls “the present-day dominant linear and quantitative temporal consciousness [that] grew out of various religious, scientific and economic interests, all of which were male dominated” (137). In Davies’ account “quantitative temporal consciousness” results in “a linear conception of time […] grounded in gendered power relations and in a discourse of masculinity” (ibid.). Mothers might be seen to fail through not abiding by the distinctions of such a conception of time, losing a sense of futurity or finding ourselves waiting or repeating interminably.
Being in time might be something we have taken for granted, perhaps thought little of. But motherhood’s effects on time can be far more unnerving, lasting and peculiar than we might predict. Denise Riley’s unclassifiable book, Time Lived, Without Its Flow, explores, in searching detail, one instance of time derailed by motherhood experience, specifically the experience of losing a child. As she struggles to find/use language to convey her altered temporality following the sudden death of her adult son, Riley suggests that “[y]our very condition militates against narrative” (63) because “[a] sentence slopes forward into its own future, as had your former intuition of a mobile time. But now […] the whole notion of directedness has gone” (64). And, even further, “syntax itself is set against you here, because it must rely on conventional temporality to function at all” (65). Nevertheless, she concedes that “[s]till, here we are on the printed page, with what there is to hand” (63).
Although Riley recognizes that her own experience of ‘arrested time’ is shared by many other bereaved parents, she finds that “any published mention of this seemingly a-temporal life is rare” (15). And so, she takes it upon herself to try to find words for this particular temporality, as she puts it:
Because to concede at the outset that it’s ‘indescribable’ would only isolate you further, when coming so close to your own child’s death is already quite solitary enough; because it’s scarcely rare, for immeasurably vast numbers have known and will know, this sense of being removed from time, and so your efforts might well be familiar to everyone else who’s also struggled to speak about this vivid state. (17)
Here Riley acknowledges the alienation that is contained within this failure to abide by the rules of time and that is consolidated by the inadequacy of language. Is this perhaps one reason we turn to ghosts – in our colloquial descriptions of unsettling or traumatic experiences, for instance – to short-circuit “the connection […] between the stopping of time and the impossibility of narration” that Riley describes (Baraitser and Riley 5)? Certainly, she turns repeatedly in this work to spectral images of the dead, of herself as ghostly, of empty spaces, endless wandering and repetition:
I’m struck by the force of so much being with the dead. I hear it constantly in other mothers of dead children. Such imagined empathy seals your sense of stopped time. Like one of those dogged pursuers in classical mythology, you’ve followed your dead into the underworld. (47)
Ghosts fail to abide by the rules of time, of futurity, of past staying past, and so does Riley’s experience of living with the sudden death of her son. Consequently, the spectral affords her a language that can evade the necessity of time as flowing, always flowing forwards, onwards.
Radical spectral language
The potential of this spectral language applied to motherhood feels radical to me; a challenge to what Halberstam describes as the “normative understandings of time and transmission” (71) almost always introduced by the “deployment of the concept of family” (ibid., original italics) which must include, but is not at all limited to, motherhood. My argument has been that, in examining and voicing the ‘failures’ of the ghost/mother we might refuse “to acquiesce to [these] dominant logics of power and discipline” (Halberstam 88). I believe that in contrast to the concept of family, what is in fact contained within the realities of family (in its broadest sense) are far more complex possibilities, which we glimpse through motherhood’s failure to play by the rules and which the ghost allows us to put into words. In doing so, we might begin to dismantle the inevitability of maternal failure and to find a more nuanced, less (destructively) restrictive, understanding of what motherhood can and does feel like.
Anna Johnson, “Failure: The Ghost and the Mother,” Alluvium, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2022): n.pag. Web 29 April 2022. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v10.1.06
About the Author
Anna Johnson is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing at Kingston University. Her practice is one of poetic-prose life writing and her research focuses on the intersections of maternal studies, disability and illness writing, neurodiversity and queer theory. Anna’s PhD study explores the ways in which the language of the spectral – ghosts and hauntings – offers a possible route to the expression of difficult-to-articulate experiences, such as the strangeness of early motherhood. Anna’s practice of poetic-prose life writing deals with the complexity and ambivalence of early motherhood, offering something like an immersion into the affects of care. Anna aims to create writing that is made more poetic by its honesty and more honest by its poetics.
Anna’s recent publications include chapters in the collections, Women in Transition: Crossing Boundaries, Crossing Borders, Routledge, 2021, and From Band-Aids to Scalpels: Motherhood Experiences in/of Medicine, Demeter Press, 2021. Further details about her work and publications can be found at: https://annaotheranna.wixsite.com/mysite
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Baraitser, Lisa and Denise Riley. “Lisa Baraitser in Conversation with Denise Riley”. MAMSIE: Studies in the Maternal, vol. 8, no 1, 2016, p. 5. doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/sim.206
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Davies, Karen. “Responsibility and Daily Life: Reflections over Timespace.” Timespace: Geographies of Temporality, edited by May, John and Thrift, Nigel, Taylor and Francis, 2003, pp. 133–148.
Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011.
Johnson, Anna. “Objects of a Maternal Haunting.” Everyday World-Making: Towards and Understanding of Affect and Mothering, edited by Julia Lane and Eleonora Joensuu, Demeter Press, 2018, pp. 90–102
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Riley, Denise. Time Lived, Without Its Flow. Picador, 2019
Rose, Jacqueline. Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, Faber & Faber, 2019