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The new mother complex and how to overcome it

Actress Wolke Hegenbarth recently explained in a “Spiegel” interview that the first year with her child was downright “traumatic”.

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The new mother complex and how to overcome it

Actress Wolke Hegenbarth recently explained in a “Spiegel” interview that the first year with her child was downright “traumatic”. The child never slept for more than two hours at a time, it clung to her like a koala, day and night. According to Hegenbarth, neither she nor her partner wanted to have a second child.

In doing so, she provided an insight into an often ignored reality of motherhood. The concept of trauma, which we usually reserve for the most severe mental damage, is striking. First of all, everyone can probably understand that spending your nights with a crying baby is exhausting.

It was the same for me. My son also never slept more than an hour at a time for a few months. I felt like a zombie. My short term memory was practically gone, no idea how I worked as a writer during that time. I do know, however, that I wrote a great deal of text expressing my frustration at the plight of mothers. So I understand why Hegenbarth doesn't want to have that experience again.

It is said that it is taboo to talk about negative aspects of motherhood or even about the fact that quite a few women regret having become a mother in the first place. However, it is arguably the most broken taboo today, judging by the number of books, films, podcasts, and interviews that discuss the dark side of motherhood.

Most recently, for example, the film “Mother” by Carolin Schmitz was released, which tells of the lives of eight mothers with all the ups and downs. One of the most well-known mother books of recent years comes from Canadian writer Sheila Heti, who flips coins (literally) in 2018's 'Motherhood' to approach the crucial question: should I have a child?

Two years earlier, in Regretting Motherhood, the Israeli sociologist Orna Donath gave voice to women who regret having become a mother, triggering a heated debate. And the actress Jennifer Aniston has just spoken in an interview about her unfulfilled desire to have children. Although she had tried for years to have a child - also by means of artificial insemination - she is now quite content with not having become a mother.

It's like a dam has burst. Well, possibly an ugly metaphor in the context of motherhood - at least a door has opened. No, motherhood isn't a sky-high rejoicing, it's not a permanent pleasure. But who would ever have thought that it could be like this? Perhaps glorifying clichés about motherhood persist because being a mother, especially in the first, very strenuous year, is often accompanied by a certain domestic isolation. Only a few people are allowed to look behind the facade of the unimaginably exhausting family life with a small child. Most outsiders are only presented with the contented face of a chubby baby.

But even these challenges – months of sleep deprivation and stress – would probably be manageable if motherhood did not mean a total dissolution of the modern subject. Wolke Hegenbarth puts it in a nutshell: "I didn't expect that I no longer exist as an individual, can no longer do anything, no longer sleep - I didn't expect that."

You have to take that literally: the individual as indivisible, as a being that can be completely on its own, is abolished. Always there is a drooling infant hanging from the breast, and with it societal expectations cling to the subject who once considered herself a woman and has now become a mother. It sounds like a promotion and a simultaneous demotion. Motherhood is sold to women as the crowning glory of their lives, yet at the same time one seems to cease to exist as a woman (that is, as a sexual being) and as a subject (as someone with individual needs) at the moment of becoming a mother.

So Hegenbarth not only suffered from a banal lack of sleep, but, much more fundamentally, from the abandonment of her subject status: that as soon as you give birth to the child, you appear as a halved subject. You might even be completely in shambles. For this one being, your own child, you seem indispensable - for everyone else you are not. Is this impression deceptive, or do mothers today suffer more than their mothers' and grandmothers' generation? Or do they only dare to articulate this feeling? Was the feeling always there – or is it the product of late modernism?

In any case, this fundamental experience of self-dissolution can be processed in two ways. For some women, it discourages having more children or makes them regret motherhood altogether (which doesn't mean they don't love their children). For me, this insult constitutes a realization: that the late modern subject overemphasizes its status as an individual; that this individuality and the freedom linked to it have always been fantasies; that in the social construct the individual appears as a monad for whom the social is a convenient option but never a duty.

Everything is possible, nothing is neccesary. This motto also applies to intimate relationships today. The hype surrounding polyamory (actually just a hobby for people with a lot of free time – who else can expect multiple relationships with multiple personalities emotionally and in terms of time?), the ease with which people today announce that they have broken away from their families , because they are "toxic", and the simplicity with which the family is declared a forced community in which everyone only has to suffer - these are just a few indications of how much the obligation to the social is perceived as an impertinence.

This complaint about the hyper-individualized society could also be made by a conservative. Conservatives would praise women's willingness to make sacrifices as mothers, without however mentioning the fact that motherhood naturally also means a burden. And that it is anything but helpful to complain about the "whining" mothers.

Incidentally, that was what a surprising number of commentators on the Hegenbarth interview did: they were annoyed by the whining mothers of today. Older generations of women would never have complained, despite having to devote so much more time to caring for children and housework.

The angry reactions were somewhat reminiscent of the well-known "Snowflake" argument: the younger generation is soft and whines too much. It's true, my mother's generation never complained, not even when she was waiting for the bus with a child at five in the morning so she could be at work punctually at seven (I'm East German). Whether these were the “good old days”, however, remains to be seen. These times were probably good for spouses and society as a whole, less so for women, who did not complain because they were not listened to anyway.

There was a second group of commentators: women who have no desire to have children and use the case of Hegenbarth as a kind of deterrent example. Why would they sacrifice their time and freedom for a screaming little creature? In the comments, however, it is striking that motherhood can only be perceived as a conglomerate of negative aspects. In a way, this is the downside of the mothering discourses of recent years: Instead of criticizing and hopefully improving the social factors that burden motherhood, motherhood itself is perceived as a problem.

Yes, having a child means less free time for many years to come, but that doesn't mean leaving yourself, your hobbies, your relationships, or your professional aspirations at the delivery room door forever—even if it's during the most extreme time of self-loss may appear so immediately after birth. When women who do not want to have children justify their decision, they paint a distorted and clichéd image of motherhood as sheer horror that never ends.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those mothers who wants to force motherhood on childless women. However, I am one of those people who find the term "child-free", which is supposed to be less pejorative than "childless", problematic. As is so often the case, subjective freedom is thus defined as freedom from something - in this case from a burdensome, needy other person who prevents self-realization.

Now, childless people are not inherently more selfish than others. But our society as a whole tends to radically overvalue the individual in relation to the forms of the social - whether as family, neighborhood, community and, in the broadest sense, society. This is why motherhood appears so precarious in contemporary discourse: not because it may mean a lack of sleep at times; but because the mother is faced with two completely incompatible requirements: "Dedicate yourself completely to your child!" And: "Realize yourself!" Self-realization as care for others - only a few Mother Teresas experience that on earth.

An indissoluble aporia then? no way. The realization of our fairly ordinary selves does not at all presuppose radical liberation from all social obligations.

Marlen Hobrack, born in Bautzen in 1986, recently published “Best in Class” (Hanser Berlin).

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