The mother is the faceless, unfigurable figure of a figurante. She creates a place for all the figures by losing herself in the background.
Jacques Derrida, “All Ears: Nietzsche’s Otobiography”
“Paternity may be a legal fiction,” Joyce speculates in the episode of Ulysses in which the proprietorial assumptions of man, both in the act of begetting and in the act of authorship, are brought into question. “Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting is unknown to man. It is founded upon the void, upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood. Amor Matris, subjective and objective genitive, may be the only true thing in life” (1922:205). Motherhood may be the only fact of life about which we can be confident. A mother’s love, the dyadic relationship in which the mother and child are undifferentiated beings, oblivious to the outside world, complete unto themselves can, however, only be experienced nostalgically. We can only know it, attempt to articulate it, when it is over. Thus the adult fantasy of a self-less love is always marked by a sense of loss. For all the biological certainty of birth what mother, desiring briefly something beyond the child, has not wondered if this were really her child, and what child, unsatisfied with this site of origin, has not thought that her real mother must be someone/somewhere else? “Whatever the individual mother’s love and strength,” Adrienne Rich writes in Of Woman Born, “the child in us, the small female who grew up in a male-controlled world, still feels, at moments, wildly unmothered” (1976:225). Motherhood may also be an invention—an invention born of necessity whose role it is to save us from the void, the incertitude that patriarchy is based upon.
The following artists, all in different ways, are engaged in the process of reinventing motherhood. It is not that they seek to replace this idealized misapprehension with representations of the truth about maternity and originality. For even if a truth were to be found, it would not satisfy. Freud tells us how his own mother attempted to provide him with, if not the truth, then at least as good a fiction as any other: