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Mother Love


new internationalist
issue 254 - April 1994

Mother love
All photos on this page: Nancy Scheper-Hughes

Mother love
Something happens to the myths of motherhood when, in a land of terrible scarcity,
infants die of mortal neglect. Nancy Scheper-Hughes argues for a
‘political economy of the emotions’ that replaces poetics with pragmatism.

I argue that a high expectancy of child death is a powerful shaper of maternal thinking and practice. This is evidenced, in particular, in delayed attachment to infants who are sometimes thought of as temporary household ‘visitors’. The detachment can be mortal at times, contributing to the severe neglect of certain infants and to a ‘failure’ to mourn the death of very young babies.

I am not arguing that mother love, as we understand it, is deficient or absent in the threatened little human community of Bom Jesus. Rather, the course of mother love is different, shaped by overwhelming economic and cultural constraints. The discussion attempts to overcome the distinctions between ‘natural’ and ‘socialized’ affects, between ‘deep’ private feelings and ‘superficial’ public sentiments – to show how emotion is shaped by political and economic context as well as by culture. It can be understood as a ‘political economy’ of the emotions.

My analysis and findings challenge the psychological infant attachment and maternal ‘bonding’ theorists and those cultural feminists who argue for a singular conception of women’s goals, interests and moral visions. I am referring to those who emphasize an essentially ‘womanly’ ethic and ethos of maternal responsiveness, attentiveness and caring labor.

Mother love is anything other than natural. Instead it represents a matrix of images, meanings, sentiments and practices that are everywhere socially and culturally produced. In place of the poetics of motherhood I refer to the pragmatics of motherhood; for - to paraphrase Marx – these shantytown women create their own culture, but they do not create it just as they please or under circumstances chosen by themselves.

Love is always ambivalent and
dangerous. Why should we think
that it is any less so between a
mother and her children?

I discovered while working as a medic during the 1960s that it was possible – and hardly difficult – to rescue infants and toddlers from premature death from diarrhea and dehydration by using simple sugar, salt and water solution (even bottled Coca-Cola worked fine at a pinch). It was, however, much more difficult to enlist mothers themselves in the rescue of a child they perceived as ill-fated for life or as better off dead. Eventually I learned to inquire warily before intervening: ‘Dona Maria, do you think we should try to save this child?’ or, even more boldly, ‘Dona Auxiliadora, is this a child worth keeping?’ And if the answer was no, as it sometimes was, I learned to keep my distance.

Love is always ambivalent and dangerous. Why should we think that it is any less so between a mother and her children? And yet it has been the fate of mothers throughout history to appear in strange and distorted forms. Mothers are sometimes portrayed as larger than life, as all-powerful, and sometimes as all-destructive. Or mothers are represented as powerless, helplessly dependent, and angelic. Simultaneously powerful and powerless, it is no wonder that artists, scholars and psychoanalysts can never seem to agree whether ‘mother’ was the primary agent or the primary victim of various domestic tragedies. And so myths of a savagely protective ‘maternal instinct’ compete at various times and places with the myth of the equally powerful, devouring, ‘infanticidal’ mother.

Is this child worth keeping? Sometimes the answer is no. To describe some poor women as aiding and abetting the deaths of certain of their infants can only be seen as ‘victim blaming’. But the alternative is to cast women as passive ‘victims’ of their fate, as powerless, without will, agency or subjectivity. There must be a way to look dispassionately at the problem of child survival and conclude that a child died from mortal neglect, even at her mother’s own hands, without also blaming the mother – that is, without holding her personally and morally accountable.

Related to this is the persistent idea that mothers, all mothers, must feel grief, a ‘depth of sorrow’, in reaction to infant death. Women who do not show ‘appropriate’ grief are judged by psychoanalytic fiat to be ‘repressing’ their ‘natural’ maternal sentiments, to be covering them over with a culturally prescribed but superficial stoicism, or they might be seen as emotionally ravaged, ‘numbed’ by grief and traumatized by shock.

But it was indifference, not numbing shock, that I often observed. Someone who is traumatized does not – as these women do – shrug her shoulders and say cheerily: ‘It’s better the baby should die than either you or me’; and quickly become pregnant because little babies are interchangeable and easily replaced.

One may experience discomfort in the face of profound human differences, some of which challenge our cultural notions of the ‘normal’ and the ‘ethical’. But to attribute ‘sameness’ across vast social, economic and cultural divides is a serious error for the anthropologist, who must begin, although cautiously, from a respectful assumption of difference.

Perhaps there is a middle ground between the two rather extreme approaches to mother love – the sentimentalized maternal ‘poetics’ and the mindlessly automatic ‘maternal bonding’ theorists, on the one hand, and the ‘absence of love’ theorists on the other. Between these is the reality of maternal thinking and practice.

On the Alto do Cruzeiro the birth of
a child is hardly a time of rejoicing.

Alto mothers do sometimes turn away from certain ill-fated babies and abandon them to an early death in which their own neglect sometimes plays a final and definitive part. But maternal indifference does not always lead to death, and should an infant or a toddler show that he has a hidden ‘talent’ for life his mother may greet the ‘doomed’ child’s surprising turnabout with grateful joy and deep lasting affection. And the same ‘neglectful’ mothers can exclaim that they live only for their grown children, some of whom only survive in spite of them. In so doing, these women are neither hypocritical nor self-delusional.

'And so we say that "infants are like little birds" -
here one moment, flying off the next.'

On the Alto do Cruzeiro the birth of a child is hardly a time of rejoicing. Mother love follows a tortured path, often beginning with a rocky start and fraught with many risks, dangers, separations and deaths. On this inhospitable, rocky outcrop mother love grows slowly, tentatively, fearfully. The resilient optimism that allows the mother to greet each new life gives way in the shantytown to dark clouds of pessimism, doubt and despair rooted in the unhappy experience of repeated infant death. ‘Can it be,’ asked Margarita, ‘that Jesus wants me to leave this world without having raised a single living child?’ And so the doubt allows a mother to reject an infant born weak and sickly as a child not worth keeping, a child without a knack for life.

‘What does it mean, really,’ I asked Doralice, an older woman of the Alto who often intervenes in poor households to rescue young and vulnerable mothers and their threatened infants, ‘to say that infants are like birds?’

‘It means that... well, there is another expression you should know first. It is that all of us, our lives, are like burning candles. Any moment we can suddenly “go out without warning”. But for the infant this is even more so. The grown-up, the adult, is very attached to life. One doesn’t want to leave it with ease or without a struggle. But infants are not so connected, and their light can be extinguished very easily. As far as they are concerned, alive or dead, it makes no real difference to them. There is not that strong will to live that marks the big person. And so we say that “infants are like little birds” – here one moment, flying off the next. That is how we like to think about their deaths, too. We like to imagine our dead infants as little winged angels flying off to heaven to gather noisily around the thrones of Jesus and Mary, bringing pleasure to them and hope for us on earth.’

When an infant dies on the Alto do Cruzeiro there is neither great joy nor grief. A mother is likely to suggest that death came as a blessing. ‘I feel free,’ is a common response. This is not to say that women are cold or unfeeling. Often a mother will say: ‘What a pity it is to see them suffer and die’. But pity is distinct from grief. The dead baby or ‘little angel’ is seen as a blameless creature whose future happiness lies in heaven.

All in a row and made to measure: children's coffins in Bom Jesus. Today in Bom Jesus an ‘angel-baby’ is sent to heaven, on average, once every other day. Traditional wakes for infants are brief, rarely lasting more than a couple of hours. There is a minimum of ceremony, there are no songs, prayers or rituals of any kind. Household life goes on as usual around the infant who is usually in a casket on the kitchen table. The baby’s grandmother or godmother is in charge.

One particularly poignant infant wake followed the birthday party of a one-year-old child in the same household. Mariana, the middle-aged mother of the little girl, had purchased a birthday cake with candles, balloons and party favours. The fiesta lasted the better part of a Sunday afternoon and evening and the birthday girl in her ruffled dress was the centre of a great deal of attention.

Meanwhile, Mariana’s 16-year-old daughter, herself the mother of a four-month-old, sat out the festivities. To engage her a bit I asked if I might take a peek at her baby. She led me into a back room where her infant, in an advanced stage of malnutrition, slept deeply. Next morning I was called back for the baby’s wake and burial.

The young mother sat repairing a fishing net. The baby, in her white tunic, decoratively strewn with forget-me-nots, had taken the place of the birthday cake. A few crumbs of cake were still on the table. The previous day’s birthday girl seemed confused by the muted atmosphere so soon after her own animated party. When she demanded to see her infant niece, Mariana carried the child to the table. ‘Baby, baby,’ said the toddler. ‘Yes,’ replied her tired mother, ‘baby is sleeping’, and she leaned over to adjust the infant in her tiny, cardboard coffin.

The strong mandate not to express grief or shed tears for the dead baby is reinforced by the belief that when the infant is in the coffin she is neither human child nor yet blessed little angel. She is struggling to leave this world and find her way into the next. The path is dark. A mother’s tears can make the road slippery so the spirit-child will lose her footing, or the tears will fall on her wings and dampen them so she cannot fly.

In the end it seemed to me that the women of the Alto treat their dead infants as ‘transitional objects’. A mother can ‘let go’ of a young child because she ‘holds on’ to an idealized image of ‘spirit-children’ populating the heavens. ‘Angel-babies’ in heaven substitute for the impossible attachment to half-live babies on earth.

Alto mothers spoke, at first covertly (often lowering their voices and looking about nervously to see who might be in earshot), of a folk syndrome, a cluster of signs and symptoms in the newborn and young baby that are greatly feared and from which mothers (and fathers) recoil. One way or another premature death is on the cards for these babies, and parents hope that it will be a rapid, not particularly ‘ugly’ death.

The symptoms and signs of child sickness refer to a host of serious pediatric conditions that, although not necessarily fatal, are deemed likely to leave the mother with a permanently damaged or severely disabled child: excessively weak or frail, retarded or mad, mute, epileptic, paralytic, crippled – in short, ‘unprepared for life’.

Women say that there are seven, sometimes fourteen or twenty-one, different types of child sickness, each of them subsumed under two main poles: chronic and acute. There is little agreement among women on the identified ‘varieties’ and subtypes. Midwives, praying women and other traditional healers of the Alto recognize many more varieties than do ordinary Alto women.

'Treated, yes, the baby can live,'
agreed Rosália, 'but we do not treat it.'

The chronic sufferers are those infants born small and ‘wasted’. They are often deathly pale babies, mothers say, as well as passive and unresponsive. Such infants demonstrate no vital force or liveliness. They do not suck vigorously. They hardly cry. They are ‘uninterested’ in food and, seemingly, in life itself. These babies die, mothers say, à míngua, of slow and gradual neglect. The term, a colloquialism, specifically indicates a death from wasting. Its literal meaning is to ‘shrink’ or ‘shrivel up’. The same expression is used by women who have been recently abandoned by a husband or a lover. They say that their ‘worst fear’ is that they will be left to die à míngua, abandoned and hungry, wandering the streets like a miserable cur.

At the other, more frightening and extreme pole, are those ‘doomed’ infants who die suddenly and violently. They are often recognized by a red flush or by purple blotches or other marks or discolorations of the skin or fingernails. These babies are given to fits, their little bodies may go into contortions, their backs and necks may become rigid or extended. The infant can be dead before the mother is even aware that anything is wrong. Célia’s fated twin infants, for example, gave her ‘no trouble’ in dying: they simply ‘shook, rolled their eyes to the back of their heads, and were still’.

Although any number of common childhood conditions can reproduce the symptoms of child attack – encephalitis, meningitis, umbilical tetanus – most infants presented as victims of this dreaded and acute disease are babies whose bodies are thrown into shock because of the electrolyte imbalance accompanying severe diarrhea/dehydration. It is the delírio de sede, the ‘madness of thirst’. All of these life-threatening diseases – but especially the madness of thirst – are virulent but medically treatable conditions. And Alto mothers are themselves aware that child-saving interventions exist for such afflicted infants: ‘Treated, yes, the baby can live,’ agreed Rosália, ‘but we do not treat it.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Não adianta,’ was her reply, ‘there’s no use’; even when treated the baby will emerge too damaged.

I still don’t know exactly what prompts a mother or father to conclude their baby is a victim of ‘child sickness’. But sometimes I think of the condemned babies of the Alto as ritual scapegoats, sacrificed in the face of terrible domestic conflicts about scarcity and survival. The Christian notion of the sacrificial lamb seems to be one way of deriving meaning from the otherwise ‘senseless’ assertions women made that their babies had to die.

‘God knows the future better than you or me,’ Zefinha told me during one discussion. ‘If these babies were to live, they would cause much suffering in the mother. Our babies die to save us from pain and suffering, not to give us pain.’

And so a good part of learning how to be a mother on the Alto do Cruzeiro includes knowing when to let go of a child that shows it wants to die. The other part is knowing just when it is safe to let oneself go enough to love a child, to trust him or her to be willing to enter the struggle that is life on earth.


The madness of thirst
Drought images loom large among the people of Bom Jesus. They have a
collective memory of the droughts of 1744, 1790, 1846, 1877 and 1932 – and
personal recollections of the droughts of 1958, 1965 and 1987.

The madness of thirst If there is one raw and vital nerve among Nordestinos, rich and poor alike, it is their horror of drought and thirst.

The people of Bom Jesus worry constantly about their drinking and bathing water, its quantity as well as its quality. Water, like sex, forms the backdrop of daily discourse so that any conversation has a way of veering back to the subject.

The paradox is that Bom Jesus is not located in the parched badlands of the sertão or even in the dry agreste but in the fertile zona da mata, where the rainfall is adequate during the well-defined ‘winter’ (April to August), when fear of drought is replaced briefly by fear of floods. But there is, as well, a long, hot, dry season from September to February – and it is the ‘dry’ not the ‘wet’ that has impressed itself on the populace.

Up through the 1970s the water supply was a large reservoir. The quality was good, although shortages and interruptions in supply increased with modernization as indoor plumbing became the norm for all but the poorest bairros of Bom Jesus.

The marginal bairros residents are dependent on several public water spigots or standpipes, some municipal, some state owned, others privately owned and operated. Only the Alto do Cruzeiro boasts its own community owned and operated spigots, built through the collective efforts of the members of the shantytown association.

Nonetheless there is still scarcity. In 1982 the state water utility company made a decision to supplement reservoir water with water from the local Caparibe River. Most residents of Bom Jesus, rich and poor alike, have long treated the local river as a cesspool and a dump. In addition to the chemical pollution of the river by the sugar industry, local shoe factories dispose of animal carcasses in the river, and the local hospital disposes of many contaminated medical and human wastes there as well.

And so even as elected officials declare the public water supply potable, in the privacy of their own homes all of them drink bottled mineral water, and many have installed elaborate filter systems to purify common bath and dishwater.

By 1986, 70 per cent of the municipal water supply was being provided by the local river during the dry season. The tolerance of the community was fast approaching breaking point.

And so, in 1988, Padre Agostino Leal organized the largest mass demonstration in the recent history of Bom Jesus: a communitywide protest that attracted rich and poor. The demand was clear: clean water – NOW! For a precious brief moment Bom Jesus was united by a common fate, a collectively shared human need.

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