‘Knowing Mothers: Researching Maternal Identity Change’ reviewed by Dr Aparna Mishra Tarc

‘Knowing Mothers. Researching Maternal Identity Change’ by Wendy Hollway (Palgrave, 2015).

knowing mothersEngaging with the transdisciplinary thought and research of Wendy Hollway is always exciting. Hollway exhibits rare courage in her scholarly pursuits, finding an occasion for thinking in under-examined dynamics of human relation enacted in intersubjective processes of identity making, gender relations, caregiving, and maternal subjectivity. Her transdisciplinary scholarly orientation is one that inspires, challenges and provokes scholars to go forth with human studies research that investigates pressing social phenomena and problems for the public good.

In her recent book, Knowing Mothers: Researching Maternal Identity Change, Hollway delves into the complexity of maternal identity to shed light on a deeply subjective time of human existence gravely overlooked in the masculine research domains of mental and physical health and medicine. Her objective is to ‘explore identity transition, specifically the changes involved when women become mothers for the first time’ (p. 3). This inquiry is framed by an ontological and research dilemma: how do we find empirical evidence for such an unspeakable, fleeting, and transitory time in a woman’s lived experience?

Hollway responds to this dilemma through nineteen interview stories shared by first-time mothers residing in a demographically mixed and multicultural suburb, Tower Hamlets, London (UK). Using psychosocial methods of infant-observation, she documents and analyzes changes to identity as experienced and articulated by mothers. Section I of the book provides a framework for the study and a justification of the methods used to conduct it. Section II uses a psychosocial lens to consider the voices of the mothers as they grapple with motherhood for the first time. Section III depicts maternal identity as politically subject to maternal discourse. Overall the text is both insightful and compelling, although, at times, Hollway’s use of multiple psychoanalytic traditions, research genres, and forms of academic writing makes reading a laborious process.

Acutely aware that women’s lived experience of motherhood are enfolded in medicalised discourses of maternity, the researcher struggles to find a language that bears witness to the confusion of multiple identities that overcomes first time mothers. Hollway rightly turns to poetic discourse to represent the voices of mother in the opening pages of her book. However the lyrical rendition of maternal experiences scattered throughout the book cannot completely deliver. Lost in an overly descriptive orientation to free verse is the affective sense of identity confusion that confounds first time motherhood. Ultimately, the researcher is overly dependent on mothers’ words, and thereby captured by dominant and acceptable narratives of motherhood. It might also be the case that psychosocial researchers need to gain, what Gayatri Spivak (1999) refers to as, a ‘trained sense’ of the aesthetics of poetry and other forms of representation in their interpretation and depiction of another person’s felt and lived experience.

In my own work, I find, that when becoming a mother the identity of mother not so much changes but blurs as women become subject to the pressing and interdependent demands of society, their mothers, their babies, and their own regressive memories of a romanticized, needy and/or neglected childhood. In the interest of giving women voice, Hollway aligns too closely to ‘acceptable’ narratives of the maternal tethered to normative words and expectations to describe ‘changed selves’. Adherence to recognizable good and bad narratives mothers use to survive maternity, ironically fails to hear, the confused, splitting, and, at times hateful, conditions of motherhood prohibited, for better and worse, a hearing in the public domain. Psychoanalysis teaches us that while laboring to communicate one’s existence, socialized narratives of being also unwittingly construct a rigid defense against what is unbearable about becoming and being someone, in any time and place. We need analysis, diagnosis, critique, poetry and the other’s words to bring significance to our more unseemly stories of suffering and pleasure. Helping professionals can support mothers to develop a psychoanalytic vocabulary that bears witness to the inner life to give meaning to an overly affective time in their live that overwhelms one’s capacity to dream, be, and think.

I found it difficult to reconcile my own identity as a woman and mother, and memories of my mother when reading someone else’s experience of becoming one. This researcher tension is one Hollway notes but does not attend to as psychoanalytically as might be needed. Constructs of transference and identity breakdown are solely missing in the framework of analysis drawing insight from the mother’s narratives of identity. Lacking is a construction of maternal identity based on a sustained analysis of the less evident dynamics of relationship between mother and infant. A key element of infant observation in the maternal relation, as child analyst Melanie Klein (1952) says, involves unraveling (rather than only presenting) the details of the emotionally fraught communication transferred between baby and mother. For Klein, the mother’s expressions of conflict and experiences of breakdown in her identity formation are read as an effect of her confused and confusing identifications, or lack of, with the infant. The mother’s identification, or lack of can also be read in the infant’s first efforts to communicate with the mother or in the infant’s behaviors expressing her need. The mother’s identity alterations arise from her capacity or incapacity to make identification with the baby. This capacity or incapacity then is used by her, and outside observers, in their external ‘assessments’ of the caregiving abilities of a person called mother. Infant and/or maternal analysis requires some extraordinary acts of speculation because, as demonstrated by Klein, startling findings arrive when the researcher boldly labors to read the inner communicating lives of mothers with their babies.

Holding the researcher back, I sense, is a quiet worry around legitimacy, materializing in running records, caveats and explanations about the research process. At times the heady mix of dense theoretical insights, researcher reflections, and mothers’ narratives blocks the possibility of psychoanalytic insight. With its wish to give evidence, Hollway’s methods for conducting research are still sociological, and not quite psychoanalytic as Freud laments in his most famous psychosocial study of human life, Civilization and its Discontents. Maybe the development of a psychosocial qualitative method for studying affective dimensions of human experience faces all those who try to bring an already suspect psychoanalysis into the scientifically-inflected domains of human care health, politics, law, and, education. Researchers of less-evident human processes and relation are still perhaps bound up in the academic and scientific communities demands for evidence. This demand, I might argue, seems to only lead the human studies researcher further and father afield of affect and inner and social life. What we create instead is a strange amalgam of anxious research that is both overly constrained and unscientific, in a word, unconvincing.

Those of us committed to engaging psychosocial research need to make a stronger case for non- and less evident forms of interpretive practice, as used by the analyst. The academic community’s demand for evidence in the standard ways might not apply to those studies interested in examining the very complex and intersubjective processes of human relation. As with the mothers’ worries about being good enough for their babies in the study, we might stop worrying that we, and our work and findings are not scientific enough for our disciplines. We can resist falling back on narrow parameters of scholarly training that inevitably eludes our profound need to inquire into intrasubjective phenomena attesting to the human being’s rightful experience to convey the ragged contours of a deeply affected live. When doing this kind of research we need to, at times, speculate with confidence, and be brave enough to stretch beyond the rigidly cultured and proof driven aims of our academic colleagues, training and commitments.

Transdisciplinary scholars and helping professionals can take important lessons from Hollway’s carefully documented research journey. From an extraordinary humility embedded in between the lines of the researcher’s running reflections, we learn of the immense constraints of evidence-based research when examining embodied and affective subjectivities in flux, conflict, breakdown, and relation. We can also learn to trust our instincts and veer off the course of our trained methods in the interest of forging difficult analytic exercises when engaging with the intrasubjective emotional and inner lives of mothers and infants. The researcher’s openly articulated struggles in the field contribute new and important knowledge of the difficulty in not only studying, but making sense of the other’s lived expression.

Above all, Hollway offers researchers and helping professionals a place to start in the development of a psychosocial approach to researching the less evident realms of human intra-and intersubjectivity. For its sensitive scholarly attention to representing maternal time in the voices of women who are first time mothers, Hollway’s book is remarkable and ground breaking. Disregarding the ontological fact of one’s birth relived in the minds and bodies of mothers, maternity continues to find little traction in intellectual, academic and medical thought and practice. As Hollway depicts in her interwoven and richly detailed narratives of mothers, that despite human rights and legal advances, women continue to be subject to the oppressive mandates of the social world whose clamor and threat to ‘best’ raise the child ignores, what psychoanalysis deems to be, the most vital and potent time in a person’s life: infancy in the arms of one’s mother. Our attention to maternal subjectivities is critical to the developing person’s health, wellbeing, and meaningful potential to live justly and ‘just live’ in a world of others. From a sustained and rigorous attention to this fleeting time we might, as Jacqueline Rose (2002) argues, reorient becoming a mother and motherhood as a shared societal responsibility of the anxiety marking an incredible and nearly forgotten time articulating our fragile, needy, and dream-like beginnings. Wendy Hollway’s book begins to chart out the deeply affecting grounds of such a vital responsibility of families, of helping professionals, of knowledge makers, and of society. Knowing mothers movingly poses maternal responsibility as vital to the health and wellbeing of a shared humanity residing ever more uneasily in a rapidly changing world.

Reviewed by Aparna Mishra Tarc, Associate Professor at York University (Toronto, Canada). 

Correspondence to Dr Aparna Mishra Tarc

Works cited:

Freud, S. [1930] 2004. Civilization and its discontents. New York: Penguin.

Klein, M. 1952. The origins of transference. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 33: 433-438.

Rose, J. 2012. Of knowledge and mothers: On the work of Christopher Bollas. In J. Scalia (Ed,), Disseminations: Psychoanalysis in Contexts: The Vitality of Objects: Exploring the work of Christopher Bollas (pp. 108-125). London: SAGE publications Ltd.

Spivak, G. 1999. A critique of postcolonial reason. Towards a history of the vanishing present. Boston: Harvard University Press.







Freud, S. (1930/2004). Civilization and its discontents. (Trans. D. McLintock) New York: Penguin


Klein, M. (1952). The origins of transference. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 33: 433-438.


Rose, J. (2012). Of knowledge and mothers: On the work of Christopher Bollas. In J. Scalia (Ed,), Disseminations: Psychoanalysis in Contexts: The Vitality of Objects: Exploring the work of Christopher Bollas (pp. 108-125). London: SAGE publications Ltd.


Spivak, G. (1999). A critique of postcolonial reason. Towards a history of the vanishing present. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press



Reviewed by Dr. Aparna Mishra Tarc

Associate Professor

Faculty of Education

York University, Toronto








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