When the Mother Really Cares

Building subjectivity as encounter…between the subject-to-be…and the female body and psyche… Matrixial affects, events, intensities, resonances, and modes of becoming infiltrate the non-conscious margins of the Symbolic.
Bracha L. Ettinger, “The Matrixial Borderspace”, Univ. Of Minnesota Pr. 2006, p. 181

For centuries children were not a priority for the majority of the parents – physical difficulties of survival and the hysterical appeal to God for help were the first tasks to be addressed. Children were perceived as a strange hybrid between a forced luxury and a burdensome necessity of life. In modern times mothers still blinded by poverty and excited by rivalry with men, were ready to work instead of staying home with their children. Today many women prefer to pay other people to look after their children than to sacrifice their jobs, careers, and social success.

Human parents, with rare and for this reason even more admirable exceptions, always felt that adulthood is superior to childhood and that children are naturally of a secondary importance. Because survival of parents, in common sense consciousness, “precedes” the survival of their children (since the destiny of children depends on the destiny of the parents), the adults’ feelings of self-importance in comparison with children was axiomatic. Parents enjoy the feeling of their self-importance before the feelings of dedication to their off-springs. This fact is reflected in history of art – not only the religious paintings of Mary with Child always position the Holy Mother in the center in comparison with the de-centered Child, but even secular paintings of peasant life give preference to centralization of mother over child.

Mary Cassatt is interested in the exceptions from this sad general rule. She is an artist of true motherhood, of motherhood as a spiritual vocation. Too many mothers and fathers are not able to sustain their role as spiritual progenitors. Besides, today’s life that is circled around physical and financial survival/success doesn’t give chance for a contemplated parenthood. The result is what we often see around us – children are left at the mercy of consumption of entertainment and grow up identifying with entertaining characters and amusing things for consumption – they don’t have enough of loving and intelligent contact with parents to identify with adulthood as a role model. Childishness of children is perpetuated by this situation, and dehumanization follows with the naturalness of processed food satisfying hunger and Coke drinks satisfying thirst. In Mary Cassatt’s paintings we see the alternative – the child as goal of mother’s life. Of course, it doesn’t mean mother’s self-elimination in front of the child as an idol/fetish. And, of course, it cannot mean mother’s self-elimination as an authority the child needs to identify with in order to become an adult. This means that mother’s self-interest, her self-consciousness as being more important than child is in a retreat of humility before the importance of this future life she feels obliged to help to develop.

Mary Cassatt’s mothers are really dedicated to the overall well being of their children. The disappearance of the mothers’ faces in Cassatt’s paintings of mother-child togetherness is a metaphor of this unconditional and yet sublimated dedication. Her mothers as if have chosen to subordinate their self-image to the priority of their children’s being.

According to Cassatt, the message of mother’s dedication to the prosperity of her child couldn’t be represented in religious or traditional secular painting because of historically determined narcissistic and megalomaniacal elements of parental psychology. Cassatt prophetically tried to break with tradition to open the way to the parenting of the future when parents, and first of all, mothers, will be able to subordinate their self-centrality to the centrality of the child.


M. Cassatt, “Motherhood II”

Between mother’s kiss (mother’s love and care) and the baby’s interest towards his own body (touching his foot) we see in him this openness – the first steps of human intelligence per se, this freedom to look at nowhere. Because of being completely satisfied by mother, the baby – between his love towards her and his bodily sensations – has this time, this extra-energy for extra-attention for which he hasn’t yet found the object. The painting shows that baby’s intelligence (accumulating in his gaze) is internalized maternal love. The baby’s tranquil interest in the world is its result. Babies who are not satisfied with their mothers will become obsessed either with the external world or with their own sensations and impulses, and are at the risk of becoming as adults either conformists or at the mercy of their compulsions. The mother’s face is turned away from the social recognition because it’s turned towards the baby. It is semantically de-centralized/marginalized through self-elimination for the sake of centralization of the child’s face that symbolizes mother’s dedication. The child’s face is its incarnation.


M. Cassatt, “Mother and Child 3”

In this painting the semantic de-centralization (disappearing) of the mother’s face is going even farther. Mother gives her son a kiss like she gives him her breasts. The warmth of her lips and her hands makes him able to turn away from her to the world while having her protective existence behind him. The baby looks to the direction of the world because he is so pacified by being satisfied that he has this moment of freedom from his needs and from mother’s love and can “invest” this “extra” into the external world. Human intelligence is born like the baby itself, it is a result of mother’s existence and it is a form of benevolent separation from her. Intelligence is the baby of the baby when he got from his mother the chance to learn how to be generous (baby’s tranquil mental concentration on the world is his gift to the world). Intelligence needs a nurturing generosity of the maternal environment, like baby itself.


M. Cassatt, “Mother Louise Holding up Her Blue-Eyed Child”

Here again we don’t see the mother’s face, but the child’s face carries the gaze of intelligence that is free to look at the world. It is from these moments of tranquility of being satisfied by bonding with maternal love that baby’s intelligence – gentle (“unconcealed”) curiosity towards the world can develop as freedom.


M. Cassatt, “Mother and Child”

Mother’s face has disappeared (she has lost her self-centrality, her proud consciousness that she is the possessor of a child, that her status has changed in the eyes of other people). She has stepped back into humility in front of the miracle of the child’s appearance and perfection. Her son is now free to play with his oral satisfaction and with his gaze towards the world. Her care made him liberated for the journey of his development.


Here the absence of mother’s proud self-centrality in relation to the baby (which could crush him with mother’s power of a goddess) has centralized both children. The smaller child looks at the world with a free and wandering gaze but the elder daughter looks at mother’s face turned to her son, at her whole face, not only eyes looking at him. The daughter is as if learning the mystery of love and care. Here, we see two mothers – the present one and the future. We see how the very substance of life is transferred from generation to generation.


M. Cassatt, “Mother and Child”, 1900

Mother’s face has completely disappeared as if to give baby all the energy to start to notice things in the external world. But look at the mother’s face in the mirror – it has lost the adult certainty and sharpness of features. The point, it seems, artist’s intuition makes here, is that of the double disappearance of the maternal face – the one we see in her other paintings also: disappearance in relation to the baby’s presence in mother’s life, and the second one – disappearance of mother’s face in her own self-reflection (of her self-importance) after having given birth to a new existence. Now she recognizes that she is no longer just a human being and a woman, but, first of all, a mother.


M. Cassatt, “Mother Combing Sara’s Hair”

Mother’s face disappears to the point of transformation into a mirror for the daughter. The girl is older and needs not only mother for her well being but mother’s face itself – to learn what it means to be an adult woman capable to love a man and a child (how to be woman and mother not only physically and emotionally but also ontologically) and how to be a human being while being woman and mother. Daughter’s face becomes semantic mirror of the mother’s face.


M. Cassatt, “Maternal Kiss”

The painting shows how maternal kiss can liberate the child, not fixate it on the mother, and liberate child’s intelligence – to be always present in his/her future life, never disappear under the influence of dissatisfied passions or the pressuring presence of external world. That is a political meaning of the efficient mother’s love – to arm a future adult with a permanent presence of inner intelligence that will guarantee that he/she never will become a victim of inner obsessions or of loyalty to insidious external despotism.


Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)