The Wire Mother
On my first day of graduate school, the dean of the clinical psychology program assembled all of the new students in an airless basement classroom. “Look at the person on your left; now look to your right,” he instructed us.
I felt my face go hot. I remembered this scene from The Paper Chase. Our dean was taking the John Houseman role, warning us as the ship steamed out of the harbor that only two-thirds of us would remain afloat to disembark when it arrived at its destination.
I knew I would be one of those jettisoned. My only real qualification for being here, I felt, was my experience as a patient. After years of juggling bill-paying but unrewarding “day jobs,” stimulating but unlucrative acting pursuits, and failed attempts to write a coherent novel, I had stumbled into therapy and absorbed its language as though it were my true, but forgotten, mother tongue. Earlier, I had read Freud primarily for his astute observations on Shakespeare and Goethe; in my therapy sessions I experienced the symbolic meanings of dreams, slips of the tongue, and acting out of unconscious impulses as living, interactive poetry. I became convinced that psychology was my true vocation.
I had focused my ambition on this highly competitive program because it was the one my own therapist had attended, though she had had a baby while writing her dissertation and had never graduated. My acceptance, despite my lack of conventional qualifications, seemed like a sign from the universe that I was on the right course.
Now, though, as I sat surrounded by youth, focused intelligence, and cheery certitude, it seemed more probable that I had been taken on as ballast—providing a measure, or at least the appearance, of balance, but ultimately disposable. The poised young woman on my right, who had casually mentioned her undergraduate internship assisting a world-renowned researcher, seemed destined to thrive. So did the lanky man on my left, who had already secured a coveted, paying field placement.
The two of them even looked more legitimate than I did. She was dressed in casual but chic twill pants and a silk T-shirt; he wore perfectly tailored khakis and a soft blue shirt. They could have been illustrations in a graduate students’ dress-for-success manual. My carefully chosen coral skirt and sweater, which had looked fine at home this morning, now made me feel like a giant blotch of cotton candy. I suppressed the urge to fold my arms across my chest, to make myself smaller. At least, I reflected, I was unlikely to succumb to the fate of my brilliant but uncredentialed therapist. Over the past several years, I had suffered a series of spontaneous abortions for which no medical cause had been found. One elderly male gynecologist had admonished me, “You career girls do this to yourselves. You want to do everything men do—maybe you want to be men. When you’re ready to grow up and be a mother, you won’t have this problem.” The more enlightened woman I was seeing now had suggested that exhaustion and overwork might be contributing factors. Maybe one day I would manage to slow down enough to bring a pregnancy to term, but clearly that wasn’t going to happen here. I would drown on my own demerits.
I scanned the room, wondering who was destined to sink with me, and locked eyes with a woman who seemed to be in her thirties, like me, and whose frozen face mirrored my panic.
The dean gave a hearty chortle, startling us both. “Relax, I’m joking,” he said. “In our entire history, only two people have failed out, and those were extraordinary circumstances. We make our admissions process so rigorous to be sure we get the right students to begin with. Once you’re in, it’s smooth sailing—if you’re here, it means you belong here.” He paused for effect. “And one more thing—none of this ‘Dr. Fishman’ nonsense. It’s Michael. We’re all in this together.”
I tried to take a deep breath, but there was still no air in the room, and as I looked into “Michael’s” eyes, they weren’t laughing.
When he released us, I sought out my compatriot in terror. I learned that her name was Renee. Like me, she had come to the program after a previous career—in her case, a small business she co-owned with her husband, Robert. Unlike me, she had children—two sons.
Over the next several days, I found myself reflecting that perhaps Renee’s experience dealing with immature, self-centered individuals gave her a social edge here. Although her eyes registered astonishment when a professor informed us that the IQ measures we were learning were “culture neutral,” because “all intelligent people know who Amelia Earhart was,” or when a white classmate boasted of having been accepted “the hard way—you know, without affirmative action,” she simply shrugged and went about her business. I envied her sense of proportion. I felt like a hypersensitive child myself, overstimulated and overreacting to everything, always a step away from tears, without a coherent or organized response to what I was seeing and hearing.
I invited Renee and her sons home to meet my husband, Bill. Before long, they were frequent guests at our apartment. Chris was an aspiring pianist who was so insightful and comfortable with adult conversation I sometimes forgot I was talking to a nine-year-old. Andy, at five, was bubbly and engaging and addicted to knock-knock jokes. Bill and I hoped we would be so lucky with our own kids.
We waited for a return invitation, or at least an introduction to her husband, but none were forthcoming. Instead, Renee would say things like, “We really want to have you over when things calm down,” citing ongoing renovations to their house and her husband’s impossible work schedule now that he was running the business on his own.
I felt vaguely insulted. I wondered whether Renee felt we just weren’t important or interesting enough to meet Robert. Or perhaps, I thought, he was an antisocial loner, or a workaholic.
The semester quickly accelerated into such a haze of anxiety and exhaustion that I no longer had the mental energy to wonder about Robert. In addition to keeping up with our course work, each week we were expected to put in two full days at a field placement (mine was at an inner-city hospital a two-hour subway commute from my home); to perform a series of psychological tests on a volunteer we had recruited ourselves and to write up the results (usually entailing frantic last-minute phone calls, bribes of brownies, and all-night transcription and interpretation sessions); and to attend case conferences where more advanced students presented their clinical work and were advised by their peers and professors. The primary focus of my existence became balancing the need to imbibe enough caffeine to stay awake with the requirement that I spend more time in class and at work than in the bathroom.
In a dynamics of behavior class we studied religious cults and paramilitary groups that use sleep deprivation and inundation with propaganda to break down defenses and secure unquestioning loyalty to the groups’ principles and leadership. Perhaps this phenomenon helps to explain why, at the time, I didn’t connect certain experiences and incidents.
In a case conference, a third-year student presented a child client who, although bright, was a chronic underachiever. His mother was concerned that his lower-than-expected scores on standardized tests might bar him from a program for gifted children that she thought would be a good fit for him, and had inquired about assessment for possible learning disabilities. Both the presiding professor and the more advanced students immediately pounced on the “hovering” mother as the cause of the child’s academic problems. “These privileged suburban moms,” one student commented. “They try to live through their kids, and they end up crippling them.”
A few weeks later, though, at a psychology staff meeting at the public hospital where I did my field placement, a therapist expressed frustration with mothers who “dumped” their medically ill children in the hospital and visited infrequently. “I’m supposed to be treating the kid for depression, but if the mom would just bother to show up and give her a hug once in a while, she wouldn’t be depressed!” Another therapist pointed out that the mother in question had other young children to care for, but the first wasn’t having it: “There has to be some accountability! She’s the mother!” So not hovering wasn’t the answer, either. No one mentioned a father, or what his accountability might be.
I asked Frank, a genial, insightful fellow student, how he handled it when his one-year-old daughter was sick. “Fortunately,” he said, “my wife has a pretty flexible schedule.” His wife, Mimi, was finishing up social work school. They hoped to go into practice together. “She would have liked to come here, too, but the time commitment is too great,” he told me. Another classmate, Kevin, talked expansively about the joys of fatherhood. When his wife and child attended a department party, she chased their toddler around the un-childproofed house while he talked theory with professors and fellow students.
In a child development class, we read about Harry Harlow’s classic “wire mother” experiments on rhesus monkeys. In one study, he separated baby monkeys from their mothers and divided them into two groups. Both groups were given “surrogate mothers”—machines that dispensed milk. One “mother” was constructed of cuddly terry cloth; the other of bare wire mesh. The monkeys with the cuddly “mothers” developed fairly normally; the ones with the wire “mothers” developed severely impaired social and attachment skills. The teacher explained that the human corollary to
Harlow’s “wire mother” was the “refrigerator mother,” who provides basic care and sustenance, but no emotional warmth. This maternal behavior, we learned, was thought to be responsible for most cases of childhood autism. (I did wonder what the “human corollary” was to the scientist who purposefully breaks up intact families and creates mental illness just to study it, but I couldn’t think of a way to phrase my question that didn’t sound disrespectful and provocative.)
At another case conference, shortly afterward, a student presented a young woman who had sought counseling to deal with depression following a miscarriage. The student noted that the client appeared anxious and laughed inappropriately. The focus of the discussion shifted to the “hysteria” that may have caused the miscarriage to begin with. It was well known, I learned, that women who are not emotionally mature enough for parenthood, or who are riddled with ambivalence, often unconsciously create a womb environment that is toxic to their fetuses.
This was essentially what the doctor who had accused me of wanting to be a man—the individual my friends and I laughingly referred to as “the misogynist gynecologist”—had said, though with a Freudian twist. Now, it seemed that he was on to something, that the joke had been on us—on me. Accommodating this idea proved even harder than staying up all night writing test reports.
When Renee started coming late to morning classes, often looking disheveled, I assumed at first that the long hours and emotionally draining material were getting to her, too. It soon became evident, though, that something more serious was going on.
She started missing class with alarming frequency. When she did show up, she was distracted and unprepared. Members of her research lab exchanged barely veiled sneers whenever her name was mentioned. At our apartment, more often than not, she would fall asleep on the couch, leaving us to entertain the boys. Chris started lodging complaints about the dryness of my brownies, the uncomfortableness of our furniture, and the fact that we didn’t have cable. Andy cornered our elderly cat and pulled her ears. I wondered whether my urge to expel them all and read and work in peace was a symptom of the immaturity that had apparently driven my miscarriages.
I had always thought I loved children. I was truly fond of Chris and Andy. But it was the life of the mind, the study of the deeply symbolic and poetic language of analysis that had drawn me to graduate school and to the goal of membership in an intellectual community. Despite her first-rate mind, Renee was bogged down in a messy, earthbound existence that I had limited tolerance for, and that seemed to doom her to second – rate achievement.
Yet I also envied her. Nothing about Renee was prissy, or scared of the corporeal aspects of life. She was at home in the physical world. She had borne two children and nourished them with her body. She drove a van equipped with a child seat and Raffi tapes. She carried band-aids and dried fruit in her capacious handbag. She was a real woman. My teachers, on the other hand—all men except for one childless woman—were real intellectuals who didn’t waste mental energy on such trivia as runny noses or clean socks. I was nothing, caught in the middle: ashamed of my weakbrained desire for a child, ashamed of my unwomanly inability to carry one to term.
I wanted to rescue Renee, but I felt I was drowning myself. The least I could do, I thought, was type up her overdue lab reports. It never happened, though, because she couldn’t find her notes.
Another classmate, a woman named Cassie, started complaining of flu-like symptoms. Soon she was sporting outsized tops and secret smiles. Within weeks, fellow students were calling her “Little Mama” and rubbing her belly in passing. She seemed to enjoy the attention. But her complex and sometimes confusing comments, which had previously sparked probing questions and intense discussions, were now met with indulgent smiles. Or maybe that was just my imagination.
At a holiday party on the last day of the semester, I stood near a cluster of third-year students who watched as Cassie loaded her plate at the buffet table. “Classic case of self-defeating behavior,” Gerard observed, and the others nodded. At my blank look, he explained, “She’s afraid of success. Or she doesn’t believe she has what it takes, so she found a face-saving way out.”
“How do you know it didn’t just happen, and now she’s dealing with it?” I asked.
The group laughed. “You’ve been here half a year, and you still believe in accidents?”
On our first day back, as I passed Michael’s open door, I saw Renee slumped across from him. She looked like she was trying not to cry. His face was unreadable.
“I’m on probation,” she reported tonelessly over lunch. Out of five courses, she had received three incompletes.
“We’ve got to get you organized,” I said.
She stood up. “Let’s go for a walk.”
As we traversed the running track, she told me that Robert was not running their business. The business was in bankruptcy. Robert was dying, of AIDS. He was at home, demented, running outside naked, screaming curses at the boys. A succession of home health aides had walked out with little or no notice. Chris had started pulling out his eyebrows.
I had learned the protocol for interviewing people with AIDS and their families at my field placement. It was most important, I knew, not to open with questions about how the disease had been contracted. Such a line of inquiry could suggest that the interviewer would consider and treat an active homosexual or IV drug user differently from an “innocent victim” such as a transfusion patient. I opened my mouth, intending to say something mature and comforting, and instead blurted out, “How did this happen?” Renee fixed me with the stare she usually reserved for our most clueless classmates.
“That’s private,” she said, “but the boys and I are all right.” Which was, of course, the answer to the question I should have asked.
Michael, the dean, had urged us repeatedly to consult him about any problems, any complications that interfered with our studies. “I’m on your side,” he had assured us.
“You have to tell him,” I said now.
She went on to tell me that Robert had been diagnosed the summer before school started. Renee, feeling that she needed time to absorb the news and make plans for the business, had asked to defer entering for a year. Michael was sympathetic, but told her that the school would not be able to hold a place for her. “I decided to go ahead with it,” she said. “I’m going to need a way to make money. The life insurance isn’t going to put the boys through college. I have to make this work.”
But “have to” wasn’t translating into “can.” I asked what the department was doing to help her out.
“Not kicking me out on my ass, at least not yet. Other than that. . . ?” She shrugged.
“It’s the wire mother,” I said. She looked at me blankly. “You know, the monkey gets just enough to stay alive, but not what it needs to be okay.” But she had missed that lecture.
At home that night, Bill and I talked over the possibility of inviting Renee’s boys to stay with us, at least part time. How could we just stand by and watch the family sink? On the other hand, as Bill pointed out, how could I justify jeopardizing my own academic career, which we had already gone into serious debt to finance?
I wondered what would happen if Kevin’s wife, or Frank’s, were to be taken ill. I imagined mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, cousins, aunts rushing to the rescue. They wouldn’t be expected to handle their children alone, especially with the pressures of graduate school. Renee’s family had “other things to deal with,” she told me, and Robert’s was too incapacitated with shock and grief to be of much use.
In the end, I made a vague, open-ended offer to take over the boys’ care “whenever you need a break.” Renee thanked me, but never took me up on it. Perhaps my reluctance was too transparent, or maybe, I thought, she and the boys were all too aware of my maternal shortcomings.
In May, Cassie had her baby. I sent a stuffed bear, and she called to thank me. “So, when are you coming back?” I asked.
“I’m not sure I can,” she answered. “I can make up the work from this semester, but I can’t do the summer testing placement, and they won’t let me register for the fall without it. Maybe next year.” Despite her obvious joy in her new son, she sounded diminished to me; uncharacteristically unsure of herself.
I saw Robert for the first time that August, at his open-casket funeral. Renee was exhausted, but calm. “I’m going half time in the fall,” she told me.
In our program, “half time” was a netherworld populated entirely by mothers, from which no exit was visible. In entering this limbo, Renee was dooming herself to a minimum of six more years of course work. And that was just the beginning. After fulfilling academic requirements, clinical psychology students were required to complete a strenuous year-long internship. Most of the mothers needed to do this part time, too—and so few sites offered this option that some ended up taking a year off while awaiting placement. The official line was that they would write their dissertations during this year, but that seldom happened.
After graduation came a year’s supervised clinical practice (or the equivalent in part-time hours) before we could sit for the state licensing exam that, if we passed (and many didn’t the first time out), would allow us to work as entry-level psychologists. It was hard to see how Renee’s choice would promote her goal of feeding her family and sending the boys to college. “Crap,” I said, and once again was the recipient of her stare.
Because of course it wasn’t a choice. She had made up most of her first – semester incompletes, but had fallen behind again during Robert’s last illness. She would not be allowed to continue in the full-time program.
A few weeks later, our first week back in class, I missed my period.
The beginning of every previous pregnancy in my married life had been imbued with joy and hope. Even with a history of losses, Bill and I had invested each occasion with the conviction that this was the “real baby,” the one we were meant to have, and so this would be the one to survive. This optimism would last right up until the cramps and bleeding. Then we would admit that we had done it to ourselves again.
For the first time, though, I wasn’t sure I wanted this to be happening. Or, as I told myself, I was finally bringing my internal conflicts about parenting, the ones that had destroyed the earlier fetuses, into consciousness. It wasn’t just that if I had a baby I would never become a psychologist. I now doubted my ability to function as a parent. I loved reading too much. I loved ideas. I was selfish and tactless and immature and got upset when Andy wiped his nose on my sofa. Even as desperate as Renee was, she wouldn’t leave me in sole charge of her children. The best I could hope for, if by some fluke I managed to deliver a live baby, would be to serve as a wire mother myself. Who would wish that on a child?
But my dreams—the pathways to the unconscious mind, I’d been taught—were imbued with baby grins, with birthday parties and bedtime stories. I woke up one morning with scratched and bloody arms and a vague memory of trying to cradle the cat. Whenever a baby appeared on television, even if I was just passing through the room, I would stop, mesmerized, completely losing track of the task I had been intent on. And when the cramping began, one Friday evening just three weeks after my period was due, I was once again swept into a whirlpool of loss, dull despair, and longing for the child whose face, whose tiny fingers, I would never see.
That Monday as I walked back into the student lounge, newly empty, and watched my fellow students chattering and studying, I felt completely alone and rudderless. My books and ideas were cold comfort against the dream smiles and hugs that now haunted my nights. Yet I couldn’t deny my dread of being relegated to steerage with the other exhausted, self-sacrificing moms, and my relief at being spared. I was a mongrel, a faulty vessel, and there was no place in either world—in any world—where I was likely to find a harbor.
I thought of Harlow’s motherless monkeys, frightened, alone, unable to function effectively in the world. Renee was the barrier between her children and the fate of those monkeys—but who was looking out for Renee? The stability of society, it seemed, depended on the willingness of an entire class of people to sacrifice their own needs and desires in order to nurture and comfort others.
My “misogynist gynecologist” had been right, after all. I wanted to be a man. I wanted to live a full life, to pursue my interests, and to love and enjoy my children as Freud had done, as Harry Harlow himself had done, as my male teachers did.
My classmate Kevin came in with pictures of his son’s second birthday party. I hovered on the edge of the cluster of admirers, taking in the silly hats, broad grins, and ominous scowls; the handcrafted cake; the row of mothers in the background half light, poised to wipe away the tears, to kiss the boo-boos, to make it all better for everyone else.
“Parenthood,” he crowed. “There’s nothing like it!”