Parenting, particularly parenting in the early years, is a peculiarly lonely business. It isn’t hard to find reasons for that: the change in priorities that comes along with parenting can disrupt established relationships. It’s hard to see other people, to maintain old friendships or activities whilst working around the needs of a small baby. But there is a loneliness that’s more intrinsic to the task than these explanations allow for.
I felt this most acutely after the birth of my second child. With just one child, our lives had retained at least a veneer of structure, a regular rhythm of sleep and meals, work and friends. With the arrival of a second baby, the chaos we’d been keeping at bay got the better of us. My best efforts at imposing structure or sociability on our days only seemed to highlight our fundamental isolation as a unit. I came to dread the door closing after my partner left for the day. I cried a lot. Sometimes I read books to the baby while I cried. Sometimes the baby watched the washing machine while I cried. Sometimes we both cried. In retrospect I can see I was probably mildly depressed, but at the time I didn’t know how to ask for help. I know now my experience was not uncommon: in a 2018 survey of U.K. mothers found that 43 percent of mothers under thirty (which I was not) described themselves as always or often lonely.
The puzzling aspect of the loneliness of parenthood is that it is compatible with the constant company of the baby. Why is the company of an infant unable to assuage this loneliness? To be sure, we could list things the baby cannot do that another adult could: make tea, help with chores, laugh at your jokes, ask questions, compliment your outfit. But the problem goes deeper than that.
My son’s eyes would seek my face, and light up when they saw it. But was it me he was seeing? It takes a few months for a baby to develop the ability to distinguish objects from background, to tell apart the furniture from the wall, the animals from the sky. Emotionally that takes much longer: he couldn’t see the edges of me at all. I filled his field of vision so entirely it rendered me invisible. Parents form a kind of background to our emotional lives, like non-playable characters in a computer game: present, instrumental, but not fully inhabited from the inside.
Seeking reassurance during that first year of parenting two, I turned to the work of the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. He is perhaps best known for his concept of the “good-enough mother,” the caregiver who, through sometimes failing and frustrating their child, ultimately facilitates the development of the child’s ability to cope with their own finitude in an imperfect world. But I was more taken by a quite different short piece of his, “Hate in the Counter-Transference.” In it, Winnicott lists eighteen reasons why the mother hates her baby. The eighth reason is that “he is ruthless, treats her as scum, an unpaid servant, a slave.” It was an extreme way of putting it, but it resonated. I had two children under three, and their needs were, appropriately, very high. Equally appropriately, neither of them were capable of seeing the work that went in to caring for them: the discomfort of holding them in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time, the desperate exhaustion of getting up again in the night after falling back asleep only twenty minutes before, the hunger because the baby needed to feed and it couldn’t wait, the endless need to help them manage the business of pissing and shitting.
Still, it seemed facile to designate the child’s natural reliance on the parent, burdensome as it might be, as a form of slavery. You don’t treat someone as a slave just because you fail to say thank you, or make a lot of demands on them because you cannot do otherwise. To the extent I could make sense of Winnicott’s claim, it came from an interpretation of slavery in Hegelian terms, as at root a failure of recognition.
I’d had an intense sort of love affair with Hegel about a decade earlier, while studying philosophy at Oxford. It was grounded in a youthful conviction that some elements of Hegel’s thought made sense of almost everything. Though that now seemed absurd to me, and the initial passion was past, its tendrils (like the tendrils of a relationship with anyone really problematic) ran deep in me still.
I first studied Hegel with Mike Inwood, an immensely kind man who died in 2022. He’d been at Oxford long enough that he didn’t have a Ph.D.—he hadn’t needed one to be hired as a don at the time. His office smelt strongly of the pipe he smoked even during tutorials, until it became illegal to smoke indoors, and we sat in the shadow of the slag heaps of unshelved books that slid chaotically downwards, their fall slowed by pages of crumpled essays from generations of past students. He drank vast quantities of instant coffee, sometimes pouring hot water directly into the last granules of an almost empty jar and drinking it straight from there. My essays were returned stiffened by coffee stains and sometimes printed on the back of other students’ work: I could read half of the scribbled feedback intended for them and they had some of mine.
Mike and I talked a lot about slavery in our sessions. Slavery in ancient Greece, Mike reflected, mightn’t really be so bad, not if you were a slave who served as a scribe for instance, to an educated or scholarly owner like Plato. There was a wistful note to his voice. His vision of slavery sounded like an academic’s fantasy of their best life: gentle constraint by a benign and intelligent supervisor who appreciated the activity of one’s mind while meeting the needs of one’s body. Our supervisions ended at lunchtime, when Mike sloped over to the Senior Common Room for his meal.
The pretext for all the talk of slavery was Hegel’s master-slave dialectic. I wasn’t even sure what the master-slave dialectic really was, which was probably part of what made it so alluring. It occurs at a few points in Hegel’s writing, most famously in the Phenomenology of Spirit and then again in the Philosophy of Mind. At first it reads almost like a fable, a description of a fundamental truth about the nature of personhood and how we relate to one another. In the Philosophy of Mind, it sometimes comes across more like a story of ontogenetic psychological development, at other times as a description of a kind of necessary stage in the evolution of civil society. I understood it in the first instance as providing an answer to the question: What does it take to be a person (or, in Hegel’s terms, to achieve “self-consciousness”)? Hegel’s approach is rooted in the social: we need others to constitute us as people. We need them to recognize us as equals: to see us as the sort of thing that could in turn offer them recognition.
I recognized some version of that claim from school, when it could feel like you didn’t really exist at all if your peers didn’t acknowledge you, and seek in turn for you to acknowledge them. The trouble is that, like the playground bully, we have in us the urge to dominate those around us who could give us that recognition—to obliterate their otherness and subdue the risks it poses to us by integrating them into ourselves, by violent domination or by consumption. Domination looks like a tempting shortcut to having others recognize us as people, but it’s doomed to fail, because it destroys the possibility of true recognition between acknowledged equals. Hegel imagines two subjects, locked in a struggle to the death for domination over one another. The master is the seeming victor in this struggle; the slave is subservient to him and must work to meet his needs. But the master’s apparent success is an illusion: his domination of the slave, and refusal to treat him as an equal, has robbed him of the possibility of the recognition he sought. Those dominated, or consumed, are unable to provide us with the sought-after recognition, which can come only from someone we recognize as an equal. As the playground bully knows, it’s lonely at the top.
When discussing slavery with Mike, I’d been taken with the ways in which adult relationships could contain this dynamic—relationships between men and women, or between colonizer and colonized, as Simone de Beauvoir and Franz Fanon each understood. It resonated with aspects of my own romantic relationships, and some of the more problematic dynamics between teachers and students I’d witnessed, dynamics from which Mike, with his lack of a need for domination, seemed curiously exempt. Now grappling with the loneliness of parenthood, I saw a version of the dynamic in my relationship with my children. One of the peculiarities of a relationship with a baby is that it is a relationship devoid of recognition. Both mother and child need to develop the capacity to recognize the other. But doing so is a developmental achievement, and one that involves risk on both sides, risks it can be tempting to subsume by treating the other as an extension of ourselves.
Newborns naturally “mouth” their hands when hungry, sucking on them and rubbing them over their mouths. In the very early days of his life, I struggled to prise my baby’s hands away from his mouth long enough to insert my breast in their place. The onanistic pleasure of his own fat fingers was guaranteed. What I could offer, though ultimately more sustaining, came at the price of a moment of vertigo, sitting with an absence and trusting that another body would fill it, an experience of vulnerability to another’s fickle willingness to satisfy his hunger. Safer for him to understand me instead, as far as possible, as an extension of his own self, to try to ignore the ways in which I was not under his control.
This invisibility could be gratifying: when they were small my children’s uniquely nonjudgmental relationship with my body was a source of comfort to us both. Now they are old enough to tell me that my bottom is big, or that my tummy is squashy. But the succor they found in breastfeeding was evaluation-free. In the morning my youngest would loll in bed beside me, lazily twiddling the nipple he was about to feed from, or stroking my arm, or fitting his short stubby finger into my tummy button. Once he was mobile, if he saw me getting dressed and spied the milk bar he would follow me around the house insistently, repeatedly saying “nomynomynomy,” until I caved in and fed him. I was his personal dairy herd, and he would generously stuff fragments of half-eaten food into my mouth with the same abandon he did his own. He gave me license to be nothing but animal, because he couldn’t see me as anything else.
I’ve sometimes found a strong allure in the idea of joining a religious order. There’s an appealing simplicity in the idea of organizing one’s life around some overarching vocation. At points, motherhood tempts me with some version of that: the possibility of becoming nothing but Mother, the relief of surrendering my will to the will of my children, under the guise of servitude to some nobler calling. Mike’s wistfulness for the life of the scholarly slave now made more sense: part of me wanted to give in to the baby’s invitation to become his vassal.
But just as surely, another part of me wanted to manage the threat of his potential independence by subsuming him into myself. It was tempting to treat the baby as a prop for my own narratives of motherhood rather than as an independent person in his own right. But babies give no quarter to our preconceived ideas of what mothering them will be like: my first child disabused us rapidly of any notion he would be cradled peacefully in our arms. He would only settle with an ungainly and exhausting routine of constant motion—jiggling and bouncing—that artistic representations of moments of peaceful connection between mother and child had left me wholly unprepared for. With my second, some of the loneliness came from his equally unexpected self-sufficiency, his willingness to watch the washing machine for long periods of time—handy for making a cup of tea, but hadn’t I imagined before he was born that I’d be just a little more center stage, that all this would be, well, more about me?
And that’s the first reason Winnicott gives for the mother’s “hatred” of the child: “the baby is not her own (mental) conception.” On the one hand that is what makes a child so genuinely amazing: their potential to surprise us with their development, their unfurling beyond what we know or could imagine. It is also what makes the child infuriating: the disconnect between my imagination and their reality, between my desires and theirs; their uncanny ability to need something just as I finally sit down to eat.
My children are not babies any longer, but we are both still negotiating this same tension between a desire for recognition as a distinct person, and a resistance, perhaps born of terror, to recognizing the other’s independence. A significant part of my job as a parent is to be the witness—look mum, no hands! But the independence that makes me capable of offering that recognition is also a threat to the child: with separateness comes the potential for absence, for evaluation, for loss. “Play with me!” demands my four-year-old, but he becomes frustrated when I don’t do so in just the way he wants. In exasperation he has to tell me just what to say, and just where to drive the toy car, to exactly the places he intends it to go, and my god it’s boring at times. Except I once heard someone say that when children say they’re bored, they often mean they’re lonely, and I suspect that just the same is true of parents. It’s a loneliness born of a sense that I’m disappearing on myself, with only his will left in my place.
My child would be lord of everything if he could only have his way, but then again, so would I: I catch myself wanting to control my children in similar ways. The first time my older child surprised me by telling a joke I was delighted. Knock knock. Who’s there? Ivor Dunnup. Ivor Dunnup who? I asked unwittingly. The twentieth time he told the same joke I was exasperated. I want him to make jokes, I want to be surprised by his jokes, but on some level I also want them to be only the jokes I want him to make, when I want him to make them. In these moments I want him not to be himself, with his delight in all things scatological and a child’s tolerance for endless repetition, but instead to be an adult in miniature, some brilliant marionette of my own making.
It’s a sad fact that no one will ever find me as funny as my children did when they were very small. Their laughter was like a drug and I would abase myself in public by doing absurd things to conjure it—they laughed like drains when I showed them how I could put carrot sticks in my ears. Now the oldest rolls his eyes at some of my attempts at humor. Part of me wishes for those early days back. But the eye roll is the price I pay for the potential for a different kind of engagement—not one that is given helplessly, because they don’t know enough to do otherwise, but one that allows for something closer to recognition.
The eighteenth and final reason Winnicott lists for maternal hate is the most Hegelian: the baby “excites her but frustrates—she mustn’t eat him or trade in sex with him.” A note on the text of the Philosophy of Mind (probably written by a student of Hegel’s rather than Hegel himself), describes the emergent subject, made aware of a lack in itself by the presence of an external entity whose recognition it desires, as seeking to consume the object in question, annihilating it in the process. What would it mean to eat one’s child—not just to nibble their delectable toes or nommable cheeks but to succeed in integrating them into oneself, eradicating them as a person in the process? In Greek myth, Kronos, warned that a child of his will destroy him, eats his offspring to prevent that happening. His frustrated wife conceals the baby Zeus who grows, compels his father to vomit up the other children, and then duly destroys him in line with the prophecy. Mortal children, too, can destroy their parents gently: financially, for sure, sometimes physically, through the taxing process of bearing and raising them, but most of all they have the capacity to hollow us out emotionally: their needs and company structure my day and regulate my emotions, even as they are at times exhausting. But, independent people that they are, they will inevitably disappear on me, at least in the form around which I’ve molded, to live their own lives. And I worry that I will be left with all the spaces in my life I made for them to fill, like the holes in a piece of Swiss cheese.
Some mortal parents do in effect partially succeed in consuming their children, and thereby buttress against the risks of destruction: by basking in the reflected glory of their achievements in a way that obscures the ambiguities and complexities of the person behind them, for instance. Certain forms of social media offer the opportunity to make children into a tasty snack for the hungry ego: obscuring their independent reality by aestheticizing them into mere supporting actors in the parents’ own narrative. Small children are altogether more manageably deployed in this way: you can dress them, photograph them, tell anecdotes about them without fear of correction or reinterpretation. Things become more complicated as children grow older, ready to question and subvert the script that’s handed to them.
That’s as it should be. The sometimes difficult behavior of adolescence is not by accident hard to stomach: behaving in ways our parents find objectionable forces a recognition of our separateness, the reality of our internal experience. Adolescence is the sometimes-violent refusal to be eaten by one’s parents, the administration of an emetic compelling them to vomit you back out again.
And good-enough parenting requires a reciprocal refusal to be consumed by your children, to avoid succumbing either to the urge to make the other unreal, or the temptation of allowing them to make you so. For a child to recognize their parent’s independent existence might be just as hard as it is for a parent to recognize their children’s. Perhaps it is harder. There’s a whole genre of children’s book in which a baby animal of some kind seeks to locate or identify their mother. It’s an appealing primal quest. But there are hardly any books depicting a child seeking to get to know one’s mother.
A few years ago, while living abroad, I visited home fleetingly for a job interview. I’d hoped, perhaps assumed, my mum would meet me at the airport. Instead, she was away white-water kayaking for the weekend. She was pushing seventy at the time, and it was the dead of winter—I was impressed. But there was another feeling mixed in that was harder to place. Was I in some way put out that she should lead an independent life, even when I was gone? Some part of me still expected my parents’ activities to be defined by my own presence, waiting in suspended animation during my absences for my return. One of the reasons it is so hard to make sense of the identity of parent—mother perhaps in particular—is that its primary relatum isn’t (yet?) capable of understanding the limits or contingency of that identity. I am approaching forty now, and have a decent store of childhood memories of my parents at that age. It requires a pretty radical revision of those memories to allow that the adults in them had interior lives as real as my own now is. It’s like the opposite of finding yourself on a film set—buildings I treated as facades turn out to have interiors.
Through a thousand daily frustrations my children and I tell each other that our wills are separate. A refusal to be edible, the inducement of indigestion, is their best gift to me. In turn, I show them their own limits, my own reality. The business of being distinct people brings with it its own forms of loneliness. But it’s a loneliness that’s a precondition for the possibility of recognition—a loneliness that can drive us forward in the constantly shifting project of knowing and being known.