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No matter how often various psy-theories, including psychoanalysis, stress the importance of the mother, a crucial observation that it is not the maternal, but something exclusively feminine in the figure of the mother that fundamentally marks the subject's organization is constantly avoided. The female phantasm, whose frame is not only unlimited to, but does not necessarily include any references to the child, confronts the latter with the very concept of desire.

Eugenia Konoreva

Regardless of today’s cultural situation with its special attention to the question of female enjoyment, its development still reveals an uncomfortable character and a certain tentativeness in the professional psychoanalytic field. This is related to the fact that within the analytical environment there have not been established the conditions where it would not sound nonsensical. This ought to be taken into account if we wish to understand why, despite of the ongoing discussion about female enjoyment, the achieved theoretical results are largely incomparable to the researchers’ enthusiasm.


To see the cause for this incomparability one should consider the general tone adopted by the psychoanalytic theory regarding the ultimate foundations of its views on the subject. A strong underlying resistance surfaces here, since what comes to the forefront when the subject of the female sex is being discussed is an issue that destroys the whole variety of its manifestations. We refer to childbearing and motherhood: the questions in whose covering the voice of psychoanalysis—weak and traditionally unsure of what concerns the mystery of feminine desire—becomes powerful and well-coordinated. However underresearched the feminine subject is, the studies of motherhood remain a reputable part of the entire psychoanalytic approach. This unevenness in the distribution of confidence is quite notable—it is impossible to conceal its ethical nature, just as it is impossible to hide that the question of female enjoyment remains on the other side of this confidence.


Clearly, this does not mean that the psychoanalytic approach prohibits anything to a woman or in any way doubts her prospects for enjoyment in connection with the maternal function. There is no need to expose the “normative,” ideological side of psychoanalysis as its critics usually do. Nothing is denied to the woman as she is presented in the most basic assumptions of the analytic thought. Nevertheless, the topic of the female enjoyment—and this cannot be a pure coincidence—fades dramatically when it comes to the question of the maternal function. Strange as it may seem, even today, the commonly held belief that during her stage of life designated as “motherhood,” the woman’s enjoyment (if it takes place at all), is overwhelmingly objectified and presented to her in the form of her baby, has not yet been questioned—at least openly.


It is hard to argue that there is some truth in this belief that is attested by both the analytic experience and the testimonies of women themselves. However, what is commonly inferred from the indisputable fact that the child incarnates the object for the mother, is that it concentrates all of the female enjoyment. The society has not yet fully reconciled with a theoretically progressive for its time Freudian statement that for the mother the baby functions as a substitute for the organ. The progressive character of this statement is evidenced by the shock it caused and still seems to be causing in the non-psychoanalytic environment that resorts to all sorts of gimmicks in order to preserve a presumption of something “personal,” “individual” in the child, without realizing that this does not contradict Freud’s discovery and in fact does not intersect with the question he raised at all. But after the intercontinental division endured by psychoanalysis just before the World War II, in a certain sense its post-war history begins anew and is being written from a new place. Now, the question of motherhood understood as an institution that is in some sense primary in relation to the Freudian unconscious comes to the forefront. Starting with the formation of the “neutral” Winnicott group which emphasized the fulfillment of maternal duties and the existence of the initial “bond” with the baby, now and then the analytical community turns the observation of the object value of the child for the mother into a kind of an answer to the question of female enjoyment as such.

From then on, in the works dedicated to questions of maternal function or the role of the maternal object in upbringing this enjoyment is hardly mentioned. As a rule, most psychoanalytic texts approach the topic of motherhood from the perspective of the supposed “bond” that the baby establishes with the caretaking female figure[1]. Herein lies the paradox because this role is not immanent in the woman, and this is what the analysts most concerned about the well-being of the child are inclined to remain silent about, although Freud himself raised this issue in all its uneasiness. That startling, almost scandalous topic, raised today only in marginal discussions regarding the securing of a particular parental role to a specific sex, has been present throughout the entire history of the psychoanalytic approach to motherhood. What is more, it is presented there in an even more revolutionary form than is permitted, for example, in the discussions about the so-called same-sex families. Instead of asking whether the role of the mother always corresponds to the being who is born female, psychoanalysis essentially allows us to ask how the motherhood—even in the most traditional family structure—is connected to what characterizes the subject who takes the side of the feminine desire.


It is precisely this issue that remains an elusive mainstay of the psychoanalytic practice because, even if passed over in silence, there is still a real possibility to raise it here. Furthermore, it can be confidently asserted that there is simply no place for this issue in any other discipline. It is proved by the fact that in the psychoanalytic practice it rang out directly at least once. Ignoring the stereotype accepted in this field that assumes the primacy of the “caring motherhood,” Jacques Lacan states the following: “The woman allows enjoyment to risk the mask of repetition. She is presented here as what she is: the setting up of a masquerade. She teaches her child to make a display. She leans towards surplus enjoying, because she, the woman, plunges her roots, like the flower, into enjoyment itself. The means of enjoyment are opened up to the principle of the fact that the closed and foreign enjoyment of the mother has been renounced. This is where there will come to be inserted the huge social complicity that inverts what we could call the natural difference of the sexes, into a sexualisation of organic difference.”[2]


On the one hand, there is nothing surprising in these words because ever since the modern intellectual has emerged, the society has only heard about the inadmissibility of the “natural factor” references. However, as far as we know, Lacan never approached this issue in such a straightforward manner: he did not criticize the naivety of sexual functions’ division but rather the concealment of the fact that in essence the society trusts the child upbringing not to the mother, but to the woman. This point is so subtle that even a perfectly respectable psychoanalytic practice often sets it aside in favor of more understandable things, whereas motherhood is precisely one of them. Nevertheless, of all things the female enjoyment should be reminded about especially now, when out of decency most specialists try to forget about its existence.

On the other hand, the psychoanalysis does not hide that even during the pregnancy the woman is not completely absorbed by the baby—it does not concern only the fact that she continues to live her secular life, creates new relationships, and often even new love affairs. What is more important from the analytical perspective is that there is an entire unconscious layering whose presence is inexplicable not only from a purely pragmatic point of view, assuming that the appearance of new life is the key part of the woman’s condition at that moment, but also from the psychoanalytic perspective. Pregnancy triggers the enjoyment mechanisms that on the one hand clearly owe to the woman’s awareness of her pregnancy, and yet do not have the baby as an object. Some note that during this period, the manifestations related to the deeper levels of her own phantasm—the oral ones, for instance—can “come to life” in her desire. In order to include them in the field of the analytical research and to recognize their importance, there is no need to declare their surfacing as a phenomenon of “regression.” Contrary to the natural assumption of pregnancy as a reason for “returning to childhood,” the mechanism of this activation remains implicit precisely from the point of view of the strict requirements of the psychoanalytic thought.


It would be incorrect to think that all these phenomena remain solely within the domain of a purely analytic investigation. On the contrary, they all are directly related to the ambiguity that comes up when the future child faces this female enjoyment. However, it remains a question with whom exactly the child eventually deals with, and how it turns out that all the overarching problems in the emerging desire of the child-subject—the problems of care, development, and motherhood in general—suddenly become almost nothing compared to the fact of the woman’s presence next to the child. The woman whose desire demonstrates all its inherent demonstrative unpredictability. Some remarks characteristic of the Freudian era when the Oedipus complex was still taken seriously and even some fresh ideas were drawn from it, show that the so-called “seduction” that somehow emanates from the mother should be placed not so much at the level of satisfying the child’s needs and maternal doings with it, but at the level where the veils of motherhood suddenly drop, revealing the area of the feminine unconscious never occupied by the child.


Lacan expresses himself on this topic quite uncompromisingly. Commenting the case of a homosexual patient and recalling a Freudian interpretation that the girl essentially wanted to have a child from her father, he warns: “But if you were satisfied with that, you are not very hard to please, because this child has nothing to do with a maternal need. That indeed is why, a little earlier, I wanted at least to indicate the problematic of the relationship of the child to the mother. Contrary to a whole slippage in the whole of analytic thought, it is necessary to put elucidation of unconscious desire in what I might call a sort of lateral relationship with respect to the principal current that has been elaborated.”[3]

Thus, the key question of the notorious “incestuousness”—that remains unresolved in the literature critically reviewed by Lacan where this question is simply discarded—should be apparently posed not in the area where the mother offers herself to the baby as the partial object, but in the areas where the female enjoyment moves along the paths set by its contradictory relationships with the structure into which it is, as is known, inserted incompletely. While somehow this structure attaches the woman’s desire to the phantasm through which, by means of detours, she herself appears desirable whether the subject wants it or not.


The latter circumstance is crucial here because everything in the analytical experience points to the fact that, as a child, the subject hardly solicits the mother. At the same time, it has to somehow assimilate the manifestations of her desire and resolve the issue of her enjoyment. So it does not refer to the drive but to the necessity that eventually explains quite specific connection arising between the mother and the child, where the question of incest emerges as if aside from its participants.


In the end, everything comes down to a statement that again only Lacan dared to make openly: “[A]fter all the mother is not in herself the most desirable object.”[4] This playful declaration is meant to bring some discharge in the analytic situation but it does not dispel the bewilderment: after all, most analysts know from their practice that in many cases the mother is the first woman, the imprint and consequences of the connection with whom are carried by the subject throughout his life—while this connection goes far beyond the connection “necessary for proper development,” to say the least.


Nevertheless, the solution to this situation partly lies in the fact that the newly born subject finds itself tête-à-tête not with the mother but with a female subject whose phantasm brings additional enjoyment that proves to be alien and incomprehensible to the child. This judgment could be considered trivial only if this enjoyment had no consequences for the child. And this is how it is presented in some parts of the analytical community focused on the role of the woman as the caretaker, or in clerical psychoanalytic terms, as the subject “providing satisfaction of the child’s needs.” It is not significant in this case whether, for instance, “love” is included in these needs—from the analytic point of view, the pathos of the cultural significance attributed to motherhood is significantly limited, even when in addition to its notorious “materiality,” there is an attempt to capture the area of ​​so-called “feelings.” By means of this sort of gestures, however generous they may be, one cannot escape the level of demand understood again in a non-psychoanalytic way as an “adequate satisfaction of the child’s needs.”

In other words, it is not a spectacle that could be called the spectacle of maternal care that affects the child mostly. For a long time, the following characteristic picture was observed in the analytic consensus: the manifestations of maternal care were overstated, and their meaning was analyzed in the smallest detail, whereas a completely independent life led by the feminine phantasm at any period of the female subject’s life, including that of the motherhood, often remains unnoticed. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore this phantasm precisely because of its impact on the child, and this produces the analytic necessity to take into account the sources of what Lacan calls the “individual myth of the neurotic”—that very neurotic that the child, this witness of the female phantasm, is going to become. The fact that, as was said above, in its fundamental manifestations this phantasm does not consider the child does not affect its capacity to lie at the basis of the neurotic myth and have a real impact on its fate.


To note these things means to encroach on the view that it is precisely the part of the woman’s being associated with childcare that becomes responsible for the so-called “quality of his unconscious”—by analogy to the “quality of life.” Of course, nobody reduces the manifestations of this care to feeding or even playing with the child; everyone agrees that this care is diverse and touches on the most varied aspects of interacting with the baby[5]. Nevertheless, the aspect of the “subject’s adaptation” that Lacan strongly urged not to overestimate still runs the show. Lacan’s calls are in vain if we do not see what is worth giving up this overestimation for. In the world where, according to Lacan, the woman is given exclusively “as the mother” and where the child’s well-being is regulated by the manner her presence is administered, nothing can make us renounce the concept of adaptation. The warnings against its universal dominance are perceived as a meaningless, annoying uproar and look like an excessive psychoanalytic intellectualism.


The only way to break out of this concept is to finally give a place to the enjoyment that the woman experiences as a subject and whose fact becomes undoubtedly accessible to the child. This happens at the level whose study may require giving up the mystical vagueness of the notorious “connection” between the woman and her offspring. Nevertheless, the fruits of the reality of this enjoyment are fully accessible to observation, and its effects are apparent in the echoes that reach the child in the situations other than those of education and care. Thus, the child undoubtedly becomes a witness to those specific phantasies that, according to the specialists, are characteristic precisely of the cases of the feminine obsession—for example, the fear of poisoning or nosophobia (Frankl, 2004)[6], whose experience, as is commonly believed, outlines the zones of strong enjoyment. After Lacan, no specific data has emerged on how the presence of this phantasmatic—neurotic, if judged by all the canons—activity is also highlighted by the “other enjoyment” that, again according to Lacan, is available to the female subject. Nevertheless, this connection must exist, and the analytical narratives, starting with the canonical Freudian cases up to today’s accounts, hint somehow at its reality, confirming the presence of unrecognized elements in the female desire.

This being said, we should definitively abandon a clearly outdated but not yet widely refuted spontaneous theory of the child’s acquisition of neurosis through the neurosis of the mother. The child does not acquire its neurosis directly from the woman caring for it—there is no reason to assume the existence of a “neurotic copying” mechanism. On the contrary, if we stick to the core of Lacan’s view, the enjoyment demonstrated by the woman affects the child precisely to the extent that it has nothing to do with it. What the subject is perplexed with is the enjoyment as such expressed by another subject. There is no reason to deny the child the ability to pose this kind of question: what mesmerizes it and makes it anxious is the desire that does not involve it in the slightest.


All this prompts us take a completely different look at the notorious “separation”, the parting from the mother—which should begin much earlier, that is, it might well occur even earlier than the first forms of independence, at the stage preceding weaning. Thus, Melanie Klein’s intuition—whose authority in this matter is undisputed—made it publicly acknowledged that even prior to the emergence of speech, the baby is capable of undergoing the entire spectrum of alienation from the mother[7]. However, even in Klein’s case it was still the loss of the so-called “maternal object”, i.e., the narrative revolves around the breast as an object and its role in directing presence and absence manifestations, discussed later in most of the sources[8].


However, there is another side to the matter, which again is hinted at by Lacan himself when he designates a sphere where the presence loses its immediate and obvious meaning, and neither the presence of the object in close proximity to the child nor its absence exhausts what happens here. Precisely this sphere will later become the basis for all the vivid and persistent manifestations of discomfort associated with the instance of desire in the lives of subjects of both sexes. There is no reason to believe that these consequences might be mitigated or prevented as a result of the constant training that is relentlessly imposed on the female subject by society, and to which psychoanalysis itself subscribes quite uncompromisingly, yet with no explicit intent. Rather, the refusal to question the woman’s enjoyment beyond the child—however, as was said above, not without consequences for it—“hystericizes” the analytical environment as such, placing it in a position where it is forced to negate the facts whose recognition laid the foundation for the beginning of the analytic theory.

Translated from Russian by Ignas Gutauskas

Edited by Eugenia Konoreva

Originally published in LacanLink

Artwork: screenshot from Black Mirror's Metalhead



[1] The main works that laid the foundation for such a formulation of the question are the works of Donald Winnicott. The compilation of his views was realized in the 1987 edition Babies and Their Mothers.


[2] Jacques Lacan, Seminar XII: Psychoanalysis Upside Down/The Inverse of Psychoanalysis, VI 11, 12 (trans. Cormac Gallagher).


[3] Jacques Lacan, Seminar X: Anxiety, 110 (trans. Cormac Gallagher), italics mine, A. S. [Literal translation of this quote from Russian sounds like this: “Please be attentive: this desire has nothing to do with the need for motherhood. And that is why I wanted to draw your attention to the fact that, contrary to the opinion towards which analytical thought has been slipping steadily lately, the relationship between the mother and the child lies somewhat off the main line of elucidating unconscious desire.”]


[4] Ibid., 94.

[5] [In English in the original.]

[6] Victor Frankl, On the Theory and Therapy of Mental Disorders.

[7] Melanie Klein, Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States.

[8] See, for example, Wilfred R. Bion, Attention and Interpretation.

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