Who flourished in Absolutely Fabulous?

January 25, 2023   6 mins

Freud didn’t really understand women. This is not an original point: it was first made by Freud himself. According to his biographer Ernest Jones, Freud admitted: “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a woman want?’”

Nonetheless, he had a go at making sense of us — and especially how we mature. Male children are, he thought, animated by an infantile desire to possess their mother and destroy their father: the Oedipus complex. But things are different for girls, who must first get over their resentment at their mother for having birthed them without a penis. Only having done this, Freud thought, would women come to identify with their mothers and embrace female gender roles. Though Freud never used the term, Jung dubbed it the “Electra complex”, and it stuck.

Freud’s convoluted attempts to make sense of women have been largely discarded by modern psychology. But the “Electra complex” does capture something important and true: relationships between mothers and daughters can be both intensely close and also, at the same time, bitterly ambivalent.

Lighter fuel was poured on this cauldron of woes last week, in an article celebrating three older women hell-bent on smashing every grandmotherly stereotype out there. There’s no need, we gather, for a grandmother to sit about “patting her blue rinse while knitting quietly in a corner” as former Page 3 girl Jilly Johnson puts it, or “under pressure to tone down our behaviour and stay in the kitchen”, as journalist Jane Gordon scornfully suggests.

Instead, grandmothers are taking a leaf from Demi Moore’s book and embracing their “hot kooky unhinged grandma era”. In this vision, the role of grandma is to be “unconventional”: challenging authority, flouting routines, giving your grandkids inappropriate things for breakfast, and doing “crazy things” with them. It left me wondering what their adult daughters make of “fun, crazy ‘Glammy’” and “Bubbie Bonkers”?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The women featured are an actress, a journalist and a model: hardly representative of everyday life. Surely most grandmas aren’t like this? Except that boomer-age “Glammies” abound in real life too. The American conservative writer Helen Roy grumbled recently that “boomer grandparentism” means liberally dispensing parenting advice, while withholding all practical help and insisting on being called anything but “Grandma”.

The response resembled an intergenerational online bloodbath, which rather suggests the topic is something of a sore point. And nor is anecdotal evidence of “Glammies” difficult to find. Emma, 31, a London-based mother to one toddler, reports that her mother-in-law claimed to be “too busy” to travel 90 minutes to see her first grandchild – all the while training for her first marathon.

It’s not a British phenomenon either: Clare, 30, from South Carolina, tells me that her own mother has little interest in helping with Clare’s baby and young toddler, often “because she has a hair/Botox/facial appt, which she must travel cross-state to attend”. Ellie, 30, a New England mother of two under two, tells me “Our parents are just not interested in cultivating a deep relationship with us or our daughters.” Instead, her mother live-posts her “brief, rare” granny visits to social media for her friends — and never offers to wash up. And she scornfully rejected an offer to live rent-free closer by, in exchange for helping with childcare, as a hostile attempt to reduce her to “just a grandma”.

For a young, conservative-leaning mum, with visions of an interconnected, resilient extended family, her own parents’ determinedly atomistic approach to grandparenthood has been profoundly disappointing, Ellie tells me. As she puts it: “Spiritually and emotionally, we feel robbed.”

But the attrition of dependency between mothers and daughters cuts both ways. It’s difficult to disaggregate help with childcare from advice on childcare; and young mothers are often fiercely defensive about such unsolicited advice. Mumsnet is full of threads raging at mothers and mothers-in-law who dare to offer parenting tips.

The transmission of female-specific forms of knowledge across generations seems to have come unstuck, across the board. But this isn’t just about parenting: in feminist politics, too, Susan Faludi has written about a “matricidal” tendency within the women’s movement. That is, instead of handing the baton on to younger generations, every wave of feminism rejects the achievements of those women who went before. The result is that, as Faludi puts it, “At the core of America’s most fruitful political movement resides a perpetual barrenness.”

Faludi attributes this phenomenon — which, she points out, wasn’t a feature in first-wave feminism — to the colonisation of the women’s movement by the individualistic imperatives of consumer capitalism. But in any case, the upshot is a structural problem for feminism and mothers alike. And it’s grounded in the tension between what’s needed for “personhood” in the modern liberal sense, and what’s most conducive to flourishing as a mother.

Older cultures have a better grasp of that sense of flourishing — but usually convey it obliquely. Somewhere on my shelves, for example, I have a matryoshka doll: a smiling, apple-cheeked wooden woman famous from Russian toymaking, who opens at the middle to reveal a smaller, smiling, apple-cheeked woman, who in turn opens to reveal another, smaller one and so on.

This traditional toy contains a germ of literal truth: for every female baby is born with all the eggs she’ll ever have, already in her uterus. And this means every mother of a daughter carries the germ of her own grandchildren inside her own body, within her unborn granddaughter. As such, matryoshka dolls capture a profound insight about how mothers contain one another in an organismic sense.

We do so in a social sense, too — when it works. In Mom Genes, her 2021 book on “the science of moms”, Abigail Tucker shows how the mothers most likely to flourish are those with good support networks — which often means having your own mother close at hand. After my own daughter was born, I was ill for some weeks — and when my husband had to go back to work, my mother was there, weathering my convalescent peevishness and helping in un-glamorous ways: making me a sandwich, changing sheets, watching my newborn so I could shower without fretting.

This kind of presence isn’t just for moral support, but has a teaching dimension too. Caring confidently for little children is as much a skill as a matter of instinct. For most of human history, this has been passed on via informal knowledge transfer between generations of women, and within extended families.

In contrast, both the Mumsnet advice-rejecters and the “Glammy” grandmothers take, as a basic premise, the idea that mothers don’t need their mothers in any practical sense. Instead, the job of a “Glammy”, per Jane Gordon, is not to support a mother but to circumvent her: “to be as unconventional as possible by helping them to question [
] the rules society and their parents impose on them.”

Somehow, passing the matriarchal baton has become hopelessly fraught. And it is within modern liberal feminism that the reason for this comes into focus. Faludi quotes an older feminist attendee at a NOW conference who grumbles: “I’m so sick of these young women treating us like a bunch of old bags who need to get out of the way.” I dare say some of the older women whose advice is spurned by angry Mumsnetters may feel much the same. But much of the motive force in modern liberal feminism has concerned pursuing “the radical notion that women are people”, as Marie Shear wrote in 1986. And to be a “person” has come, today, to mean being as far as possible a self-fashioning, unencumbered liberal subject on the model first set out by Jean-Jacques Rousseau — for women, as well as men.

But if the ideal is to be unencumbered, what are we to make of those ways we depend on others, or others on us — especially in mothering, or being mothered? When I became a mother, this paradox shattered my reflexive youthful liberalism. And if unencumbered personhood makes mothers invisible, it’s worse still for grandmothers. For here lurks a double dose of caring, combined — in a world hyper-focused on women’s youth and beauty — with the steady fading of both.

The feminist Victoria Smith denounces the wider political consequences of this in her book Hags — notably in the political marginalisation of older women. It is, she suggests, powered in part by misogyny, but also by a liberal feminism that is, she tells me, “obsessed with youth”.

Inasmuch as women only really fit the Rousseauean “unencumbered” template while young and child-free, perhaps the obsession makes sense. Strikingly, though, it reverberates not just across feminism but also anti-feminism: it’s common in the manosphere to characterise every woman over the age of 30 as “used up”, having “hit the wall” and run out of viable eggs to fertilise.

Both mothers and daughters, then, are under pressure to claw their way out of the matryoshka doll toward ‘personhood’. Given this, the miracle should be that many functioning mother/daughter relationships still remain — however fraught with ambivalence some of these may be.

Should this continue, the nightmare vision is of a world where mothers and daughters no longer retain even today’s fragile, conflicted interdependence, and instead just orbit one another like work colleagues, or perhaps shopping pals. But if there’s even an iota of insight in Freud’s strange account of the Electra Complex, it’s in suggesting that every generation of women somehow becomes our mothers by rebelling against them.

And in some cases, today, this means rebelling against the injunction to be ever less encumbered. Ellie tells me she and her husband struggle constantly with how to start from scratch, building an extended family — but also that this isn’t a reason to give up, or to pretend that they can just “go it alone”. Rather, she says, it’s a reason to be there for her own future extended family: “I just hold out for the long-term vision of helping with our grandchildren.”

I suspect Ellie is far from the only mother who dreams of a life that’s perhaps a little less free, but is also infinitely warmer and more nurturing than the individualistic one that has sold us as emancipation. For such women, the work ahead is matricidal, in the sense of rebelling against recent generations of women. But it’s also, paradoxically, matriarchal too: the painstaking lifetime task of putting the matryoshka back together again.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.