Words by Saskia May

Sunshine was flickering through the green beech trees as the bus dropped me at The Keep, University of Sussex. The carpark of the archival centre was empty, the building drenched in shade. It was one of those days that you wonder why you should be cooped up inside, hunched over boxes of old letters. This was to be the first day of my archival research, and hours later, whilst feeling somewhat depleted, I was excited to have begun my project.

In the summer of 2021, I undertook an undergraduate research project, as a Junior Research Associate. I researched maternal ambivalence in the letters of Doris Lessing, widely recognised as one of the most important writers of the 20th century. Back in 1944, the then 24-year-old Lessing, who was unknown at the time, began to write what would become a collection of over 150 letters to her friend Leonard Smith. The letters are now archived at The Keep, and traverse decades but are particularly rich in the years 1944 – 1949, where Lessing was living in Southern Rhodesia, in a strained marriage with her second husband, Gottfried Lessing.

So what is maternal ambivalence exactly, and how does it apply to Lessing’s letters? Maternal ambivalence is about the recognition of the breadth of emotions that a mother may feel towards her child, from adoration to vexation, from tenderness to despair. For Rozsika Parker, maternal ambivalence is ‘the complex and contradictory state of mind, shared variously by all mothers in which loving and hating feelings for children exist side by side.’ Lessing already had two children by her first husband, Frank Wisdom. In the February of 1946, Lessing writes to Smithie, she has found herself unexpectedly pregnant, a ‘catastrophe’– her birth control method with second husband Gottfried, had failed, and let’s just say she was less than pleased about the situation.

Once her son Peter is born, Lessing details the extent of her maternal ambivalence, of how much she sacrifices for her  son, how exhausted she feels, and how tired she is of cleaning, washing sheets, and cooking. Lessing’s contention between maternity and writing is intriguing, for Peter’s need for her care and time disrupts her creative aspirations, diminishing her time to write. Lessing’s expression of her ambivalent feelings towards motherhood can be viewed in light of the psychoanalytic theories of D.W Winnicott, who argued in 19149 that, ‘The mother…hates her infant from the word go’.  Winnicott argues that the baby at first ‘must dominate… life must unfold at the baby’s rate’ and the infant is ‘an interference with [the mother’s] private life’. Lessing does despise Peter at times! He drains her time, he creates mess, she can’t travel easily with him. Psychoanalysis has historically placed emphasis on what the mother needs to provide for her baby, but I am interested in how Lessing offers an account of her own maternal subjectivity. Expression of maternal ambivalence enables a mother to engage fully in her breadth of feelings and to form a deeper, richer understanding of herself, and her infant.  

In her letters, Lessing revolts against a presumed, female state of passive, masochistic suffering,  instead candidly stating her feelings of frustration. Lessing’s consideration of the interruption that mothers face is a vital point of thinking, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many mothers working from home, struggling with the demands of work-life and child care. Valuing an individualistic expression and experience of motherhood as opposed to the sentimentalised, maternal ideal, Lessing’s deliberation on motherhood in her letters is not only remarkably astute, but her writing enables her a kind of freedom, for she claims her maternal voice as opposed to silencing her conflicted feelings of love and hatred.

You may be thinking, could reading and researching in this much detail, about motherhood, (something I have no experience with),  written over eighty years ago, really be that interesting? Reading through the letters at times felt like taking a guilty, but sneaky look inside a diary, something private and not meant for most eyes. I suppose a modern-day comparison would be seeing some texts you know you shouldn’t be reading (but you read them anyway). Lessing asked Smithie to burn the letters, far later in their correspondence, she didn’t anyone to read them. Perhaps Lessing would be cross that I went ahead, read the letters anyway, and turned them into a piece of research. I would like to think she would be annoyed but understand. The expression of ambivalent feelings of this kind is vital.

After reading the letters, I began to research the more critical framework surrounding motherhood, such as the work of Jacqueline Rose and Adrienne Rich. At times it felt hard to structure my research, it was all new and overwhelming, and unlike my previous modules at university, I had no specific structure or reading list. My supervisors, Dr Pamela Thurschwell and Dr Hope Wolf were wonderful, suggesting work, critiquing my rudimentary writing and posing useful questions.

I have always struggled with imposter syndrome, the feeling that I am undeserving of certain opportunities, that I am not up to the mark.  When I do well academically, it never quite feels like enough. This research certainly drew those feelings out, and the longer I worked on my paper, the more confused and unsure I felt. Out under the hot sun, amidst the sprawling vines of my garden, I began to question. Did I know at all what I was doing? So much of this seemed beyond me and I wasn’t sure where to even start. How do academics write so well, I can’t, and will I ever? I was fascinated by the topic of my research, but I felt my writing lacked clarity, that I was bumbling along, not really knowing what I was doing.

Towards the end of the project, one of my supervisors suggested that I submit my work to the Doris Lessing Society’s student essay contest. All the previous winners appeared to be PhD or MA students and I thought I may as well try, but it wouldn’t go anywhere. To my surprise, I won the 2021 essay contest and was invited to join the Doris Lessing Society, and send my paper in for consideration for publication. It would be wonderful to be published as an undergraduate, although I think that my imposter syndrome may always be an underlying annoyance.

So how would I summarise my experience of undergraduate, archival research? Well, it has been challenging and expansive. I didn’t think my brain could feel so pickled, or confused, and I didn’t think I could find the ambivalence within motherhood so fascinating. I have learnt the skills of perseverance and some shy, but steady, self-confidence. I have to remind myself that academic writing and research takes time to develop and improve, it really isn’t an overnight thing. Researching Doris Lessing’s letters has made me reflect on the importance of ambivalence, acknowledging mixed feelings in life, and confronting difficult emotions, something I will come back to think about, time and again.

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