Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Fear of Failing: A Review of A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear

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By Janna Malamud Smith (Houghton Mifflin, 2003; $25.00)

My one-year-old son finally slept through the night. Instead of feeling relief, I was tense with worry. "Do you think he's okay?" I asked my husband. "Should I go in and check on him?" Then I heard my son's cheerful "Mama" from behind his bedroom door. He was alive, he was okay, and I could finally breathe again.

These moments of chest-clutching, palm-sweating fear about our children are all-too-familiar to most mothers I know. In the modern world, where the perils that used to strike down children are almost unknown, why do we still feel this way? Janna Malamud Smith places this question into its historical and cultural context in A Potent Spell: Mother Love and the Power of Fear.

As Smith explores the reasons for our fear, she draws from psychology, history, literature, and even art to enrich her discussion. Her broad treatment of the topic delves into a variety of sources, from Greek drama to modern parenting tomes.

The book's lyrical prose proves surprisingly engaging in a serious study with scholarly pretensions. For example, Smith describes her book's central problem with an extended metaphor: "The maternal mind is a sheepdog herding a flock in the rain -- nudging, circling, barking, nipping heels, keeping an eye out for predators, and panting with effort that may or may not accomplish its aim. We sense that somewhere, maybe close or maybe not, wolves threaten. We labor to keep them away." This skillful prose, and the surprising turns Smith's arguments can take, make for a read that is at times captivating.

Although Smith would be the first to admit that she is a psychotherapist and not a literary critic, discussion of various works of literature does make up a majority of the text, and the analysis is often disappointingly traditional. General readers may find new ideas here; however, readers who are familiar with women's studies or feminist literary criticism may find many of Smith's analyses somewhat stale. At times, particularly when she analyzes ancient and early modern texts, Smith loses sight of her particular thesis about the cultural construction of mothers' fears and instead treads familiar ground, simply pointing out passages in which male writers endeavored to keep mothers, and women in general, in their place. In her analysis of William Buchan's Advice to Mothers, for example, Smith includes a list of prescriptions for female health: playing a musical instrument is appropriate; playing cards certainly is not. While such anecdotes are historically interesting, they add little to Smith's specific argument.

More engaging are examples from Smith's own interviews and psychotherapy practice. From these women's stories, Smith points out common currents and extrapolates larger cultural concerns that have genuine contemporary relevance. In one section, Smith brings her discussion of historical advice manuals up to the present by sharing the experience of several women who were made to feel stupid or inferior by their children's pediatricians or teachers. Although the individual stories deal with "trivial" concerns such as the appropriate age for weaning or the right way to teach a child to put away his coat, as a group the stories combine to illustrate the ways in which modern mothers still mistrust their own instincts and feel shame when confronted by so-called parenting experts.

Smith herself acknowledges one of the weaknesses of her study, a problem that haunts much of women's history and many feminist literary studies: particularly when the focus is on early writings, women's own voices and stories are absent. Instead, we are forced to draw conclusions from the writings of male authors, doctors, and philosophers, to try to focus on what women really experienced through the lens of men's interpretation. This is, of course, nearly impossible to achieve, and although Smith attempts to overcome this obstacle, she's not always successful.

Puritan treatises, twentieth-century advice manuals, contemporary popular psychology books, even the frescoes of Giotto: all are fair game as Smith attempts to paint a larger picture of the cultural constructs that cause mothers, rationally or not, to fear for their children and view themselves as bad mothers if their worst fears come true. Although this historical survey would be interesting in and of itself, Smith tries to push her study to make a larger argument about the power of fear to prevent modern women from realizing their full potential as mothers in particular and as women in general. In a concluding chapter entitled "Putting Children First," she suggests that mothers, burdened by centuries of fear mongering, push themselves to do too much for their children, to the exclusion of their own needs for personal development and professional fulfillment.

Smith provides some idealistic suggestions for how society could change the definition of success in the workplace to allow for both professional ambition and realistic caretaking obligations. Given the historical focus of the vast majority of Smith's study, though, these brief policy suggestions seem underdeveloped and out of place, perhaps more fitting as the basis of a separate article or book rather than as the conclusion of this one. In the end, the strength of Smith's study is in outlining the almost overwhelming scope of the historical forces that exacerbate mothers' instinctual fears for their children. In example after example, page after page, Smith illustrates the immense cultural burden that has developed over thousands of years; in the face of this, her breezily stated solutions to the problem, included almost as an afterthought, seem optimistic at best and naïve at worst.

As I tiptoed upstairs to check on my sleeping son, was it instinct that caused my heart to race and my fists to clench, or was it thousands of years of cultural baggage? Smith would argue that it was a little of each, and although her arguments will cause many readers to reflect, they will likely do little to actually diminish that familiar prickle of fear that mothers know too well.


Norah Piehl’s essays have been published on National Public Radio, in Skirt! magazine, and also in the anthologies, KnitLit the Third and The Knitter’s Gift. Her fiction has appeared online in Shaking Like a Mountain, and her book reviews and review essays appear regularly on The Book Report Network, BookBrowse, BookPage, and in Publishers Weekly, Brain, Child, and The Horn Book, among other publications. She lives outside Boston with her seven-year-old son.


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