Contradicting Maternity: HIV-Positive Motherhood in South Africa

Contradicting Maternity: HIV-Positive Motherhood in South Africa

by Carol Long

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Drawing on rich and poignant interviews with mothers who have been diagnosed HIV-positive, Contradicting Maternity provides a rare perspective of motherhood from the mother's point of view.

The book explores the situation in which two very powerful identities, those of motherhood and of being HIV-positive, collide in the same moment. This collision

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Drawing on rich and poignant interviews with mothers who have been diagnosed HIV-positive, Contradicting Maternity provides a rare perspective of motherhood from the mother's point of view.

The book explores the situation in which two very powerful identities, those of motherhood and of being HIV-positive, collide in the same moment. This collision takes place at the interface of complex, and often split, social and personal meanings concerning the sanctity of motherhood and the anxieties of HIV. The book offers an interpretation of how these meanings resonate with, and also fail to encompass, the experiences surrounding HIV-positive mothers. Photographs, academic literature and the accounts of real women are read with both a psychodynamic and discursive eye, highlighting the contradictions within maternal experience, as well as between maternal experience and the social imagination.

Contradicting Maternity will appeal to scholars, students and practitioners in psychology, the social sciences and the health professions. The sensitive and readable analysis will also be of interest to mothers, whether HIV-positive or not.

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Witwatersrand University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.70(d)

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Contradicting Maternity

HIV-Positive Motherhood in South Africa

By Carol Long

Wits University Press

Copyright © 2009 Carol Long
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-86814-494-5



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HIV prevalence among South African women attending antenatal clinics is estimated at 30.2 per cent: i.e. nearly one in three pregnant mothers is HIV-positive (Department of Health, 2006). Because this is also the time when women are particularly motivated to test, many discover that they are HIV-positive only when they realise that they are pregnant. Hearing that one is pregnant may produce a variety of emotions and responses. Whether excited or scared or devastated, it is news that changes one's life. In a context in which motherhood is highly valued, there is always recourse to the expectation that one will be admired by others and will experience joy and fulfilment. Hearing that one is HIV-positive produces very different kinds of emotions and expectations, particularly in an environment that is saturated by misunderstanding and horror at the social category of 'HIV-positive'. The process of becoming both a mother and HIV-positive begins in the moment when the news is received, but proceeds through a series of confusions, prejudices and adjustments in which the process of becoming exists in an uneasy space between internal reality and external discourses. In this sense, it is transitional and paradoxical, with opportunity for painful splits.

This means that HIV-positive mothers enter into two contradictory identities simultaneously: the denigrated, abject and feared identity of being HIV-positive and the idealised identity of motherhood, with all its associations of purity and goodness. Both identities hold complex and competing personal and social meanings, with motherhood and HIV invoking powerful discursive positions. Both motherhood and HIV are created in a moment of intimate sexual contact, but both exist uneasily with sexuality. Motherhood, paradoxically, is associated with chastity rather than sexuality, exemplified in the archetypal Virgin Mary (Kristeva, 1986; Warner, 1976). HIV becomes a metaphor for aberrant sexuality, whether justified or not (Sontag, 1988).

Being diagnosed HIV-positive when one is pregnant means entering into these two contradictory identities, which independently hold complex meanings of loss and gain, creativity and destructiveness, and which collide in the same moment in time. Motherhood is the ultimate act of creativity, in which life is given form. The miracle of life, however, is reminiscent of the nearness of death (Pines, 1997); creating another being evokes fears of destructiveness directed towards something so helpless (Parker, 1995); while the gain of motherhood also involves loss of identity in the service of motherhood (Oakley, 1980), as well as fears of the loss of one's child. HIV evokes very different associations of creativity and destructiveness. Something has been created in one's body that is trying to destroy one. This directly evokes the oppositions of life and death, particularly because outward signs of the virus cannot be seen for a potentially significant period of time before serious illness sets in. Questions of what one is to accomplish in one's life, as well as how one is going to die – universal questions that most of us spend a fair amount of time avoiding – become more urgent with an HIV-positive diagnosis. These questions take on a particular quality in relation to the social significations of HIV; to morality, death and abjection; and to calls to 'live positively'. With the promise of antiretroviral medication, the progression of the virus can be retarded, which may make a significant difference to one's health. However, in the inner world where fear is as important as reality, the existence of the virus inside one's body encourages one to contemplate death. In the social world of discursive meanings, an HIV-positive diagnosis is responded to with prejudice and rejection, regardless of how healthy or unhealthy one is.

Becoming an HIV-positive mother means that these opposites meet one another within one person, evoking love and hate, tragedy and joy, fear and hope simultaneously. HIV-positive motherhood also causes uncertainty regarding one's own identity, one's future and the future of one's baby. Because HIV can possibly (but not probably) be transmitted from mother to child, uncertainty regarding whether one will transmit HIV to one's child provides fertile and perilous soil for fantasy. This uncertainty occurs in the context of dominant discourses of motherhood that posit that the baby is all-important; the mother not at all. Making sense of oneself as a mother – for one's baby, but also for oneself – means negotiating the strong emotional resonances of HIV-positive motherhood through very powerful and socially sanctioned discourses of both motherhood and HIV.

This uneasy existence of HIV-positive motherhood between these two wildly differing extremes may be part of the reason for the discomfort the HIV-positive mother provokes in the popular and scientific imagination. There seems to be a sense that, within the urgency of the HIV pandemic, HIV-positive mothers are not terribly important – or, at least, not as important as their children – or as women who, still innocent, are not yet infected. This is borne out in the available literature on HIV-positive motherhood. The few books that have been written are biographical in nature and concern an individual mother and/or her child. This is strikingly reflected in the personal and emotive titles of these books. Writing about HIV-positive motherhood in this genre implies a painfully individual experience – one mother isolated with her child or children and with her tragedy and triumph. The small body of empirical literature that studies HIV-positive mothers, in contrast, seems to be obsessed with the implicit assumption that HIV-positive mothers must be bad mothers, with a lack of attention to HIV-positive motherhood as a category in its own right. Mothers are usually only of interest insofar as they pose a risk to children and family. Focusing on the well-being of children poses a danger that the mother fades out of focus and becomes seen only as a vehicle for her baby's well-being.

Given the stigma that many HIV-positive mothers experience, this book resists these morally evaluative questions. It explores mothers' experiences of themselves as HIV-positive, and as mothers imagining themselves from their children's perspectives and from their own perspectives. The decision to shift focus to the mother is as much a political choice as one informed by the paucity of knowledge about HIV-positive motherhood. The book explores maternal experience by focusing on the stories of real women. It is based on interviews conducted with black South African mothers diagnosed as HIV-positive when pregnant. Pregnant women and new mothers who attended an HIV clinic in Johannesburg were invited to volunteer to take part in individual interviews exploring their experiences of being HIV-positive and of motherhood. The interviews started with the question, 'What has the experience been like for you?' and, although I had a specific series of questions in mind, from that initial question on the interviews largely went wherever it was important for participants to take them. The interview content is included in the appendix to this book. In all, 110 interviews were conducted with 50 women. Some women chose to participate in a single interview, while others attended between two and seven interviews. All the women were invited to participate in multiple interviews depending upon what felt comfortable for them. Some participants were counsellors at the clinic, and these interviews formed a backdrop for the analysis. The opportunity to conduct a large number of interviews, as well as the richness and sophistication with which women brought their experiences into the interviews, has been invaluable in understanding the nuances of HIV-positive motherhood from the subjectivity of mothers themselves. It also became clear that the category 'HIV-positive mother' is a fiction: while motherhood was regularly coloured by HIV and produced particular concerns and ways of interacting with children, it did not produce a particular brand of motherhood, and there were as many differences in mothering as there were similarities.

The presentation of women's stories in this book draws on the traditions of discourse analysis and psychoanalysis. Discourse analysis provides a method for analysing the ways in which subjects and objects are constructed within power relations and through broader social meanings. Psychoanalysis offers ways of reading fantasies, conflicts, anxieties and desires and of foregrounding layers of affect. It should be noted, however, that the intention is not to 'psychoanalyse', individualise or pathologise, but rather to trace the interactions between psychodynamic and discursive processes in the negotiation of motherhood and HIV status in order to understand the contradictory subject positions held. A primary aim of Contradicting Maternity is to convey a rich sense of the experience of being an HIV-positive mother. To this end, it has been important to conjure up the lives and imaginations of the women who participated in this study without constructing them as irrevocably 'other'. Relying heavily on stories and quotations, the book aims to convey a thick description of the experiences and preoccupations of HIV-positive mothers in relation to their sexuality, their relationships, their bodies, their babies and their own maternal perspectives.

Images of HIV-positive Motherhood

A central argument of the book is that maternal HIV-positive experience is more complex than the caricatures presented in the public and scientific imagination, and that it is important to understand HIV-positive motherhood from the mother's perspective, and not just from the more seductive and socially sanctioned perspective of her child. One way of thinking about the social imagination of HIV-positive motherhood is through images of HIV-positive mothers. When I came upon the photographs presented below through contemplating the disjunctions between social discourses and lived experiences of HIV-infected maternity, my first response to the photographs was of both familiarity and shock, since they were so patently about human suffering. Images contextualise, because 'seeing comes before words' (Berger, 1972: 7). Photographs give the reader faces and environments that cannot be conveyed in words.

As I examined the photographs further, however, it became clear that this is not all photographs do. They also objectify, exploit, distance and victimise (Berger, 1972; Sontag, 2003). They create a disturbance of ownership, transforming subject into object, owned now by the photographer and the onlooker (Barthes, 1980). This is perhaps particularly the case when one regards the pain of others (Sontag, 2003), a genre of photography that has become almost synonymous with 'art'. The more gruesome the photograph, the more 'serious' the photographer. IIn this sense photographs decontextualise. As Barthes (1980: 90) puts it, a photograph 'is without culture: when it is painful, nothing in it can transform grief into mourning'.

As Sontag (2003) struggles against her earlier ideas (Sontag, 1979) that such photographs exploit and sap our capacity to respond meaningfully to the pain of others, she comes upon a similar political dilemma. Are such photographs good or bad? Do they create empathy or apathy? Should they be upheld as showing us what we should know or should they be critiqued for turning human suffering into a masquerade? It seems that she does not entirely settle these dilemmas. For example, much of her essay is critical, but it ends with praise for photographs dealing with the pain of others, because they remind us that we do not understand. Of particular relevance to the photographs under discussion here, she also leaves the political implications unsettled:

The more remote or exotic the place, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and dying. Thus postcolonial Africa exists in the consciousness of the general public in the rich world ... mainly as a succession of unforgettable photographs of large-eyed victims ... [including] of whole families of indigent villagers dying of AIDS. These sights carry a double message. They show a suffering that is outrageous, unjust, and should be repaired. They confirm that this is the sort of thing that happens in that place. The ubiquity of those photographs, and those horrors, cannot help but nourish belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward – that is, poor – parts of the world (Sontag, 2003: 63-64; emphasis added).

The photographs chosen for presentation here are largely from highly acclaimed photographers whose explicit motivation is always to provoke awareness and empathy. Shock is used to promote a realisation of the severity of the epidemic. Outwardly, then, they aim to portray the first side of Sontag's 'double message', showing the outrageousness of suffering. They have achieved fame (and publication), however, in the developed world, and cannot escape its obverse: as Sontag says, they potentially 'confirm that this is the sort of thing that happens in ... the benighted or backward – that is, poor – parts of the world'. The majority of photographs depicting AIDS in Africa fall into two broad categories, either portraying graphic images of suffering, often of emaciated bodies; or showing people's pride and defiance in response to the epidemic. In both categories, there are many faces, whether sick and hopeless; sad and mournful; or joyful, loving or defiant in the face of prejudice.

However, the more I examined the photographs, the more I noticed how consistently mothers were portrayed differently to 'people' and how infection seemed to be written differently in the presentation of their bodies. Although the focus of this study is not on the analysis of media images, I have found it useful to consider these photographs, because of their powerful portrayal of the HIV-positive mother in the public imagination. Interpretations offered for each photograph are partial, focusing on what the photograph may tell us about constructions of HIV-positive motherhood, but there is no claim of an 'authoritative' interpretation, and the reader is invited to reinterpret them according to his/her own understanding.

It is not entirely true that 'harrowing photographs do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand' (Sontag, 2003: 80). These photographs can therefore problematise the way in which HIV-positive motherhood is constructed. Whether intended by the photographer or not, the ways in which the 'HIV-positive mother' is portrayed, and the fact that she is often portrayed differently, bring some kind of understanding of the anxieties that this figure evokes and the social discourses in which she is located.

For example, Gideon Mendel's photo essay on AIDS in South Africa (Mendel, 2002), published in The Guardian, aims to portray the human faces and stories behind the appalling statistics. Like many other AIDS photographers, Mendel captures the tragedy of AIDS, but he also explicitly aims to convey the multiple faces of the pandemic, including those of hope, courage and laughter, and of the tenacity of those speaking out in his photographs against the prejudice associated with the pandemic. He presents photographs of a variety of people in different situations. When visiting his website, one sees among these a photograph (photograph 1) of three women, one holding her baby, and reads the caption: 'Why can't they give us the treatment to make the mother healthy because who is going to look after that negative child if we are gone?'

By clicking on the photograph, the viewer enters the antenatal clinic where these women are sitting (photograph 2). When viewed in its context, the photograph is no longer about HIV-positive mothers defiantly speaking out. On the contrary, amid the many faces and voices in the essay, the mothers, hiding behind their hospital files, are silent and hidden. Their facelessness is noticeable, evoking the shame of being HIV-positive mothers. This shame is counter-posed against the familiar slogan, 'Be wise condomize', on the wall, which advice, the composition implies, these women clearly did not follow, heir pregnant bodies proof of their irresponsible sexuality.

The mother in photograph 3, from Mendel's collection, is also hidden, this time behind a hot-water bottle. The focal point of the photograph is her thin and presumably HIV-positive child. The foregrounding of the child's thin body leads one to imagine both shame and guilt: the mother is responsible for her child's infection. She is sad and ashamed, but she is also damaging or destructive. Attention is detracted away from the reflection in the mirror. Even at the margins of the photograph, even in reflection, the mother's face cannot see and cannot be seen.

James Nachtwey (2001), whose photo essay in Time provoked debate about its graphic depictions of the horror of AIDS and its inclusion of emaciated bodies, includes a group of photographs united by the theme of motherhood and childhood. The mother's body is not at all emaciated: it is not present at all. Instead, the mother is represented in her absence, either replaced by images of caretakers holding children or by images of abandoned orphans or street children living in abject circumstances as a result, it is implied, of maternal HIV. It seems that motherhood is shocking enough without the need for emaciated maternal bodies – there are very few such images to be found across the collections. Two photographs from Nachtwey's collection indicate her threat.


Excerpted from Contradicting Maternity by Carol Long. Copyright © 2009 Carol Long. Excerpted by permission of Wits University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Carol Long is a associate professor in psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (South Africa), and a practicing clinical psychologist.

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