My partner and I tried for a baby before our now ten-month-old daughter was born—a situation utterly different from the accidental conception of my eighteen-year-old son, my first, when I was twenty-three. Their arrivals mark different times in my life, different moments of desire, partnership, hardship, anxiety, maturity. Pregnancies—their termination, loss, completion, or abstention—determine a history to be told, or sometimes not told, even to oneself. In my work as a psychoanalyst, it is often a story that is told to me: the decision points, the way you live with them.
When I was pregnant with my son, I was a graduate student living on loans, odd jobs, and my father’s financial help. I had years of schooling ahead of me for my doctorate in psychology, to say nothing of the post-graduate training I would need to become a psychoanalyst. I remember a professor pleading with me not to ruin my potential. I was glad he thought I had any; yet it was hard to reconcile the word “ruin” with the desire I felt, despite immense panic, to become a parent. My psychoanalyst said that I could treat the fetus as already a child, a proposal that followed the antiabortion propaganda that I’d grown up with in Florida, but doing so wouldn’t allow me to think about what I really wanted.
My mother was a pro-life Catholic, and my father, agnostic, tried to support whatever choice I made, though he intimated that the burdens of raising children had been too much for him, as they certainly were for his mother, whose two husbands passed away, leaving her to raise three children alone. Growing up I saw a beloved aunt struggle for years with infertility. I had also had an abortion when I was seventeen. Pregnant with my son, I was confused and scared, but no more than most women I would go on to listen to as a psychoanalyst, and not all that much more than I would be eighteen years later with a much-longed-for pregnancy.
But I couldn’t have known that at the time. There is something uncanny about deciding to make a life out of oneself, inside oneself, to say nothing of what this means for the other parent, if they are involved—their desire meeting your own, or in conflict with it. Then there are all the onlookers. My more conventional pregnancy at forty-two (what the medical industry likes to call “advanced maternal age”) passed relatively unnoticed by most, except for the stray comment about what it meant for me to decide to “do it all over again.” “Especially,” some said, when I was almost “free.” I always found it odd, this attribution of freedom to having no children, or no children at home. Before having my son I used my time rather poorly, and the constraints of having a child made time suddenly precious. I learned to be efficient with what I was given. I even worried that getting my time back would negatively affect my productivity. Was I less free than others when I was raising my child? Am I more free now that he’s in college?
“Your son is such a great kid!” would be added, as if to say, “be done with it already, quit while you’re ahead.” I understand this anxiety that compulsively curbs the desire for more. The desire for a child, or another child, feels irrational. We can’t say what exactly it is a desire for, as if it is somehow misplaced. How can you say you want a child when children bind you to them and then—I found this so hard with my son—progressively leave you? But then a life without children, or a life of the empty nest, is no less difficult. Just different.
Perhaps the idea of choice might be better understood without the burden of a fantasy of freedom. Choice is the world bringing itself to bear, the messy entanglements of life, more than some ideal of being unencumbered. I’ve helped patients decide to have children, decide not to have children, terminate pregnancies, mourn abortions, miscarriages, and stillbirths, live with the recalcitrant judgment of others, and understand their choices so they can defend them, if only to themselves. Patients, after the hard labor of speaking, often say to me, “only you know.” What they mean is that only I know how difficult it is to arrive where they have, because I’ve listened to them get there. The sacred gift that needs protection, for psychoanalysis, is desire as a set of choices authorized by oneself alone. Desire, so understood, needs protecting because it is fragile—at its core unjustifiable—and the way for us to take responsibility for the choices we make and accept the losses they incur. We can then have more empathy for the difficult choices of others.
Otherwise we live in the volatile realm of fantasy, which nurtures violent feelings about the desires of others—what they are doing that makes us feel so threatened. Melanie Klein, one of the first psychoanalysts to work with children, spoke about the primal scene—the fantasy-filled image of a first, shocking exposure to adult sexuality, often as sex between parents or a stand-in for them—as a nightmare of endless procreation, the woman’s womb a nest of babies. The primal scene fantasy is often the presumed conception of a dreaded sibling. Freud argued that children feel powerfully displaced by their parents’ love for one another and by the birth of other babies. “Many children who believed themselves securely enthroned in the unshakable affection of their parents,” he writes, “have been cast down by a single blow from all the heavens of their imaginary omnipotence.”
The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion made the joke that whenever two people are seen, one immediately imagines they are having sex and wants to stop them. The joke is that we cannot stand the knowledge that our parents’ desires are, at a certain point, off-limits to us. They belong to them, to their life and circumstances, their intimacies, errors, confusions. When we want to curb someone else’s desire, psychoanalysis hears the child’s confrontation with adult sexual realities, which can become a palpable hatred of sexuality altogether.
In psychoanalysis, numerous “universal” fantasies begin with the primal scene. “A Child Is Being Beaten” is the strange title of Freud’s paper on some of the sexual fantasies his patients only revealed after extensive analysis and with great difficulty. Several of his patients, he writes, used this shameful sentence without a subject to describe a fantasy of sadomasochistic enjoyment. “One wished to carry the investigation further,” he writes:
Who was the child that was being beaten? The one who was himself producing the phantasy or another? Was it always the same child or as often as not a different one? Who was it that was beating the child? A grown up person? And if so, who? Or did the child imagine that he himself was beating another one? No information was produced for clearing up all these questions, nothing but the one timid reply: “I know nothing more about it: a child is being beaten.”
So what is this beating fantasy? After working with his patients, Freud concluded that the fantasy has three phases. In the first phase, the subject’s father is seen beating another child, a scene that feels like an early memory. Freud describes this vision as “not clearly sexual, not in itself sadistic, but yet the stuff from which both will later come.” The nascent sexuality and sadism are found not in the act of beating but in the enjoyment at seeing another child punished, and imagining that the parent loves not that other child but oneself alone. In phase two the image is now of the father beating the subject as a child—an attempt by the subject to take part in the scene, admitting sexual enjoyment along with the punishment and guilt one feels for having it. Freud says that this phase succumbs to repression almost entirely. Phase three is the final and most conscious form of the fantasy, “a child is being beaten.” It creates a pure dissociation, the subject leaving the scene, leaving their childhood, leaving their body and state of arousal, and becoming a pure voyeur. All parties appear as anonymous, generalized others.
Condensed into the image of an adult beating a child are so many surprising elements that the paper feels utterly wild. Importantly, Freud notes, these fantasies aren’t the musings of perverse patients but common daydreams, perhaps even universal scripts, that graft childhood experience onto cultural mores. There are also the outlines of a traumatic memory, according to Freud, of seeing other children punished, and wondering: What is loved and hated by these adults? What is good and what is bad? What, in essence, makes for authority? The fantasy offers a potential identification with power, to be the one who beats as opposed to the one who is beaten. This does the work of hiding a feeling of utter helplessness and subjection; what we feel when we want something from another person and are open to their blows. By taking the subject out of the scene altogether, the third phase provides still more distance. Being everywhere and nowhere in the plotlines, we shirk responsibility for our desire.
Sex sounds to children like rhythmic beating, heavy breathing, scary moaning. Pregnancy and birth are likewise terrifyingly incomprehensible. Beating is not only the action of masturbation—beating off, excitement’s periodicity—but also a stand-in for the experience of insufficiency in the face of sexual reality. In typical Freudian fashion, we are getting closer to incestuous wishes: the child’s desire for the father and jealousy toward potential rivals for his love.
Why is it the father? Freud’s patients were both men and women, but he suggests that in both cases the fantasy is in some sense rooted “in an incestuous attachment to the father.” He also speculates, however, that the father can be a substitute or screen for the mother, the first powerful object of dependency and attachment for a child of either sex. Because the mother is the one whose attention we most covet and most fear, the fantasy of being the desired one echoes a fantasized return to the helpless position of an infant and ultimately a return to the womb. This, for Freud, is the most narcissistic fantasy. But, paradoxically, it is also a scene that explodes you, going where you were not and could not be, to a time before you were born.
We should, according to psychoanalysis, be prohibited from venturing too close to this place. The narcissistic image—I am the desired one—needs to be struck down, just as the self-dissolution that is the imagined return to the womb should be prevented. For while we must respect the human capacity for fantasizing, the worry is its unanalyzed enactment against others. As Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote, in an essay against abortion:
I am…profoundly disturbed by the legalization of abortion, because I, like many others, consider it to be a legalization of homicide. In my dreams, and in my everyday life—and this is something that I have in common with all men—I live my prenatal life, my happy immersion in the maternal waters: I know that I already existed there.
The images of a filmmaker, and a brilliant one. But if he lives in the womb day and night, it is as pure fantasy.
“A Child Is Being Aborted”: this is the fantasy at the center of the overturning of Roe v. Wade. There is the all-too-obvious identification with the fetus that, like the child in the fantasy described by Freud’s patients, finds itself unwanted, no longer the desired one, cast out of its “happy immersion in the maternal waters.” Retaliating against this affront, the speaker seeks to move the hand of law to rule out all abortion, as if all women wanted to rid themselves of babies.
Feeling unchosen, we could surmise, is an acute psychological pain. For Freud’s patients, punishment was a happy substitute for jealous love and the guilty wish for exclusive sexual attention: my rivals are being beaten; I am being beaten. Now, the fantasy swerves away from the punishment of one’s rivals or oneself and toward ensuring that the child being aborted be chosen after all. A circle’s two ends meet—me now and me then—in a womb, declaring, “I will not be aborted!” The image of saving the life of the unborn provides cover both for negating maternal power and for denying one’s own aggression against rivals for the parents’ love. It is, here, the parents who need to be punished, since this self-redemption is ultimately accomplished through an appeal to law and order. “I should not be surprised,” Freud writes, “if it were one day possible to prove that the same phantasy is the basis of the delusional litigiousness of paranoia.”
For a doctor to intervene in the body of a pregnant woman according to her wishes—yet another primal scene—he will now have to consult a lawyer, who will have to consult the courts, all the way up. This is how true sadism is born of a fantasy. Now that this interventionist policy is sanctioned, there will be no end to the intrusive voyeurism taking hold in the form of abortion bounty laws; no prohibition of the will to make women suffer their sexuality on behalf of fetal personhood. The first self-declared “sanctuary city for the unborn” was Waskom, Texas in 2019, and fifty other cities have followed suit. The fantasy of life made and destroyed at will authorizes the destruction of an individual’s desire—its enigma, its historical exigencies, its force as a choice among a series of unknown and overdetermined constraints.
Against legislation that generalizes all women into mothers and all of sexuality into reproductive aims, the practice of psychoanalysis is determined by the singular history of each patient. We protect the choices that emerge from that history, not as individual rights but as decisions understandable only through careful articulation. Psychoanalysis is a kind of sanctuary city for desire, but it is a place where you cannot live; you must find the way it lives in you. Fantasies will be read, examined, and taken apart, unearthing the anxiety that provides them with ammunition.
Having a child gives rise to a raw, naked fear of the contingency of conceiving, of who the child will grow up to be, of the world it is born into. It is equal perhaps only to the death of a loved one. I had the misfortune to experience both in close proximity. I accompanied my father in his decision to end his medical treatments, and swiftly—too swiftly for me—depart from this life three months ago. Why couldn’t he stay a little longer to see his new granddaughter grow up? Is this death on administered morphine, his body filling up with the fluids it could not rid itself of, what he really wanted? Did he understand what he was doing?
His consciousness was mostly gone mere days after he made his decision, already visibly dying. What did he know in those last hours? I could have nurtured all kinds of illusions: that it was terrible and he should have been forced to live, that it was courageous and exactly what he wanted, that he felt serenity and acceptance, or that he felt inordinate pain and regret. The problem is, I don’t know; I have to live with the choice he was able to make at the time he had to make it.
The sound of his death rattle is unforgettable, as unforgettable as the feeling of my children moving inside me for the first time, and as unforgettable as the sound of the machine used to give me an abortion. This is life. And it is so far from where we generally live, inside our minds, thinking, in a muddle of feelings, fantasies, and memories, being with others, and getting away from them. Freud spoke to this difficult mixture in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, written after the horrors of World War I. He says that for humans, life and death are an uncanny, unthinkable excess, something we tend to screen out and don’t really know how to manage, no less encounter—except perhaps in our dreams and in those difficult experiences that shatter us.
It was a dream, in the end, that made me decide to have my son. In it, a doctor took something away from my body and I asked for it back. “No,” he said, “it’s medical waste.” I woke up crying. This isn’t a “pro-life” dream. Nor is it a pro-choice dream, if choice means saying that what one loses in terminating a pregnancy is nothing. The dream enacted a subtle but important displacement away from my fear of what it means to, in the words of antiabortionists, “murder a child” and treat it as medical waste, and toward one of the most important events in my childhood. My mother left for medical school when I was four years old—she was away for six years. I felt like “medical waste.”
I knew after I woke that I wanted to have this child; I wanted to have him with me while I went to school. My son, so I declared, would not be medical waste—and so he wasn’t, not because I didn’t get an abortion, but because I decided to become a parent. I might not have. I wanted the child, in a way, as an undoing of what was done to me—my own Pasolini-esque swimming in maternal waters. I could have decided this was too fantastical to impose on a child whose existence shouldn’t be collapsed with my own. But that would have been a different life to live with, one I don’t shy from thinking about from time to time.
While we might imagine other pasts or futures for ourselves, so many lives unlived, as the psychoanalyst Adam Philips called them, we cannot know what is in the hearts of others unless we listen to them, very carefully. Otherwise it is fantasy. Philips says he worries not so much about unlived lives—we all have them by the bucketful—but about their capacity to take over actual life and degrade it. The overturning of Roe v. Wade and the abortion bans to come mean we’ve gone a step further: we are codifying into law the fantasy of unlived life and imposing it onto the citizens of this country. Perhaps there is an attempt here—as with all sexual fantasies—to get closer to what it feels like to be on the other side of a divide. The problem is that this is being done through what I can only call a beating fantasy.