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Fantasy, used as staging of desire, is explored here as a quest for a well lived life in the specific context of forming and living in families. The fantasy scenarios in this paper come from life stories of two women, living in Istanbul, and center on the birth of a second child. Although the breaches and disruptions of normality in these lives are somewhat different, the absence, the missing element is conceptualized, using local vernacular, as not living according to usul, in the sense of designating normative conventionality. The fantasy, therefore, is argued to stage the desire for recapturing the imagined normality of marriage, of family life, rather than a search for escaping the confines of the expected, into the realm of the transgressively magical and adventurous.

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  • 1 An earlier version of this paper was presented at the workshop on Gender, Violence and Power in Con (...)
  • 2 MacIntyre (1998) adds further that “[t]he Greek moral vocabulary is not so framed that the objects (...)

1This paper seeks to instantiate and discuss the possibilities inherent in fantasy to reveal how the desires for healing breaches and pursuing well lived lives may be imagined within the specific circumstances, material, ideological and ethical, of urban milieux in Turkey.1 It takes its inspiration, at a general level and loosely, from the concept of eudaimonia, and selectively from the varied literature on fantasy. Fantasies built around the question of “how one should live, so as to have properly storied lives, are explored through life story narratives. This question is used here in the sense of searching for ways of living a good life, of ‘faring well’, as discussed by MacIntyre when making the distinction between Greek philosophical ethics and modern ethics: “In general, Greek ethics asks, What am I to do if I am to fare well? Modern ethics asks, What ought I to do if I am to do right? and it asks this question in such a way that doing right is made something quite independent of faring well” (MacIntyre 1998: 55).2 The narratives discussed below provide visions which merge conduct and dreams in ways that allow duty and desire, propriety and pleasure to be combined in the search for a life worth living.

  • 3 “Fantasy” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (2019) as “[t]he faculty or activity of imagi (...)
  • 4 For insightful discussions of the incorporation of emotion in general and fantasy in particular int (...)
  • 5 Almost all the works that use the concept of fantasy in analysis, refer to its etymological roots i (...)
  • 6 An important observation here is Žižek’s statement that “fantasy does not realize a desire in a hal (...)

2The concept of fantasy has been construed in a multiplicity of ways in literary and media studies, feminist studies, social, cultural and political studies, and complicating it all, in common parlance.3 The category of fantasy is not often used in general sociological and anthropological literature, unless specifically psychoanalytically inspired, or where emotion and affect are central to analysis.4 In almost all of the studies which use it to frame analysis, one finds discussions of its relationship to the binaries of real/illusory, factual/imaginary, rational/irrational, conscious/unconscious, private/public, interior/exterior, at different levels of complexity. The most theorized perspective appears to be various elaborations of the Post-Freudian, particularly the Lacanian approach to fantasy as a scenic constitution of desire.5 This basic idea of fantasy as a setting for desire is retained here, including entanglements of imagination, staging, and intense wishfulness or desire, but without engaging with its specific unconscious dynamics linked to childhood sexuality. “Fantasy,” write Laplanche and Pontalis, “is not the object of desire, but its setting. In fantasy the subject does not pursue the object or its sign: he appears caught up himself in the sequence of images” (Laplanche, Pontalis 1968: 17). Fantasy sets out scenically, visually and/or in words, how the desire for fulfillment and its consequences are imagined.6

3The formulations of the concept of fantasy, especially in works closely inspired by psychoanalysis, tend to emphasize two aspects of the logic of fantasy: the feeling of a lack in the subject, a breach in life to be overcome, and the enjoyment of the transgression that occurs in the course of seeking to fill the absence or suture the break. Indeed, the articulation of desire and enjoyment staged through fantasy are tightly linked to transgression of conventions of social morality, that is “desire […] is articulated into the fantasy […] insofar as desire itself originates as prohibition” (Laplanche, Pontalis 1968: 17). In discussing the many ways of staging desire and enjoyment, Glynos and Stavrakakis also underline that “the paradigmatic form of such staging, of course, involves transgressions of public norms and ideals” (Glynos, Stavrakakis 2008: 263). While taking desire and enjoyment as basic, instead of focusing on desire for the experience of the transgressive, the forbidden, the exploration here will use fantasy to ‘make visible’ the desire for normality, as the motivational force for healing breaches and disruption in the propriety of lives, and thus for re-instituting virtuous selves. This will also, hopefully, provide an appreciation of how enjoyment in participating in the rituals of life, be it the birth of or care for a child, as elements of a fantasy scenario, work to invest doing the proper thing with affective intensity, thus gaining further “resilience” (Stavrakakis 2007: 20) personally and socially. “Fantasy,” writes Jacqueline Rose, “is not therefore antagonistic to social reality; it is its precondition or psychic glue” (1996: 3).

  • 7 There has accumulated, particularly since the 1960s, a substantial literature on family structure, (...)
  • 8 In her rich ethnographic exploration of reproduction and motherhood in urban Greece, Paxson (2004) (...)
  • 9 An excellent discussion of the centrality of the role of the family and the familial, in constituti (...)

4To explore the fantasmatic search for the good as the proper in Turkey, we turn to family life, which constitutes the most pervasive life experience, and the most crucial setting for defining the subject and its relationship to the social.7 The institution of the family, its ideology and attendant codes provides the most prevalent and significant setting for development of a sense of self, of definitions of gender identity and proficiency,8 as well as of national and citizenship entitlements and duties.9 The accumulated literature on the centrality of family in Turkey would suggest that examining fantasies of married life, and configurations of ethical, emotional reflection and the practice they entail would be a valuable entry into how transgression and normality, as the proper, is imagined locally.

  • 10 “[F]antasies are wishful; however they are not about wish to have some determinate object” says Cow (...)

5Fantasy is used here, as an analytical category, to investigate the sequencing of events and associated thoughts and feelings around the birth of a child, where the desired wish fulfillment lies in the scenarios of its occurrence and aftermath, rather than the birth as an object itself. 10Fantasies are centered on the second birth, but I will argue that the desire portrayed in the scenic narration is one that seeks to normalize and restore the propriety of married lives in different ways, thus constituting maternal selves as proper persons, proper spouses, and proper mothers, all interrelated, and all needing constant work to remain in balance.

Whose Lives, Which Fantasies?

  • 11 After introducing the study which was framed as a study of changes occurring in familial lives in T (...)

6The accounts of the births examined here are nested within life stories selected from narratives of married women and men, mostly from middle and lower middle-class families. The couples were living in the older neighborhoods of Istanbul, within or just outside the ancient walls, where individual houses had been rapidly converted to non-descript cement blocks in recent decades. The original study was conducted in the early 1990s, to explore the understandings, sentiments, and the practices through which women and men were constructing familial relationships (filial, spousal, parental) and experiencing marriage, birth, and childrearing (Tekçe 2004). A life story format was used in conducting individual, in-depth interviews with 15 couples, held at different times, almost all taking place at home.11

7The interviews produced rich configurations of events, feelings, thoughts, and dreams, realized or not, about familial lives, identities, relationships, albeit with varying degrees of plotting and reflection. Biographies, very often, began in diverse locations across Anatolia, and continued in Istanbul, in pursuit of a job, of education, due to marriage, or mostly as part of a chain family migration, giving communal, familial, as well as personal glimpses into the lives of diverse provincial and peasant streams which had been flowing into Istanbul since the 1950s. Not really destitute, but more in search of opportunities for better lives, overwhelming the older urban patterns of living, and forming, through multiple familial and origin ties, the middle and the working class urban structures and cultures of the metropolitan center, which one social scientist described as a city with “no natives, but many owners” (Erder 1992).

  • 12 Since all the narrators are married, their stories may not be considered the best source for explor (...)

8Marriage did not seem to be a reflexive project in the individual biographies; there were no reflections in these narratives about whether to get married, and only occasionally of when. As discussed in more detail elsewhere, marriage appears as an essential part of the course of life, of gendered identities, and never simply a means to self-fulfillment (Tekçe 2004).12 The stories of natal and conjugal family lives depict images of familial and social worlds where marriage is at the center of a nexus of attachments, entitlements, duties, and affectivity, which bind people to each other, vital to the reproduction of the individual as a responsible, moral, social being, and of the communal worlds of belonging. The pervasiveness of marriage as a stage of life, and the deeply held, widely shared “attachment to the idea of having a family and being a family” (Sirman 2018) means that there are also expected ways of establishing and living familial relationships, as spouses, parents, siblings, in-laws, where taken-for-grantedness overlaps with normatively valued. These ways may change somewhat over spans of time, families may become more or less extended or nuclear, residentially and emotionally, spouses may be more or less romantically and companionately tied together, and childbearing may be more or less intensively pursued, but there are always, at the time, believed to be proper ways of forming and being families.

  • 13 Kırdar, Dayıoğlu and Koc (2009) in their study of the effect of schooling on marriage and fertility (...)

9Having a child, and for women childbearing, continue to be a natural accompaniment to marriage in the formation of a proper family, arguably not really a separately weighed and considered decision. The statistical sources are useful in showing the harmony of dispositions and outcomes; not only is voluntary childlessness extremely rare in Turkey, but the period between marriage and the first child has also been found to be remarkably steady, at less than two years, over many decades, irrespective of level of schooling (Kırdar et al. 2009).13

10As much as the first children appear to glide into marriage without much deliberation, the subsequent children, however, are richly anchored in marital lives, by reflections conveying a variety of hopes, dreams, fears, and calculations as though to demonstrate their necessity and unavoidability. It is the narratives of these births that, in general, make visible the intimacies of marital lives, intricacies of the spousal and parental relationships, the nature and strength of ties to wider kin, and assessments of the present and future position of the family within the wider socio-economic setting.

11Among these, two narratives of childbearing, both concerning a second child, are selected for discussion here, because in different ways they incorporate fantasies of propriety. In these life stories, the reproductive event is presented as intentionally undertaken, to heal deeply felt breaches in the norms and normality of married lives. There is a calculative and controlling positioning of the female subject in both narratives, in expressing the intention to have a second child, and specifying the actions taken to make that possible. Yet the narratives are permeated by a language of desire to live through, this time properly, a birth or motherhood, which had gone awry before. The break, the breach is part of the elaborate staging of the resolution, a lack which calls the birth forth and, together with the scenic depictions of becoming a mother again, constitute the scenario of the fantasy of fulfillment.

12The nature of the breach is somewhat different in the two cases, but the desire that is staged through the narrative of a second child involves, in both, reinstituting the propriety of childbearing, of motherhood, as well as restructuring existing relationships with the first child and the husband. Thus, the language of self-fulfillment, of being ‘whole again’ that is elaborated around capturing an object such as a child, is one of reconstituting the propriety of marital life, subjectively as well as publicly and relationally.

  • 14 Türk Dil Kurumu (Turkish Language Institute) gives definition of usul, derived from Arabic asl as: (...)
  • 15 The term usul is being used here to represent a particular, local sense of propriety, and not becau (...)

13The common point, that is the desire to live through proper motherhood and marriage, I suggest, may be usefully described here in terms of a local structure of feeling expressed in the vernacular, using an evocative phrase in Turkish, usulüne göre yaşamak. To live or to do something usulüyle is generally considered a virtue in the Turkish setting. One tends to convey the expectation to “fare well” when expressing the intention, the wish, to do a deed usulüyle. The term usul has a very rich semantic reach, referring as it does to doing, performing according to method, procedure, custom, process, or recognized way, with echoes of what is essential, foundational, true to origin, being the plural form in Arabic of the word asl, meaning source, fundamental.14 The semantics of usul in everyday life, depending on what it is that is being performed, from simple operations such as fixing implements, driving vehicles, to significant life activities such as marriage, birth, and the manner of conducting different social relationships, at a given time and place, all carry in varying degrees a sense of propriety, of having acted befittingly; and, the announcement of having done so expresses satisfaction and practical wisdom, combining the personal and the public. In the phrase used above, usulüne göre yaşamak, which pertains to an entire way of life, the phrase means, in essence, to live properly. The fantasied desires depicted below, it is argued, present two different scenarios for capturing that sense of usul in motherhood, as the significant setting of a whole life.15

Stories of the Second Child: Right and Wrong Sequences

14As discussed above, when the time comes to form a family, it is not only the marriage but also the birth of a child, expected to follow soon after, which marks the beginning of a new phase in life. The infringement of this expected order, marriage followed by conceiving and giving birth, by a pregnancy before marriage, is what constitutes disorder, disruption in the life of one woman. How critically this may be experienced as a failure of the total self, and the pursuit of the desire for restitution are explored in the first example of a fantasy scenario.

  • 16 Some details of lives as well as names have been altered to maintain anonymity.

15A female architect, young, in her late twenties, was telling us her life story, in the living room of a nondescript apartment in one of the older districts of intramural Istanbul.16 She was married, also to an architect, the mother of two sons, one a little over seven years of age, the other, only five months old. She had been born in Southern Turkey, the daughter of an architect father, from a relatively wealthy landowning family who worked for the government, and a high school graduate, housewife mother. She had been brought up with great care, much sheltered, protected, a process she described as being reared in a “jar,” till she went to university in Istanbul, that is. There, in this stimulating urban metropolis, she meets and starts a relationship with a young man at the university who is politically engaged and very excitingly different from her, in personality and upbringing. “All the men I knew in growing up”, she says, “were the same, all reasonable, he was different.” These were exciting times, on the one hand only a few years after a military coup which had repressed all political expression, on the other, the explosion of consumerism, individualism, cultural activity in the wake of the militarily encouraged introduction of a neoliberal regime (Gürbilek 2016).

16We are talking to a young woman who is very much in charge of the narrative of her life, has clearly reflected on that life, and is able to create spaces when needed, between her, the narrator, and her, the protagonist of the story. She talks of this inexperienced, sheltered girl, not raised to manage herself responsibly alone, who discovers with great shock that she is pregnant, going to doctors, finally deciding not to abort, and then getting married in the fifth month of her pregnancy. She is inviting us to look at her then, aged 19, with her now, at 28, and appreciate the helplessness and trauma of the situation of that girl. It is clearly still a trauma, she is crying, but one that can be talked about now. The act of narrating one’s own story “itself creates a split between the speaker and the protagonist” (Linde 1993: 123) of the story, which can be used by the narrator to reveal difficult choices, transgression of norms, like premarital sex, within the context of an interview. While the moral stance of the speaker is thus protected, the agony of the protagonist is still present though; the affective import and the normative disturbance of the past experience breaks into the present with tears, as part of the fantasmatic content, bridging over the temporal discontinuity.

17They get married when the pregnancy is in its fifth month, set up house in his small apartment with her family’s help, she continues to attend the university, and then the birth comes, still remembered in bittersweet regret as a lonely affair, not lived in the warmth of the social recognition it merits, in short, not lived according to usul.

The child was born. We did not understand what happened. I did not live through them, neither the pregnancy nor the birth. We went alone for the birth...After the birth, when we left the hospital we went home. Kenan (husband) left me and the child at home and went to work. Nappies need to be changed, child needs to be washed, I am ill, I have just given birth, I do not know what to do. There was an elderly woman living upstairs, auntie Hatice, may she live long ... she brought some soup after about an hour, helped a bit. Those were difficult days. Nappies to wash.

18This is somewhat a long introduction to lay the ground for the emotional engagement, the sense of relief and joy that underlies the narrative of the second birth, a little over seven years later, when both the husband and the wife are relatively established in their careers. The fantasy unfolds further when she starts talking about this child of intention, of preparation, having stopped contraception (IUD) to make it possible, despite his reluctance.

That is how I wanted the second baby. I looked and felt myself lacking something. I did not live some things. What happened ... Now, to be truthful, that is why I decided about the second child. To live some pleasures, I did not live before .... Yes, yes. Everything that happened was very out of the ordinary (sıradışı), birth, pregnancy. Everything was out of the ordinary. This time my mother also came to the birth. My sister also came. I lived through my postnatal period (lohusalık). Ooo our neighbors came. Those things, what is their name, they brought sweets, cakes. That is the way to give birth. The fortieth day passed (kırkı çıktı), and he got washed. We did not go out till the fortieth passed. (laughter). I put red wreaths on my head ... I like those type of things. Dialogue, people coming, going, talking, eating, drinking. We had a very nice pregnancy.

19We see here the point elaborated earlier about fantasy as a scenario of desire and pleasure, or in Cowie’s words, “the fantasy depends not on particular objects, but on their setting out; and the pleasure of fantasy lies in the setting out, not in the having of the objects.” (Cowie 1997: 135) If the second child is the object, the fantasy scenario is its production within a regular marriage, as a cause for public celebration.

  • 17 Stavrakakis directs attention to the importance of emotional attachments fostered through enjoyment (...)

20Fantasy typically gets associated with dreams of going beyond the mundane daily realities of life, carrying, sometimes a touch of the unrealizable, sometimes the rejection of traditions, but almost in all cases an embellishment of the pleasure that accompanies such indulgences of a breach. What we find here, instead, is the delight that comes from experiencing all the rituals of a socially acknowledged, approved event, a married woman giving birth and being recognized for it.17 They, the ritual scenes and associated delight, seek to heal the rejection, the loneliness of the previous social transgression; no matter how much the previous birth had been regularized by a marriage, it is this birth that regularizes the marriage and further the motherhood, by establishing the proper sequence of a birth within marriage.

21The story of the first pregnancy and birth was marked by ritual absences; she and her father never talked about the pregnancy, though he organized an engagement party; her mother who knew the situation, did not come to the birth, but visited briefly afterwards; and no friends were around to celebrate a pregnancy which had not been widely shared, with the evident mismatch in dates of marriage and birth. The transformation of absences to presences in the fantasy of the second birth made her married life socially legible, and reconstituted her as a proper mother, daughter, and person, at least as narrated. The fantasy scenario was not only about becoming a mother properly, but also as restorative of the continuity of her self-understanding as a properly brought up young woman. Thus, the second birth was narrated as a transformational point of her life, in several senses.

  • 18 I borrow this term from Ruhl’s excellent discussion of the idea of ‘willed pregnancy’ where she lin (...)

22The experience conveyed here could have been described in other terms, specifically in the form of a causal narrative, describing a reason for the second birth, rather than one of fantasy, where attention has been drawn to the weaving of marriage and two births into a scenario of desire for propriety. Indeed, there were multiple references to the second child in her life story, but almost all of the others were presented in the vocabulary of calculative rationality for wanting an another addition to the family, while this scenario coming as it did very early in the life narrative was expressed as the story of a lack being overcome, as a fantasy of completion, lived in the fullness of the details of the realization of a birth process. This was a “willed pregnancy” 18that was to replace in some sense the earlier mistake and reestablish her as a married woman in control of her life.

Stories of the Second Child: Injured Body and Kindled Desire

23The second fantasied birth belongs to a woman from a working-class district of Istanbul located just outside the walls of the old city, one of the earliest and largest squatter areas in Turkey, established in the late 1940s, built by the migrants coming in to work in the factories nearby. Over the years its population expanded fast, and by the 1990s it had become a highly densely settled neighborhood of workshops, factories, schools, and residences of several stories, transformed from original shanties, interspersed with mazes of numbered streets. The one we entered was an apartment in a three-story family building, at the end of a narrow, blind alley, where the door seemed to be open to a flow of relatives. It was proper to leave it like that during the interview to get a feel for the natural setting of her life, and indeed, there were visits throughout by sisters-in-law and their daughters.

  • 19 The phrase idare etmek is used here to convey being in charge and managing things properly, and cle (...)

24Born in a village in the Black Sea area, the only girl of six children, she came to Istanbul at the age of six with her family. A woman full of life, a strong sense of self as a person, and a woman, who sees these characteristics as stemming from her cultivated capacity to manage well (idare etmek) her relationships, as daughter, wife, mother, and in-law. 19Indeed, at several points in her narrative she refers to her determined cultivation of morally appropriate ways of being: “I say I have always struggled to be a good daughter, a good daughter in-law, a good wife, a good person in a good environment.”

25How? By being determined, willing to struggle; doing required tasks properly; interested in learning; knowing her own mind; and, knowing how to wait; that is, being socially knowledgeable and personally proficient in practice. Thus, she observes several times: “I count at home (ağırlığım vardır), whether the home referred is natal or marital.

26She and her husband fell in love in secondary school, but were married three years later, usulüne göre and as she intended, when she finished high school at age 18. Living with his parents, a son is born a year later, and her husband leaves for military service when the child is seven months, coming back when he is two years old, to pick up where they left. They both start working with the mother-in-law taking care of the child during the daytime. It is at this point that their life, finally on course, is interrupted for several years by her serious illness and its complications, involving stays at hospitals, finally brain surgery, and placement of a shunt in the brain, loss of eyesight in one eye, and partial vision in the other, problems with equilibrium in walking, all of which involve dependencies on the medical system, on her husband, on her parents and her sisters-in-law. There is also the loss of memory of the period of her life between the return of her husband from the military and waking up one winter morning in a hospital with her mother beside her. Indeed, that is why, she tells us, she will be using a special form of the past perfect tense (mişli geçmiş zaman), which designates hearsay, to narrate the events of that period, since these were told to her as having happened, but she does not remember. Life has not been simply disrupted and disoriented, but also lost materially in her consciousness, only to be filled piecemeal by the recollections of her relatives and friends.

27The disruption in this life is also a betrayal of the body, but by an illness and not premarital pregnancy, more easily attributable to chance, and hence capable of evoking regret, but not necessarily guilt. It is, however, the body again that will offer a chance for restitution, a chance to dream. The narrative of the recent past, since the return of consciousness, is one of determination to put right, to overcome the breach in the flow of her life by learning to do all she can to manage her home life and her relationships with her family. Gradually, she organizes her life around unavoidable dependencies, taking it easy, and trying to find a proper place for herself in the web of relationships, particularly within the special father-son relationship that developed in her absence.

28It is in the expressions and the depictions of the intention and the desire to have a second child that the multiple elements of quite an elaborate fantasy with several themes is introduce into the narrative. First, there is a pregnancy, a surprise, because the doctors had told her she probably would not have children, and she had not been menstruating since the illness. A two and half month miraculous pregnancy, which she aborts with great regret, not feeling ready, makes her realize that childbearing is a possibility.

I said, aa now I said, I cannot think of this child. I, I am unable to take care of myself. A second child, aa I cannot think of taking care of a second child. Even if I bear it, I do not have the strength to take care of it. Then I thought of an environment for a second child. Let us build something. Let us separate, let me be by myself, let me separate from the family, I could go to bed and get up when I want. That is my problem. Now, within this setting, another child, I, I did not want it then .... it was already two and a half months. I was sad. I was sad to abort that child ... I was very sad. I was very effected by that. Why? I wished I was a healthy mother, a healthy woman. Why would I abort a child? There are ways of not having a child. Why would I abort a child? I was troubled. And I said to myself, let me get better, let time pass, let me get to my thirties, I am going to bear another child. I will do that even if it costs me my life. I decided that. Anyhow, God willed and at the time I planned, everything happened as I said, and I did it.

29Now that she learns she can bear another child, she wants to achieve that, desires a new life, imagines, dreams and prepares for it for four years. They build a floor above his parents’ and move there, after 12 years of joint living, and she bears another child, taking care of the baby and the older one, and her home, herself, still relying on her relatives for help, but defining and classifying how each contribution is to work. Not quite dreaming of picking up from where she left off when she got ill, not on the same terms of life as it would have been; fantasy, as it unfolds here, serves not to re-capture past life, but to capture the sense of being a woman who is in charge of her own life as a woman, wife and mother, here and nowwith damaged eyesight, equilibrium problems, and all. She reflects on her determination: “Really to prove myself. I can do something, I say, I can even work, if needed...But, thank God, I am retired... I work in another way, I can raise a child, plus I can bear and take care of another one.”

30The second boy is born when her first boy is in secondary school. She would have had a second child anyway, she says, if she had not been sick, but this is different.

  • 20 I have referred to the necessary discontinuities or fragmentation in subject and time in life narra (...)

31There are recollections of her earlier motherhood practices, now transformed into lacks that are worked into the descriptions of the desire for the second child. As in the case of the first woman, we, the listeners, are invited to look at her as a young mother and see with her what she missed at that time. She is both a spectator and a participant in her story, occupying simultaneously different positions of view and knowledge (Berlant 2012).20 Pleasures of motherhood stemming from bringing up a child properly, usulüne göre as she sees it, now, were not experienced by a much younger self, then, in the case of the first born, a lack she desired to rectify, as she describes well:

The second child, I wanted to take care, raise with special care (özenle), how does one take care of a child, when does a child say mother, when does he say father, when does it ask for something. I did not live these, these that are part of the love of a child. Then, I was ignorant, young, saying let me finish this, then I will see what he wants. Let this be done, let that be done. But it is not like that now. If needed, I leave my work and we watch television together, I talk to him. I do not need to do anything. This is my house ... For example, I follow feeding times … I prepare special foods. In other words, I made this child to experience child love (çocuk sevgisi), to see how a child is raised. I even told my husband that he does not remember...... He saw the first child when the child was two. Now he plays horse with him. I tell him, see, you did not play these things with Ali (first child).

32The fantasy scenario of the second child, involving memories of a life interrupted by illness, scenes of an aborted birth, and untasted pleasures of intensively caring for a child, all narrated with the undertones of desire to be a complete woman and also of forming a proper family with her husband, unfolds further to bring in another, surprising source of emotional intensity, a novel. She was overwhelmed, she adds, by a passionate desire for motherhood itself after reading a novel, a foreign novel about a woman bearing a child under very difficult circumstances. She has trouble remembering the title, and then says it is a Chinese novel; it is Pearl Buck’s book, The Mother. That woman’s story, her struggles ‘stirred’ something deep in her, brought an inner ‘zest, vitality’:

The only reason I bore Halil is because I read a novel and I was inspired by a woman there. Would you believe that? ...her shall I say, feeling some things inside, a vitality, a ripple etc. These affected me. I felt desire for motherhood, would you believe it. I became pregnant when I was reading this novel...she was living with her mother-in-law, this Chinese woman, has two children, daughter is blind. In the book, her husband leaves the family, goes away. There is youth there, she begins to feel close even to the village agent, and even becomes pregnant. She wants to bear even that child. This stirred me, made me feel alive.

  • 21 Sirman’s panel presentation (2018) explored the types of positional possibilites opened to women wa (...)

33Listening to the woman from Zeytinburnu weave the story of how a Chinese woman’s feelings about a pregnancy kindled her desire to bear a child into her fantasy of ordering a disrupted life and living a proper motherhood, we realize how fictional desires may be appropriated. “Films and stories offer us a contingent world for their events and outcomes, and just as we draw on the events of the day to produce our own fantasies, so too we can adopt and adapt the ready-made scenarios of fiction, as if their material has been our own”, says Cowie (1997, 140). The issue of identification, how publicly circulating fantasies are made our own, is a key issue in theorizing and studying subject formation, intersubjectivity, and linking of the private with the public. Without going into this complex area, but informed by it, it is well to note that what appeared suddenly, here, is not a scene of recognition of being like or being in the same situation as a woman in a novel. The setting is very different in the real and the fictional worlds, and the subject knows that; the feelings of the Chinese woman arise within the context of abandonment by her husband and of transgressive sexuality her seduction by the landlord’s agent. What is important is how deeply that woman wants the child despite all the problems. It is identification with this emotional intensity that kindles the desire of this woman in Istanbul for pregnancy and motherhood; she identifies with the position of desire depicted in the novel. It is not just the scenarios, but also the ready-made emotions of the fictive world that trigger our fantasies.21

  • 22 The sense of becoming a whole person and the web of meanings played out in the fantasy, proficiency (...)

34The illness was “bad things, a dream, I woke up and its finished,” she says, identifying the disruption with the unreal, and underlining the creative potential of the investment in the fantasy of the second birth to create coherence here and now. A proper life has been imagined and created from the interwoven fantasy themes of loss of womb, vision, gait, memory; of flawed mothering; of miracle recapture of fecundity; and, of enjoying the untasted pleasures of mothering a child properly.22

Some Not So Conclusive Reflections

35What to take away from the two stories? One point that seems particularly important to me is to recognize that fantasy does not simply make life livable by an escape from or embellishing the everyday, and by allowing us to introduce some magic, however transgressive and unrealizable, to routines of daily existence. It is equally possible to see fantasies as ways of imagining ‘well-lived’ lives, as representations of the pleasures of constituting order and control in what otherwise are felt to be disrupted lives. Investigations of the different ways in which the desire for living proper lives may be imagined would enrich social analysis by enabling us to gain a more nuanced view of the processes of reproduction and change in social institutions and practices, as well as of how emotions may be implicated in both. There have been serious analytical attempts to bring emotions into social theory and analysis over the past decades, to overcome the limitations of framing social action by rather constrictive perspectives of the rational choice or interest driven paradigms, which separate emotion and reason, with emotions as deviations from or decorative additions to reasonable action. The accounts of the fantasies given above seek to depict the ways fantasies may be productive of emotions, in these cases of desires for creating well lived lives, thus instantiating in the circumstances of two rather different female lives the entanglements of virtue and desire. As MacIntyre says, “Virtues are dispositions not only to act in particular ways, but also to feel in particular ways” (2007: 149). The fantasies of these women provide glimpses of the gendered and locally embodied ways of being normal, reasonable, virtuous, in feeling and in practice; the affective attachments to ways of being, which are so important in understanding the resilience of doing things usulüyle.

36In both of our stories, key disruptions of life occur via the betrayal of the body, pregnancy outside marriage in one, long and severe illness in the other; the attempt to heal or restore the fracture is, also, through the body, the birth of a child, and indeed in the second narrative, the body provided an unexpected chance for desire when the medically expected infertility did not materialize. Body and embodiment have been privileged sites of social analysis for a long while now, but I have not engaged with this substantial and varied literature here. If engaged, it would have been worthwhile to explore more explicitly the social import of fantasies in relation to how the reproductive capacity of the female body is involved not only materially but also symbolically and affectively in the production of persons as social subjects.

  • 23 The particular images of conjugality and childrearing forming parts of the fantasy scenario here, m (...)

37The role fantasy plays in structuring social relations in this specific milieux has been touched upon but could be elaborated further. The female architect seeks to create meaning and coherence in life and marriage by desiring and dreaming of a proper birth. She gets all the socially celebratory attention such a birth deserves in the Turkish setting, which she craved, including her mother’s presence signaling forgiveness for the initial sexual transgression of this nurtured daughter. The woman who feels she lost control of her life, including her memories of the years of treatment, and is trying to mend her broken self and fragmented life, dependent on the care of her husband and relatives, dreams and plans for a second child, to build a new life, around a separate home, more intensive child care, which means reordering her relationships as wife and mother, as well as, very importantly, the terms of the embeddedness of her conjugal life within the extended kin relations.23 Her sense of self derives from being part of this network, but not to be totally immersed in it; an embedded separateness which is capable of managing the myriad emotional nuances, and routine practices of maintaining such a familial network.

38Fantasy stories are presented in different settings and mediated through many forms of representation which affect their formulation, content and sensory richness, as well as their circulatory reach and thus intimacy of impact. Here, the setting is a research interview, and the form is life story narration. These particularities certainly affected presentation of thoughts, beliefs, emotions around life events by the narrators, and the constructions of constellations of some of these as fantasy scenarios by the interviewer. Maybe it was not too difficult to make scenarios of desire from the depicted scenes, both for the narrator and the interviewer, since what was happening was already the storying of a life. One basic precept of life story narration is how scenes of action and emotion are selected and emplotted by the narrator along the lines of plot structures available locally at the time of the narration. While admitting to a certain disposition toward establishing coherence of self and life provided by the narrative form of the interview, one still needs to draw attention to the multiplicity of themes used in conveying what is argued to be the overall scenario of desire for well lived lives presented above. The two women used several subplots and occupied a number of positions, identities, stretching over time, in narrating their desire. For example, the architect used a romantic love story theme for the young girl in the city lost without familial guidance; a wages of sin theme in depicting the situation of the inexperienced and lonely young mother suffering the consequences of moral transgression; and, the redemption scenes of a proper birth, something that cannot be realized, really, as is indicated by tears in the present, but nevertheless pay off in pleasure, for the virtues of trying. These plot structures are all available in the Turkish setting, where how to be and live in families are serious preoccupations of ethical reflection, practice and fantasy.

39At the end, what remains with us, those who listened to these stories, I hope, is that fantasy is not only about infringement of propriety, but also struggle for its achievement, however unceasing; not only about passionate breach of routines, but also the pleasures of living usulüne göre, however momentary. It is not, also, simply revelatory of authentic selves hidden from the noise of those we live with, but also part of the unceasing search of the self for coherence, among the multiple reflections of ourselves that reside in others who share our life.

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1 An earlier version of this paper was presented at the workshop on Gender, Violence and Power in Contemporary Turkish Media, held at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, on October 26, 2018, as one of a panel of three presentations exploring fantasies of making and living in families, expressed through three different narrative forms – Turkish television serials (Sirman 2018), a Facebook group and a television marriage show (Akınerdem 2018), and this one, life stories. I thank Åsa Eldén and Berna Ekal for their encouragement and attentiveness throughout the process of organizing the workshop and the preparation of this special issue. The lively discussions among the three of us in the period leading to the workshop provided a constant source of insights. I am thankful, also, to Ceren Özselçuk for stimulating conversations on implications of Lacanian concepts.

2 MacIntyre (1998) adds further that “[t]he Greek moral vocabulary is not so framed that the objects of our desires and our moral aims are necessarily independent. To do well and to fare well are found together in a word like eudaimonia” (55), which “is badly but inevitably translated by happiness, badly because it includes both the notion of behaving well and the notion of faring well. Aristotle’s use of this word reflects the strong Greek sense that virtue and happiness, in the sense of prosperity, cannot be entirely divorced” (39). In discussions of ethical concerns, and in particular in elucidating the relationship between the senses of doing good and pleasure, ought and want, I have relied on MacIntrye’s excellent work on the historical development of moral concepts, particularly, 1998 and 2007.

3 “Fantasy” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary (2019) as “[t]he faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things” and specified further as “fanciful mental image,” “conscious or unconscious wishes,” “idea with no basis in reality.” It gives as origin of the word: “Late Middle English: from Old French fantasie, via Latin from Greek phantasia ‘imagination, appearance’, later ‘phantom’, from phantazein ‘make visible’.” There are somewhat differently worded definitions in more specialized dictionaries or encyclopedias, but the elements of fancy, wish, imagination or imaginative representation remain.

4 For insightful discussions of the incorporation of emotion in general and fantasy in particular into social and political theory with examples of its use in the analysis of a number of social phenomena, see the works by Glynos and Stavrakakis 2008; Stavrakakis 2007; Glynos 2011. These were useful sources in thinking through the implications of using fantasy as a central construct here.

5 Almost all the works that use the concept of fantasy in analysis, refer to its etymological roots in Greek and then trace the changes in its use. Attention is drawn in this history, primarily, to the development of psychoanalysis when fantasy becomes a foundational category losing its association with the imaginary as opposite of reality, getting linked to desire, search for fulfillment, elaborated as another form of reality, psychic reality, and then with Lacan, going beyond the binary of imaginary/real, as that which fills a “hole in reality” (Žižek 2008: xiv). For background in psychoanalysis, a major reference point is Laplanche and Pontalis (1968).

6 An important observation here is Žižek’s statement that “fantasy does not realize a desire in a hallucinatory way...a fantasy constitutes our desire, provides its coordinates; that is literally ‘teaches us how to desire’” (Žižek 2008: 7).

7 There has accumulated, particularly since the 1960s, a substantial literature on family structure, formation, and childbearing dynamics in Turkey, from different disciplinary perspectives. There are many thematic strands within this literature with respect to debates on residential and emotional nucleation of the family, its relationship to wider kin, community, and the state, as well as its relevance to the formation individual, gendered subjectivities. For selected sources see, Aytaç 2007, 2012; Delaney 1991; Duben, Behar 1991; Miller 2007; Yılmaz 2015; and, two early, edited volumes Erder 1985; Kağıtçıbaşı 1982.

8 In her rich ethnographic exploration of reproduction and motherhood in urban Greece, Paxson (2004) argues that in Greece, gender is not a natural fact but rather “a system of virtues” so that one must learn to become proficient in being a male or female. Since public recognition actualizes what it means to be good at being a woman or a man, it is historically contingent: “what I call gender proficiency (not gender identity) must be continuously proven and sustained over the course of one’s life” (16). Such an idea of gender proficiency is also at work here, and is staged, in somewhat different ways, in the fantasy constructions of propriety. For an interesting study of the differences in motherhood constructions of three generations of urban women in Turkey, see Bora 2001.

9 An excellent discussion of the centrality of the role of the family and the familial, in constituting modernity, sovereignty and citizenship in a historical perspective, from late Ottoman through the early years of the Republic is provided by Sirman (2005), where she says, “The invention of new forms of intimate relationships, that is the patriarchal “nuclear” family, produced a new regulation of desire, constituting sovereignty, national community and the modern individual all at once” (149). See also Duben, Behar 1991, and for analyses extending into the 2000s, Aytaç 2012; Acar, Altunok 2013; Öztan 2013.

10 “[F]antasies are wishful; however they are not about wish to have some determinate object” says Cowie referring to the often-stated Lacanian dictum that “The phantasy is the support of desire, it is not the object that is the support of desire” (1997:132). A birth, a child become objects of desire through the creation of a scenario which is the fantasy. Žižek (2008: 7) also makes the point that “fantasy mediates between the formal symbolic structure and the positivity of the objects we encounter in reality – that is to say, it provides a ‘schema’ according to which certain positive objects in reality can function as objects of desire.”

11 After introducing the study which was framed as a study of changes occurring in familial lives in Turkey, the narrators were asked to recount their own lives from childhood in natal families to the present, including education, marriage, and childbearing, ending with their hopes and expectations about the lives of their children.

12 Since all the narrators are married, their stories may not be considered the best source for exploring whether and why marriage might be considered an option in life. Yet many aspirations, expectations, dreams fulfilled or unfulfilled about all aspects of life are recounted in the life stories, but never about whether to get married. This taken for granted quality of marriage is reflected in the statistical sources (censuses, and since the 2008, the addres based registration system) which show that almost all men and women are married by their early fifties.

13 Kırdar, Dayıoğlu and Koc (2009) in their study of the effect of schooling on marriage and fertility in Turkey, using the results of the 1993, 1998 and 2003 Demographic and Health Surveys, state that “98 percent of women get married and that almost all births are to married women” (3) and find further that although compulsory schooling is related to increase in age of marriage, “once married, schooling does not have an effect on the duration until her first-birth”(16) which has been remarkably at stable over time at 1.8 years. They call this a “rigid sequencing of events” and add that, “[T]his is not surprising given that childlessness is not common in Turkey – only 1 percent of ever married women are childless at the end of their reproductive period”(16). Sutay Yavuz in his dissertation (2008) also draws attention to the remarkable stability of certain aspects of marriage and childbearing in Turkey: “majority of women have their birth within 2 years after their marriage and the timing of the first birth does not change to a great extent according to women’s basic individual level characteristics [mother tongue, educational background and marriage cohort], and....despite the intense macro level economic and social changes of the last two decades” (261).

14 Türk Dil Kurumu (Turkish Language Institute) gives definition of usul, derived from Arabic asl as: 1) roots, origins (kökler ve asıllar); (2) proper procedure, path, method, style adopted in the course of trying to reach a goal (Bir amaca erişmek için izlenen düzenli yol, tutulan yol, yöntem, tarz). New Redhouse Dictionary of Turkish-English (1968: 1202) gives (1) method, system, plan; (2) procedure. The term has specific usages in Law and in Classical Ottoman music. In the vernacular, used as usulünce or usulüne göre it carries the senses of according to principles, essentials or in the recognized, appropriate way, with presumption of social knowledge and normative acumen, though leaving unpecified the content of the rule. The reference to a life lived that way, of course, would expand the claim beyond knowing any specific rule to one of trying to be true to essentials in all phases of life.

15 The term usul is being used here to represent a particular, local sense of propriety, and not because the interlocutors used the term in detailing the scenarios of their second birth. One woman did use the term, to refer, however, to her marriage process, while the other one did not use it.

16 Some details of lives as well as names have been altered to maintain anonymity.

17 Stavrakakis directs attention to the importance of emotional attachments fostered through enjoyment of social rituals (celebrations, festivals, consumption rituals, and the like) in the construction and persistence of national identity. He adds “from a Lacanian point of view, in order to account in a coherent and effective way for identification, it is necessary to redirect our attention from the formal to the substantive/affective dimension, from the symbolic to enjoyment, from a dryer to a stickier conception of the politics of subjectivity” (Stavrakakis 2007: 199). The fantasmatic frame of the second birth depicted above mobilizes the desire for proper motherhood by investing its performative, formal aspects with deep enjoyment of propriety, reinforcing its salience for the subject.

18 I borrow this term from Ruhl’s excellent discussion of the idea of ‘willed pregnancy’ where she links it to the “liberal paradigm of subjectivity” (Ruhl 2002: 642). I take the description but not necessarily the derivation of the idea in the context of Istanbul, a topic which would require a separate discussion of the available models of gendered subjectivity. The introduction above of the locally valued mode of acting, usulüne göre, derives from a different tradition of personhood, which could articulate with or oppose that of the individualistic liberal subjectivity.

19 The phrase idare etmek is used here to convey being in charge and managing things properly, and clearly not in its other sense in Turkish of doing just enough to get by.

20 I have referred to the necessary discontinuities or fragmentation in subject and time in life narratives before, that is the gaps between subject/protagonist (and listener), as well as time of the story and time of the telling, which enable various ways by which lives could be made understandable and/or coherent to the tellers and the listeners (Linde 1993; Ochs, Capps 1996). Here, I would like to draw attention to Berlant’s work where there are very insightful discussions of the multiple positions the desiring subject occupies in plotting her fantasies from a psychoanalytic perspective. Referring to being a “subject in” as well as “a reader of” the story, she states: “These two forms, acting and interpretation, enable the desiring subject to reinhabit her own plot from a number of imaginary vantage points, simultaneously.” (Berlant 2012: 74).

21 Sirman’s panel presentation (2018) explored the types of positional possibilites opened to women watching TV serials in Turkey.

22 The sense of becoming a whole person and the web of meanings played out in the fantasy, proficiency, usul, virtue and enjoyment can be seen here. As Paxson observes, “[m]otherhood completes a woman in Greece not because it actualizes some essentially female biological capacity but because, by demonstrating they can be good mothers, women assert their proficiency at being good at being women and at being good women—and they fulfill their part of a unwritten contract of social reproduction” (Paxson 2004: 18).

23 The particular images of conjugality and childrearing forming parts of the fantasy scenario here, may be explored in terms of their relationship to the models of of modern middle class family prevailing in the academic literature, but is beyond the scope of the current analysis. Many of the sources cited in note 7 discuss the relationship between such models and family structures, identities, and lives in Turkey. See additionally, Fallers and Fallers 1972; Kıray 1976; Kağıtçıbaşı and Ataca 2005.

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Electronic reference

Belgin Tekçe, « Fantasy and Propriety in Familial Lives  », European Journal of Turkish Studies [Online], 28 | 2019, Online since 10 June 2020, connection on 13 June 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Belgin Tekçe

Bogazici University, Istanbul

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