Motherhood: savage longing

Robert Thurman, renowned Buddhist and scholar, and famous Uma’s father, writes in The Jewel Tree of Tibet about an unusual way to learn compassion. While you are sitting in a subway car or bus, look around and realize that everyone you see has, in the course of repeated lifetimes and in some form or other, been your mother.

But will we ever forgive each other?

Earlier this year, I bought Colm Toiben’s new book called New Ways to KIll Your Mother, a title that dismayed at least one mother I know.

Toiben is an Irish novelist and critic, who has written here a series of book reviews or essays in which he explores how we treat parents, particularly mothers, in our novels. He notes that 18th century novels rarely feature mothers. It is true that 10% of women died in childbirth then, but still, it seems unusual especially since motherhood was then beginning to be idealized. Yet “the novel is a form ripe for orphans”. He quotes Ruth Perry, a critic, who says that this “may derive from a new necessity in an age of intensifying individualism.”

(That darned individualism, so marked in 2 year-olds, and 14 year-olds, and … oh, never mind.)

Jane Austen’s last three novels have no mothers. Her great success Pride and Prejudice has Mrs Bennet, Elizabeth’s social climbing, hysterical, embarrassing mother, whose husband escapes into his study. (Wait, doesn’t that sound like someone I know?) Aunts were permitted in many motherless stories, including those of  Henry James. They might be kindly as Elizabeth’s or autocratic as Darcy’s, or manipulative, but they were surrogates, not the real mother McCoy.

The middle section of Toiben’s book concerns Irish writers, including the poet W.B. Yeats, whose essay is subtitled, “New Ways to KIll Your Father”. Yeat’s father, an successful artist sounds almost as annoying as Mrs Bennet. He confidently wrote from New York to explain a brilliant book he expected to write and publish to great acclaim. Yeats, who had put in a long and painful writing apprenticeship, refrained from dashing his father’s hopes -and thereby presumably killing him. Instead he waited a long while, during which time no such book materialized and then responded in a restrained manner.

J.M. Synge, Irish playwright (The Playboy of the Western World, Riders to the Sea) and co-founder of Irish theatre, had a formidable mother who preached damnation at all three daily meals and organized his short life when he wasn’t escaped to Paris. Much as he disdained her ‘rule’, he followed her every summer to the family’s summer place. And much as she, an Irish protestant, abhorred his atheism, she continued to give him house-room. Despite disdain, he kept on coming back.

“Samuel Beckett Meets His Afflicted Mother” tells us of the author of Waiting for Godot and his mother. Apparently, she tended to be depressed. (Imagine that -the Becketts were depressed!) Beckett eventually also fled to Paris and insisted on remaining during the Nazi occupation. He wrote the following in 1937 while his mother was away traveling: (She had of course left her cook in place and Samuel continued to enjoy life good food.) “I don’t wish her anything at all, neither good nor ill. I am what her savage longing has made me….. I simply don’t want to see her or write to her or hear from her…”

“Savage longing” indeed. Sound like a mother you know?

In the interests of full disclosure, I ought to admit that I am a mother. But, of course, you knew that.

A few weeks after I became one, I sneaked off to the doctor, leaving my newborn in the care of her father. There I sat and wept that she hated me already. Stupid man, he just laughed and assured me that soon we would be deeply attached. We were and we are – from time to time. Did I say that out loud? At present, we have entered a Pax Romana or a  long Victorian empire of peace. I have finally matured.

Her brother, on the other hand, is in a Beckett phase, although he is cordial enough at weddings and funerals. Funny how infrequent they are.

It is quite breathtaking when our beloved off-spring begin as they say to “individuate”. Humbling of course. After the momentary slights and cuts of childish insults, we endure a decade where we are ill-informed if not actually stupid, uncool, unfashionable and just generally out of date. We may or may not suddenly improve when the child is 21.

Apologies to Robert Thurman, but no wonder we have such a problem with each other! If we have all been each other’s mothers, we’ve got history.

On her death bed, my own mother had what looked like a large ruby on her upper lip. She was about to slip into a coma. She looked at me and moved her dry mouth silently. I wiped it with a wet cloth. Than she found her voice. “I need a present,” she said.

And my heart filled with compassion.

5 thoughts on “Motherhood: savage longing

    • Personal for you in a way. I was surprised myself to realize how “savage” mother love can be as I wrote this piece. I can see how the intensity can be too much for some progeny, even if doesn’t extend to pressure to achieve etc. Good luck with the paralysis. Best cure: start your blog.

  1. Very interesting, well written, and researched. An enjoyable read. It is amazing how mothers engender so much disdain and appreciation almost simultaneously.

  2. Very well covers the subject of us mothers….reminds me of a birthday card I sent to my adult daughter once. The verse was pleasant and read something like I just realized I have grown up to be my mother. Now, when someone tells her how much she is like her mother, she laughs and answers, “yes, I have been accused of that before. Still trying to figure that one out, the laugh or the response.

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