Lesley Jamieson: Are some mothers compulsively good? (October 10th)

Are some mothers compulsively good?

Motherhood is not always chosen. When there is meaningful access to termination, an unchosen pregnancy does not necessarily lead to parenthood. After the recent Supreme Court rulings on Roe v. Wade in the United States, access has been curtailed in 14 states. We can expect to see an increase in unchosen motherhood, the state of women’s bodies and the normative shape of their lives radically altered without their consent. (Even if one chooses not to keep the baby, a pregnant person’s behaviour is judged in light of unique standards). This is one glaring way that motherhood can be linked to the curtailment of freedom.

There is further sense in which the freedom of a mother might be thought of as qualified that arise when we consider Iris Murdoch’s writings. Throughout The Sovereignty of Good, she presents mothers as concrete ways to picture moral goodness. I will focus on two of these.

The first and most famous is the mother (and mother-in-law) who appears in the case of M and D. This mother, M, has a son who married someone she doesn’t think worthy of him, D. M is the sort of person who always behaves correctly and she never lets her opinion of D show in word or deed. How she sees and thinks about D, however, betrays a rigid sense of propriety (she thinks of D as “vulgar” and objects to her lack of ceremony, dignity, and manners), old-fashioned views about dress and womanly maturity (she thinks of D as juvenile and is critical of her clothing), and somewhat classist sensibilities (to the point of finding fault with her daughter-in-law’s accent). Finally, she’s jealous of D. The case is meant to show the moral importance of a kind of activity that is distinct from decision-making and action. M comes to wonder whether she’s been too harsh in her judgment of D; rather humbly, she recognizes that she’s old-fashioned and conventional, that prejudice and narrow-mindedness might be shaping her view; she attends to D again and through reflection comes to see her in a new, more positive light.

This case helps us to remember something perfectly general—I don’t need to be a mother to find myself thinking of others in conventional and knee-jerk ways, failing to take proper stock of the fact that times have changed, that lives can be well-lived without fully resembling my own, and so on. And it’s not motherhood that makes us see someone in ways that say more about our psychological defense mechanisms than about the other person. Murdoch describes conventionality and neurosis or selfishness as universal human conditions, such that tolerance, unselfishness, and love are worth describing as moral achievements. M is a mother who illuminates goodness, but her motherhood is only incidental.

The second mother that Murdoch introduces is given dramatically less attention than M. Mother 2 is described as a “simple”, “inarticulate”, and “unselfish” mother of a large family. We’re meant to find it easy to imagine such a person being good in the way that M eventually achieves in the case of M and D. In caring for her large family, she sees and cares for each member of the household as an individual with unique personalities, needs and interests—we might assume that the demands of her role necessitate loving attention.

As soon as she mentions this mother figure, however, Murdoch denies that she “illuminates” goodness. I find this perplexing. What sets this mother apart from M?

One possibility is that the goodness of Mother 2 doesn’t generalize as widely as M’s. M and the other figures who appear throughout The Sovereignty of Good are not responsible for caring for the persons they think poorly of. D is M’s daughter-in-law and the two don’t live together (in one iteration of the case, D is dead). In another illustration, Murdoch presents herself as someone driven to distraction thinking about “some damage done to my prestige” (perhaps a negative review of one of her novels, presumably not penned by her husband John Bayley or anyone so intimately connected with her). M and Murdoch have abundant leisure to brood over their wounded egos and to indulge in mental caricatures of others, and it is a contingent matter whether they will be motivated to stop. Murdoch notes that a plurality of motivations could account for M eventually attending to D. Perhaps she wants to make the best of the many years she’ll likely have to spend time with D, feels like she owes it to her son, or hates thinking of him as unfortunate or mistaken. Absent these motives, nothing in M’s circumstances compel her to look at D with a just and loving gaze. Similarly, I could imagine a negative review being something I neurotically obsess over for years, reminiscing about it in conversation and inviting friends to comment on what an idiot the reviewer must have been. Murdoch uses this example to show how we often need external sources of inspiration like the sight of a “hovering kestrel” to capture our attention and reconfigure our sense of what matters. For most of us, selfishness and rigid ways of thinking are the baseline; nothing internal to our relations to our in-laws or reviewers necessitates attention.

By contrast, perhaps Murdoch imagines Mother 2’s love for her family members coming naturally and purifying her consciousness inescapably. She doesn’t need a reality check. Her children are an ever-present flock of kestrels, the task of keeping them all fed, clothed, bathed, and slowly prepared for adulthood demanding constant attention and leaving all other considerations silent—she is someone whose “obedience to reality” reaches the condition where “there is no choice”. Rather than selfishness being something she must overcome, she struggles to think of herself at all (she’s perhaps one of the targets of commercials enjoining women to treat themselves, indulge, practice self-care, be selfish).

This image of motherhood is familiar enough to me. If Murdoch was right in thinking of Mother 2 as set apart from the common herd by her circumstances—the relentless demands on her time and attention, the compulsiveness of her love for her children—then it would be true that she doesn’t illuminate the situation of those of us who are not motivated to love the people in our lives, who can easily forego attending to others as individuals or tolerating their differences from us, and who we can readily replace them with ego-consoling fantasy images.

But is this image of the unfree mother realistic or a fantasy?

Murdoch has a tendency to slip between 3 concepts when describing the psychological mechanisms that give rise to consoling fantasy: ‘selfishness’, ‘egoism’, and ‘neurosis.’ If we neglect the second and third, then it can seem obvious that the circumstances that make a mother unselfish also insulate her from fantasy. But why should care for a large family insulate her from neuroses?

Murdoch sometimes describes human beings as averse to recognizing others’ suffering. We avert our gaze, we try to see it as deserved, part of a grand design, as something to learn from, mitigated by silver linings, or minor in comparison to worse forms of suffering. My mother was not the head of a large family per se, but she was often left alone by a husband who travelled for work, had her own 9-5 job, and was thoroughly occupied with caring for myself and my 2 siblings before and after work. The aversion to recognizing suffering—especially responses that minimize it by comparing it with greater forms of suffering—was a common part of my childhood. This was likely especially tempting because it kept one more problem from being added to the list of care demands my mom lovingly saw to. But there were also extraordinary moments when she would finally realize that she was possibly wrong to minimize things, that seemingly cry-baby tears needed to be taken seriously, understood, and soothed in ways that were well-suited to their cause. If moral goodness involves resisting neurotic fantasies, then we do a disservice to mothers of large families if we imagine that they are immune to them and thus fail to acknowledge the achievement involved in resisting them. We should be alive to the many unfreedoms that can be involved in motherhood, but resist thinking of mothers as morally unfree.


Lesley Jamieson

10th October 2022