The other day while scanning my Facebook newsfeed I chanced upon a literary quote posted by a fellow mother. The excerpt started off by stating that the relationship between mother and child is inherently tragic. This unsettling claim caught my attention so I read on:
“The mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother’s side, yet this very love must help the child grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent.” [Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving]
This isn’t exactly the sort of statement that mothers relish reading, but it resonated with me. It felt like the truth. I had been thinking for a while that maternal love is a love that somehow feels at once like joy and a gently breaking heart.
My daughter is only on the cusp of turning two years old, but as she walks and talks and daily asserts her independence by refusing to hold my hand and demanding to brush her own teeth, the meaning behind this quote becomes increasingly clear. In fact, its truth has been dawning on me for a while now. I learned from her infancy that her time gestating within me was the most connected she would ever be to me. She was a mysterious newborn, often content to awake in the night and entertain herself for an hour in her crib before easing herself back to sleep. Doesn’t she need me? I wondered. Aren’t babies supposed to cry for their mothers when they wake up at night? And now, like most other small children, she is strong and wild and unapologetically alive. She demands without shame or hesitation or coyness what she wants from life. She seems to believe as she watches the world unfold that she possesses a certain authority over it. She doesn’t think that she belongs to me. She believes fiercely that she belongs to herself.
And as time goes on and she grows up and away from me, she will learn about personal limitations and restrictions. More importantly she will learn about pain and loss and darkness. As she slowly forms a life apart from mine I won’t be able to protect her from every single nightmare and horror and depravity. But I do not wish her to live a life free from suffering and injustice, because I know that such a wish would be a foolish and impossible one. I only wish her to be smart enough to challenge injustice and strong enough to make something beautiful out of her pain.
And I suppose that Fromm’s quote applies here. This does in fact seem like a tragic sort of love: this strange but primordial love destined from its very conception to watch the object of its affection drift farther and farther away from pure innocence and into sin and sorrow and all the dirty business of life. What’s more, while a mother’s love seems to grow by the day the child’s attachment to her daily lessens. The mother is aware of all this, yet still she is happy to love this way.
And that’s the thing about the so-called tragedy of maternal love. Motherhood takes a sort of paradoxical joy in the very ‘tragedy’ to which Fromm refers. The mother is content, happy even, to give continually and never ask for anything in return. She relishes all those stepping stones – walking, talking, going to school, high-school graduation – that essentially signify the growing rift between her child’s life and her own. She even hopes that her child, once grown, will leave her behind to go in search of his/her own purpose.
But how does any of this bring the mother joy? Because the mother wisely appreciates that love is radically different from what one imagines it to be: its aim is not eternal togetherness but the selfless dedication to another’s wellbeing. She knows that the aim of her love is to produce an autonomous, fully formed individual whose integrity and compassion outshine any inevitable defects. She knows that it is possible to at once grieve and celebrate a growing separation. And when she one day watches her grown child leave her behind to go out into the world she will know that sometimes broken hearts are the happiest.