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The Line Between Self-Gift and Self-Erasure
Sara Ruddick on mother's love
The Earthsea book club will wrap up with a two-chapter post next week, after some end-of-summer turbulence. In the meantime, I wanted to share an excerpt from a book club on maternity and natality I belong to.
Our most recent reading was an excerpt from Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking: Towards a Politics of Peace. (Yes, I have been pitching my book club on tackling my 2023 to-read list—I’m at 7/11 so far).
The chapter we read was titled “Training: A Work of Conscience?” which is focused on how mothers try to be a school of both morals and socialization for their children (and must teach their children how to navigate the gaps between what’s right and what’s the done thing).
Ruddick rightly sees this as proof that mothering is contemplative work. (Also a theme that animated the chapter I contributed to With All Her Mind). But my favorite passage came near the end, in a section on love, attention, and self-sacrifice:
Acts of attention strengthen a love that does not clutch at or cling to the beloved but lets her grow. To love a child without seizing or using him, to see the child's reality with the patient loving eye of attention—such loving and attention might well describe the separation of mother and child from the mother's point of view.
On repeated occasions, attention calls for a kind of radical self-renunciation. [Simone Weil says] "The soul empties itself of all its contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all of his truth." But such renunciation, necessary at moments, is not identical with attentive love. To court self-denial for its own sake perverts rather than expresses attentive love. Mothers are especially prone to this perversion, since they are rewarded for self-sacrifice. They are familiar with the danger of denying their own needs only to find they have projected them onto their children. A person who counts herself as nothing lacks the confidence needed to suspend her own being to receive another's. Since her emptiness is involuntary and often frightening, she searches in her child to find the self she has sacrificed. The soul that can empty itself is a soul that already has a known, respected, albeit ever-developing self to return to when the moment of attention has passed.
Care work requires sacrifice. Mothering can feel like an apocalypse in both the colloquial and technical senses (an unveiling as much as an ending). I’ve always liked this from playwright Sarah Ruhl:
There were times when it felt as though my children were annihilating me (truly you have not lived until you have changed one baby’s diaper while another baby quietly vomits on your shin) and finally I came to the thought: all right, then, annihilate me, that other self was a fiction anyhow.
Parents resemble the Very Hungry Caterpillar, whose week we narrate again and again. We, too, emerge in a new form, shaped by their hunger.
But when you know you must undergo a change, it’s hard to tell where the line between self-gift and self-erasure is. I’ve known mothers who have been pushed to the wrong side of that balance and suffered for it.
I very much like Ruddick’s framing, particularly this:
A person who counts herself as nothing lacks the confidence needed to suspend her own being to receive another's.
We have to hold ourselves lightly without holding ourselves as valueless.
Reading the Ruddick chapter with friends made me wonder a little what an Immanuel Kant for New Moms book would look like; one that emphasize that the child and the mother are both ends in themselves.
The reason to sacrifice for the child is his or her infinite worth, yoked to their own frailness that leaves them vulnerable. But the mother is just like the child, just as infinitely precious, and she can’t see the child clearly if she sees the child’s worth as higher than or disconnected from her own.