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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Maternal Self-Sacrifice: True and False, Part 1

by Julia Wedgwood
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 1-7


I think it must have struck most people that considering the capitalised devotion, so to speak, at the disposal of every mother, the relation between mother and children, and especially between mother and daughters, is not as happy as it should be. Wherever between any other kindred there is anything like as much love as there is in the heart of almost any mother, the relation is happy on the whole. If we loved our neighbour as ourselves the unreasonable claims, and the refusal to satisfy reasonable claims, which chill and impoverish love, would all vanish away; and in a very important sense it may be said that most mothers love their children as themselves. When any woman, even if we have known her from her own infancy, appears before us for the first time with her babe in her arms, we know a new character. A power of self-devotion is revealed in the natures that have been most centered in self, such as the eminently unselfish hardly show in any other relation. Everywhere else we meet lovelessness with regret, and perhaps condemnation, but still as a fact that need not overshadow the whole life; where love is lacking from a mother to her children we feel ourselves confronted with some form of insanity; with a exclusion, at all events, from the ordinary conditions of life. For the most part a mother's love is indestructible. How rarely can we say that of other kinds of love! Human relation changes, affection cools, those who were once intimate friends become mere acquaintances--it is deplorable, but not altogether unnatural. Life adapts itself to these changes, a sense of the inevitable vicissitude in all things earthly softens them, and we learn to exchange an intimacy that knew no limits for a kindly but vague interest, without a sense of cruelty or treachery on either side. Only between a mother and child is this impossible. As Wordsworth says:

"Years to a mother bring distress,
But cannot make her love the less."

There does seem something in the influence of time which is antagonistic to love, but over this relation it has no power. The security felt by a child that an earthly providence surrounds it on every side is transformed, as the nursery is exchanged for the world, into the recognition of one exceptional relation, where claim does not exhaust love. How is it that a love of which we can say this fails to form the basis of a relation peculiar at least in happiness? I do not think any one will deny the fact, though I daresay we might all state it in different words. What is the answer to a problem which, in some sense surely, must have been felt by all, not exceptionally fortunate or unfortunate, who look below the surface of life?

There is a scene in Victor Hugo's great novel, "Les Misérables," which has often occurred to me in connection with the problems of life, as a typical expression of the way they are answered. The hero, Jean Valjean, finds himself standing before a blotting book, where a fresh page retains the impress of a newly written letter, to his eyes quite meaningless. He lifts them to the mirror in which the sentence is reversed, and reads a significant warning. Something like this seems the solution of many perplexities. The puzzle from another point of view, becomes the solution. We wonder that the only absolutely secure relation between human beings should not be happier than other relations, and as we look into it we see this security as a reason why it should be less happy than other relations. There is an inevitable lack of appreciation for whatever has no element of precariousness. We are so made that what we cannot lose, we cannot adequately prize. The confession seems a humiliating one, but it may be made on behalf of humanity. It is part of our common weakness, not of any individual wrong. The element of disaster thus introduced into the parental relation must have been present always, more or less, but it has been brought into much greater prominence by that new influence saturating every department of modern life, which, when it touches political life, we name Democracy. The generation to which the difficulties of parents are matter of experience has watched a striking chapter of moral evolution, and seem unquestionable manifestations of its influence on all regions of thought. Forty or fifty years ago there were plenty of disobedient children, and plenty of weak indulgent parents, but the ideal for a parent was something authoritative, and the ideal for a child was something submissive. That ideal was pressed upon young people by all influences of counsel and exhortation; and also by one which perhaps we may reckon as more potent than these--that of fiction.

If you turned back to the tales of half-a-century ago you would find resistance to parental authority associated with something rebellious and disorderly, quite independently of the character of the claim. Nowadays the influence of fiction has gone over to the other side. Everything in a story is regarded from the young person's point of view, the parents who oppose their children are covered with confusion; the children who oppose their parents are generally justified. Nor is this the view only of romance, it is preached as well as dramatised. I heard the other day of an address in which the lecturer urged that even from the nursery children should be guided by reason and not authority, that you should tell a little child, for instance, that if he went on eating sugar-plums he would be sick, and thin if he choose the sugar-plums, let him find out how unpleasant it was to be sick. This sort of teaching is not new, it was brought in by Rousseau a century and a half ago, and I do not think anything said for it now is either as forcible or as consistent as what we find in his writings. But his was the preaching of a revolutionist, and with us all this has become a commonplace. The ideal which he was the first to put into language, or at least the first to put into language which all the world remembers, is now taken for granted by the majority of those who speak or write. We must not undervalue the influence of an ideal. It may not be felt in the presence of a very strong temptation, but in all average circumstances it is a steady persistent force, influencing everybody more or less. Those who seem least occupied with the endeavour to do right, would act differently if people around them thought differently as to what is right, conscience has a powerful ally in the anticipations of our kind. A standard of conduct tells to some extent even with those who reject it. Mr. Balfour has spoken, in the book we have all been reading, of the influence on belief of what he calls psychological climate. It is an influence of which we have to take almost as much into account when we are considering duty. We can no more realise the ideals of the past even in our own conduct than we can reproduce in one season the phenomena natural to another. In our day family life is both less happy and less unhappy than it was formerly. It was sometimes darkened, in a far past, by a kind of domestic tyranny of which we have now forgotten the very possibility. If we could go back far enough, we should find children trembling before their parents as we may almost say now that no human being trembles before another. A father who had no object but the good of his children was sometimes as much dreaded then as a drunken brute is now. I suppose we could all illustrate this state of things from our own second-hand recollections. The best literary picture I know of it is contained in the account given by John Stuart Mill in his autobiography, of his own education. He speaks of a careful and laborious training, the advantages of which were fully appreciated by him; yet he questions whether the recollection is of a cowed and anxious childhood, and the incurable habit of reserve instilled by it, was not too high a price to pay even for the education which, as he tells us, started him in life with intellectual equipments equal to those of contemporaries ten years ahead of him. What unhappiness is involved in such a concession - unhappiness darkening that period of life of which it seems harder to remember unhappiness than to experience it in any other!

How much a father or mother could do then to spoil the lives of their children when no one would dream of anything harsh or severe in their conduct. To go no further than my own recollection--I can remember a kind and amiable old gentleman, much too indulgent to his son, who broke off his daughter's marriage, when she was about forty, because he did not think the settlements sufficient. He did not say to her, "If you marry Mr. So-and-so you must do without a carriage and give no dinner parties;" he simply dismissed the suitor on his own responsibility, and let her live into a dreary and loveless old age. Such a transaction would be impossible in our day. A father may decline funds for an imprudent marriage, but he would hardly try to prevent it by his mere authority when the parties were of age, and if he did make the attempt it would certainly be unsuccessful. As between one human being and another that kind of authority cannot be said to exist any longer, and when we consider that kind of use of it the benefit of the change seems great. The gain is great, but no earthly gain is unmixed. To wake up and find that in any single instance good and evil were absolutely separated, would be like waking up to find that evil was destroyed. With the cloud of parental tyranny and the shackles of well-meaning parental interference, we have lost the unity of the family as a permanent fact in life. We are all, now, a set of individuals living together or apart, but only as we might live together in a boarding house. The daughters of a household, in former times, kept the integrity of family life unimpaired. If you looked in on a family of young people in the twenties or thirties of this century, you would find the girls doing something together. They would be collected round the drawing-room table with work boxes open and somebody reading aloud; they might be visiting the cottages or teaching in the school of their native village; but, if their work did not actually unite them at the moment, it was always a common work. One sister might visit the village on Monday and another on Tuesday, but they would all look at it from a common standpoint and feel it a common interest. Now their grandchildren, or great grandchildren, go their separate ways, and meet at the domestic hearth, if they meet there at all, only on the same footing as the sons. And a great gain it is in many ways. Many a girl, who formerly would have been living a sodden, purposeless life, among a set of companions as useless as herself, is doing good work and preparing to support herself, and often even mutual affection profits by the added interests brought into the family. But what secures one good thing does not secure all good things, and we may allow that the gain be worth the price, though we urge that the price is great. The very organism which embodied our idea of duty seems now in a state of disintegration, and we have to carry our ideas into some other framework. All character in our day is, as it were, unsheathed by this withering of family life.

While one member of the family undertook its responsibilities, the other members were not always considering whether they were exercised in the best way, and more than they consider now whether the foreign policy of the country is carried out in the best way. As authority wanes, criticism must increase. No law of science is more certain. In proportion as we approach a joint responsibility we inevitably, and quite rightly, become quick-sighted to defect. If we are accustomed to obey anyone, we let faults in him pass without any sense of condoning them; we do not commit ourselves to the views we hear without protest, not always even to the action which, under his orders, we help to carry out. A host of new perplexities start into existence the moment we give up the ideal of obedience. The relations of inequality provide a shelter for weakness and a disguise for divergence, which disappears when they give way to the relations of equality. And it is not only in matters of duty and conscience that criticism is stimulated by the loss of authority. There are many instincts and impulses which we are not called upon either to encourage or to oppose; which we cannot classify as either good or bad, right or wrong. Perhaps these are the impulses which most divide human beings. If your wish is wrong and mine is right, there must be some means of bringing you to feel with me; or, if yours is right and mine is wrong, of bringing me to feel with you. But if all we can say is that the taste of one of us leads us to the east, and that of the other to the west, there seems no hope of any happy journey together.

The mistakes of parents have been hurting their children from the beginning of their lives, and if their dealings have not been mistaken they have been generally wearisome. We naturally want something different from what we have had always. From the very beginning of the relation something in the parent has pressed on some part of the child's nature and has left a bruise or a rub. While all endeavour was moulded by a standard of respect, an inbred habit lifted the weight; a sense of duty was always at hand to check complaint, and what was kept back from utterance was, in a measure, hidden away from feeling. Now, everything is expressed, the light is let into every corner and nothing ugly can be hid. There may have been more smothered indignation in the hearts of the young when conventional deference was the natural attitude of children towards parents, but I am sure there was much less vehement distaste. And here comes in what I mean by the dangers of an inalienable affection. If fathers and mothers are to be criticised just as much as anybody else they will be criticised a great deal more. The instincts of self-preservation check us in our criticism of most people We know that if we let every shade of disapproval or distaste manifest itself we shall be left almost without a friend in the world. More than a certain amount of criticism would destroy any average affection. There is only one kind that is indestructible by any amount of annoyance and jarring, and it is natural that the check being in this case removed, our tendency towards unlimited criticism should all flow into this channel. While the accepted standards of duty emphasized the command to honour father and mother, a strong barrier turned the stream elsewhere; now that it is removed there is no impediment to the rush.

Where in former days there were large parts of life fenced off from any questioning by a clear assumption of authority, there is now a blank expanse in which responsibility is brought home to every one concerned, and all parties, therefore, become at once objects and sources of criticism. It is obvious, surely, that duty is thereby rendered more difficult. We are like a congregation singing who have suddenly lost the support of a powerful organ--we used to hear the tune, and now we have to make it ourselves. (to be continued.)