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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 2

by Julia Wedgwood.
Volume 7, 1896, pgs. 114-120


In former days, wherever there was an unselfish desire to do right there was also a definite standard of what was right. Speaking broadly, it was felt right that parents should rule, and that children should obey. A conscientious mother, trying to do the best for her daughters, endeavoured to give them what she wished, at the moment of retrospect, looking back on her youth from her age, that her mother had given her. She did not then try to give them what she was at the moment wanting herself. Now that is often the only thing she can see clearly. A woman of fifty much dislikes the interference of a girl of fifteen, and under the new view of parental relation it often happens that the girl's claim is precisely similar to her mother's. And if the mother has no principle of dealing except doing to others as she wishes others to do unto her, she must yield to this surely preposterous claim. For the golden rule supplies no canon of judgment. Our desires are different. Our fears no doubt are for the most part identical. The great terrible reality of physical pain in all its gradations, which approaches us in so many forms, is a common point of recoil to every human being, but unless you can call immunity from physical ill a common goal there is none that can deserve the name. And if our wishes are hidden from each other, so are our needs. In a time like ours of revision of all claims, of disintegration of all moral grouping, we want some rule of mutual duty more definite than the injunction to turn our wishes into precepts. If we are to give up the idea of correlative duty we must in some way enlarge our conception of mutual duty; we must deepen the claims of all if we are to obliterate what is peculiar in the claims of some. And the clue which we have to keep hold of, in giving up so much of what made in former times the definite standard and framework of conduct, is given us by a strengthened appreciation of the one duty that is common to all times and all places--that of justice.

At the close of his sad, rich life, it was said by Dr. Johnson in summing up its experience, that he had found mankind more kind than he expected, and less just. If he had lived in our day he might have spoken the words with an added fullness of meaning. In the relations founded on authority the word justice would sound cold on the one side, arrogant on the other, as an epitome of mutual duty; and in former days parent and child abjured alike the critical attitude demanded by any such attempt as the word suggests, because the one accepted responsibility, the other conceded submission. Now that these correlative duties are done away with the common duty emerges into much larger significance. The mother, who on former days would have sought to teach her children obedience, and who in so doing would have prepared them for many duties as unlike as possible to obedience, should seek now to teach them to satisfy all righteous claim. In some sense that was always her duty, in a very important sense the other is still her duty, but the proportions have changed, and the generation that is young now, unless it aim at being just far more earnestly than the generation that was young fifty years ago, will attain neither justice, nor anything else that is good.

I know it may seem a mere empty formula to say that anyone should aim at teaching justice, we all want to be just, it may be thought, the difficulty is to know what conduct is just. No doubt justice is the most difficult duty there is. To obey may be sometimes hard, but it is simple. Justice is never simple. It is far more arduous, far more of a strain on the whole nature to be just to a loving father than to be submissive to a severe master. And in fact the duty of justice is so obviously difficult that for the most part we expect some cheap substitute from each other, and not this. There are whole classes from whom we should not thing of expecting it, at least when we use the word with reference to the uneducated it is with rather a different meaning. And when we apply the word to an individual it is almost always with reference to a transient phase or aspect of conduct, something that takes up a part of a man's energies, and conterminous with all human relation, something leaving a large part of life untouched by its requirements. We speak of a just landlord, a just master, a just employer of labour, we hardly ever speak of a just man. Did any of us ever know such a being? The strange thing is that it is not always the best men who make most approach to it, for this particular virtue has as its foe not only all the vices, but some of the virtues. In the last resort they all need its support, but they often set themselves against it, and the warning, "be just before you are generous," is a reminder to us that most people find generosity a dangerous rival to its brother. "Justice is like the kingdom of heaven, it is not without us as an accomplished fact, but within us as a great aspiration," says George Eliot. The sentence is true as a statement of fact, but if it means that in some future condition of things we may begin to think of being just to our fellows, but that here and now we may take up some other canon of mutual action, then it seems to me as large a falsehood as words can convey. Let us consider how the duties of a mother are affected by the change which makes justice as it were the residuary legatee of all claims submerged and hidden by the advancing tide of democracy.

How do we set about attaining justice in a court of law? We appoint a judge and jury who have to listen consecutively to each side, we encourage each side to put their case as forcibly as possible, we even admit of exaggerated rhetoric, knowing that it may be met by exaggerated rhetoric on the other side. In private life I suppose we should deprecate any such method as this. It is not wise, we must all feel, for any parties to a quarrel which could not be carried before the law courts to aim at making an exhaustive statement of their own claims. After such an attempt at an understanding it would generally be found that the costs swallowed up the estate. The affections at stake would have been expended on the arrangements intended to preserve them. Only think what love we need to urge claim! We may point out that someone owes us a large instead of a small sum without love, and without wrong. But the moment we quit the ground of money, or money's worth, we shall find that all personal claim, not founded on love, implies selfishness. It is not that we wilfully ignore the needs of those we dislike, but we cannot see their needs. We can magnify the most trifling ills in our own lot into obstacles utterly concealing the greatest ills in the lot of our neighbour; as when we blot out a view of the Alps with a vine leaf that overhangs the window whence we gaze at the prospect. It is easier to forget the greatest suffering of another than the smallest suffering of our own.

Can anyone trust himself to choose suffering for the one who ought to suffer, with the security of escaping this danger? There is no one who can do this but a mother, and she is the one who does it least. She knows that it is better for her little child to do without some treat or smusement, than for her to have the headache of fatigue or exertion, but she chooses the headache for herself rather than the little disappointment for the boy or girl because she minds their black looks more than a headache. The false self-denial hides from her the true. She has it in her power to represent to them the claims of the neighbour. She might use her great love to bring forward her small need, as a representative of the needs of all. But she chooses rather to use her great love for what we should always aim at with weak and poor love, to obliterate her own claim. What we should always aim at when it is difficult--to forget our own desires in the desires of another--she aims at when the opposite of it is difficult. She wants to sacrifice herself to her child, the true sacrifice would be to bear the little pout or the little wail, and secure that when nature is pliant and habits are unformed the necessity of giving up one's own choice for the need of another may be practically realised. The false sacrifice is to secure that inexpressible delight of the child's joyous chuckle, and pay the price of needed economy, or whatever it is, in some privation for herself. And so the vast gain to one human being of being brought to realise the needs of others is thrown away by the only person who could give it, because to her the pleasure of the hour swallows up the deepest needs of a lifetime.

In many cases I believe that the only need for prompt rejection of the claim of the young would be fearless candour on the part of the old. The other day, for instance, I heard of an only daughter, with an invalid maother, who wished to go away from home and devote herself to the service of the poor, taking with her, of course, the L100 a year or so for her support which it would have been very inconvenient for the household to spare. I could hardly imagine a person with a wish to do right listening to a statement of the parent's side and persisting in her intention. But it sometimes happens that in cases which might be made to sound not very different from this the daughter's claim is justified by experience. I will name one on which the world has long since pronounced its verdict. I remember in my youth one of the most exciting events was the decision of Miss Florence Nightingale to quit a home where her absence was deeply regretted, and devote herself to nursing the sick. She was a brilliant and interesting figure in society, and a beloved member of her family; and the intelligence that the world she had adorned and the home she had enlivened would know her no more, and that a few invalid ladies in a charitable home would have her for their guardian and nurse, was a startling shock to general ideas of decorum and rightness. At the thime I speak of, more than forty years ago it was a perfectly unparalleled step, and excited great disapproval. When in a year or two the Crimean war broke out and an appeal was made to her by members of the Government of that day, to undertake the charge of the military hospitals in the East, a general chorus of admiration drowned the very recollection of those first notes of complaint. People forgot, and they have hardly remembered since, that she had left home originally to nurse a few sick governesses, they remembered only that at a great national crisis she had come forward in response to a national need, that she had taken her place in a niche of history and would go down to posterity encircled in a halo of glory. No parents who could foresee such a destiny for their daughter would have any hesitation in yielding to the request which formed its preliminary, but the parents here had to give their consent to a step which did not promise any prestige or interesting achievement, only the loss of what seemed most valuable. It is difficult at the present hour to estimate the courage and the unwordly spirit which before the Crimean war, in the first half of the century, was necessary for any acquiescence in anything so odd and unconventional, as well as so much opposed to traditional canons of duty. We can all see now that in that case it was the claim of the daughter which should have been conceded (as it was), while in the other case I mentioned most impartial onlookers would probably give their suffrages for the claims of the parent. But at the time the two cases would stand much on one level. Well, the moral I would draw from all that is not that parents should always give their consent to a daughter's wish to leave home (as perhaps most generous parents would be inclined to do now), or that a daughter should always give up her wish to leave home at any parental opposition (as most dutiful daughters would have been inclined to do then), but that each side should be free to state its own case clearly. The parents should be able to say without raising any sense of compunction in themselves, or indignation in their daughter--"we have nursed you, sheltered you in infancy, worked for you, denied ourselves for you; during twenty or thirty years your needs have come before ours, and now that we need you, is it just that instead of repaying anything of this devotion you should go off to those whom hitherto you have never tried to help and cannot know that you will help to any purpose?" And the daughter should be able to state her case just as plainly, but I suppose there is no question in our day which side it is most necessary to justify. The world is gone over to the side of the young. What is needed is a clear and fearless utterance of the claim of those who are of all others least ready now to make or enforce any claim whatever.

Self-assertion on the part of a parent is the need of our time ina a sense that it was not the need of former times. The old ideal of parental action made it a secondary duty for a mother to consider her own claims and needs. Children were not accustomed to make claims, parents were accustomed to choose their indulgences for them, and had not to justify themselves in the limits they imposed. But parents and children now live together so much on an equality that the time comes very soon when some indication should be given of the parents' reason for refusing some of the wishes which they have to oppose in their children. It is not a practice which can be begun when the son wants money for some undesirable career, or the daughter seeks to leave the home where she is needed. If from the first the parents have not been able to put their claim into words, they will, just at the moment when it is really a case of conflicting claims, be unable to help their children in the most important decision of life. The mother who has found it impossible to answer her little child's petition to be carried in her arms--"I am too tired and you are quite able to walk," or her daughter's petition to be taken to an opera--"I cannot afford the money without giving up something more important than an evening's amusement"--such a mother will strive in vain to summon up any advocate within to resist the impetuous demands of an ambitious early maturity however strongly they are opposed by her knowledge of her daughter's true interests. If she has always concealed her own unimportant needs when they opposed her child's wishes, it may be even the least evil for her to give in to important claims which she sees to be altogether disastrous. To be consistently wrong is sometimes better than to be spasmodically right. But the mother who in subjection to the momentum of youthful choice has to silence her scruples with that reflection, has from the first omitted a large part of her duty to those she has brought into the world.