Mother Love

More excerpts from “Reflections on Marriage,” as the summer reading club forges ahead.

To what a multiplicity of collisons mother love is exposed, and how beautiful the mother is every time her self-renouncing, self-sacrificing love comes out victorious! I am not speaking here of what certainly is well known and is a given, that the mother sacrifices her life for the child. That sounds so exalted, so sentimental, and does not have the proper marital stamp. It is just as discernible, just as great, and just as endearing in small things. Wherever I see it, I admire it, and not infrequently one sees it even where one does not expect it — on the street, for example. The other day, I was walking steadily at my businesslike pace from the other end of the city to the courthouse to render a verdict; it was about half past one. Inadvertantly I looked across the street; there was a young mother who was walking along hand in hand with her little son. The little fellow was probably about two and a half years old….

Suddenly the little one stands still and demands to be carried. This clearly was contrary to the arrangement they had made when they left home, a breach of agreement — otherwise a nursemaid would have been along. Here was a vexing dilemma — but not for her. With the most loving look in the world, she picked him up and walked straight ahead without looking for a side street. To me this was as beautiful and solemn as a procession, and I devoutly joined in it. Several people turned around. She noticed nothing; altogether unchanged, absorbed in her motherly happiness, she did not walk faster…. She walked along Ostergade as if she were walking the floor at home, with her little one in her arms.

Mother love will offer its life for the child; in this clash it seemed to me equally beautiful. If the little one was in the wrong, if he perhaps was well able to walk, if he was being naughty, no attention would be paid to it at home; and what, then, would have made the difference, what else but that the mother had reflected upon herself. There perhaps are few collisions in which even affectionate parents more easily make a mistake than when the whole matter is a trifle, but this little trifle makes an awkward situation for them. Perhaps a child has bungled his manners a bit; in everyday life we laugh at it and the child does not expect in the least that it is supposed to be a fault. Then there is someone present, and the vain mother wants to be flattered a bit — and see, the child’s greeting is a bit clumsy, and the mother becomes angry — not over a trifle, no, but her reflection upon herself suddenly changes the trifle into something important. Indeed, if that little lad had fallen down, if he had bumped himself, or if perhaps had come too close to a carriage, if the task had been to save the child at the risk of one’s life, I certainly would have seen mother love, but to me this undemonstrative expression of it was just as beautiful.

Mother love is just as beautiful in the routine of everyday life as it is on the most crucial occasion, and it is actually essentially beautiful in the routine of everyday life, for there it is in its element, because there, without receiving any impulse or any increment of force through external catastrophes, it is motivated solely within itself, is nourished by itself, quickens itself through its own original drive, is unpretentious and yet always up and doing its beloved work…. (p. 136-8)


  1. Quin Finnegan says

    It’s a very nice passage. I have noted in the margins of this page, ‘where is the father in all this?’, and then a few pages later I have this passage marked:

    “However, it is only the married man who has the open eye for the beautiful achievements of motherliness; he has at the same time the genuine sympathy which is fashioned out of seriousness in appreciating the infinite significance of the task, and of joy in existence which prompts him to make discoveries, though the joy does not on this account break out exactly in words and jubilation.” (Lowrie 140)

    Of course this introductory ‘only’ was written with irony, SK being the ‘master narrator’ (to borrow a term from Homeric scholarship) who was himself unmarried.

    SK here presents an idealization that reads something like a pyschological portrait of the Holy Family.

    Until we get to this:

    “Or might it be jealousy alone and evil passions which keep a husband clear-sighted and vigilant; might not faithful love be able to do the same, yea, be able to keep him vigilant longer? Or did not the wise virgins keep vigilant longer than the foolish ones? In this respect a married man is well described in a good sense by the terms with which Shakespeare describes a deceiver: ‘a finder-out of occasions, that has an eye can stamp counterfeit advantages, though true advantage never presents itself’ – that is to say, the married man does this with the quiet joy which show that he does not pretend to be an adept, and neither does he coin falsely, and he rarely is in the situation of not finding such advantages. (Lowrie 140)

    This needs a little unpacking. I think SK’s suggestion elsewhere is that the married man MUST be faithful, so that perhaps the reference to jealousy and evil passions is a kind of negative example. The reference to Matt.25 doesn’t entirely make sense to me, and I’m not at all sure what to make of his use of Othello – the not pretending to be an adept, the not coining falsely, and the rarely not finding advantages (especially since in the quotation it reads ‘though true advantage never presents itself’. Help!

  2. Jonathan Potter says

    I’m also fairly stumped about what SK is doing in that paragraph about the married man and jealousy and stamping counterfeit advantages a la Iago (but in a good way!) and the wise and foolish virgins and not needing to find advantages. The paragraph crops up abruptly and then he switches gears just as abruptly.

    I think, mainly it is an odd mix of the positive image of the husband supported by, as you say, a negative example — intertwined somehow. The key to unpacking it and making sense of the wise and foolish virgins may go back to the motto at the beginning — “The deceived is more wise than the one not deceived” — which gathers more significance a few pages later. (See the next reading club blog entry above.)

  3. Jonathan Potter says

    There was also that passage a few pages earlier where he mentioned jealousy in the context of the husband being jealous of “the mother’s partiality for the child” (p. 135). Then he goes off on a tangent about jealousy as a “dark passion” and says something about how it is a “normal psychical condition” which can nevertheless become demonic.

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