All love begins and ends there.
— ROBERT BROWNING.
FIFTY years ago no one would have thought of writing about the nature of motherliness. To sing of motherhood was then just as natural for ecstatic souls as to sing of the sun, the great source of energy from which we all draw life; or to sing of the sea, the mysterious sea, whose depth none has fathomed. Great and strong as the sun and the sea, motherhood was called; just as tremendous an elemental power, a natural force, as they — alike manifest, alike inexhaustible. Every one knew that there existed women without motherly instincts, just as they knew of the existence of polar regions on the globe: every one knew that the female sex, as a whole, was the bearer of a power which was as necessary for life’s duration as the sun and the sea, the power not only to bear, but to nurture, to love and rear and train. We knew that woman, as a gift from Nature, possessed the warmth which, from birth to death, made human life human; the gift which made the mother the child’s providence, the wife the husband’s happiness, the grandmother the comfort of all. A warmth which, though radiating most strongly to those gathered around the family hearth, also reached those outside the circle of her dearest, who have no homes of their own, and embraced even the strange bird as it paused on its journey. For motherliness was boundless; its very nature was to give, to sacrifice, to cherish, to be tender, even as it is the nature of the sun to warm, and of the sea to surge. Fruitfulness and motherhood received religious worship in the antique world, and no religious custom has withstood the changes of the times so long as this.
Many ideas have become antiquated and many values have been estimated afresh, while the significance of the mother has remained unchallenged. Until recently, the importance of her vocation was as universally recognized as in the days of Sparta and Rome. The ideas of the purpose for which she ought to educate her sons changed, but the belief in the importance of training by the mother remained. Through the Madonna Cult the Catholic Church made motherhood the centre of religion. The Madonna became the symbol of the mother-heart’s highest happiness and deepest woe, as embodied in the VirginMother’s holy devotion at the manger and the sacred grief of the Mater Dolorosa at the cross. The Madonna became the symbol of woman’s highest calling, that of giving to humanity its saviours and heroes — those heroes of the spirit, so many of whom have borne witness to the importance of the intrinsic power of womanhood as a guide, not only to earthly life, but also to those metaphysical heights about which the greatest of them all has testified that: ‘Das Ewigweibliche zieht uns hinan.’
‘Das Ewigweibliche’ is nothing but the well of maternal tenderness, that power of love, whereby woman’s intuition takes a short cut to the heights which man’s thought reaches by a more laborious path. Great poets have perceived that motherhood is not only the mighty race-renewer. Björnstjerne Björnson says that all creating is of mother origin’; in other words, that all the qualities which the child craves of the mother, the work craves of its creator: the vision, the waiting, the hope, the pure will, the faith, and the love; the power to suffer, the desire to sacrifice, the ecstasy of devotion. Thus, man also has his ‘motherliness,’ a compound of feelings corresponding to those with which the woman enriches the race, oftener than the work, but which in woman, as in man, constitutes the productive mental process without which neither new works nor new generations turn out well. Man’s experience of the mother’s influence on his life causes him — at least among the Romanic people — to include the mother in his worship of the Madonna. And whenever a man dreams of the great love, he sees a vision of motherly tenderness fused with the fire of passion.
In Art, that great undogmatized church, man has not wearied of interpreting that dream, of glorifying that vision in word and color. Even the woman-child, with motherly action straining the doll to her breast, kindles his emotion; he would kneel to the maiden who, unseen, displays her tender solicitude for a child, to the ‘Sister’ who brightens the sick-room, to the old nurse in whose face every wrinkle has been formed as a cranny of goodness. They all touch his emotion in revealing the loveliest of his possessions in mother or wife; if he has neither, then the things which he most yearns to have, and which he most warmly desires about him in his last hours. Whether the individual was doomed to yearn in vain or not, that motherliness existed has always been felt to be as certain as that the sun existed, even though the day be overcast. Humanity could, one thought, count on the warmth of motherliness, as for millions of years we may still rely on the warmth of the sun.
During those earlier periods motherliness was but a mighty nature-force; beneficial, but violent as well; guiding, but also blind. As little as they discussed the question of the natural division of labor, which had arisen because the woman bore, nurtured, and reared the children, and — in literal as well as spiritual sense — kept the fire on the hearth, even less did they doubt the natural ‘mother instinct’ being sufficient for the human family. The instinct sufficed to propagate the race, and the question of not only propagating, but elevating, had not yet been thought upon. Even such as it has been, motherliness has achieved enormous gains for progress. Although not yet consciously cultivated, it has been the greatest cultural power. Through research into the origin of humanity and into its early history, it became clear to us that motherliness was the first: germ of altruism and that the sacrifices for their progeny which the higher animals, and even the lowest races of mankind, imposed upon themselves, were the first expressions of the race-bond; a bond out of which later the social feeling gradually developed with its countless currents and unmeasurable deeps.
With the primitive peoples who lived in a state of war of all against all, there was only one spot where battle did not rage, where the tender feeling, little by little, grew. Among the older people mutual depredation was the established order; only the child craved help; and in helping the child, father and mother united. The child made the beginning of a higher relation between the parents. In the man the fatherly duty of protection took the form of war and hunting, which developed the self-assertive, ‘egoistical’ qualities; while the woman’s duties developed the self-sacrificing, altruistic feelings.
Motherliness, which in the beginning was but the animal instinct for protecting the young, became helpfulness, compassion, glad sympathy, far-thinking tenderness, personal love — a relation in which the feeling of duty had come to possess the strength of instinct, one in which it was never asked if, but only how, the duty should be fulfilled. And though the manner of showing the feeling has undergone transition, the feeling itself, during all the ages that it has acted in human life, has developed until, in our day, it has grown far beyond the boundaries of home. The man’s work is to kindle the fire on the hearth, the woman’s is to maintain it; it is man’s, to defend the lives of those belonging to him; woman’s, to care for them. This is the division of labor by which the race has reached its present stage.
Manliness and womanliness became synonymous with the different kinds of exercise of power belonging to each sex, in their separate functions of father and mother. That the mother, through her imagination dwelling on the unborn child, through her bond with the living child, through her incessant labors, joys, and hopes, has more swiftly and strongly developed her motherliness than the father his fatherliness, is psychologically self-evident. The modern psychologist knows that it is not the association of theory, but the association of feeling, which is the most important factor in the soullife. But besides feeling, which belongs to the unconscious sphere, and which, like the roots of the plant, must remain in the dark soil that the tree may live, we have will to guide our thoughts. What is present in the soul, what directs our action, what spurs our effort, that is what we, with all our will, as well as feeling, hold dear. Thus there accumulated in the female sex an energy of motherliness, which has shown itself so mighty and boundless a power that we have come to claim it as a constant element and one not subject to change. And this energy grew so great because the hitherto universally conflicting elements in human life reached their oneness in mother-love; the soul and the senses, altruism and egoism, blended.
In every strong maternal feeling there is also a strong sensuous feeling of pleasure, — which an unwise mother gives vent to in the violent caresses with which she fondles the soft body of her baby — a pleasure which thrills the mother with blissful emotion when she puts the child to her breast; and at that same moment motherliness attains its most sublime spiritual state, sinks into the depths of eternity, which no ecstatic words — only tears — can express. Self-sacrifice and self-realization come to harmony in mother-love. In a word, then, the nature of motherliness is altruism and egoism harmonized. This harmony makes motherhood the most perfect human state; that in which the individual happiness is a constant giving, and constant giving is the highest happiness. Björnson’s words, ‘a mother suffers from the moment she is a mother,’ and the declaration of countless women that they never realized the meaning of bliss until they held the child to their breast, are fully reconcilable in the nature of motherhood.
What torrents of life-force, of soul, tenderness, and goodness have flowed through humanity from the motherliness of the true mothers, and the mothers who have not borne children. All the bodily pangs and labors which motherhood and mother-care have cost age after age, is the least of their giving. All the patient toiling which millions of mothers have imposed upon themselves when they alone have reared and fed their children, all the watchful nights, all the tired steps, — all that mothers have denied themselves for the sake of their children, is not the greatest of their sufferings. That is their greatest sorrow which a man has expressed in the poem wherein the mother throws her heart at her son’s feet, who, as he angrily stumbles over it, hears it whisper,‘Did you hurt yourself, my child?’
During the thousands of years that motherliness was of this sort, women had not yet been seized with the modern and legitimate desire, sich auszulehen, to drain the wine of life. The one desire of their souls was ’sich einzuleben’ to lose themselves in the lives of their dear ones in their own world, often narrow indeed, yet for them a world grown great and rich through the joy of motherhood in creating. The mother had labor and trouble no less than the working-woman of to-day, but then she was in the home. She could quiet the crying of the little child, take part for a moment in its play, give correction or help; she was at hand to receive their confidences when the children came in with their joys or griefs. Thus she wove of little silken threads a daily-stronger-growing band of love, which, throughout all the changes of life, and wherever the children afterwards went into the world, held their hearts close to her own. And when she, later, sat alone and yearned, how she lived in and through her children!
Though all were not like Goethe’s mother, — Goethe, whom we could have loved even more if he had oftener visited his glorious mother, — yet she is typical of the many, many mothers in whom motherliness has been so strong that it has lived by its own strength, so great that it has developed all the powers of their beings. And these mothers became complete individualities of dignity and worth, although their life-interest was centred, not in a work of their own, but in the child to whom they had given the best of themselves. They were mothers of whom sons have testified that from them had they got their own essential qualities. Those mothers were not ‘characterless’ beings, upon whom the women of our day, bent on the complete expression of their wonderful lives, look down. No, they were in the noblest sense liberated. Their personalities were enriched through wisdom and calm power. They were ripened into a sweetness and fullness through a motherliness which not only had tended the body, but which had been, in deepest meaning, a spiritual motherhood.
Besides these glorious revealers of motherliness, there has always been the great swarm of anxious bird-mothers, who could do no more than cover their young with their wings; great flocks of ‘goose-mothers,’ mothers who with good reason were called unnatural, just because it was never doubted that motherliness was the natural thing, something one had a right to expect — the wealth which could have no end.
Scientific investigation into the form through which, consciously or unconsciously, the power of motherliness was expressed in the laws and customs of the past, and further research into that compound of feelings and ideas which shaped and gave rise to the traditions of savage tribes, came simultaneously with the era of Woman-Emancipation. At the same time there took place a deep transformation in the view of life, during which all values were estimated anew, even the value of motherliness. And now the women themselves borrow their argument from science, when they try to prove that motherliness is only an attribute woman shares with the female animal, an attribute belonging to lower phases of development, whereas her full humanity embraces all the attributes, independent of sex, which she shares with man. Women now demand that woman, as man, first of all be judged by purely human qualities, and declare that every new effort to make woman’s motherliness a determining factor for her nature or her calling, is a return to antiquated superstition.
When the Woman Movement began, in the middle of the last century, and many expressed fears that ‘womanliness’ would suffer, such contentions were answered by saying that that would be as preposterous as that the warmth of the sun would give out. It was just in order that the motherliness should be able to penetrate all the spheres of life that woman’s liberation was required.
And now? Now we see a constantly decreasing birthrate on account of an increasing disinclination for motherhood, and this not alone among the child-worn drudges in home and industry, not alone among the lazy creatures of luxury. No, even women strong of body and worthy of motherhood choose either celibacy, or at most one child, often none. And not a few women are to be found eager advocates of children’s upbringing from infancy outside of the home. Motherhood has, in other words, for many women ceased to be the sweet secret dream of the maiden, the glad hope of the wife, the deep regret of the ageing woman who has not had this yearning satisfied. Motherliness has diminished to such a degree that women use their intelligence in trying to prove not only that day-nurseries, kindergartens, and schools are necessary helps in case of need, but that they are better than the too devoted and confining motherliness of the home, where the child is developed into a family-egoist, not into a social modern human being!
Some years ago I wandered through the Engadine, the place where the two men who, for our day, have strongly emphasized the importance of motherliness found inspiration, — Nietzsche, summer after summer, and Segantini, year after year. Segantini has often painted, not only the human mother, but also the animal mother. And he has done both with the simple greatness and tenderness of the old masters who, in the Madonna and the Child, glorified the wonderful mystery of mother-love. Segantini, who lived and died in the Alpine world where life is maintained under great difficulties, noted principally the importance of the mother-warmth during the mere physical struggle for existence. Nietzsche again, the lonely writer and seer of humanity’s future, emphasized not only the significance of motherliness in a physical sense, but also in a sense hitherto barely perceived, of consciously recreating the race. He knew that the race-instincts first of all must be developed in the direction of sexual selection, so as to promote the growth of superior inborn traits. He knew also that women needed to be educated to a perfected motherliness, that they, instead of bungling this work as they are apt to do to-day, may come to practice the profession of motherhood as a great and difficult art.
This new conception is ignored by those who advocate community-upbringing instead of home-rearing, because most mothers, among other reasons, are to-day incapable as educators, and because parents to-day often make homes into hells for children. What hells institutions can be, seems to be forgotten! Almost every child is happier in an ordinary, average home than in an admirable institution. And what a strange superstition, that the teachers of the future will all be excellent, but — that the parents will remain incorrigible.
As yet have we even tried to educate women and men to be mothers and fathers? This, the most important of all social duties, we are still allowed to discharge without preparation and almost without responsibility. When the words of Nietzsche, ‘A time will come when men will think of nothing except education ’ have become a reality, then we shall understand that no cost is too great when it comes to preserving real homes for the purpose of this new education. And there is nothing which in a higher degree utilizes all the powers of womanhood (not alone these of motherliness) than the exercise of them in the true, not yet tried, education of the new generation.
All women, even as now all men, must learn a trade whereby they can earn their livelihood, — in case they do not become mothers, as well as before they so become, and after the years of their children’s minority; but during those years they must give themselves wholly to the vocation of motherhood. But for most women it ought still to be the dream of happiness, some time in their lives, to have fulfilled the mission of motherhood, and during that time to have been freed from outside work in which they, only in exceptional cases, would be likely to find the same full outlet for their creative desire, for feeling, thought, imagination, as is to be found in the educative activity in the home. But so unmotherly are many women of this age, that this view is considered old-fashioned and (with the usual confusion of definitions) consequently impossible for the future.
When already they say the women of to-day want to be ‘freed’ from the inferior duties of mother and housewife, in order to devote themselves to higher callings, as self-supporting and independent members of society, how much more will that be the case with the women of the future! As these ‘higher callings,’ however, for the majority consist, and will continue to consist, in monotonous labor in factory, store, office, and such occupations, it is difficult to conceive how these tasks can possibly bring greater freedom and happiness than the broad usefulness in a home, where woman is sovereign — yea, under the inspiration of motherhood, creator—in her sphere, and where she is directly working for her own dear ones. Neither can it be understood how the care of one’s own children can be felt as a more wearisome and inferior task than, for instance, the laborious work of a sick-nurse, or school teacher, who, year in and year out, works for persons with whom only in exceptional cases she comes in heartcontact.
If women meanwhile continue to look upon the work of mothers and house-mothers as in itself burdensome and lowering, then, naturally, the care of children and of the home will gradually be taken over by groups of women who, on account of their motherliness, choose to occupy themselves with children and household duties.
If this ‘freedom’ is the ideal of the future, then, indeed, my view of motherliness, as indispensable for humanity, is reactionary; but it is reactionary in the same way that medicine reacts against disease. And has our race ever been afflicted by a more dangerous disease than the one which at present rages among women: the sick yearning to be ‘freed’ from the most essential attribute of their sex? In motherliness, the most indispensable human qualities have their root.
Women who summon all their intelligence and keenness in their endeavor to prove that motherliness is not the quinta essentia of womanhood verily need a Minerva Medica, as portrayed in the Vatican relief, the goddess of wisdom with the symbol of the art of healing! And she will surely come when the time most needs her.
The phrase, ‘the course of progress tends to the dissolution of the home,’ shows how little we understand the words we use. Progress implies also dissolution, decay, retrogression, and death. In the progress of a disease attacking culture, a new renaissance must come, if not for the people, then for the truths, which though temporarily dimmed will be seen in a new light by new peoples. From time to time has this been the case with the emotions of patriotism, of religion, and of liberty. No fundamental values, indispensable to humanity, are lost; they return reinforced. Motherliness has not been lost even in those who show a lack of it in their personal lives. They have converted it into general service. When women at last have become fully emancipated, then the enormous sums of energy which now are invested in agitation, will be set free: to be used partly for social transformation, partly to flow back with fresher and fuller power into the home.
Very likely there will always be a number of unmotherly, of sexless, but useful working ants. Women geniuses, with their inevitably exceptional position, may increase, possibly also the types of mistress frequent in our day — women who devote themselves to a career which makes them independent of marriage. They wish to be lovers, but lovers who captivate not alone by beauty, but also by intellectual sympathy. That these women do not want the care of children, when they do not even want motherhood, is but natural.
In that future of which I dream, there shall be neither men who are illpaid and harassed family supporters, nor wives who are unrewarded and worn-out family slaves! Then mothercare will be a well-paid public service, for which a thorough preparation is required! Then all home arrangements shall be as perfectly adjusted as they are now the reverse, and all home duties be transformed by new ways of work, which shall be lighter, cheaper, quicker. Thus, woman will actually be ‘freed’ in respect, to those burdens of the home-life from which she ought to and may be freed, freed so as to be spared the necessity of giving over the care of her children to nurseries and kindergartens, where even the most excellent teacher becomes mediocre when her motherliness must embrace dozens of tender souls.
If, on the other hand, ‘progress’ takes the road leading toward the breaking up of the home, — the ideal of the future for the maternal, — then the future state will be a state of herdpeople. But the more our laws, our habits of work, and our feelings, become socialized, the more ought education itself in home and school to become individualized, to counteract the danger of getting fewer personalities while institutions increase. And individual up-bringing can be carried on only in homes where mothers have preserved the nature-power of motherliness and given this power a conscious culture.
The supposition that motherliness has its surest guide in its instinct is therefore a superstition which must be conquered. In order to be developed, motherliness must exist in one’s nature. The matter must be there so as to be shaped; this is obvious. But the feeling in itself may, like all other natural forces, work for good or for evil; the feeling itself often shows, even in motherliness, the need of the evolution in humanity which the poet foreshadows, when we at last shall see ‘the ape and tiger die.’
As motherliness has been sung more than it has been understood, we have lived in the illusion not only that it was inexhaustible, but that its instinct was infallible, — that for this sacred feeling Nature had done everything and no culture was needed. Hence motherliness has remained until this day uneducated. The truth that no one can be educated to motherliness — any more than a moon can be made into a sun — has been confounded with the delusion that the mother-instinct is all-sufficient in itself. Hence it has often remained blind, crude, violent; and ‘instinct’ has not hindered mothers from murdering their children by ignorance, and from robbing them of their most precious possessions.
This sentimental view of motherliness as the ever holy, ever infallible power, must be abandoned; and even this province of nature brought under the sway of culture. Motherliness is as yet but a glorious stuff awaiting its shaping artist. Child-bearing, rearing, and training must become such that they correspond to Nietzsche’s vision of a race which would not be fortgepflanzt only, but hinaufgepflanzt.
Motherliness must be cultivated by the acquisition of the principles of heredity, of race-hygiene, child-hygiene, child-psychology. Motherliness must revolt against giving the race too few, too many or degenerate children. Motherliness must exact all the legal rights without which woman cannot, in the fullest sense of the word, be either child-mother or community-mother. Motherliness must cause women to demand all the training for the home duties and community duties which the majority of women now lack, as well as the state-given mother-stipend without which she cannot be at the same time child-bearing, child-rearing, and selfsupporting. Motherliness thus developed will rescue mothers not only from olden-time superstition, but also from present-day excitement. It will teach them to create the peace and beauty in the home which are requisite for the happy unfolding of childhood, and this without closing the doors of the home on the thoughts and demands of modern times. Motherliness will teach the mother how to remain at the same lime Madonna, the mother with her own child close in her arms, and Caritas, as pictured in art: the mother who at her full breast has room also for the lips of the orphaned child.
Many are the women in our day who no longer believe that God became man. More and more are coming to embrace the deeper religious thought, the thought that has given wings to man created of dust, the thought that men shall one day become gods! But not through new social systems, not through new conquests of nature, not through new institutions of learning. The only way to reach this state is to become ever more human, through an increasingly wise and beautiful love of ourselves and our neighbors, and by a more and more perfect care of the budding personalities. Therefore, if we stop to think, it is criminal folly to put up as the ideal of woman’s activity, the superficial, instead of the more tender and intimate tasks of society. How can we hope for power of growth when the source of warmth has been shut off?
The fact that the thought of our age is shallow in regard to this its most profound question — the importance of motherliness for the race — does, however, by no means prove that the future will be just as superficial. The future will probably smile at the whole woman-question as one smiles at a question on which one has long since received a clear and radiant answer! This answer will be the truly free woman of the future, she who will have attained so fully developed a humanity that she cannot even dream of a desire to be ‘ liberated ’ from the foremost essential quality of her womanhood — motherliness.
- Miss Key’s essay, which was written for the Atlantic in Swedish, has been translated by Mrs. A. E. B. Fries. —THE EDITORS.↩