“They Have Their Reward”

Back in the days when the Patriarchy kept women from doing many things, but semi-compensated some of them with extravagant praises for certain performances, maternal love was considered not merely a female virtue but proof of female superiority. Like the money of the Musical Banks in Erewhon, however, this attributed excellence was not necessarily convertible into hard socio-political-economic currency. When women subsequently muscled in on that hard currency, they by no means relinquished the romantic fictions of moral superiority. Where I live, they are not only the Angel of the Home, but the Angel of the Office too; in many circles, men can be accorded faint praise as a substandard knock-off of the original product but are otherwise excoriated as the root of all evil.

If we find this displeasing, perhaps we should look more closely at the original nineteenth-century deal, namely economic subjection in return for attributed virtue. Kant taught that the moral is necessarily the uncongenial, and Jesus came close to saying the same thing: “Do not the Gentiles do likewise”? Whatever comes naturally cannot at the same time be a deep well of ethical superiority. Moral credit accrues to precisely the same degree as eating your dinner when you are hungry. If mother-love is truly an “instinct”, it cannot at the same time constitute heroic virtue.

A mother is rewarded neurochemically, existentially, socially and – if she wishes – as the payoff of a multitude of psychological games at the expense of her children and any man who helped make them. It is true that a mother’s love is generally constant even when the child is behaving atrociously; but this can be explained just as well by narcissism as by deep love in the sense of caritas.

If we accept Kant’s insight, a mother would deserve praise only when she feels like throttling her offspring but fails to act upon that impulse. The sentiment may be a common one but for some strange reason its successful resistance is not a subject for boasting, or least not to the menfolk. We might usefully ask which particular game that admission would spoil.

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