Masaccio and Masolino, Madonna and Child with Saint Anne. c 1425 Uffizi, Florence.
Mother’s Day is coming round again. We will be taken out to lunch and get cards no matter how God awful we have been in the past twelve months. People are genetically programmed to love their mothers. They have no choice. What they are given is all they know. ‘She was the best mother in the world’ is an unfailing line in Irish funeral eulogies even while mourners rummage in their memories for some evidence of virtue on the part of the deceased.
‘I’m a wife and mother’, they proclaim. So? The implication is that the holder of these titles is a paragon amongst women. Mothers are great promoters of themselves as saints and martyrs. Perhaps it is time to give it a rest and become a little more modest. If we were all so great what a wonderful world it would be. Most of us are just fumbling along according to our lights. Yes, of course there are some mothers whom we admire for their selflessness and endurance. The mothers of disabled children spring to mind. We cannot but feel for those battling with the problems of childcare, commuting, work-life balance and paying off an inflated mortgage. These people are often the last to trumpet their status as either martyrdom or sainthood.
There is no special day for single childless people. Mothers are the first to despise this group. ‘Ah sure, what would she know? She has no children of her own’ is a line regularly trotted out by smug matrons. This kind of oneupwomanship is regarded as acceptable. Is this the attitude which makes life so difficult for those with fertility problems? ‘Anything stirring?’ their so-called friends ask. Petronella Wyatt in a recent Telegraph article described the discriminatory attitudes to what she calls SACs [single and childless],
“I know one hostess who now divides people into the categories of “useful” and “useless”. SACs who are not influential high earners often fall into the latter category. ”I can’t afford to entertain people simply because they’re nice,’’ she says. ”These days you need friends who can pull strings, or who have a villa somewhere hot you can take the kids to. Single women with no children or money can’t do anything for you. Most of them are a bit freakish, anyway.”
Where does that leave all those legions of great people who have never been parents? Neither Jane Austen, George Eliot or any of the Brontës ever became mothers yet who would question the depth of their empathy and understanding of the human condition? Many of my childless former teaching colleagues were more caring and nurturing of their charges than some of us mothers who struggled with the waywardness of pupils. Mothers like to see themselves as founts of wisdom. On a recent TV3 show a woman declared that she was tired of all these child psychologists because ‘After all mother knows best’. If we had a tune to that we could hum it. Mother simply does not always know best. The late Paula Yates wrote not one but two books of parenting advice. Think on’t.
‘I’m after rearing five of them’ was ever the proud mantra of the Irish mother. The implication is that she has done a brilliant job. She awaits congratulation. We invariably oblige. Nothing has changed. Pamela Druckerman in the recently published French Children Don’t Throw Food compares Parisian mothers to their well-heeled Manhattan counterparts. At a playground in New York City Druckerman observes what she calls ‘narrated play’. ‘You’re stepping Caleb’. ‘You’re upside down’. Druckerman quotes Michel Cohen, a French paediatrician in New York. ‘He says that these mothers are talking loudly to flaunt what good parents they are’. We hear the same in Dublin supermarkets. ‘Find the tomatoes for Mummy, Jack’. The tone on ‘Mums’ chat sites comes across as self-congratulatory superiority . There is often a strong whiff of fausse cameraderie.
The behaviour of mothers varies wildly. Literature and life abound with examples. I’ve always had problems with Nora Helmer in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Yes, I know, I know. She’s a feminist icon. She suffered terrible pressures. Her husband was ridiculous. But, the bottom line is SHE LEFT THE KIDS. Anna Karenina’s son is not her first consideration either. ‘Me ma ran off with a fella’ Joe Duffy was told on RTE’s Liveline by more than one person in explanation as to why they had ended up in industrial schools. But then, we have Esther Waters in George Moore’s novel of the same name. David Skilton, in his introduction to the OUP 1995 edition, describes Esther, like Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, as ‘an uncomprehending victim of apparently arbitrary forces’. Skilton thinks her no heroine in the conscious sense. But Esther stuck to the kid to the end in the most harrowing circumstances. Tess defies the stars to give her child a Christian burial. It is nature that is the driver rather than any conscious choice of heroism. But nature can be a messer too. Charles Manson’s mother abandoned him on the counter of a diner.
My all-time favourite historian, Caitriona Clear of NUI Galway, speaks of the ‘manipulative martyrdom’ of the Irish mother in a paper published in Irish Historical Studies XXI. The psychological retribution exacted from a young person can be fierce. ‘After all I did for you’. Hugh Leonard gives a vivid picture of exactly this kind of manipulative martyrdom in his autobiographically based play Da,
” Charlie And I listened, faint with shame, while you delivered your party- piece.
Mother I took him out of Holles Street hospital when he was ten days old, and he’s never wanted for anything since. My mother that’s dead and gone, the Lord have mercy on her, said to me: ‘Mag, he’s a nurse- child. You don’t know where he was got or how he was got, and you’ll rue the day.He’ll turn on you.’
Da (a growl) Not at all, woman.
Mother Amn’t I saying! (To Drumm) You try rearing a child on thirty shillings a week and two pounds ten now after forty years of slaving, and see where it leaves you.
Charlie Stand by. Finale coming up.
Mother And a child that was delicate. She tried to get rid of him.
Drumm Get rid?
Charlie Roll of drums, and…..!
Mother Before he was born. Whatever kind of rotten poison she took. Dr. Enright told me; he said, ‘You won’t rear that child ma’am, he’ll never make old bones.’ But I did rear him , and he’s a credit to us.
Charlie Band- chord. Final curtain. Speech!
Mother He’s more to us than our own, so he is.
Charlie Thunderous applause. (To Drumm ) Hand her up the bouquet.
Drumm You’re a woman out of the ordinary. The boy has cause to be grateful.
Charlie Well done. House lights. ”
The late journalist John Healy, in his much acclaimed Nineteen Acres, left a detailed account of his grandmother and mother. Both were what would now be feted as strong, feisty women, the younger a trusted midwife. The grandmother shipped her daughters off to America with instructions to send home money ‘for the slates’. On a visit to the U.S., the adult Healy discovered that an aunt in New York who had been sending $100 every Christmas to the relatively flourishing Healy family in Mayo was herself living in conditions close to penury. There was a song sung at many social gatherings of the 50s and 60s which went
“Goodbye Johnny dear and when you’re far away/Don’t forget your poor oul’ mother far across the say/Write a letter now and then and send her all you can/And don’t forget where e’er you roam that you’re an Irishman.”
‘Send her all you can’. There was little consideration that Johnny might have been short of money, lonely, coping with loss of social status and severe culture shock. Mother came first. She was the martyr. Caitriona Clear sums up this brand of thoughtlessness succinctly,
“Many emigrants remained prisoners of the values and expectations of their families in Ireland, without the everyday support and companionship that normally goes with such bonds.” (Women of the House, Women’s household Work in Ireland 1922-1961,2000)
The nagging voice of Healy’s mother runs through Nineteen Acres. She reserved a special venom for her brother’s wife, a generous, warm, childless woman for whom Healy treasured loving memories. The father’s family were excoriated, a great tradition in many Irish households. Healy senior seemed a quiet man and his siblings were all clever, good looking and good dancers to boot. What more could anyone want? There is a Dublin rhyme that goes,
“You should never throw your granny off a bus/You should never throw your granny ‘cos she’s your mammy’s mammy/You should never throw your granny off a bus.”
So, what is Daddy’s mammy then? The secondary granny. The natural assumption is that mammy’s side is the side that counts. The mother’s ethos prevails in most households. Is this what ‘strong’ and ‘feisty’ mean? Recently I read Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife in the eager hope of discovering something new on the elusive Anne. I was disappointed. It was all surmise, would haves and might haves. Nothing concrete. I at least expected an examination of Lady Macbeth’s
“Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valor of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round”.
Healy’s mother might just as easily have spoken the lines. Might they explain why the bard kept absent so much from Stratford? Just asking.
Whatever we were used to seemed the norm as children. As we grew up we became aware that other people’s mothers were sometimes different from our own. I recall mothers in the Ireland of the 50s who proudly pointed to the stick in its place of honour over the kitchen hearth with which they boasted they ‘kept order’. No doubt their children thought they were the best mothers in the world too. We saw shouting mothers, fast talking mothers, nagging mothers and fanatically religious mothers. We saw grim- faced mothers of fifteen. Chain smoking mothers seemed particularly scary. We recoiled from the culture we observed in other houses and loved that ebullient cousin who always had a song and a chuckly laugh for her children. Nowadays there are stage moms, hockey moms, tiger moms, single moms, cool mums and all singing and dancing mammies.
But we still think our own was superior. ‘Among your earthiest words the angels stray’ said Patrick Kavanagh of his mother. As for me, the idea of my mother uttering earthy words would be unthinkable. Mine was a little more Cordelialike,
‘Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman’.
This would not seem fashionable now. You have to be ‘feisty’ and ‘strong’. Mine was neither. Interestingly my friends’ mothers were also more in the Cordelia vein. Perhaps that is one of the things we have in common.
A song constantly played on Radio Éireann years ago while we ate our dinner in the middle of the day was Mother Machree. Maudlin didn’t even describe the saccharine sentiments. It might seem like all change now but Mum machree is as anxious as ever to exact tribute. I wouldn’t be too sure about the spot in his heart that no colleen may own. Some incoming colleens have a great power to dislodge Mammy from that spot. The dear silver that shines in her hair may now be gilded in Grafton Street at 100 euros a throw. The brow may now be botoxed rather than furrowed and wrinkled with care. The fingers are more manicured than toil worn. But Mum thinks herself and is thought to be just as sainted as her great-grandmother who had very different physical deprivations. For anyone born since 1970 who may not have grown up with this wretched song here it is, sung by John McCormack, of course. Meanwhile I hope the booking for that lunch has been made and the cards are in the post or else…..