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Maternal Love and Guilt

Thought for the Day - BBC Radio 4 Today Programme

Wednesday, 16th November, 2022

Joos van Cleve, Virgin and Child, c. 1525 Metropolitan Museum of Art

Good morning. Michelle Obama’s new book has just been published, which means she’s attracting some media attention, including part of an interview on this programme yesterday. I don’t usually read celebrity memoirs, but an extract from her book titled The Light We Carry made me want to read more.

Obama writes candidly about being a mother, and what she calls ‘the feelings of not-enoughness’ we mothers experience, surrounded as we are by images of maternal perfection in advertising and social media. She wryly observes, ‘It’s hard not to look around as a mother and think, Is everyone doing this perfectly but me?”

I wanted to hug her for raising that taboo subject – the guilt and self-doubt that are the shadow-side of love for every mother I know. At 67, with four adult children and four grandchildren, I’m immensely thankful for my family and take great delight in them all, but I still beat myself up about the mistakes I’ve made. Perhaps we have Freud to blame for how we tend to trace everything that goes wrong in our children’s lives back to some maternal malfunction.

In western societies we’re living through radical change in parenting and family life. Yet even as modern families come in many permutations, there‘s perhaps more pressure on parents than ever before. Working parents face impossible demands as they juggle childcare and careers, while single mothers still sometimes bear the brunt of society’s hostility and are most afflicted by austerity. Parents are expected to take credit for their children’s achievements, and are blamed for their failures and rebellions. No wonder guilt festers under the surface of this glossy perfectionism.

Like many Catholic women, I struggle with the Church’s romanticisation of motherhood, and with the impossible ideal embodied in some representations of the Virgin Mary. Yet as a convert, I find consolation in the belief that Mary was without sin and full of grace. This is a different kind of maternal perfection from that which is measured by our children’s successes and failures. Mary faced every challenge and loss a mother can imagine, but her sorrow is an invitation to disentangle guilt and grief. It was the price she paid for respecting the life that her son was called to, even if it was not the life she would have chosen for him. We ordinary mothers might not be full of grace and we might make many mistakes, but we are not responsible for all our children’s struggles and defeats. Love is realised not through guilt and regret, but through forgiveness, patience, perseverance, and hope.

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