Generosity, Selfishness and Forgiveness: Rebecca Solnit and Others on Mothers


“We never tell the story whole because a life isn’t a story; it’s a Milky Way of events and we are forever picking out constellations from it to fit who and where we are.”

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Rebecca Solnit—essayist, philosopher, humanitarian—is known for her penetrating insights into human nature and for her steadfast belief in hope and compassion.

Thus, imagine my surprise when I picked up The Faraway Nearby and read a venomous portrait of her own mother. A line like “She took pleasure in not giving me things she gave to others, often in front of me, in finding ways to push me out of the group” is one of the more gentle passages. Solnit makes guesswork of what her mother would do or would say—hot anger ensues.

It irks me. Not because Solnit has anger, but because she uses her writing platform for this vituperative prose.

The question is, why does she do it?

A recent Mother’s Day I invited colleagues to write about mothers. Every essay offered a thoughtful meditation on the shaping influence a mother has on not just life and well-being but self. Influence was a universal theme.

I also noticed, perhaps, a veil of reserve. A tempering of the gleeful adoration we use when writing about, say, grandparents, children, even pets. Is it more difficult to love mothers? And then I wondered, why didn’t I write a post myself? I wrote about Dad for Father’s Day. Did I lack enough love to praise my own mother to the extent that I knew she was due? I adore my mother, and have written about her as a person many times. But her as a mother, that’s where it becomes complicated.

Do we have emotional hesitation—at worst, contempt—towards women* who happen to be our mothers, even against reason (i.e., a) that they’ve done so much for us, and b) they are only human)?

I have featured many self-obsessed and selfish mothers in my own fiction. These are not my own mother but rather a composite of motherhood examined at closer glances. For example, Hannah’s Mother is about how mothers often exact the same pain on their daughters that they felt from their mothers. (Not a coincidence I love the name “Hannah” and am in the process of convincing my husband it should be a viable option should we have a daughter).

And, who can forget the most subtly degraded mother in all literature, Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. It is against Mrs. Bennet’s idiocy that the irony of Mr. Bennet and Elisabeth takes aim and provides the soul of the drama. When the beloved film was released in 1995, actor Benjamin Whitrow who played Mr. Bennet, mentioned he met someone whose ancestor knew Jane Austen, and of all her characters, Mr. Bennett was most like the author. One wonders if Mrs. Bennet wasn’t also sketched from Austen’s experience.

Take Mrs. Bennet’s idiocy and add a streak of tyranny and you have the mother described in comedian John Cleese’s memoirs, So, Anyway:

“From a practical point of view, [my mom] was impeccable, but she was also self-obsessed and anxious, and that could make life with her very uncomfortable.”

Cleese suggests his mother’s difficult personality resulted from a lack of knowledge; she was ruled—and ruled others—through fear and insecurity. He doesn’t pierce the jugular (like Solnit), but he stops far short of forgiving her.

The villainous mother abounds. Question is—why? Are there that many bad people who happen to be mothers?

Or is it something about the mother, as a role, that prevents us from seeing her as an individual? And, thus, prevents us from forgiving her as human?

Psychologist Adam Phillips, writing about desire, satisfaction and many other aspects of human need, argues we never forgive our mothers for not giving us everything we could possibly need. Something they set us up to expect by virtue of their role in our early life.

It’s true: mothers are indispensable in our first year—from conception to our violent entrance, to when we are ushered into consciousness as an early toddler. It’s not the womb that holds us, it’s the mother; it’s not milk that nourishes us, it’s the mother. She is our setting, our world, our consciousness.

And many mothers (due to their outdated but consistent roles as caretakers, and due to fathers as removed providers and entertainers) continue to be indispensable into a child’s development phase. My mother was completely responsible for everyday particulars—food, rest, cleanliness, clothing—as well as more abstract emotional support, such as manners, sibling engagement, and general social conduct. In that role, she had complete control over the parameters of my self. So, when I needed to expand myself, guess who I took power from.

The more we desire and achieve independence as a natural part of growth, the less we demand from mothers (which can leave a profound sense of loss with which mothers are forced to reckon, often without societal support).

And yet, we never seem to let mothers off the hook for not being there as they always were.

This is the crux of Phillip’s point: mothers set such high expectations in those early days of our life, literally extending our life, that by the time we need moral, emotional support, we expect the same continuum of care and are found wanting. And Phillips suggests this is not a human failure but a limitation of the mother role which entraps the individual.

(This power shift is contentious, especially for females and, I think, more unique to mothers than fathers. My mother was my paradigm of femaleness, motherhood, femininity—everything I was and could become was defined by her choices. Whereas Dad just was. I didn’t have to rebel against Dad to form myself. I had to develop myself by rejecting Mom—by turning her into shadow, I saw my light.)

The natural limitation of the mother role is the subject of a rather dark short story, A World of Her Own, by British author Penelope Lively. In it, a creative daughter, spends her life flitting from one passion to the next in extreme selfishness but always with the full support of the incurious mother, who is seduced by the idea of having an artistic daughter. And yet, the daughter is never unfulfilled but retains a level of contempt for her mother. A mother who has given everything and is blamed that it wasn’t ever enough.

Lively’s shrewd observations on life and self suggest she knows full-well the diminishing returns of the mother role. She also demonstrates a responsibility, with the soft hearts and clear eyes of adulthood, to revisit our mothers not as mothers of our childhood but as humans.

If we view them as humans – not mothers – will it be possible to forgive them?

Solnit doesn’t seem to think so—or at least isn’t there yet. To be fair, her particular circumstance was exacerbated by her mother’s diminishing mental state and descent into mindless ruthlessness, of which Solnit was the target. In return for caring for her ailing mother, she found herself in the crosshairs of her mother’s blame. I cannot imagine how that must have felt. But, it seems Solnit decided to exact revenge rather than compassion. Of her mother, she notes:

“She was devoured by envy for decades, an envy that was a story, she told herself, a story of constant comparison.”

I wonder: Could Solnit’s mother—had she her faculties—have said the same about her daughter? Anger, especially the kind that calcifies over time, is seldom a one-way street. Similar to Cleese, she fails to see her mother independent of her role as a mother, independent of how she affected Solnit. The exact thing she accuses her mother of doing.

Is there a better way to hold our mothers in critical regard?

Alice Munro once said her mother did not read her work, and that a few things were off-limits to her until her mother died. “My mother would not have liked it. I don’t think so—the sex and the bad words. If she had been well, I would have had to have a big fight and break with the family in order to publish anything.”

The comment isn’t widely supportive or loving, but it is respectful. Munro sees her mother as an individual, a woman with her own preferences. Although she affects Munro the adult, she exists independently of the effects she has on Munro.

Solnit, to her credit, comes around to a modicum of sympathy, if not empathy for her mother; “When I look back at those decades that she was furious that I was different from her and I was terrified of being like her…I see how much alike we were.”

I don’t pretend to have mastered full forgiveness for the woman who enveloped me safety and security and then made me live in a world without it. I am harsher towards her than anyone else, and she accepts it because, like most mothers, she’s internalized the blame.

But, I do remember the first time I truly realized my mother exists outside of her role as my mother. And when she began to see me as something other than her daughter or a reflection of herself. It was transformative, the beginning of our mutual respect—more importantly, our mutual forgiveness for existing in these necessarily contentious roles.

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Of course, the mother role need not be filled by a female. I recommend a lovely piece by stress-focused psychological researcher Zachary Matheson who, when recalling life raised by same-sex parents, claims “mother” and “father” roles persist. Lively’s short story can be found in Victoria Hislop’s Life: Short Stories Written by Women.



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