Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Love, sex, betrayal....motherhood?!?

Warning: This post contains seriously long sentences.

I once read or heard the statement that all successful song lyrics are variations on just two themes - a) I love/want/desire him/her or b) I hate/miss him/her. The pursuit of, celebration of, and nostalgia for romantic love would surely be identified by alien anthropologists as THE organising principle of all human activity, the meaning of life, the raison d'etre of our existence. Chuck in some other key passions involving envy, betrayal, guilt, fear and so on and you have the ingredients of just about any song, novel, play, soap opera or film that anyone dreamed up.
Fair enough, you might think, these emotions evolved in order to guarantee our reproductive success, its not surprising that they are strongly felt and easy to stir up in the name of getting our cultural juices flowing.

But I have an anomaly to thrust upon you. Motherhood. The emotions stirred up by mothering a child (perhaps I should say parenting, but i can only speak from my position) are by far the most intense, reorienting, planet-axis-shifting whirlwind of raw feeling I have ever experienced. They are also surely central to the evolution of our species, vital mechanisms in ensuring that I rear the child to adulthood rather than rid myself of the inconvenience by flinging it out the window when it still won't stop crying after three hours of rocking. They have to be amongst the very most basic, instinctive, powerful and universal sentiments our species has ever possessed. And yet, who ever wrote a smash-hit pop song about being a mum? Where are the novels that grapple with this most painful and yet elating of experiences? Why don't the cast of Eastenders bang on about how great their sprogs are?!

Before you quit reading, I know, I know I can think of examples too, I'll come on to a major one later (no not the spice girls), but the point is, motherhood is not generally elevated as a glorious sentiment in the same way  that loyalty, say, is, or as obsessed over as sex is. It doesn't sell like sex does, or inspire youthful nostalgia in pensioners like romance does. It isn't treated as something exciting, or worth writing about. Its treated, lets face it, like the most boring, mundane, everyday phenomenon ever, in fact. Even the word 'mum' is dull as ditchwater. Who on earth would bother going to see a play which explored the various facets of a mother's love for her newborn son? Bungee jumping is exciting. Having a crush on the boy next door is memorable. Pushing a human out of an orifice in a skin-splittingly vicious ordeal that is followed by months and years of unquestioning servitude - meh.

And why, I ask, is this? What is it about motherly love that sets it apart from other visceral, human emotions and renders it such a cultural reject? I have some hypotheses.

Is it because motherly love is so reliable? Unlike with loyalty, or romantic love, there is no scope for twists in the tale, for will she-won't she, how will it end intrigues. Yes she will, and the child will grow up, and then the mother will die. The end. Except this isn't really true - sometimes motherly love does fail, or is absent from the start, or gets overtaken by competing interests. We don't tend to dwell on these exceptions, perhaps we find them too horrific to acknowledge.

Is it because its too common? Its fun to read about conquering everest, or living in Victorian times, or something else we'll never do, but having kids? What could be more conformist, more mundane, everyone does it! But everyone has sex too, and falls in love (well not you, perhaps, but most people ; )) and this is what causes, rather than prevents, their durability as grand themes.

Is it because mothering is a girl-thang, and cultural artifacts have been produced by men for most of our history, men with perhaps an interest in underplaying or denying the significance of something the full strength of which they can't or won't enter into? If this were the case I would expect that the trend would have shifted a little with the more recent emancipation of women, although maybe you could say that the grand themes of humanity have already been fixed at this point and a cultural shift like this would take longer to effect.

Is it because great works of fiction etc are only ever written by people with no experience of parenting because all those who have actually begotten children are too ravaged by sleep deprivation, hormones, and the nerve-slicing intensity of it all to ever put pen to paper?

At this point I'll bring in the elephant in the room. Religion. The bible is a story full of all the classic story themes - guilt, envy, betrayal, lust, loss etc etc - but central to them all is parenthood. Roman catholicism, in particular, deifies the mother and child relationship (they might not put it that way but whatever), celebrates the purity, intensity and goodness of a woman's love for her offspring. The primary organising ritual - the mass - centres around the idea of Jesus doing his best to emulate the perfect selflessness of a female mammal's lactation by giving his body to be eaten by the congregation (look I never claimed I was a religious scholar!)

So maybe secular culture just doesn't bother to tackle a theme that has already been done to death thousands of years ago. What do you think?

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