There is only mother love all the way down—Mothering Sunday 2023
“Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the child of her womb? Yea they may forget, yet I will not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16).
These two verses are found in the Book of Isaiah, and they speak of the way in which Isaiah thinks God loves his people. Now, if you are able to maintain a belief that God exists and intervenes in the world in the way Isaiah seems to have believed, then these words will suffice and you won’t need me to say anything further about them, one way or the other, because God has promised he will not forget the faithful.
However, if you are not so inclined to believe—and all the evidence suggests that the vast majority of people in the UK are not so inclined—then these words can bring you no hope that a mother-like external power we once upon a time called the “king of love” or the “faithful shepherd”—and who, in our Judaeo-Christian tradition, has most often borne the name of God or Jesus Christ—is going “to bow hither out of heaven and see and save.”
But, despite my own lack of belief in the supernatural, interventionist God of monotheism, these words do still powerfully speak of something that seems to me to be genuinely real and trustworthy. That “something” is the natural fact of mothering, visible in Planet Earth’s many sentient creatures. True, as Isaiah knew, there are mothers—and, of course, fathers—who forget their offspring and treat them badly, but Isaiah and we only know this is a thing to be regretted, because the norm is nearly always wholly otherwise; the norm for sentient creatures is everywhere good, or at least good enough, mothering.
As an illustration of what I mean, here’s a story told to me many years ago by my former philosophy tutor, and now old friend, Victor Nuovo, about something that happened to him one spring morning outside his house on the outskirts of Middlebury, Vermont:
“Some weeks ago, I was loading a cart to carry my recycling down the driveway. It looked like rain, so I thought it advisable to cover it with a tarpaulin, to keep the paper from becoming rain-soaked and hard to handle. The tarpaulin lay rolled up beside the cart, where it had been for some weeks. When I unravelled it, I discovered that a mother mouse had made her nest in it; there she was nursing her brood. She was terrified, as were her nurslings, whose eyes had yet to open. They clung to her teats not, in this instance, to suckle, but because they found security there. She tried to cover them with her body. They were as one being. It was a beautiful sight, and yet heartbreaking. I had absolute power over them. I could have killed them, and perhaps I should have. But I could not. Instead, I set them gently on a flat shovel, and carried them to the edge of the yard and set them down in some undergrowth. Once there, the faithful mother mouse moved away, her nurslings still clinging to her breasts, and found shelter. Oh, how I wished that I might make all beings in the world safe! But I am not the king of love, or a faithful shepherd. And there is no such power. There is only mother love all the way down.”
As we look at the mother mouse with Victor, her mothering behaviour does strike sentient creatures like us with something like the force of inevitable knowledge. We sense that this is an example that mothering is graven into the nature of all sentient creatures—it is real, it is something in which we can trust, it is something which genuinely gives life meaning and worth, and it shows us the best way to go on.
Given this, it seems to me perfectly reasonable—speaking metaphorically—to say with Isaiah that mothering does seem to be graven upon God-or-[Mother]-Nature’s hands in the form of the hands, paws, claws—and, by extension, the fins, hooves, tentacles, bellies, tongues, and so on—of God-or-[Mother]-Nature’s many sentient creatures, which are themselves only of God-or-[Mother]-Nature’s children.
But God-or-[Mother]-Nature is not a single entity but a complex, endless and creative process; it is, so to speak, God-Godding or Nature Naturing (natura naturans). And this means God-or-[Mother]-Nature is always creating things that we can, again metaphorically, call children. And what mothering looks like to sentient creatures like us or the mother mouse is not what mothering looks like from the point of view of many of God-or-[Mother]-Nature’s other children. An obvious example is that child we call, “Mother Earth.” Alongside the things we happily label as being for us, “good stuff,” Mother Earth’s mothering includes her earthquakes, wind, and fire which can destroy a mother mouse or a human mother in the blink of an eye. But, nevertheless, the Earth still remains our mother and, without the movement of her wild body loving life in the form of earthquakes, winds and fires, there would simply be none of that other “good stuff” to sustain us and our children.
We need to be clear, therefore, that mothering is not something that can be reduced to a simple, single formula either at the cosmic, or at the everyday, level. Neither can mothers be reduced to a single, simple type. This is because God-or-[Mother]-Nature is not Mother Earth; Mother Earth is not a human mother; a human mother is not a mother mouse, and so on. But they are all mothers, and they all mother their children in their own distinctive way. As I often like to say, because it’s true: “It depends.”
So what’s the point of my ramble through the complex matter of mothering on this Mothering Sunday? Well, it is simply to say that, no matter how it sometimes looks—perhaps, often looks—, metaphorically speaking, we can say and truly mean, along with my teacher and friend Victor, there is only mother love all the way down.
And, as Victor reminded me all those years ago this, in turn, teaches us that although we cannot all be mothers, “we can all learn to love like this”—like the mother mouse, like Victor’s love of the mother mouse— “tenderly, faithfully, steadfastly, in a way that nourishes, that gives life, that comforts, that seeks to set free, as though we were all mothers to each other.”
A Happy Mothering Sunday to you all.