I was warned that motherhood would make me selfish. That my attachments, my energies, would become inward-looking, walling off our domestic unit from the world. ‘I don’t believe in The Family,’ my husband proclaimed: ‘Families are barriers to social progress.’ Many late-eighteenth-century radical writers caution something similar: that ‘our affections are more drawn to some among mankind than to others, in proportion to their degrees of nearness to us’. And that I must ‘correct and purify’ this ‘blind and narrow principle’ – make it ‘just and rational’ – and transcend ‘domestic affection’ to reach a cooler plane of ‘universal benevolence’.
When I first became pregnant, it would have been impossible, even had I wanted, to tightly leash my emotions. I sobbed on the sofa as X Factor contestants recited their personal histories and motivational mantras. It was with a tight throat and clenched jaw that I watched a Christmas advertisement on television in which a small boy impatiently counted down to the moment when he might present his parents with his own haphazardly wrapped gift. But long after our daughter had been born, and the hormonal tide was supposed to have receded, I could not summon back my old apathy. In a Guardian ‘experience’ piece about a baby who fell from a second-storey window, I saw my own infant child, dislocated on a London pavement. A report on the growth of child poverty in Britain made me cry. Reading about the rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi in 2012, I felt winded, desolate. I became, in turn, angry, sad, indignant, revolted.
Before motherhood, I had not thought much about sympathy. I had sympathised, sure, but it had been more a rational judgement – a calm assessment of harms done and a proffering of assistance – than an emotional transaction. Motherhood altered my state of mind. Perhaps it was the hormones; perhaps the jolt of love and attachment. But it was also the realisation that I was not, as I had once hoped, an invincible individual, but a member of a class, and, at that, a class widely perceived as inferior, subordinate. I was affronted to discover discrepancies in the parental leave allowed to myself and my husband; and then dismayed to contemplate the wounds that were to be inflicted onto my career, not his, by pregnancies, maternity leaves, and a monthly childcare bill that would exceed my salary by half as much again. In letters written during a fraught tour of Scandinavia in 1795, the philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft – also a relatively new mother – wrote of how she had considered herself ‘as a particle broken off from the grand mass of mankind . . . alone, till some involuntary sympathetic emotion, like the attraction of adhesion, made me feel that I was still a part of a mighty whole, from which I could not sever myself ’. I had been politically placid for most of my adult life. But now I cared: I felt Wollstonecraft’s attraction of adhesion acutely. I began ordering books on politics, attending feminist meetings, turning my reading and writing towards women, their histories of suffering and resistance, and the joy of female friendship.
Some contemporary feminists question the possibility of sympathy, on the basis that we are all too minutely variegated as individuals; that our unique temperaments, our emotional fingerprints, are formed through idiosyncratic contours of oppression based on class, race, disability, sex, gender. But must the acts of translation between our individual emotional worlds be doomed always to failure? I hope not, and I think there is value in the hoping, in the attempt and striving, for sympathy. My emotional experiences will never identically map onto yours: our fingerprints are not the same. But I am confident that when I use the words fear, anger or love, you will know – roughly, imperfectly, but nevertheless serviceably – what I mean. And, in compensation for what is lost of the individual in the act of emotional translation, in the act of sympathy, there is so much to gain: belonging, affinity, understanding, class identity. In the milk-sticky aftermath of becoming a mother, my political awakening was an emotional one; and through motherhood, and the sympathy it awoke, I found sisterhood.