Letter XVIII. January 14, 1819.
My dear Greaves,
I have already alluded to the period when the child is separated from the immediate influence of maternal love. It is natural for a mother to look forward to that period with much anxiety. The time will come, and come when it may, it will always be too soon for her, when she must give up the satisfaction of directing, herself, every step, of watching and assisting the progress of her child. A thousand apprehensions will be excited in her breast; a thousand dangers, real or imaginary, will appear to beset every step; and a thousand temptations, to lurk under the joys and the task of life into which her child is now to enter.
These apprehensions will be felt at an earlier time for a son, because the present system of society dismisses him earlier from the immediate influence of the mother. And though he may still be under the care of an affectionate parent, or of judicious and benevolent teachers, yet will a mother feel a void on the occasion, when he is for the first time separated from her side. Then she will be disposed to retrace all the different stages of his gradual development: the little history of his present habits, the moments in which she best succeeded to give salutary impressions, and in which his affection promised fair to overcome the less amiable part of his temper: she will be disposed to dwell more particularly on those facts, which may justify a hope, that her labour has not been in vain; that one day she shall see the fruits of her early care.
But while she will be disposed thus to dwell on the exhilarating prospect before her, her imagination, and indeed her affection, will be busy in sketching out the various scenes of his future life. The next few years may perhaps be an object altogether of less solicitude; but how should not a mother be strongly affected by the idea that soon, very soon, he whose tender infancy she had been protecting, will have to meet life unprepared, unless it be by the advice of his friends, by the vital energy of his principles, and by a small but perhaps dearlybought stock of experience. Recollections of the past and anticipations of the future will crowd before her eyes, and as she may dismiss or resume them, her bosom will be alive to the emotions of alternate hope and fear.
"The golden morning of his days,
A mother's watchful care surveys;
But shafts fly quickly from the string,
And years are fast upon the wing:
He tears him from a mother's side,
Eager on stormy life to roam,
With pilgrim steps he wanders wide,
Returns a stranger to his home."
But a thinking mother will not wait till these considerations are suggested by the necessity of a separation which can no longer be postponed. She will, at an early period, have occasion to reflect on the nature and the duration of her connection with the child. And far from giving rise to unpleasant or even painful feelings, this train of thought may enable her to take not only a just, but also a gratifying view of the subject. In a previous letter I have spoken of the first connection of the mother and the child, after its birth, as being merely a phenomenon of animal nature. By this I understand that in both the power which unites them is, in its origin, instinctive. In the infant it is constantly excited by a feeling of want; in the mother, it is strongly supported by a consciousness of duty. If in the mother also I ascribe to it a sort of instinctive agency, observation will, I think, furnish many facts which will clearly prove it. Among them, it is not the least remarkable that in an individual that has, from circumstances, been called upon to act as a mother to the infant of a stranger, the same affection is very frequently engendered, as if it had been her own child. And this has been observed in cases when a nurse had not only been much grieved for the separation from her own child, but when at first she had even evinced decided aversion to the child now confided to her care. So that the maternal instinct would seem to be transferable, as it were, to another object; an observation which argues at once for its original energy, and for its priority to the circumstances under which a sense of duty alone might have led to the same efforts.
But if in the infant this instinct is manifested before a distinct sensation of its wants was possible, and if it has acted in the mother before she has reflected on her duties, there is yet, as we have seen, one feature, and that of a pleasing kind, by which the character of this instinct is distinguished. This feature is no other but affection.
This affection, again, we may call instinctive in its first origin. In the infant it is, at first, quite exclusive, its only object is the mother.
Still more: not only the attachment of the infant is limited to the mother, but it seems to be accessible to no kind of sensation, unless in some manner connected with her. Unpleasant sensations immediately make it look for relief or protection to her; and however earnestly strangers may exert themselves to amuse the infant, it is well known how difficult it is for them to fix its attention, without distressing, instead of pleasing. But this state of things cannot continue very long. The more the child grows physically independent of the mother; the more it gets accustomed to use its senses and also its faculties; the less chance will there be for its affection being still exclusively confined to the mother.
And here it will become necessary for the mother to be cautious, as well against the temptation of monopolising as against the danger of alienating its affection. (PSW 26, p. 90-93)