I think this might be one of the most taboo questions I could ask, and I hesitate to even put it in print because the logic is so taken-for-granted, such dogma, so unquestioned. There is this phrase I have trouble with, whenever it is used. ‘I’d go under a bus for him.’ Usually preceded by ‘of course,’ and often with a clause in front of it that exposes the dreaded stain of maternal ambivalence. ‘I shouted at my kid the other day…but of course I’d die for him.’
Why is self sacrifice the measure of love? If it were up to me, I’d get rid of all hypothetical buses and Kantian train dilemmas. Maybe these are terrible measures of love. Maybe this is a boring ethical question that leads to cul-de-sacs of guilty mothers proffering metaphorical transport based-deaths as proof of our devotion.
Maybe the seduction lies in purification. That the damnable sins of maternal ambivalence: hatred, anger, envy, frustration, boredom and desire-for-something-else-beyond-the-sandpit might be washed away by martyrdom. Would throwing oneself under the metaphorical bus truly atone for the taboo thoughts and feelings that course through every parent-of-a-three-year-olds veins every day?
I suspect not. I think buses to hurl oneself under or no, mothers are going to endure the dreaded stain of maternal ambivalence, of mixed feelings and devils on their shoulders till the day they die, probably starting with the moment they peed on the stick and thought, fuck yes and oh shit.
The biggest fallacy of the metaphorical bus, hurtling towards my recently-told-off and steaming-mad-three-year-old, the bus that I am about to roll dramatically in front of to save my about-to-be -traumatised kid’s life, is it obliterates mutuality. Self-sacrifice erases me, my desires and fears and boundaries and ego. Some people call this erasure noble, I raise one sceptical eyebrow and say, bleurgh. I’ve worked too hard to turn up in this body, in this life, to take my stand in relation to another to think bus-diving is any kind of good relational choice. If the bus thing is a snapshot of a worldview, then I want out of that ethical constellation. I suspect it is a rhetorical flourish that is shorthand for a way of relating to others, not an imagined moment in some distant future. It is a daily practice for an imagined future, should one be called to perform such a so-called heroic act.
I have no doubt that I utterly adore my son, that I am devoted to him, that I have given up some things for him, at least temporarily and that I also feel hot injections of maternal ambivalence on a daily, if not hourly basis. I do not feel the need to measure my love in heroic acts of self-sacrifice though. I’m sure in the moment before the bus wheeled into my stroppy, beet-faced three year old who was angrily telling me not to eat his ice-cream, I’d probably instinctively jump in front of it. But as a way of expressing love, I think it is pants. There has got to be a better way of measuring devotion than being flattened by a bus while the previously angry-now-orphaned kid looks on in disbelief and horror. Existing in-relation to the kid, taking our stand in mutuality, blazing with frankness and crackling with authenticity, being present to our limits and desires and capacities and destructive feelings is far less lonely than being orphaned by a woman who insisted on going under a bus for you.
I want a better way to measure devotion.
Copyright Diana Smith 2018
‘Taking my stand in relation to the other’ is a gorgeous phrase I’ve lifted from Buber’s, I and Thou