Sympathy | State of Mind

Perhaps it was the hormones; perhaps the jolt of love and attachment. 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… 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. That my attachments, my energies, would become inward-looking, walling off our domestic unit from the world. A report on the growth of child poverty in Britain made me cry. My emotional experiences will never identically map onto yours: our fingerprints are not the same. I hope not, and I think there is value in the hoping, in the attempt and striving, for sympathy. But now I cared: I felt Wollstonecraft’s attraction of adhesion acutely. 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. Reading about the rape and murder of a young woman on a bus in Delhi in 2012, I felt winded, desolate. 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. 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. 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. 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 ’. 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. I had been politically placid for most of my adult life. 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. Before motherhood, I had not thought much about sympathy. Motherhood altered my state of mind. ‘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’. When I first became pregnant, it would have been impossible, even had I wanted, to tightly leash my emotions. 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. 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’. 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. I was warned that motherhood would make me selfish. I became, in turn, angry, sad, indignant, revolted. I sobbed on the sofa as X Factor contestants recited their personal histories and motivational mantras. 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. But must the acts of translation between our individual emotional worlds be doomed always to failure?