Nietzsche Wishes You an Ambivalent Mother’s Day


Arts & Culture

Mary Cassatt, Sleepy Baby, 1910.


The cultural institution of Mother’s Day began with a single massive flower delivery. In 1908, Anna Jarvis, widely regarded as the founder of the holiday, delivered five hundred white carnations to Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia, where her mother had taught Sunday school for decades.

It was the start of a century-long Mother’s Day tradition: give solid-white carnations in honor of the memory of the deceased; give solid-red and solid-pink ones to the moms who still live among us. For a single day, the life of a mother is supposed to be easy. She can take a break and bask in the admiration of her absolute purity, unmitigated faithfulness, unbridled charity, and total love. But perhaps this form of celebration is too easy; perhaps it masks the true difficulties and precariousness of a woman bearing and raising children. In truth, very few things about motherhood seem absolute, unmitigated, unbridled, or total. And maybe we should accept, even celebrate, precisely this ambivalence. 

The ancient Greeks celebrated motherhood, but they didn’t sugarcoat it. Rhea, the goddess of female fertility and motherhood, was revered for saving baby Zeus from being eaten by her husband, Cronus, but her daughter Hera, goddess of marriage and childbirth, was a more controversial figure. After being raped by her brother Zeus, Hera was so ashamed that she agreed to marry him. Then, jealous of Zeus’s serial infidelity and upset that he gave birth to Athena without her—after he raped Metis, another goddess, and swallowed her—Hera took revenge by having her own spontaneously conceived child. It was a boy, named Hephaestus, and he was born lame, an imperfect specimen among the gods. Both parents were ambivalent to him, and Hera threw him out of Mount Olympus and into the ocean. He survived, became the god of blacksmiths, and took revenge on his mother by trapping her in a golden chair with invisible chains. The story of Medea echoes this Olympic myth but by most accounts is even worse: in Euripides’s 431 B.C. play, when Medea’s husband, Jason, leaves her for another woman, Medea murders the other woman but also her own children.

Friedrich Nietzsche was all too attuned to the invisible chains that connect mother and child, ties that bind but also sometimes strangle. “I don’t like my mother,” he writes at age thirty-eight to a friend. In truth, at this point, Franziska Nietzsche probably didn’t particularly like her son either. In his youth, he had been known as the “little pastor”—the consummate good boy—but he had grown increasingly difficult as he passed through early adulthood, gave up theology, and turned to philology and philosophy. Franziska’s exasperation grew in turn: she had raised an independent, thinking young man who exercised his independence in all sorts of self-destructive ways. To her horror, he became a notorious critic of religion and befriended the young and brilliant Russian psychoanalyst Lou Andreas-Salomé. Salomé wanted to live in a writer’s commune with Nietzsche and their mutual friend Paul Rée. The mere suggestion—bordering on illegality—was an existential affront to a pious mother.

Nietzsche may not have liked Franziska, but he certainly loved her. Probably too much. Nietzsche’s father died when he was four, and his young mother never remarried. Instead, she devoted herself to God and her son. Of course, this led Nietzsche into a childhood defined by blind devotion and codependence. He tried desperately to live up to his mother’s expectations and tried to compensate for the father—her husband—who had disappeared, but ultimately, his attempts ran aground. He was unable to satisfy her but also unable to form lasting relationships with women whom he hoped would take her place.

When Nietzsche writes about motherhood, he invariably describes his own childhood. In his usual approach of philosophizing with a hammer, making little attempt to cover up the clearly autobiographical reflections, Nietzsche proposes that one’s view of women is largely determined by one’s relationship to one’s mother: “Everyone carries within himself an image of womanliness derived from his mother: it is this that determines whether, on the whole, he will revere women, or despise them, or remain generally indifferent to them.” He is especially critical of women who spoil and smother their children, thereby sentencing them to virtual bondage in a golden cradle. “The free spirit,” he writes, “will always breathe a sigh of relief when he has finally decided to shake off the maternal care and protection administered by the women around him”—primarily because “the milk offered him by the maternal disposition of the women around him can so easily turn to bile.”

A mother’s love, Nietzsche suggests, is similar to an artist’s love for her creations. While that love can be infused with care and kindness, it’s all too often mixed with possessiveness. A parent treats her children as property to be molded into her likeness under the guise of raising them. Nietzsche sees this as a type of egoism, a manifestation of a mother’s will to power running latently through her love. “Usually a mother loves herself in her son more than she loves the son himself,” Nietzsche writes. In his view, women take on the role of mother as an occupation to be mastered, and a perfect child is proof positive that the goal has been achieved. The childless Nietzsche is often painfully astute in critiquing the parenting of others.

Are mothers more susceptible than fathers when it comes to projecting their own dreams onto their offspring? Probably not. But from the first whiff of morning sickness to the foreign occupation that she endures for nine months, to the excruciating exeunt at the end of the third trimester, to the breastfeeding that typically keeps her housebound, to the ongoing expectations of domesticity that still govern our culture—a mother’s life is defined by a profound sacrifice that fathers are not expected to face. Her children represent both stifled possibilities (her own) and, as they grow older, the opportunities that she might have once hoped to enjoy.

Society continues to be underwritten by that moral imperative that parents are to protect and educate their children. What is often overlooked, however, is the way that this imperative inevitably conflicts with the fact that children must eventually come to care for themselves. As Nietzsche came to realize in his thirties, a mother’s desire to protect her children is often to a child’s detriment because it mitigates the risk entailed in genuine growth. Nietzsche writes that the free spirit doesn’t want to be served, and “without realizing it, women behave as one would do who removed the stones from the path of a wandering mineralogist so that his foot should not strike against them—whereas he has gone forth so that his foot shall strike against them.” In this case, a mother’s best intentions grated on her sensitive son.

Of course, there is a more charitable way to read Franziska Nietzsche’s devotion to her philosopher son, which persisted through his famous descent into madness. This alternative interpretation, described by Frédéric Gros, is likely equally true: Franziska saved her son from the asylum and “took him in, at Naumburg. She cared for him until her own death with love, patience and devotion. She washed and tidied him, took him for walks, watched over him day and night. For seven years.” She continued to remove metaphorical stones from her son’s path until her own death, just three years before his. We agree with Gros that this almost undying devotion, selfless and effacing, was an act of love. But Nietzsche seems to have loathed and resented the assistance he so desperately required. His relationship with his mother remained, as it does for so many, one of love and hate.

Mothering is the sort of relationship that deserves to be celebrated precisely because it is so fraught and so essentially bifurcated. It’s a paradox—filled with love and hate, with protection and letting go, which means that no mother can ever quite be perfect. It also means mothering is both precious and precarious because it binds lives together so tightly and yet the bonds are inherently delicate. Let us give flowers but on the condition that we remain conscious of the ways our filial ties are tested and stretched, since it’s not true that a mother’s love knows no bounds. Perhaps the most honest, and therefore most beautiful, bouquet is not a solid clutch of flowers—pink or red or white. Perhaps it is interspersed with striped carnations, the sign of hesitancy, fragility and warning.


John Kaag is a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the author of Hiking with Nietzsche, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in September 2018.  

Skye C. Cleary is the author of Existentialism and Romantic Love and teaches at Columbia University, Barnard College, and the City College of New York.