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I dare to write about my experience as a mother in less than ecstatic terms.
I say I “dare” because speaking about motherhood in less than ecstatic terms is among the biggest taboo subjects in our society.
We struggle, we fear, we drink, we neglect, we feel suffocated and depressed, we are guilt-ridden, we self-harm, we harm our children—but we’d never admit to it.
We only talk about how much we love our children, how blessed we feel to have them, and how motherhood is the most important role of our lives. This is not surprising, considering that for centuries, a woman’s greatest value in a patriarchal society was her ability to produce heirs.
The smiley side of motherhood has been well documented in Disney films, Hallmark cards, and in our own Instagram stories.
I’m interested in illuminating the shadow side, the side for which there are no pictures. I am interested in exposing the side of motherhood that we don’t talk about on Mother’s Day.
Experiencing anything but bliss as mothers is shameful. For me, it felt like an admission of failure, especially after pursuing pregnancy for so many years. My tentative attempt to speak to the reality of my experience was met by women in my environment with incomprehension, shaming, and indignation.
I did not understand my complicated feelings and kept them secret. But sorrow is not something we can keep secret. It oozes out of us. And the children know. Just like I knew about my mother’s sorrow. Children feel it in their bones, in their guts.
A mother’s emotional life and conflicts affect the emotional life of her children. The mother’s inner turmoil is brought to the surface through her inability to be present for bonding with her child, in her unexpected cruelty, narcissistic tendencies, her endless perfectionism, and resulting resentment.
One of the more unexpected revelations of my work with women is the extent of the damage that occurs in our development due to the mother wound: the trauma of being raised by mothers who were cold, critical, withdrawn, mothers who could not give love, could not attune to their children.
It is subtle and complicated.
I grew up thinking that I had a wonderful, doting, and present mother. My mother often spoke about how she loved children and enjoyed being a mother. I think she really did bring forth the best of her abilities to show up for us.
And yet, it has taken me years to make sense of and unravel the residue of my parents’ inability to create an environment where I felt safe both physically and emotionally. I had a roof over my head and I was fed. There were books and art. I was also beaten, and judged, and criticized relentlessly by my unhappy father. In those moments, my mother was silent and helpless, as abused women usually are. I was also taught untruths about men, other women, sex, what is shameful, and many other dysfunctional dynamics within which women lived for many generations in my family and the world at large.
Still, I actively wanted to become a mother when I got married. I was certain that without children my life as a woman would not be complete.
It is normal to want a family. But we want the idealized version of what a family means.
A lot of my unrealistic expectations about family life were fed by all the women in my life. No one spoke the truth. Everyone around me went to great efforts to portray theirs as the ideal family for which I longed.
As Stephen Cope formulates in his book, Deep Human Connection, the family life becomes an elaborate cover story. We leave out the hard parts. We weave a narrative from pieces of the truth, but mostly just a wish.
Parents damaged by their own childhood, by the shameful stories and untold secrets that are omitted from the family lore, reveal their trauma in their eruptions of rage, verbal abuse, and random cruelty. These suppressed events become seared into the cellular memory of the child and the cycle continues.
It is not surprising, then, that so many of us repeat the same dynamic we have observed in our own childhood homes, often using reward and punishment as a viable way not only to raise children but to relate to other adults.
Our first experiences of attachment become the template for our future relationships. They dictate our ability to form connections. They become encoded in our memory as expectations. Our early childhood experiences are responsible for the relationship problems we encounter as adults, including our relationships with our own children.
Attachment theory is all about the degree of security of a connection. A parent provides proximity, safety, and soothing. When the parent is emotionally sensitive to the child’s signals, the baby is soothed and calmed. The baby who feels secure grows and develops.
However, for secure attachment, proximity and physical safety are not always enough. Neuroscientists now understand that for secure attachment, the central ingredient is the attunement of minds. It is also the key ingredient for our capacity to create true connections with others.
Most parents are not able to provide the ingredients necessary for secure attachment.
Even if proximity is established by living under the same roof, safety is often not available. Any criticism and judgment, and especially physical and verbal abuse, prevent the child from feeling safe to be themselves, safe to be in their bodies.
So much of modern parents’ efforts are spent on providing material well-being, but not on the emotional and spiritual bonding with each other or their children. Often, it is that pressure of chasing perfection and material expansion—projecting our own unrealized ambitions and fears of scarcity and survival on our children—that actually promotes and creates the split between us and our children.
Our children do not need more toys or a bigger bedroom. They need more interaction and the ability to explore new things without attachment to outcome or performance. If we are always focused on the goals and trying to get our children to a certain milestone, then we are missing out on what is actually going on with them or who they are right now. When they are not accepted for who they are, our children will go on to demand certain behavior from their relationships, rather than accepting people for who they are.
Our children do not care how young or thin we are. And yet it is our preoccupations, competition, unfulfilling lives—our own inner struggles—that prevent us from properly bonding with our children, or anyone else in our lives.
It is our own capacity to meet ourselves in compassion and unconditional love that can provide an accepting and loving environment for our children. As cruel and non-accepting as we are to ourselves is how we show up for all of our relationships.
The mother preoccupied with her internal suffering is lost to the child.
The children sense that their mother is elsewhere and take it personally. They then carry the grief of the loss of their mother to her sadness, to her internal preoccupations, to her anger, to her sense that her life has been stolen from her.
Motherhood is a choice that creates consequences that ripple out way beyond our own lives.
Coming out of patriarchy, the meaning of our role as mothers is up for review. The world where motherhood is described as the most important role in a life of a woman will keep women overriding other interests and choices in favor of motherhood.
Our world is changing, all while mental illness is on the rise. We need to practice extreme honesty about the fact that not all of us are meant to be or should be mothers to children. The more important work to do right now is to heal our own inner child.
Now is the time for us women to realize that Mother is only one of our superpowers. We are being invited to step up and become agents for change we wish to see in the world. Other superpowers to develop now are Sovereign, Leader, Warrior, Lover, Magician, Healer, Truth Teller.
As we break free from the trance of duty to patriarchy and the residual fantasy of motherhood, we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and decide what our world really needs us to mother now?
Learn how to heal your own mother wound. Contact me for a free introductory conversation.