The Mother Wound…
How many people do you know who don’t have it?
As someone who has worked with thousands of women and men from all walks of life, I can tell you that I have only met a precious few that escaped a “mother wound.”
The degrees, in the end, both matter and do not matter.
I have heard stories of betrayals so deep that it has made my head spin…mothers who have prostituted their children, beaten them, turned them into servants in their own houses and looked the other way when their daughters and sons were molested, raped or violated in countless ways.
More commonly, there are mothers that are openly or subtly critical of their daughters, emotionally incest their sons, compete with their daughters in countless ways, shame or blame both genders for their own unrealized dreams and/or project them onto their kids to realize them for them.
There are witches and martyrs and everything in between. Indeed, don’t we all know shadow aspects of both ourselves and our mothers that we feel defeated by?
The thing about the mother wound seems to be that we experience it as a haunting. It goes around and around in our brains, our cells and our hearts. It is so primal. We were so vulnerable when it began.
I am an only child, who was raised by a single mother. My father and she split up before I was born and I did not meet him until I was forty-seven years old. The one and only reason that I did not meet my father until that late age was because for decades my mother lied to me about his name. I began a search for him at twenty, but I was searching for him under the wrong name. Eventually, devastated that I could not find him, after so many years of tracking down various “Richard Smith’s” in the D.C. area, she confessed to me that his real name was Richard Veil and that he had attended George Washington University in D.C. I found him within ten days through his alumni association. He called me as soon as my letter was forwarded to him and shared the news of me with his side of the family. I met my cousins. I met my aunt and uncle and I met him. We were in touch, by phone, letters and eventually, at one live meeting, for the last several years of his life.
My own pattern with my mother, since my childhood, has been to hide myself from her emotionally. I experienced her as extremely critical. Her unpredictable outbursts of rage were terrifying. My response to her was to distance myself. As a child, I shut down. As an adolescent, I rebelled and broke away. In many ways, I froze in my adolescent relationship with her as the decades passed by.
As an adult, as I opened up many other aspects of myself, I just didn’t choose to deal with her very much. Creative and sexual freedom were priorities and I felt stifled by her rigid views on both. She doesn’t think people should speak about “issues” outside of the family. I am a story coach, writer and storyteller who has been devoted to the breaking of taboos and sharing of stories professionally.
I was both enraged at her and afraid of her for years. Through therapy and other deep healing processes, I came to integrate the knowledge of being abused by the family sexual predator, who happened to be my beloved great- grandfather. She had known that he was a perpetrator from her sister and from the parents of a neighbor child who were both violated. My mother left me alone with him daily as a primary caregiver for me, while she carried that knowledge with her.
She did it so that she could teach, and support us.
Life is complicated. I could expound on all the emotional reasons that she may have been complicit in my abuse, without consciously realizing it. This is the intersection of where many things get messy in my feelings for my mother.
Let me interrupt myself here for a moment and say, that my mother wanted me to experience wonderful things, and I did. We attended the ballet in London and at The Kennedy Center, had season tickets to the symphony every year and would take the train to New York and see three shows in a weekend. We spent days in my childhood wandering around the world together; The Smithsonian, the flea market on Portabello Road, at markets in Edinborough. We had magical summers together in Beirut, The U.K., Puerto Rico, Portugal and Los Angeles. My mother instilled in me a love of culture and a deep reverence for every art form which has served me to this day. She also instilled in me the knowing that I could live on my own terms. In many ways, my own free-spiritedness – the ability to carve out my own path in the world quality – comes directly from my mother.
She sent me to an International School so I would meet people from all over the world, a value she held high, and bought tickets for me and all my friends to see Bette Midler on my 18th Birthday. She paid for my theater classes and dance classes while slowly watching me slip away from her. Yet, when I was in a show, I never doubted that she would be there in the audience.
My mother has many fine qualities. My mother also has many shadow qualities that were never spoken of or addressed. In my heart of hearts, I believe that my mother has always loved me to the best of her abilities. Sometimes, those abilities were not enough for her to come through for me in the way that I needed. That seemed to breed a sense of lack in me, even in the face of many gifts of my own.
When I went to college, I rarely came back for visits.
I am the daughter who moved thousands of miles away from her mother;
I am that daughter.
I am not the good girl who swallowed it. I let her know for a good long time, with and without words, that I was gone because I could not bear sharing the same coast of this country with her, even several states away. While it was necessary for me to individuate, at some point I threw out the baby with the bathwater. I cut her out for most of my life. One of the most important relationships in my life became the lowest priority. At least on the outside. On the inside, things were a whole lot more complicated for me. The rift between us that grew and grew created a sadness in me that I was not even fully aware of until recently.
Beneath the sadness, I held a belief that some of the things she did to me as a child were simply unforgivable. And yet, I am someone who also believes in infinite forgiveness and compassion. This split inside of me created even more inner turmoil.
To deal with this pathos, I distanced even farther from her emotionally. I did Not. Want. To. Deal.
And, I knew that she felt confused and betrayed my distance. She would speak of it to other family members who would then tell me. It did not move me nor budge me.
At some point, after so much tension/anger/blame of the other, we just held ourselves at a polite distance from the other.
She flew out for my daughter’s graduation. I would show up with Chloe for an occasional holiday every few years. That was about it. There was no intimacy between us. There was no sharing of our lives. I assumed that a polite “truce” was the best we could do.
Last month, I was in the worst state I had been in, for a long time. I was in the depths of grief, after a recent break-up. My mother was set to arrive for a rare, four day visit, that she had suggested and I had agreed to.
One of the points of resentment I had held onto for a long time was my mother’s long standing homophobia. When I had a female lover in my mid-thirties for a few years and told her about it, she blasted me in a follow-up letter. She said that lesbianism was “disgusting” and that if I were to stay with a woman, I would be ruining my daughter’s life.
I felt shamed and enraged. The letter made it even more challenging for me to fully accept my sexual identity, which has been bi-sexual all my life. I have had relationships with both men and women throughout my life; more with men. My mother knew about these. I would closet myself around the relationships with the woman. They always stood a step behind me, in the shadows, a mirror to the relationship with my mother.
Last month’s break-up took me down the rabbit hole of grief. I wanted a safe space to land. Suddenly, I wanted my mother to be there for me. I did not want to call a friend, or talk to a therapist or healer. Something primal rose in me.
I dialed my mother’s number.
My mother did not know that I had been in a relationship for the last many months with a transgender man. I was not sure if she even knew exactly what being transgender meant.
I let the phone keep ringing.
My mother answered.
After a few minutes of small talk, I took a breath and plunged in. My voice began to quiver and I could feel the hot tears rising from the back of my throat.
“Mom” I began…
My stomach churned and I started to back away from myself, but something in me would not let me.
“Mom…I need to tell you something and I need for you to really hear me.”
She agreed and it all came tumbling out. I told her that I had fallen deeply in love with a transgender man and that my heart was broken by his breaking off of the relationship…I went on to tell her that I hadn’t told her about the relationship because I was just used to hiding things from her based on fear of her criticism and judgment. I said, “Mom, I just need for you to be a mom at this moment in my life. I need you to show up with love. That’s it.”
And, she did. She rose to the occasion and she did.
As the conversation went on, she apologized for being so critical of me. She was able to say what she had never said before: “Though I tried to be a better mother to you than my mother was to me, I can see how I repeated her critical attitude and how it came out on you.”
I owned my part in the deep chasm that had been created between us by acknowledging and apologizing for my own retreat from her. I had became almost completely inaccessible to her. I thought that I was having a boundary. What I had done was effectively cut her out of my heart. It was not a clean boundary. It was The Great Wall of China.
My mother is not likely ever going to view the past in the way that I do. I will never view the past through her lens either. We will likely never fully understand the other, our motivations, unhealed trauma or wounds.
But, we do have the opportunity to love each other right now. I promised to allow her more into my evolving story…my evolving life, come what may. She committed to accept me, and love me unconditionally for exactly who I am and who I may love, now and in the future.
It is not lost on me that healing the mother wound is the last major turning point on the Heroine’s Journey. For those only familiar with the Joseph Campbell work on the Hero’s Journey, I recommend the work of Maureen Murdock.
The two journeys are in some way similar, yet unique. I believe that for our own self-actualization, we all need to take our own Hero and Heroines Journey regardless of gender. We all embody both masculine and feminine characteristics and wholeness involves the acknowledgement of both. The Hero’s Journey is more about the development of a healthy ego through overcoming obstacles, finding true power and making our own unique mark in the world. The Heroine’s Journey involves a deep inner plunge. After we have made our mark in the world and served our tribe, how do we re-focus our inner longing, to the embrace of the Self? I view The Heroine’s Journey as a profound aspect of our spiritual journey. At its essence, it is the turn from looking for adventure in the outer world, to the deepest embrace of adventure in our inner world. It is the adventure of intimacy. It is the infinite adventure of love.
I find it fascinating that the forgiveness of the mother is what sets us free. In this patriarchal culture, mothers carry more negative projection, expectation and demands than any other role that can be played. Ultimately, in loving our mothers as equals, for the flawed human beings and beautiful souls that they are, we finally take back our power and become realized, autonomous beings in this world. No longer bound by their limited stories of us or our finite stories of them, we can stand up and fly high.
Oh, so high.
As much more than a footnote, I want to say that I love my mother.