I am not a boy-mom. As much as I wish I was, I am just not. I gave birth to three wondrous little things; first, a girl and then later, boy-girl twins. I have a son, but even after years of shared life, he remains, in so many ways, a complete mystery to me.
With my eldest, I could feel she was a girl with absolute certainty from the moment we created her. Everything about a girl child guiding me across the initiatory threshold of motherhood felt perfect and holy to me. She was typical in her baby and toddler needs for the most part, but she also had a quiet independence about her that permeated our days together. She gave me the precious gift of simple confidence that comes sometimes much more hard-fought to first-time mothers.
From early on in my second pregnancy though, my twins carried such a different energy with them as they grew, changing and stretching first my body and then my heart, mind and spirit past every preconceived limit I’d ever held. They were riotous, intense, restless, filled with joie de vive and an impatience to run free. They were, they are, in a word—wild. They shook down the tower of my confident motherhood, bursting into life, huge and hungry, literally clawing at my breasts for the sustenance they craved from me. They challenged me in labor, in infancy, in toddlerhood, and still.
But as they’ve grown older, the emphasis has become less on the survival of two small creatures the same age and more on nurturing the development of two separate beings. I’ve felt the bond with my younger daughter become more intimate, strengthened by our shared femininity. At the same time, a sense of helplessness sometimes steals over me as I witness the gulf that widens between me and my son. I am not a boy-mom. How, I find myself praying, does a girl-mom properly mother a boy?
In winter, I rest deep within Ceridwen’s Great Cauldron, sitting in stillness to brew the spark of potential change. During each turn of my Cycle of Healing, I make time to re-explore the mythos of that Station’s Lady. Doing so gives me the opportunity to filter the familiar mythology through the current lens of my life; to glean a different lesson from the tale that is uniquely connected to who I am and what I experience in that moment.
I return to Ceridwen’s tale after a very long day; tea, a blanket and Welsh mythology promising solace. Ceridwen creates Her potion for her hideous son, Affagdu, so that he might at least be gifted enough that the world will overlook his physical deformity and grant him a good life. She sets Gwion Bach to the task of stirring the potion while She rests after a year’s intense labor. When Her back is turned or Her eyes closed for a moment, somehow the magic of the potion transfers to Gwion instead.
Some say it was the potion that leapt from the Cauldron, burning his fingers, which he, unaware of the consequences, instinctively put in his mouth. Other versions I have read are very clear in Gwion’s conscious decision to intentionally appropriate the magic of the potion for his own. It is a small detail and one I am not qualified to speak to scholastically. But these competing explanations of transference strike me as important. Which was it? An accident or intentional disobedience? How many times have I looked at the aftermath of my son’s actions, struggling to discern the same?
Suddenly, the power of the tale shifts. Always viewing the transference of the potion to Gwion Bach as a given, in the past my focus was on the correspondences of the ensuing transformations within myself. But this story isn’t only about internal matters of individual healing. Shifting perspective, it also becomes external, intensely relational- the story of a mother’s struggle with Her mercurial son. Not the son She understood fully, but the son She never saw coming; the son She was wholly unprepared for as he began to challenge Her with every step of his growth.
Just as I sometimes find myself unable to discern clear truth to my son’s actions, I still don’t know whether to believe Gwion chose willful disobedience or whether happenstance created his situation. But when I apply the Hermetic Principle of Cause & Effect, I don’t think it really matters. There are no coincidences. Nothing truly happens by chance. Either way, Gwion Bach and Ceridwen were both transformed, becoming forever mother and son.
The course they pursue through the rest of the tale is fantastical. Gwion, shape-shifting into the nimble Hare. Ceridwen, pursuing immediately as the agile Greyhound. Then, the slippery Salmon, racing away from the sleek Otter. Followed by the swift Wren, barely outpacing the sharp-eyed Hawk. And at last, the Seed. The kernel of Grain devoured by the very patient & determined Great Mother Hen.
I’ve sometimes taken the pursuit and its transformations for granted. But something about the struggles with my son, makes me consider them in a different light. Many times this tale is focused on Ceridwen pushing Gwion Bach higher, faster, and farther. We see Her as the catalyst behind his growth, creating the pressure necessary to trigger his, and subsequently our, change. The Hermetic Principle of Polarity, however, suggests we may consider the entire pursuit in reverse and still gain insight. What if it’s Gwion Bach’s behavior, the ever-changing son, which drives the changes in his Great Mother? What if She changes primarily to meet the needs of Her sacred child’s continuing development?
Assuming that possibility, I begin to wonder, what are the son’s needs? Gwion Bach the Hare is trying to tell his Great Mother what he needs Her to be. As he runs every which way, he reminds me of my son as a babe, new to self-propulsion. eager to see the world, but clueless as to how to navigate it in a straight line and quick to be distracted. As the Hare, he also reminds me of my son when he is anxiously anticipating an upcoming event or when he is attempting to persuade me to give in to something he wants by peppering me with scattered rational.
The Salmon in my son appears when he is trying to slip away without completing a distasteful task I’ve asked of him. He also appears when his quicksilver mind slides smoothly through rapids of complicated mathematics that ought to be beyond a child his age. My son, the Wren, pushes himself to new heights, attempting to master his newest trick. He also flits from one task to another, not able to focus long enough to complete any of them. But even with all that activity, the whirl of constant motion, at his core he is still so young. He is still the Seed.
The Great Mother challenges me to meet his needs. To look through Her eyes and discern his ever-changing form as ever-present divinity. To be willing to surrender, to shift my shape to meet his, to allow him to drive the transformation of our relationship. One day, his brow will shine and he will be his own Taliesin. For now, he still needs his Ceridwen. He still needs me.
Kate Brunner is a writer, healer, ritualist, & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon, studying at the Avalonian Thealogical Seminary. She is a somewhat nomadic American, homeschooling her children with the world as their classroom. She holds a BA from Tulane University, where she studied Economics, International Relations, & Religious Traditions. Kate volunteered as a presenter for monthly Red Tents and semi-annual women’s retreats before relocating overseas for several years where she hosted seasonal women’s gatherings, facilitated labyrinth rituals, and led workshops on an assortment of women’s spirituality topics. She recently returned to the US and is breathing into the potential of this new chapter of her life.
7 thoughts on “Great Mother, Mercurial Child by Kate Brunner”
I’m a mother of a 2.5 year old son and a 15 week old baby girl. Your sentiments are spot on as I feel an immediate bond with my girl and some distance with my ever growing and changing son. I too will follow the advise you are giving to yourself, good luck!
This is so touching. It was Adrienne Rich who wrote that she wished her boys the strength that women have. Whatever his issues, I hope you will keep on (as I am sure you are) trying to help him grow into a gentle and kind boy and a gentle and kind young man.
Beautiful, insightful post, Kate! So rich! Thank you!
Oh, Kate, this so resonates with me! My first-born was a daughter, and although she was never easy, I’ve always felt a kind of connection with and understanding of her that I’ve never been able to achieve with my son. Honestly, I sometimes feel that we’re from different planets! He is a mystery to me, and although I love him deeply, I doubt that I will ever understand him as I do my daughter. Sigh.
This is a lovely article. I so appreciate the way you have tapped the myth for wisdom about how to raise a son. And you are right; sons challenge us to grow in order to meet their needs as they mature into men. I find that now that my sons are grown, I am still being challenged by my relationships to them–learning to widen my world and wrestle with many of my feminine assumptions and opinions.
When my two sons were young, I searched and searched for wisdom about how to raise sons. Many of the answers I received from the community indicated that I should try to shape them into a feminine and feminist mold. I tried this at first– but it didn’t work. They would take their own shape as men!
What did work was this: staying in relationship with them no matter what choices they made. I made my own opinions clear, stood firm where I had to, and stayed in paradoxical tension with them and their choices when I couldn’t make them do what I wanted them to. Now one son is an actor and the other is a soldier. The soldier has been my greatest challenge, and many times I wanted to simply close the door on him. But I kept it open and I have been rewarded. I now have a clearer understanding of war, violence, and the military and an awareness of how complicated and difficult that feminine and feminist change in the world will be. And I also have a profound relationship with my son and am privileged to watch him struggle with the paradoxes of his life because, although he is a soldier, he is still my son–a feminist, a liberal, a thoughtful, caring person. It has been a perilous and heart-breaking journey to meet him in all his transformations, but well worth it.
Always love your posts Kate. I have 2 boys and 2 girls, and it was the opposite for me. I’ve always felt I was better at mothering the boys and feel a much deeper understanding of them, both being gentle, kind hearted, artistic, deeply connected to nature – my eldest works on a fishing boat and finds it hard to be on land for any long period of time – he feels closer to the moon and likes being rocked to sleep by the waves – I call him my forrest Gump. He’s always been on the fringe. My little man is only 4 and we are so attached. My eldest girl is wild, dominant, oh so stubborn – wonderful qualities, but took me by surprise for sure. She is my greatest challenge, and navigating this relationship with her is a mystery so much of the time. This post has reminded me to look at things from another perspective. Thank you.
“To be willing to surrender, to shift my shape to meet his, to allow him to drive the transformation of our relationship.” This deeply loving insight in your text reminds me of a poem by Emily Dickinson —
The Answer of the Sea unto
The Motion of the Moon —
Herself adjust Her Tides — unto —
Could I — do else — with Mine?
~ Emily Dickinson