The past few weeks, I’ve been sitting with the many layers held by the concept, and the manifest reality, of mother, mothering, and motherhood. Mother is seen in the divine feminine, in the cosmos, and in the sea and the glow of the moon. She is held in our genes and our histories and the eyes of our children. She is found in archetypes of healing, nurturing, and comfort, as well as in stories of criticism, coldness, and abuse. She is the soft one who tends grief and holds hands and braids hair, and she is the unbreakable one whose labor and caregiving is taken for granted in most areas of her life. We carry our mothers with us in our DNA, in our stories, and in the way we navigate the impacts of intergenerational trauma.
She doesn’t always appear in our stories in simple or easy ways. Some of us mother children we did not or could not grow in our bodies; some of us birth babies who are now mothered by others. Some of us are not mothers at all. Some of us had mothers who could not love us unconditionally, or did not have mothers in our lives, or had mothers who brought us more pain and humiliation than comfort, from whose effects we are still recovering, are still healing. Others have mother wounds, mother blessings, that escape delineation in a single blog post restrained both by its word count and the sometimes-limited imagination of its author.
Mother is a tough concept for me. My own relationship with my biological mother was a source of confusion and heartache for years; the resolution of that internal conflict left me feeling cut off from my maternal grandparents, whose influence on my early life was wholly positive, loving, and stabilizing. Connecting with my ancestors is a part of my spiritual practice, so this loss was present with me, in my heart and waking meditations as well as in my rich dream life, which included frequent visits to my grandparents’ home. Each morning I’d awaken from a dream spent in that space to the stifling realization that their home – my childhood home for my earliest memories – had been torn down years ago.
These dreams were a constant for me during the time in which I was struggling to balance a sense of peace about minimized contact with my mother with the sense of lost connection with my grandparents. As is my norm when challenged by difficulties in my life, I turned to ritual for healing. I drove to my grandparents’ old property, and as I pulled up the drive I could barely breathe.
Once the tears eased up, I took my young twins on a tour. Here – here is the magnolia I spent hours in when I was a kid. See its thick branches? We walked through the house, and as my twins skipped across the near-empty field, my own feet carefully traced easily-remembered paths where doors and hallways once stood. Here is the big room where I used to tap dance or box with my Papa. Here is the kitchen where Mema cooked the most delicious dinners. The house is as real to me now, inside of me, as it ever was when my toddler hands rummaged my Mema’s makeup or jewelry drawers in search of things to make me more like her. We grabbed a few grocery sacks out of the car, and walked east several yards.
This is the garden where they grew the most delicious vegetables, I explained, pointing at a lush, overgrown patch of land. I look at my hands, half-surprised to find them empty despite the remembered prickle of okra against tiny fingertips. Trusting the growing impulse of my body, I ripped up several weeds and plants to get to the lush soil underneath. Scooping it carefully into still-prickly hands, I filled two bags and took them home with me. On the next full moon, as part of a house-blessing ritual, I sprinkled that soil – soil that nourished me in my first years, soil that still connected me to my maternal grandparents – around the perimeter of my own home’s yard.
The dreams eased up, and the residual grief from the dreams I did have resolved. The connection had been restored, rewoven, renewed.
We heal up. We look to mothers before us, and work our paths and processes to heal up our lineage, digging deep, tending thoughtfully, and bringing back insights.
We heal in. We look within ourselves to find and excavate those soul wounds and heart-aches that happened in our own youth, in order to minimize any harmful impacts on our current lives and legacies.
And we heal down. We change the way we treat children – our own and all those in our lives – so that our mothering can transform patterns of hurt and shame and trauma for those who will be there to carry on our stories, adding them to their own beautiful stories.
Last night, I shared a draft of a piece I’d submitted to a literary journal with my 17-year-old child – a college freshman living a few states away. After several minutes, they wrote back:
I don’t know if I’ve ever told you, but I’m really proud of you and how far you’ve come as a writer and a mother and a friend and a dancer and a person. Since I’m the kid, I know it’s usually the other way around, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed things I didn’t before and it’s made me more proud and honored not just to know you, but to have a part of you with me (and not just genetically).
This is healing down. This is the hard work, sometimes fumbled but always attempted, of leaving behind something different, something more loving and consistent. This is the confirmation that even in the grief of sorting through our own tangle of experience, we are gifting something more orderly, more consistent, more healing, to those we inspire and mother.
Christy Croft is a writer, teacher, and healer whose interfaith, personal spiritual practice is inspired by nature, informed by science, and grounded in compassion. She holds a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies with a focus on religion and social justice, and is currently plotting her next round of studies. She has facilitated safe and sacred space for over twenty years, as a suicide hotline counselor, doula, rape crisis companion, support group facilitator, minister, mentor, mother, and friend. Her research interests are ever-evolving and include spirituality, new religious movements, religiosity and popular culture, compassion, trauma, gender, sexuality, and intimacy, and she sometimes blogs at The Sacred Loom.