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.
17 thoughts on “Carrying Our Mothers by Chris Ash”
I was speaking with a friend yesterday about her mother, who not very loving and difficult. A few minutes later, she said something like, “but it wasn’t so bad.” It seems to me that one of the keys to healing is telling the truth. If it was that bad, it was that bad. Though we all want to think we have good parents, some of us don’t or didn’t. A few months ago, I wrote about the harm my father’s behavior did to me. Then a few weeks later I wrote about the good aspects of our relationship. I was stunned when several women commented on the second blog that I had “a good father.” In truth I had a father who was good in some ways and not good at all in others. But we all seem to want to believe that our parents were good, even when they weren’t. I struggled with this too.
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This is big for me as well, Carol. It was bad, but it took me a few years of going no contact to acknowledge how bad it was. These relationships are complicated, and not always easy to untangle.
Also I would not equate “the mother principle” with actual mothers in patriarchy. Many of our mothers or grandmothers or others did love us and provide nurturance under the conditions of patriarchy where love and care and generosity were expected of women but not (except for providing financially) of men. Other mothers under patriarchy were depressed and angry and so on, because of not having opportunities to be other than mothers. In egalitarian matriarchies, land is owned by the maternal clan, women control food production, and motherhood is shared. This is where the idea of the Mother Goddess originated as the great, giving, and wise Mother.
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I am sorry to hear about Carol P. Christ’s recent passing. That said, her words here are so true. Patriarchy created a maternal wound where some mothers became twisted and mean while others can still love their daughters. Patriarchy tried to destroy any bond between women-mothers, daughters, sisters, etc. My maternal grandmother was verbally and emotionally abusive toward her daughter and grand daughters while favoring sons and grandsons. My mother was loving, but still struggled in her bond with my sister’s and I as she had no positive female role model or guidance to figure it out. My paternal grandmother was sweet, but I didn’t see her very often. She had a hard life because my paternal grandfather had no respect for women and sadly neither did my father or his brothers. Patriarchy really took its toll on my family. Yet, I look at the maternal principle as shown in matriarchal societies, and I see how things should have or could have been. I try to look at my maternal grandmother’s life and try to figure out why she was so mean and unloving. She grew up in a poor family of mostly girls where one brother died young. My maternal great grandmother was continually pregnant and probably emotionally exhausted having so many kids into her late 40s. I think my maternal grandmother felt she had to compete with her sisters for any attention while her brothers were favored as a scarce resource in the family. This made her distrust females even her own daughter and grand daughters. Just a theory, but I know so little. But it explains a lot.
Difficult to know how to comment and if to comment.
I am a survivor of incest. Even saying that, opens me up to the possibility of being accused of traumatising others. Do I put a trigger warning at the beginning of my comment – would that be enough? probably not.
I began the long, painful process of ‘not carrying my mother’ a good number of years ago now (I am 54 years old). I wrote the dilligent mothers day’s card, got to the post box and couldn’t physically make myself post it. Instead, I went home and wrote a letter detailing why I couldn’t it post it. At that point, I had not ‘remembered’ the sexual abuse that occured when I was a baby and the rape that occured at the age of 5 and possibly times after that – (doesn’t she know? what does she mean possibly, I hear you cry)
I made the decision that I was not going to pass it on to future generations. That it stopped here, with me and that I would push it back, not forwards.
I also use ritual to cope and I have had to turn to the spirit world for the love and nurturing that I did not get and cannot seem to get even now.
I could go on, but I think I’ve said enough.
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Thanks for sharing, Helen.
My own mother was problematic enough for me to ritually re-route my family tree around her for my ancestral work after going no contact, and yet I still find I carry some of her echoes in my laugh, my voice, etc. It’s a bittersweet recognition each time it happens. Those wounds heal in their own ways and paces and pop up in unexpected ways sometimes.
For me, ritual frequently gets me out of my coping and into my healing, which feels lovely.
And I’m sorry you went through what you did. It sounds like you’ve come to a place of greater clarity about how you want to approach your healing in your own way, and that’s such a gift to give yourself in honoring your own boundaries.
Helen, I was sexually abused by my step-father, felt rejected by my mother, and was bullied by my older brother. Telling these truths to trusted others is freeing, and a big step toward healing. Thank you for sharing your experience here.
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Praise and thank you to Barbara Cooper’s sharing above. I too was abused not by one but by two different step-fathers. Happily I am getting on in years now, so I don’t think I have to worry too much any more. But so we should keep that in mind too, if we fear aging, because it truly does have some delightful benefits.
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Thank you all for sharing courageously. Time does bring some much-needed space.
Christy, I was so touched by the note from your daughter/or son. What a beautiful expression of love and appreciation. Thank you for sharing your journey in healing.
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I am touched by your story and that you have found some ways to augment your healing process. May whatever problems your mother had be healed for you and her too, in spirit and heart. Whatever pain, trauma, misunderstanding, something affected her that ended up affecting you. May that thing, whatever it is or was, be long gone and never harm or hurt or affect anyone, ever again.
May Love Nourish & Protect You All.
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Beautiful post, Christy. Thank you!
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Wonderful picture of your mother, Christy. Sadly, my mother passed on years ago, at a fairly young age. She had no support from a feminist community like we have. Happily however I did grow up amidst lots of women’s writings, and they did help me very profoundly. Also just to say I love FAR — thanks so much Carol, and all who contribute here.
Thank you, Sarah! That’s my grandmother, with whom I lived as a child. I do believe I’m the first of the mothers in my line to have access to strong, feminist community in the way that I and my children now do. Grateful for that every day.
Sarah – with respect, “Praise and thank you to Barbara Cooper’s sharing above”. You seem to have completed neglected the fact that she would probably not have shared that, if it had not been in response to my sharing. It was as if I did not exist.
I want to stress that I do empathesise with Barbara’s and yours experience, but I feel I have to say something that is deeply unpopular at this point. Being raped by someone of your own blood, is different and people’s circumstances are different.
There seems to be general ruling that we all have to accept that all abuse is the same, and the circumstances surrounding the abuse, are the same. I appreciate when one is in pain, then it is painful, and one has to honour that pain but there are degrees of pain.
I have sat in many an abuse workshop, and listened to horrific stories but I have always thought, my own story was more traumatic. Being attacked in a park by a stranger is not the same as being sexually abused as a baby by your blood father, being orally raped at the age of five, or having your blood father, who you love and fear in equal measure, perform marine torture techniques on you, as a teenager. It is not the same as not having any loving/guiding family or friend to turn to. It just isn’t.
This is not about one upmanship. This is about truth.
I have once had the experience of being with someone whose experience, I thought, brought mine into a pale perspective. That is not to dishonour my own pain. This was a woman whose family involved her in group ritual abuse. At least I had my faith to fall back on.
Christy – you say that “time does bring some much needed space”. That is not my experience. That reminds me of a medium I went to see, that told me that my father would be in touch with me. (we have had no contact for 10 years). When I looked horrified, she said “time heals” and looked at me with anger and impatience. She did not know of his abuse to me, but even if she had, I don’t think her attitude would have been much different. I believe she would still think I was over reacting and attention seeking.
I have had the experience of going to the police twice. The Police child abuse expert, (who was a woman) after witnessing me sobbing for an hour, saying I wasn’t sure about going forward because my father might harm my children, say to me “what books and films have you been reading?” The type of man who is capable of having my dog put down, in order to control/hurt me, is more than capable of harming my children, as a way of hurting me. It should have been her telling me this, not the other way round.
I am also involved in an ongoing dispute with my local services, who when I approached them for counselling, sent me a PDQ4+ questionnaire that asked me questions:
Was I a rapist?
Have I ever tortured animals?
Was I an arsonist?
Was I a habitual liar?
I am tired of trite comments and “yes, I know what it’s like”, “we’ve all had a bit of abuse, haven’t we?” “time heals” Watch Dylan Farrow’s interview about her abuse with her father, Woody Allen. She’s been at this for 20 years and she still is visibly distressed and this is with a supportive mother and a loving husband and young child.
Hers was a one off sexual assault as a 7 year old…..
I wish you all well with your healing.
Helen, it does sound like you have been through a lot and are still in a lot of pain over the horrific ways you’ve been treated. I won’t comment specifically on each of your points since it seems you are comfortable with how you understand your own trauma and I have nothing to contribute.
I will add that I personally try not to assume I know the extent of another’s traumatic experiences based on how much they feel comfortable disclosing either to me or in a public online space. That does tend to lead to a feeling of one-upmanship whether intended or not, in which the loudest voices are amplified at the expense of those who carry deep knowing but choose to engage in quieter or less revealing ways.
I suppose I’ve been on the end of loud authoritative voices that have told me that I – along with many others – have no right to consider our experiences as not all the same.
I absolutely do not diminish other people’s pain – pain is pain but there are degrees.
After all, the medical profession acknowledge this when you go to A and E. There is a triage system in place.
So, I have been accused of one upmanship?