Mother Load

“Every Mother contains her daughter in herself and every daughter her mother and every mother extends backwards into her mother and forwards into her daughter.”
― C.G. Jung

A “big” dream, recalled vividly, from well over a decade ago, from a time when my professional identity was central to me, and I considered myself happily child-free.

The dream has served as a herald, a warning, a reminder, a road sign, a comfort and a counterweight.

My eyes are following a sea bird as it circles strangely in the sky over the city streets. Directly beneath is a young woman, in a old coat, tightly buttoned over a large pregnant belly. She is walking away from me, and I decide to follow her.

She slips into a church yard.

I follow her inside, but she has disappeared.

A tunnel. A man (a priest?) gestures for me to enter. I must crawl on my knees to pass through. I feel a claustrophobic panic begin to swell:

“Tengo Meido!!”

I have fear. Fear has me.

And I break free into a small chapel.
In the center of the room is a large fountain which rests on top of a sacred, ancient spring. A circle of women move around it, in a slow, methodical ritualized dance. They have cut crystal pitchers in each hand, and are pouring the waters back and forth, from the fountain, into their own and each other’s pitchers and back again.

I know this is the dance of the Mothers Who Mourn. And I am soon to be initiated into this dance.

and that although this is a dance filled with sorrow, it is also a dance of beauty and power.

This is the dance that keeps the entire world in balance.

Therapists spend an extraordinary amount of time each day talking to clients about motherhood, their mothers and their own motherhood.

Surely my sample is skewed. Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Those mommies. In this era. In this place.

Mothers in my community who know what I do approach me at school, at the park, on the corner, confessing their failures and their fears, seeking reassurance or direction – assuming I have the power to absolve and point them toward the right path over a quick cup of coffee.

And in my office the mommies tell me their secrets. These other mothers take off their protective armor of seeming perfection when they talk to me.

They confess their darkest mommy moments: they scream at their children, lose their shit, they are exhausted beyond comprehension. They admit that they have had it, are up to here. They are drained, feel ill used, disrespected, reduced. They are riddled with guilt, regret, and inadequacy. They whisper their fears that that their son or daughter is explosive, defiant, passive, obsessive, distractible, depressed, diagnosable, has a learning difference or neurological disability.

They are fearful that they have already failed, or soon will fail at their chosen calling.

Overwhelmed by the perceived power that they wield with every choice they make about the physical and emotional well being of their child. The power to create, to contaminate, to shame, to mold, to shape, to instruct, to guide, to damage.

Every one of them desperate, frantic to do “what is right” whatever the hell that is.

Wincing, braced for cold shock of shame, of blame and judgement by their extended family, the therapeutic community, their neighbors, their spouses, and above all: by Other Mothers.

Fretful that they have not done enough, cannot do enough, have overlooked something essential, that any and every decision they make, or fail to make, will have destructive life long consequences.

All anxiously grieving their failures, or their perceived failures, or straining to defend against failures they cannot acknowledge.

Everyone in need of forgiveness and reassurance whether they know it or not. Struggling to forgive themselves, or unable to acknowledge that they need to be forgiven.

Scared to death that their children will not love them, do not love them, or will know better than to love them by the time they reach adulthood.

All desperate to hear they are “doing a good job” at the central task of their lifetimes.

An old myth of motherhood, ascendant a generation or two ago, now fading still persists for many in our culture:

In order to become adults, women must become mothers. Motherhood as a culturally mandatory initiation rite. Imposed. Not chosen. Expected. Normal.

“It was Just What You Did” all the mothers a generation before us say.

Not a decision to make or agonize over. Think about whether or not you might be good at it or if you want it? Why? It is just the labor, the task, the only opportunity for real mastery assigned to you. Have feelings about it if you like, and powerful attachments, resentments losses and burdens, but its no use thinking about it too much because there isn’t a choice. Like it or not, you are expected do it. A cultural, mythological mandate.

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically and on their environment and on their children than the unlived lives of the parents.” – C.G. Jung

Their unlived lives: Who would any of our mothers have been without us to distract, and devour and divert their energies? If they had chosen, would they have chosen us? Who would my mother have been if I had not been born? What parts of herself did she foreclose on to take on this role? What parts of her motherhood did she not live out, did she resent or reject in order to preserve her own identity in the face of an unchosen maternal assignment?

We have surely made some of our mothers better people, stronger than they knew, braver. Some of our mothers were embittered, resentful, rebelling against the maternal mandate by withholding their authentic selves or by venting their rage at their assigned charges. Some of our mothers carried and bore us, but could not or chose not to raise us or both. Some of us taught our mothers to love, others of us had to head for the hills to escape a mother who, starved of any other means of satisfaction, threatened to devour us whole. Even if they made the best of it, even if motherhood is exactly what they would have chosen anyway – if with hindsight they know they would have chosen to have us, or know that they might never had us at all…

We feel their lack of choosing in our bones.
We smell it like the weather.

Their unlived life lurks there. What would it have been?

If Jung has named a psychological truth, then we all live out the previous era’s unlived lives. We are all exploring the identities our mothers lost, had taken away, rejected, or foreclosed upon themselves.

In this era, we have defined ourselves by the very choices that mothers before us did not have.

The present day rising myth of motherhood as discussed on blogs and chat rooms, splattered provocatively on magazine covers and style sections: Chosen Motherhood.

We believe that we are empowered by our choosing and that choice is freedom. We believe in the myth that our children will be happier and will love us better as a result of all of our choices. We believe that we, since we have chosen our maternal role, will be better, less conflicted, more fulfilled, more conscious mommies. After all, it was our choice! The Mothers of Full Intention will compensate for the shadow of the earlier era’s Unchosen Mothers.

Jungian theorist Guggenbuhl-Craig would say that all of us are led or at least influenced by the collective myths of our era. He would also warn us that one-sided, incomplete myths have pathological and damaging consequences.

Motherhood of Choice and Unchosen Motherhood are both incomplete myths. They are different myths, with different omissions, with different unintegrated shadows, and each half-myth does its own damage:

The myth of Unchosen Motherhood acknowledges that women’s choices are significantly restricted by lack of opportunity, by economic reality, by poverty, by hardship, by oppression, racism, by imperialism. Yet, it minimizes the responsibility within the constricted range of choices that mothers did and do have.

Existential therapists, such as Viktor Frankl might speak at this point of attitudinal values. Jung might insist on the autonomy of the soul. They would do so to remind us that under even the most oppressive circumstances, we can maintain a choice about how to internally respond to external realities, to organize a consciously chosen attitude of submission, acceptance, or resistance, to the realities that may externally oppress or restrict us. The myth of Unchosen Motherhood casts a shadow of fatalism, victimization, passivity, abdication, thoughtlessness, resentment, and ambivalence.

The present day myth of Chosen Motherhood has its own destructive aspect – We have chosen it, so we must find it completely fulfilling and we must do it to perfection. We have accepted it after lengthy deliberation and as a sacred calling, and therefore we must pursue it and hone our skills to make sure we are good at it. Why on earth would you ever choose to do something that you didn’t think you could succeed at?

The everyday, constant, inevitable, unavoidable failures of motherhood take on a crushing weight for the Mothers of Choice. The shadow of this myth is control, inflation, perfectionism, anxiety, magical thinking, and over-protection.

A complete myth includes, incorporates its own shadow. There are many complete myths of motherhood, this is one:

A woman finds herself unexpectedly pregnant before marriage. The father of her child is not her intended husband. She and her husband are homeless at the time of her son’s birth.

Although his childhood seems in general too normal and unremarkable to bother commenting on, there were some red flags. On one memorable occasion, the boy snuck away from the family on a trip to the city defying his mother’s instructions to stay nearby – After frantic city-wide search she finally found him. He showed little empathy for her fright or understanding of what he had put her through. She thought it was normal testing at the time, but perhaps this was an early sign of what was to come.

In adulthood, he grew increasingly distant from her. He began consorting with religious and political extremists. She approached him once during a large wedding party where everyone had clearly been drinking a great deal, he shunned and shamed her: “Woman! What have you to do with me?”

He was completely uninterested in marriage, his mother would never see grandchildren if he were her only child. Over the next few years his behavior became increasingly erratic. He was homeless, wandered through the cities and country side. He didn’t work, didn’t seem to have a penny to his name, and apparently begged for food and lived off of the charity of others. He kept company with a troubled crowd of vagrants, drifters, criminals, revolutionaries and prostitutes.

When she sent his brother one last time to try to bring him home – he rejected her yet again saying: “I have no brother. I have no mother.”

Eventually, her son was arrested, tried and executed in front of her for crimes against the state. Some witnesses say that just before he died, he asked a close friend to take care of her. Other accounts indicate that he did not mention her at all.

Do you think if she’d made different choices, it might have turned out differently?

I have sat with, and listened to and heard tell of thousands of mothers over the years:

French mothers and Asian-American mommies. White mommies, mothers of color, mothers in transracial families. Mother’s of wealth and privilege, mothers of limited means, mothers by choice and by accident, single moms, widowed moms, gay mommies, queer mommies and male mothers. Divorced and divorcing mothers, adoptive moms, and adoptees who are mothers. Mothers of kids with special needs, of gifted children, of children with severe disabilities. Mother’s of infertility, mothers of miscarriages and still births. Women who yearn for motherhood and those who are repulsed, reject or fear it. Motherless mothers. Non-custodial mothers, mothers of children born to them but being raised by others. Full time at home mommies, working mommies, free-lance mommies setting their own schedules. Mothers on public assistance, mothers with live in nannies. Mothers alienated, cut off, or rejected by their adult children. Mothers of children incarcerated, institutionalized. Mothers with emptied nests. Unknown mothers, mothers never met.

Dead and dying mothers. Bereaved mothers of deceased children. Masochistic mothers, pathological mothers, devouring mothers, enraged and indifferent mothers. Addicted and alcoholic mothers. Mothers with dementia who no longer recognize their offspring. Abusive mothers, abused mothers. Mothers who spank. Mothers who negotiate. Mothers who hold the line and soft mommies who cave. Organics only mommies, fast-food mommies. Mommies who are too angry. Mommies who are too nice. Mothers who do too much, and those who do too little. Those who would give “everything” and those who feel they have given “enough.” Moms who co-sleep who Ferber-ize, who breast feed, who pump at work, bottle and formula mommies, sling and stroller mommies.

Mothers reluctant, begrudging, regretful, neglectful, exhausted, blissed-out, competitive, smug and superior. Lost mothers. Terrified mothers. Defensive mothers. Mothers who have fled, and those who dream of escaping out from under the burdens of motherhood. Mothers utterly fulfilled.

Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.

There are probably some very wrong ways to mother, but there is no right way.

None of our choices will protect us, or our children from loss, from suffering, from life, or from death.

We choose, and we can’t choose.

We all have fear of what we cannot control or prevent.

Like Demeter, Isis and Mary of the Pieta, a mother’s capacity to mourn is also a source of great power, a central function of her love, and her only salvation in the face of all that she can and cannot choose.

And it is this maternal dance of mourning that keeps the whole world in balance.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

19 responses

  1. Happy Mom’s day!!! – It so resonates. I must also admit that I’ve been one of those Mom’s confessing and seeking reassurance in the parking lot at school. OMG!!! I had to laugh and send a link to your post to the shrink-mom at my kids’ school … 🙂

  2. This is so rich with multi-layers of meaning. It resonates with me as a mother, a daughter, and a birthmother.

  3. Thank you GT and chewingtaffy,
    I really tried to hold all the diverse experiences of motherhood and all the negated ones as well in my thoughts as I wrote this.
    I am particularly glad ct, that you felt it spoke your experience as a birthmom, as that is so often invalidated.

    glad you could both see yourselves in it. Im in there too.


  4. I Love this article and I love that quote from Carl Jung. I am teaching my mother how to love and my daughter is teaching me how to love more. Strange but true, thank you.

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  6. Martha– this is a really powerful and moving post. What came up for me is that even if we seem to have a “choice” in choosing motherhood, more than our mothers did, our lives are still defined by what choice we made. So in some way, we are still defined by the role of motherhood. Those who choose it most often have raising their children as their primary and most salient role, but those who have no children and can be defined in other ways, still, very often in the eyes of others are defined as those who had no children and that is the most salient factor defining them unfortunately. Perhaps it will take another generation to allow all choices to be typical and expected….

  7. I think that is true

    And I do think that Motherhood carries very different cultural projections and expectations than Fatherhood – and that those cultural myths have very real psychological consequences for everyone as we all struggle to carve our own values and identities out of collective myths.

    Thanks for your comment, they are always thought-provoking.


  8. Thank you Martha. Love the quotes and I love the distinctions you made of choice and what we grapple with now vs. the past. I too find that mother and all that comes with that label permeates just about all the work we do no matter the age of the client. How deeply profound and perplexing that is as I try really hard not to screw it up too much with my own kids. It feels like there are days when i just hold my breath and dive in and hope I can catch some air along the way. Happy Belated Mother’s Day to you! By the way, did you know Omoni nal is May 8 in Korea? Note to self.

  9. This is such a wonderful and deep exploration of the quandary of parenting. Thank you for this and may I venture an experience? One thing that will always stick with me when I was a young mother of four children – I had already been studying psychology for a time and came across Winnicotts principle, that you do not need to be a perfect parent, you just need to be ‘good enough’ to activate the childs own inner archetype of the ‘good parent’, nature takes care of the rest. This got me through some tough times and I think my kids are fine so far though no doubt that is for them to say. Thanks again, roberta

  10. Certainly Winicotts template of the “good enough” mother is the healthiest space to parent from – Its just, I suspect, that what our culture defines as “good enough” from era to era shifts dramatically, which I think also has an effect on where we, as individual parents, set the bar –

    Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment – and for reading.


  11. I just found your blog today and I can see I have some good reading ahead!

    I am at the stage of looking back and seeing what I wish I had done better while at the same time feeling proud of my kids and the ways they are living their lives as adults. One foot in guilt and woulda/coulda/shoulda and the other in beaming pride.

  12. I think it must be simultaneouslt fraught and joyful at every stage – with different excitements and fears!

    Glad you found the blog and hope you enjoy what you find.


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  14. Funny how you go back to what you’ve read and find that somethings resonate later … I came back to this today after hearing those words in my session … “you can’t really protect them …” It is very hard as a mother to realize that you cannot “protect” your children. What eluded me at first read was your comment … ” a mother’s capacity to mourn is also a source of great power, a central function of her love, and her only salvation in the face of all that she can and cannot choose” Can you please possibly elaborate on this power & salvation. Is this just about accepting & grieving!!

  15. All of the most powerful archetypal mothers – Demeter and Mary among them -are powerful in their very depth and capacity to mourn.
    Demeter and her unrelenting, keening, world-stopping grief when her daughter was abducted and taken to the underworld is able to summon the attention of Zeus – who retrieves Persephone from Hades – but only for half a year at a time. Think of the effectiveness in terms of effecting change in the world of organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving – mourning is a force which can change the world.

    Mourning the fact that we can never fully control our children’s fate or protect them – does not mean our grief is powerless – The mothers that we hold as most sacred in myth , are the mothers who are ABLE to mourn, and release their children to their own fates and choices, and consequences – at least half of the time.

    Every day from infancy – we lose our children a little bit – and must also mourn their lost potentialities as they make choices and consolidate their own identities: The infant who could be anyone -President, an astronomer, a famous fashion designer, a world-class athlete slowly forecloses on at least most of these potentials as their strengths, weakness, preferences, and choices begin to leave them with a more focused sense of purpose and industry, forging a fate that may or may not be the one that we would have chosen
    for them, or, like Mary, a fate that may even involve rejecting all that we would have wished for them.

    Perhaps all of these are opportunities for us to “succeed” at motherhood/parenthood as well – to be a parent means to learn how to mourn, and to accept the myriad of ways that mourning is an inevitable part of parenting.

    I think too often our culture equates “successful parenting” with avoiding, forestalling, circumventing, denying mourning rather than learning how to mourn in ways that permit our own lives, and our children’s lives to be more whole.

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