“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:
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