Remembering Mother, Finding Myself: A Journey of Love and Self-Acceptance
By Patricia Commins
"This is the mother-love, which
is one of the most moving and unforgettable
memories of our lives, the mysterious root of all
growth and change; the love that means homecoming,
shelter, and the long silence from which everything begins and in which everything ends."
- C. G. Jung, Aspects of the Feminine
Death does not end a relationship. Spiritually or psychologically, a thread remains, stretching from this world to the next. Through this connection, we feel the pull to understand our deceased mothers, to put into context not only their lives but ours. This understanding also answers the persistent question of "why" that nags us, threatens our self-esteem, sabotages our plans and taints our relationships. Why did she treat me like this? Why did she endure that relationship? Why didn't she pursue her dream? Why didn't she love me the way I needed to be loved? Why?
The answers are within us and around us, and the spirits of our mothers are willing to share them.
The Call to Connection can come at any time after a mother's death. For some it is an extension of the grieving process, a desire to keep a mother's memory alive. For others, including myself, it is a desire that surfaces many years later to understand who our mothers were. Regardless, it is at the heart of the Path of Understanding, the start of a journey to deeper understanding and profound healing. It begins with an acknowledgment that our mothers, regardless of how "good" or "bad" we judge our upbringing to have been, were an indelible force in the shaping of our lives.
After our mothers die, there is a tendency by some women to try to move beyond the pain, grief and anger so quickly that they negate their mothers entirely. For these Denial Daughters, their life stories become, "I had a mother. She's dead. I've moved on." The result, however, is a kind of motherless martyrdom that puts the focus on absence. This lacking can taint the rest of their lives, creating an insatiable emotional need that they try to fill with other people, money, success, sex, food and other inadequate substitutes.
Living in a motherless martyrdom, we avoid the
memories that have the power to heal us.
For others, the pain of the lost relationship prevents them from remembering. These Suppression Sisters stay away from that emotional territory for fear the sadness will overwhelm them. They're embarrassed by their grief and concerned that their friends will judge them as depressed, weak or emotionally crippled. They avoid the very memories that have the power to heal them. They do not dare recall the mother who loved and nurtured them for fear that her absence from their day-to-day lives will be more than they can handle. So they are motherless in their lives and in their memories.
The Runaways believe that there is so much unfinished business with their mothers that they feel powerless. It's impossible, they tell themselves, to resolve a conflict with someone who had the nerve to die before they got this straightened out. Or else the anger they feel toward their mothers is so bitter that they suppress it out of guilt, remembering the old admonishment that one can't speak ill of the dead.
Breaking the Emotional Shackles
Most of us fit into more than one category of "mother denial," and some of us may find ourselves reflected partially in all of them. The good news is that healing and a release from our emotional shackles are possible. Answering the Call to Connection, we make a conscious decision as adults to get to know our mothers again. We begin from the place we left off: as daughters. But that is only the doorway to a deeper understanding.
On the Path of Understanding we stand as equals with our mothers. Woman to woman, we seek an understanding of the maternal forces in our lives. From that understanding comes healing. Where there is healing, there is love.
As we begin our journey to greater understanding,
the souls or spirits of our mothers become
willing partners on the path.
As daughters begin this journey, they quickly realize that they are not the only ones working to establish this connection. It is as if their mothers' spirits-or souls, or energy, or whatever terminology you are most comfortable with-become willing partners in these exercises. Coincidences, uncanny circumstances and surprise discoveries mark the way.
* * *
Helen, a sensitive, introspective woman in her sixties, was cleaning out a closet in her sister's home in preparation for putting the house up for sale. As she sorted through various belongings, she came across a treasure that, in retrospect, seems a little miraculous. In a box on the top shelf of that closet were photographs of her mother that Helen had never seen before. The photographs reveal a woman that Helen did not know, an amazing find given the fact that her mother died fifty years ago when Helen was only sixteen.
The first portrait, taken before Helen was born, shows a beautiful, well-dressed woman seated near a fireplace with her three eldest children. The woman radiates a sense of contentment with her life and her children. In the second portrait, two-year-old Helen sits on her mother's lap, while her sisters stand to their mother's right and her brother on the left. Her mother looks straight into the camera, her dark eyes alive. With her refined features and a placid smile, she resembles a young Barbara Stanwyck.
"It was a real discovery," Helen says of the photographs. "I never thought of my mother as an attractive, sexy woman. My mother was so beautiful. That was a revelation."
This was a sharp contrast to the woman Helen remembered, the mother who had been sickly and bedridden with Parkinson's disease.
A Glimpse in the Mirror
The desire to get to know our mothers again may spring from a realization of how much we are like them. How often do we catch a glimpse of our own reflections in the mirror, surprised to discover our mother's expressions in our own? This realization often carries mixed emotions, since it challenges our notion of being individuals unlike anyone else, and perhaps evokes fears that we are somehow destined to make the same mistakes as our mothers. The truth is that by realizing how we are similar to our mothers and how we are decidedly different, we can operate from the strength that comes from self-knowledge, as opposed to being steered by emotional forces under the surface. For many women, sharing a positive connection with their mothers is a source of comfort as they begin the search for deeper understanding.
* * *
Florence remembers being told by a family friend how much her voice and laugh were like her mother's. That comes as no surprise, since Florence is strongly connected with her mother through the oral traditions: Florence, a Mohawk Indian from the Iroquois Nation, is a professional storyteller and a motivational speaker. Her mother appeared frequently on public television programs on Native American culture. Florence learned the old stories from her mother. When she shares them with her children or with an audience, she feels a deep connection with her mother as well as her grandmother, who helped raise her.
With such a strong connection it is little wonder that their Indian names are complementary-although it is only coincidence, since they were bestowed at different times by different people. Her mother was The Break of Dawn. Florence is The Rising Sun.
"I believe very firmly that we are a spiritual people," Florence says. "I firmly believe that my mother is in a much better place. But because we're only at this level of human experience with our five little senses, there is no way we can appreciate where she is."
Women from a variety of religious backgrounds
and spiritual perspectives share the experience of an
ongoing relationship with their deceased mothers.
Regardless of religious background or spiritual perspective, many women have a sense of their mother's spirits living on in some form or state of being. Some speak of heaven, others of a less defined spiritual existence. For some, their mothers live on in their memory. No matter what one's theology or philosophy, daughters experience an ongoing relationship because of the continued influence their deceased mothers exert on their lives. I am not speaking of a psychic influence in which our mothers directly touch our lives-although I don't rule it out, either. I'm speaking of memories and traditions, strengths and fears that we trace back to our mothers. We begin by acknowledging our mother's existence. It may sound basic, but many of us avoid the pain and grief by avoiding any connection with our mothers.
* * *
My sister, Bernadette, had a strong Call to Connection that made her realize she was in a state of denial of our mother's existence. Bernadette, a single mother who had gone back to college at the age of forty, received a notice in the mail that she had been chosen to receive a prestigious academic award of excellence. Along with the notice came a publicity card for the local newspaper. Filling out the essential information, Bernadette wrote "deceased" in the line for "mother's name" and started to fill out the next line. But she couldn't write another word.
"I realized that I was denying her existence," Bernadette explains.
She went back to that line and added her mother's name. It was a simple but powerful reminder for Bernadette that while her mother was dead, a connection between them remained. "I realized that, if Mother were alive, she'd be so proud of me," she adds.
From Daughters to Sisters
A deeper understanding of our
mothers requires us to stop being children,
to put aside some childhood issues that block
our understanding of our mothers.
On the journey to greater connection with our deceased mothers, we begin as daughters. But quickly we become sisters. A deeper understanding of who our mothers were as women requires us to stop being children. This means deciding to put aside some of the childhood issues that may block our understanding. They are often small, petty and even laughable. But until we unearth these issues, which often take the form of resentment, we can't move beyond the child role. It is essential that we choose to put aside the facts that we were forced to wear hand-me-downs; couldn't shave our legs soon enough; were forbidden to date until long after our friends could; and never heard enough compliments and praise. To paraphrase St. Paul, "When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child does. But when I became an adult, my thoughts grew far beyond those of my childhood." We were our mothers' children; now we are their peers.
The first step in that shift is to look beyond what our mothers did to our understanding of who they were. It begins with a yes or no answer to the following question: Did your mother love you? The majority of women answer yes, although many of us want to qualify that with explanations of how our mothers did not love us enough or did not express their love in the way we wished. But the root answer for many of us is yes, our mothers loved us. We accept that as fact and use it as a platform to move on.