Few experiences in life are as deep as the feelings we carry about our mothers. The roots of some of these feelings are lost in the dark recesses of preverbal experience. The branches go every which way, some holding glorious, sun-drenched moments, while others are broken off, leaving sharp and jagged edges that we get caught on. Mother is not a simple subject.
On both a cultural and a psychological level, our feelings about mothers are often inconsistent and tangled up. Mom and apple pie are potent symbols, venerated in our national psyche but neglected in national policy, as reflected, for example, in our meager family leave policies in comparison with many other developed countries. If we were really serious about mothering, we would provide more financial and in-home help as well as education for mothers. As it currently stands, mothers are held up on a pedestal with little support beneath them.
As adults we are aware of this. No one escapes the feeling that mothers are to be honored, or the awareness that mothers are too often taken for granted, their sacrifices unappreciated. Yet many of us are secretly (or not so secretly) unsatisfied with what we got from our mothers, resentful that—whether their fault or not—they failed to provide important aspects of what we needed. And we’re paying the price.
These are sensitive issues. Sensitive for mothers and sensitive for all of us. Some, in a need to make mothers off-limits from criticism, become critical of those who are unsatisfied, blaming us for blaming our mothers, as if we are unfairly passing off the responsibility for our suffering. While I don’t deny that some may use blame as a distraction and fail to take responsibility for the arduous task of healing, I am more aware of the other side of it: the resistance and guilt people go through to get to the point where they stop protecting their mothers. It is as if even within the privacy of our own minds, we are afraid to criticize her. We are protecting the image of mother inside, protecting our actual relationship with her by denying anything that might unsettle it, and protecting ourselves from the disappointment, anger, and pain that we’ve kept out of consciousness. As I will explain in the chapters that follow, many don’t dare to uncover the painful truth of what was missing in their mothers because they’re not ready to deal with it…..
Mothering is also a sensitive topic for those who are mothers. When I was first working on this book, I noticed some guilt and defensiveness when I would share with women who were mothers what I was writing about. They wanted to say, “Don’t give me so much power. There are many other influences in a child’s life. It’s not all my fault how they turned out.” All very true. We come in with individual differences that are often stunning. And there are other childhood influences as well, including birth order, bonding with and availability of father and his adequacy as a parent, environmental and genetic influences on a child’s basic physiology, family dynamics and important events in the family such as a major illness, and the stresses in the larger culture.
Despite these many factors, the impact of mother is unparalleled. The attentive, capable, caring mother can help make up for many other handicaps, and the absence of this is perhaps the greatest handicap of all, because when mother is not doing her larger-than-life job as it needs to be done, children have significant deficits in their foundation.
My focus on the mother is not because mothers need more guilt or responsibility heaped on, but because the quality of the mothering we receive so powerfully shapes our development. My hope is that understanding these influences will lead us to better understand ourselves and, most importantly, to complete the developmental tasks and heal the injuries that resulted from insufficient mothering.
For those readers who are mothers or who are becoming mothers, it is my hope that my breaking down the roles of mothering as I do here and highlighting the central importance of nurturing will train your focus on some of these elements. Although there are aspects of mothering that are instinctive and are passed through the generations by women who were well mothered themselves, much of it must be consciously learned. If you were undermothered, your task will be twofold: to heal your own wounds and to open up another way of being with your children…..
My three goals in this book are:
1. To help you assess in what ways and to what extent you were undermothered.
2. To help you see the connection between the mothering you experienced and the difficulties in your life. What have been thought of as personal defects can then be linked to mothering deficits, relieving self-blame.
3. To provide suggestions for how these missing elements can be made up for now—whether in therapy, through close relationships, or by providing them for yourself.
The good news is that the deficits of inadequate mothering can be made up for later—maybe not completely, but more significantly than we usually dare to hope. We can heal the unloved child and become empowered, loving adults. This is a journey worth taking.
Adapted from the Introduction