Forgiving Mothers

05/13/2017 08:13 pm ET Updated May 16, 2017

Forgiving Mothers

We love our mothers, of course. Love of Mother viscerally lives within our being; we carry the muscle memory of having been enwombed, birthed, suckled, and protectively held against a breast wherein beat the heart of our first universe. We love our mother’s unconditionally (be they natural or adoptive) even though we grow to discover their flaws and weaknesses. Adolescent resentments begin to foster a desire to separate and ultimately seek independence from the smothering love of our mothers. Though it takes some of us much longer than others, eventually, we do get over or look past their imperfections enough to once again appreciate their offerings of nurturance, sacrifice, and constancy. But have we really forgiven them for being imperfect?

As new mothers, we daughters set out to improve upon our own mothering, hoping to avoid their mistakes. We develop strengths where we perceived weaknesses, and give our children a new and improved kind of mothering that we wished we had had. And yet, two heartbreaking realizations inevitably come to light. First, we discover ourselves to be more like our own mothers than we ever wanted, and second, our adolescents don’t seem to want or even need the kind of mothering we thought was better. Our children now see our own best efforts to nourish and guide and protect them with the same jaundiced eye with which we judged our own mothers. Here’s why.

It is archetypally essential to the continuance of life. It is the very nature of Motherness to nurture and hold on, while it is ultimately necessary for the children to push away. Only by separating from the Mother can children become the next generation’s mothers and fathers. However, we can forget the cut that separates is natural and necessary. We tend to get caught up (on both sides as parent and child) in the details of the breach, instead of realizing this is a healthy phase of continuance—one that has been the subject of wisdom teachings since the first mothers had to let their daughters become wives and mothers.

We see it at the core of the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone. Demeter was a nature & harvest goddess who hid her daughter Persephone away from the lustful gods who might want to take her. However, Hades (god of the Underworld), with her father Zeus’s permission, stole her away to the Underworld. Demeter made such a violent fuss over her missing daughter that crops and vegetation failed and all life on Earth was threatened. However, Persephone had tasted the fruits of the Underworld, suggesting a loss of her maiden innocence and, therefore, could not be fully returned to her mother since she was no longer a simple and innocent child. A compromise was reached that allowed her to live most of the year with her mother, but spend a portion of each year with Hades. Demeter’s grief in Persephone’s absence explains the barren winter season.

Key to this story’s mythic themes is a teaching about why daughters must leave mothers, and why mothers must release their daughters. Persephone becomes the powerful and necessary Queen of the Underworld. She would never have been able to develop her own power hidden away under her mother’s protection. However, we can’t blame Demeter for wanting to keep and protect her, nor Persephone for having sampled the fruits of experience that relieved her of her innocence. They each act from within their archetypal range, and the myth suggests that to restore harmony we must find the right balance, the healing and natural balance, between the a mother’s love and child’s need to become an adult.

Unfortunately, in today’s complicated world, this separation process can last for years, and we can get engulfed by the conflicting particulars of our relationships and forget that we are part of a human drama that has played out repeatedly for eons. We tend to focus a great deal on personal blame and woundedness. Mothers may see their children’s need to push away as a betrayal, rather than a natural passage. Adult children may feel their affectionate and protective parents are trying to stifle and smother them, instead of protect them from life’s difficulties and disappointments.

Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott tells us in his book Playing and Reality that the healthiest kind of mothering is what he termed “the good enough mother.” This is a mother who inspires in a child not only a sense of security and magic in the world, but also the ability to problem solve and self-pacify. In her May 3, 2016 post on Psychology Today, Marilyn Wedge Ph.D. conveys the gist of Winnicott’s theory: “In sum, with good enough mothering, a child has the ability to live in two worlds: the world of illusion, fantasy and magic, on the one hand, and on the other hand a world that does not always conform to his wishes.” Thus, as long as we are “good enough mothers,” the ways in which we do not completely fulfill our children’s desires or needs can become their motivators and teachers.

It helps me to step back and look at things mythically. Like Demeter, my mother’s worst offenses were made in an effort to protect or help me. My own worst offenses as a mother were done in the same vein. Yet, no matter what either of us did, it would not have prevented an eventual breach and need to separate. As with Demeter and Persephone, living out our appropriate roles is natural and necessary, even when messy.

Could I have been a better mother? You bet. Could I have prevented the breach that led to my sons’ independence from me? Not a chance. I raised my children to be independent, strong, and conscientious. We need to forgive the pull of Motherness, in others and ourselves, for doting and clinging. We need to forgive the push of separation that ushered in a Rites of Passage into adulthood, regardless of the hurt feelings incurred in the process. It helps me to think mythically and realize that the scars of separation are symbols of this noble rite. It helps me to remember that my sons grew wings and flew the nest because I was a “good enough mother.”

Gay Wolff, Ph.D. teaches Native American and World Mythology courses at University of West Florida. She is the author of Tending the Soul with Healing Ritual.

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