There is something that has been eluding me throughout all my healing work. Across my adult life, it seemed obvious that my father was the root cause of many of my adverse behaviors and internal experiences. He was a very Large and Loud presence in my psyche and in my household. This is reflected in distorted memories where my father appears as tall as an ogre, while I am small – as small as a toddler, during events that occurred when I was a teenager. It was natural to look to the giant looming over me and conclude that this was my dragon to slay, none the wiser to the shadow being cast from my feet: my Mother Wound.
I have done a lot of work on my Father Wound. From shirking off animus possession to exploring old memories through hypnosis and some years of therapeutic work focusing on reconnecting with my vulnerability and emotions, I have reviewed and processed tremendous amounts of psychic content related to my father. My father is dead now, and I have advanced a lot of ground in redeeming and reshaping his image within my psyche in his wake. As these wounds begin to heal, I can more fully embrace the love and respect I have for my father. My animus, for the most part, is now remediated to the station he belongs in as my internal Other. I am no longer vexed by fits of irascibility or compulsions to domineer or punish people that trigger my insecurities. The dream image of my animus has gone through a fascinating evolution throughout my inner work as well – no longer a terrifying, tyrannical image of my father, he is now a calm and guiding figure that I feel safe with. He often takes on the appearance of my husband even, which was something that rarely, if ever, happened prior to my father passing away. This all feels good, as I now feel more comfortable in my feeling capacity and identity as a woman. Somehow, I thought that this would be the apex of my inner work (and in many ways, it was “the bulk”), but now I am coming in contact with new material that I feel paralyzed to confront.
It started with my recent decision to begin seeking EMDR therapy. My first few sessions started with targeting some mildly triggering memories about my father. It was interesting to notice that my father’s representation in these memories sometimes changed, becoming smaller and taking up less space in the memory. Sometimes memories about my husband would enter the mix and give my provider and I new targets to consider in future sessions. Outside of session, I started having vivid and intense emotional dreams about my mother, which piqued my curiosity. It wasn’t exactly what I expected would come up, and the dynamics that were being played out in my dreams were not at all what I was trying to target with EMDR. I notice myself coming in contact with resentment and grief towards my mother I had not thoroughly considered before. It isn’t the kind of thing that came completely out of left field – more something that I knew was kind of “around” but didn’t seem instrumental enough to engage with the way I do with my father-related trauma. Even now as I am typing this, I notice myself feeling a kind of resistance towards exploring this further, but I know this needs to be done.
Where Is Mother?
My mother has somehow managed to be mysteriously absent from a lot of my inner work. My relationship to her has never been as much of a priority to me as my relationship with my father has. There is very little emotional intimacy between us, and what little there is is usually her venting to me in a seemingly involuntary fashion. It really sometimes appears that she cannot stop herself from doing it even if she were to try. This started for me in middle school, after my father became disabled and began abusing opiates and alcohol heavily. Previously self-employed, he had to give up his business and my mother became the breadwinner for our family. She earned a comfortable salary but didn’t seem very happy in the position as sole provider.
I remember a time when all I wanted was for my parents to separate – this was something I fantasized and wished for regularly, and couldn’t understand why my mother wouldn’t just do it and end all our misery. I remember very distinctly the day I tried to ask her to intervene against my father’s abusive behavior on my behalf and she told me, then around age 13 or 14, that my father is like a hurt child that never grew up and that I should think of him that way and try to be the parent, in very much those exact words. She would come home from work and vent to me about how much she hated her job and how overwhelmed she was by trying to provide for us all and deal with my father’s erratic behavior. She vented about her past relationships to me, comparing my father to her previous ex, who apparently would not have behaved the same way yet died of an overdose. She told me how my father had cheated on her with his meth dealer when I was a child, and all sorts of other things. This added to my hatred of my father and for a long time it felt like we, along with my brother, formed a unified front against my father. The weakest link in this front was my mother, who would never separate from him and would never set meaningful boundaries with him either. Instead the task fell upon me to be the one to separate from my family and set boundaries when I became old enough to do so.
The absence of my mother is not merely figurative – she was always the one working a 9-5 job. My father was the stay-at-home parent. It was probably for the best, my mother frequently remarks that she did not possess the patience nor the consistency to properly rear children. I do not have many memories of her being a particularly nurturing figure, especially compared to my father. The memories I do have of my mother being alone with me and my brother are more often distressing than pleasant. I remember when my brother threw a tantrum at the grocery store and did not want to leave, so she told him she was going to leave him there and loaded me in the car and began to start the ignition. To her, this was a game of chicken and she never would have actually left him there, but from a child’s perspective this is a terrifying experience. As a teenager, I experienced more than one occasion of overt gaslighting by my mother, accusing me of stealing food, money, or drugs in spite of my never having ever acted in any way that would have made me a suspect. As an adult I asked my mom about these incidents and she told me that she had done that to make my father feel guilty and confess to his own wrongdoings to her, knowing that he would never let his children take the blame for his own dishonesty. The irony of her actions being bereft of any integrity of her own seemed lost on her.
Occasionally, I would experience a side to my mother that could aptly be described as severe. I was used to being verbally assaulted by my father for mistakes, insulting and belittling me, but there was a certain line he would never cross that my mother seems more than ready to vault herself over if she feels so inclined: threatening total annihilation and excommunication. I remember one instance in high school, I don’t even remember what I had done wrong, I only remember my mother painfully digging her fingers into my arm and sharply whispering in my ear that she would make my entire summer a living hell in such a way that I felt my stomach hit the floor. On another occasion in my first year of college, there was a miscommunication between me and my uncle (my mother’s beloved brother), that resulted in my uncle mistakenly believing that I was going to meet him at a sports game. We were able to touch base at some point and clear up the misunderstanding, he was not upset and everything was resolved. Still, I received a phone call from my livid mother threatening that she would single-handedly ensure all of her family never spoke to me again and that I was now dead to her for what I had done.
There are a lot of positive things my mother contributed to my life and identity that I feel fondness for, but there isn’t very much opportunity for that to shine through in our current dynamic. My mother appears to have become quite comfortable taking up as much space for herself as she can in our relationship, leaving little room for me to participate. I let her keep the space and disengage as much as possible; I am not sure that she even notices. I suppose this is reflected in my inner work – my mother is “over there” and “I” am over here, prioritizing other things that are easier to engage with. After all, my experience has been that when I attempt to advocate for myself or bring things like this up to my mother, she deflects and makes excuses why she cannot deal with her own behavior. As a teenager, it was always because she was overworked and had to put all her energy into working so she could maintain the standard of living “we all” demanded of her – she simply had no other resources available to tend relationships with her children. Now, the story is that she is old and too preoccupied with being old to be able to change her behavior or deal with mending broken relationships.
Where am I?
I recognize there is a lot of material there that needs healing, yet as I mentioned before I feel paralyzed to confront it. I have been reflecting on why that is for me; a few factors are available to my examination.
One, in some ways my relationship with my mother is just plain more painful than the one I had with my father because there wasn’t a lot of positive interactions built into it in the first place. When my brother and I were babies, my mother was the parent that wanted to ignore us and let us “cry it out” while my father was the one who couldn’t stand not to soothe us. It was my father who sat with me and played, showing me how to draw and buying me art sets to support my creative interests throughout my childhood. My mother was always gone working, only really available on the weekends when we would gather on the couch for Saturday morning cartoons or go to church on Sunday. My father chaperoned most of my field trips at school, whereas my mother chaperoned just one when I was in preschool. He was just more present than my mother was, always taking us out on adventures and taking care of our day to day needs. My mother feels more like a background character in my memories.
This is compounded by a sneaking suspicion I have that my mother did not really want to have kids, at least not the way it happened. My parents got pregnant on a one night stand – my father was thrilled, this was all he ever wanted to do with his life. My mother was a devout Catholic living 3,500 miles away from her family and recovering from the death of her previous partner, who was the only person she really knew in the area and had accompanied her on the voyage from her hometown. She had no reason to trust my father and took a leap of faith based on the fact that her late partner and my father were friends. They were married and shortly after lost their first child through stillbirth, and she told me she chose to stay with my father because he had been so nurturing to her through the loss, but that she really didn’t have to. Somehow, she wasn’t expecting my father to get involved with drugs and all the other illicit activities he was drawn to and had an established history of engaging with. Either way, the contrast between her arrival at parenthood and my father’s is palpable.
It is also hard to face these things because my mother crossed lines my father wouldn’t – threatening to abandon or excommunicate me when she found me displeasing. My father may have inflicted great trauma upon me, but I never felt like my connection to him was in jeopardy of being severed throughout any of it. So, there is a different set of risks involved with engaging my mother on these topics that didn’t exist with my father. I regularly feel disposable to my mother, either through threats of abandonment or being met with an indifferent, “take me or leave me” attitude towards my grievances. I feel like I am the one with everything to lose in this connection; I never felt that way about my father.
There is one other thing that stands out to me that I am curious to explore. As a woman, it was always clear on some level that my father was separate from me, a kind of distance that could never be completely closed. Everyone has the universal experience of being one with their mother in the womb, and if all goes well, as a nursing infant. At some point, sons become aware that they are different from their mothers. Mother becomes the foundation upon which Anima is built, for men. This happens to daughters and their fathers, who imprint upon the Animus in women. To continue on this point, Mother is a bit closer to home than Father is for a woman.
We Are Woman
A lot has been written on mother complexes and the Mother archetype, but I’ve yet to come across material that specifically focuses on the way women relate to and develop through their mother complexes. I am sure the material exists, but a cursory search for books and articles on the internet has seldom brought me satisfying results. Bethany Webster has a lot to say on the impact of patriarchal society on wounding women matrilineally in general, and how this wounding manifests in mother-daughter relationships. What I want to explore, however, is the women’s internalization of the mother into her own feminine identity – as a single integrated being, not as a dyad. I feel that on some level, part of why it is challenging for me to confront my mother wound is because this is also a confrontation with myself and how I conduct myself as a woman. That an element of the Shadow is in play in this complex – where have I behaved in ways for which I reject my mother? Perhaps it is because I have re-identified myself with my femininity that my mother wound is now arising to be healed.
It does feel like the time for me to settle this score is approaching sooner than later. It is important for me to do this to liberate myself from outdated belief patterns and fears. I want to be able to move through life unencumbered by my past, and I want to end the cycle of emotional neglect and parentification in my family when I bring my own children into the world. On a collective level, this kind of healing is what Woman needs to become balanced and fully integrated. I still freeze when I think about having a conversation with my mother and putting it all out there, prepared to no longer settle for the status quo. Maybe she will respond much better than I expect she will, but I am also prepared to possibly have to sever our connection and move on with my life. One thing is certain, it can’t continue the way it has been if I am to live my life in service to my health and happiness over hers.