Mothering Without a Map
The Search for the Good Mother Within
A groundbreaking, profoundly inspiring book on motherhood that is "achingly poignant" (Abigail Thomas, O: The Oprah Magazine)
Every woman longs to be a good mother. But what about those women who grew up “undermothered”—whose own mothers were well-meaning but unavailable, absent, distracted, or depressed? How are they to become the good mothers they aspire to be?The journey toward motherhood for any woman begins with conception. But whose? Did my maternal path begin when my first child was conceived? The casual answer to that question is yes. But the true answer, I think, is that the journey began long ago, with my conception, or my mother’s, or her mother’s or even further back in the chain of mothers before us. For me, as for every woman, all the incidents of my life, all that makes up my character and personality, my DNA, what I read and experience, where I’ve traveled from and to, all of it led me to motherhood. And all of it affects how I mother. Nothing, however, exerts an influence on how a woman raises a child as powerfully as does her own mother. For some women, the maternal route traces a clean trajectory from a childhood of being watched over by a loving and consistent mother to later parenthood whose foundation rests on Mother’s solid template.
In this beautifully articulate book, Kathryn Black, whose own mother’s early death inspired her award-winning In the Shadow of Polio, offers affirming news: One doesn’t have to have had a good mother to become one. Probing for answers from experts in psychiatry and psychoanalysis, social work, biology, and other disciplines, Black reveals that there are other paths to discovering the good mother within. This moving and powerful book shows how “wounded daughters” can become “healing mothers” who give their own children a legacy of security, happiness, and love.
For others of us, the maternal experience is far different. My mother disappeared into hospitals when I was four years old and died when I was six. From her I came to know the cavern of grief the absent mother creates.
I also know what it is to be mothered by someone who can’t see you, who can’t recognize or respond to the needs of your deepest self. That was the kind of care I found in mother substitutes — stepmothers, but mainly my maternal grandmother — who held dominion over me after my mother’s death. These experiences, which underlay my identity, kept me from the comfortable assumption that I would mother my children with ease, relying on the patterns, practices and confidences conveyed from mother to daughter. For a long time, my childhood privation kept me from motherhood altogether. My first marriage was to a man who wanted nothing to do with fatherhood, and that suited me just fine. I wanted a career and an arena of cities and adventure, not the stifling limits of a life I assumed would be bound by shopping malls and schoolyards. I feared the suffocation of motherhood.
At age forty-one I married again, this time to a childless man who wanted children with the same fever that had by then overpowered my fears. Together we created a family, with two sons born to us in quick succession.
Once a mother myself I began to search for assurance that I could nurture my children more joyfully, deliberately and lovingly than I had been reared. Long excluded from the hallowed covenant between mothers and daughters, I knew I had missed something essential, something mothers impart to daughters about becoming women and mothers, something women who have or had intimate mothers know and use to raise happy, well-adjusted children. I sought evidence that maternal care, though perhaps best or most easily acquired at the breast of one’s own mother, can be learned elsewhere.
Mothers are so vital to children that renowned pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott put it this way: “There is no such thing as a baby.” He meant that a baby must be considered not in isolation but in relationship to the someone nearby whose eyes and ears are “glued to it.” Infants cannot exist without the care of another; they are bound by biology to the adults responsible for them. Cornell University anthropologist Meredith Small says that evolution has arranged mothers and babies this way so that “the mother will feed and protect the infant and the infant will remain close by to be fed and protected.”
Parenthood, the intricate weave of biological, psychological and cultural resolve, extends further into the human offspring’s life than it does for any other animal. Intense parenting is, in fact, one of the most distinguishing features of the human species. The care parents provide their children, however, varies widely. It ranges from optimal —exactly what nature meant and the baby requires — all the way to destructive. For those of us who received nurturing that fell short of ideal, the knowledge that adult caregivers — usually but not exclusively mothers — are essential to children is a two-edged sword. We live lives made more complex by having missed first-rate care in childhood, and we face the momentous task of mothering without a worthy model to follow.
My quest to understand what becomes of the under-mothered when they have children and to discover whether flawed mothering can be overcome in the next generation led me to the fields of psychiatric and psychoanalytic research, developmental psychology and social work as well as biology and anthropology. In the writings of experts in those fields I found answers to my questions about the purpose of mothers in the lives of children. There I also found explanations for why children cling, often far into adulthood, to inadequate mothers and why humans tend to repeat in adulthood patterns experienced in childhood, even when those patterns of behavior and relatedness don’t bring them what they want or need.
There, too, I learned what developmental psychologists have discovered about why some people are able to overcome troubled childhoods and lead satisfying lives, and others are not. I found answers and reassurance in the work of such experts, but comfort and wisdom have come from the women, ages twenty to seventy, who have told me their mother stories — in person, on the telephone, via e-mail and through questionnaires. I’ve heard from them of the many ways the path nature intends for us — being suckled, nurtured and protected by a responsive caregiver — can go wrong. Mothers sometimes go crazy, desert us or die young. Others stay but are inept or cold, mean or wounded, distant or perpetually distracted, well intentioned but needy, possessive or overprotective, alcoholic or otherwise unpredictable.
Whether these women are at fault or are victims of their fates, the result is girls who grow up without having been well mothered. The voices of many of the more than fifty women who participated in my research illustrate the experience of being under-mothered and of becoming mothers who strive to provide for their own children something different from what they themselves received. Along the way, I’ve come to see that while scientists help us understand the past and its effects, it’s often other mothers who point the way as we walk into the future with our children.
For some women the route to becoming an under-mothered mother can be clearly, if not easily, described or explained, as it is for women like me whose protectors disappeared too soon. In my interviews I sometimes heard chilling stories. One woman’s mother tried to give her away to a friend when she was just a year old, and then relented a few months later, only to desert her again. I heard of alcoholic and drug-addicted mothers. I heard of mothers who were physically abusive or stood by while their husbands abused their daughters.
Most often, however, I heard of the subtle shortcomings of maternal care. Women told me of family lives that seemed fine, or at least adequate, but in which something invisible yet critical was askew. As I spoke to more and more women, the idea of “growing up without a mother” took on wider meaning. Often I heard of the particular torment of having a mother physically present, though aloof or irresponsible, preoccupied or inattentive, intrusive or fretful, strident, suspicious or even hostile. One woman spoke of that yearning for the person who is there, but not there, this way: She remembers being about six and settled on the floor near her mother who sat knitting on the sofa. Her mother shifted and her leg came to rest against the girl’s back. The girl froze, drinking in her mother’s accidental touch, feeling her weight and presence, knowing that if she moved and reminded her mother of their closeness, she would pull away.
"My mother always had dinner on the table, the house cleaned up, the laundry and ironing done. I suppose that’s one way of assessing quality of care. I would not, however, call her a good mother. She was missing the heart of mothering, the ability to impart the essential feeling to a child that she is seen and heard, that she is known and loved, that she is cared for and cared about."
The daughters of those women who couldn’t demonstrate, or perhaps even feel, love and approval, who didn’t provide warm, consistent care, told me of facing the uncertainty and difficulty of parenting their children while fearing they would repeat the mistakes of their mothers.
"I think I’m a good mother, but that doesn’t stop me from asking again and again: Am I good enough?"
"I grew up with no sense that life was about seeking joy or fulfilling curiosity. I felt as if I never had anything beyond that day. When my daughter was in preschool I began to worry about my ability to instill the wonder of life in her. Does it just happen? Do you plan for it every day? And now that she’s a teen, I’m terrified that maybe I’m treating her the same stingy way I was treated and don’t even know it."
"I don’t have a firm idea about what a mother is supposed to do. I have such a hazy picture of what my mom’s role was."
From conversations with women who missed out on a childhood made rich by the devotion of a benevolent, competent figure, I heard how hard-won confidence, especially in one’s self as a mother, can be. I also heard from women who’ve been able to fashion from their tainted pasts a richly satisfying and fulfilling motherhood.
"It was at my mother’s knee that I learned first that I was not worthy. And it has taken many years for me to understand how and why she could tell me that in so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, and many more years to work toward undoing the effects of that message. But now I feel good about myself as a mother and see that I am a good one. I see it in my children and I hear it from them.
"I also see my relationship with each of my children growing and changing as they change and grow, which pleases me and gives me confidence that we are all on the path toward being adults together, toward having adult relationships. Along with my relationship with my husband, being a mother has been the most wonderful, life-affirming, fulfilling thing in my life."
Whatever the particulars of their childhoods, women often expressed the same painful ambivalence I felt in stepping forward to say, “I was not well mothered.”
"In a paradoxical way, my mother’s legacy to my children is that I have been a good mother to them, in part because I learned from her what it was to be a lousy mother. I wince as I say that, because I know she never intended to be a lousy mother."
"Neither of my parents ever mentioned the degenerative brain disease my mother suffered from, even though she was sometimes hospitalized for months at a time. Our housekeeper told me, when I was grown, that my mother had told her, 'When the children come home from school, sit and listen to them because I can’t.' My mother was frail, inconsistent, inadequate — but also devoted."
"I keep asking myself whether I qualify as a motherless mother. I feel like one, but all those years there was the flesh-and-blood woman who gave birth to me. And if anyone were to ask her if she loved her child, I know she would answer, honestly, “Yes.” What was going on to make me doubt a mother’s love?"
A mother’s love for her child is so sacred, culturally and psychologically, that to question it can bring confusion and shame to those who didn’t feel it. I interviewed one woman who assured me she had “a good mother,” but as our conversation continued she told me she grew up feeling “left out.” “My mother opened her heart to many people and was very socially adept,” she said, “but she wouldn’t sit down and read a book to us. I don’t ever remember being held or rocked.” Another woman who volunteered through an e-mail network to fill out my questionnaire eventually called to say she couldn’t do it. A sense of guilt and betrayal overcame her every time she approached questions that asked her to describe or evaluate her mother’s care of her as a child.
Other women told me that expressing their thoughts and feelings about their mothers as role models was cathartic. They saw it as an opportunity to sit with and work through snarls in the weave of their lives. Again and again women showed me that an inadequate mother can sometimes be the hard stone on which a fine person and parent is polished.
Often I left interviews full of respect for the women I talked to, for what they have overcome and created in their lives, for their resolute courage and integrity. They revealed not only their pain but sometimes their good humor. One night, at an Italian restaurant, I had dinner with a small group of women, most of them strangers to me, and we talked of mothers. One spoke of her “me, me, me” mother who was unable to acknowledge the problems, concerns and joys of others. “Hey,” piped up another, “we should get our moms together and let them talk over each other.” The women who participated in my research showed me again and again that there’s no formula for what it is to be a motherless mother.
We get one chance at a secure childhood with our mothers and if that fails, for whatever reasons, the only sure thing is that we can’t retrieve it. But I have learned that we can turn around, away from the past and toward a future with our own children. Many of the women I spoke to have moved beyond the wounds, blatant and subtle, of childhood to take on mothering as a positive life development. They no longer identify themselves as wounded daughters but as healing mothers. They have released their potential to become the mothers they wish to be and the ones their children deserve.
Searching for an answer to the question, “How do I become a good mother to my children without having been well-mothered myself?” has kept me on the journey toward freedom from the past. It’s a journey that requires looking back, looking inward and looking ahead. It leads to finding the smart mother within who can parent with love and thought. And the blessing is this: In mothering our children well, we find healing for ourselves.
Kathryn Black writes with personal and professional authority about an important topic. She’s an excellent writer with fresh, positive ideas. (Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia)
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