Since my mother's diagnosis of advanced Stage IV pancreatic cancer about six weeks ago, I have been reflecting on the mother-daughter connection, which is one of the most complicated and conflicted of all human relationships. I have considered the pervasiveness of mother-blaming in our society and the effects it has on mothers and daughters. It seems mothers are expected to embody the impossible archetype of Mother and are not easily forgiven for being human and fallible. Mothers are blamed for making mistakes despite our best efforts and loving hearts. We are blamed for our children's troubles and unhappiness. Our words, glances, actions, and inaction can carry such weight and be easily misinterpreted and blown out of proportion, thus giving unintended messages a life of their own that leaves our children feeling fundamentally flawed.
But where there is pain, there is opportunity to heal, even if it takes decades.
|My wedding day|
Pancreatic cancer is a thief stealing my mother from me too soon. I feel very sad about the prospect of losing her, although when she is ready to let go, I will be a midwife for her and release her into the Light with my deepest blessing. Along with my husband, she is my best friend, the person I pick up the phone to call and share my news and feelings. But it wasn't always like that. Although I can only speak from my own experience, it seems daughters tend to develop by differentiating ourselves from our mothers - defining ourselves against, or apart from our magnified perception of our mother's shortcomings and flaws. In other words: "My mother is this; therefore I am not this." We exile all these unacceptable parts we associate with our mothers to what Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung called the shadow. They become baggage that we drag around perhaps for the bulk of a lifetime until (if we are fortunate) we awaken and reconcile the exiled parts, making room for them in our psyche and welcoming them with open arms, no longer threatened by or having an aversion to them.
The healing began for me when I became a mother and realized that theory and practice are two entirely different matters. Although theory can inform our practice, a little practice tends to upset a lot of theory and squelch feelings of superiority.
|Four generations of eldest daughters|
I have sat in therapists' offices with my own daughter and been the target of mother blaming. It was painful, surreal, and frustrating as hell. I left one therapist's office wounded to the core and sobbed the whole way home in response to the therapist's abrasive, misinformed treatment of me. I was coached to listen to my daughter's painful feelings and presumed to be the cause of them (or so it seemed). But it was a one-way street. And this is ultimately abusive to mothers and daughters alike, turning mothers into monsters (like the witches and evil stepmothers in fairy tales) and daughters into victims (damsels in distress waiting to be rescued). I believe in the importance of hearing and acknowledging children's feelings, and a listening presence characterized by deep empathy is as natural to me as breathing and has formed the foundation for my parenting and teaching. However, there is another piece that is equally important: A child needs to know that s/he is loved, despite any pain attributed to the mother's fallibility or resulting from the collision of the child's will with the mother's boundaries. The mother is human. She will not always please her children. She will make mistakes. She is not the fairy godmother with the magic wand who grants their every wish. Forgive her, for you will make mistakes, as well, when it is your turn to raise children. You will not always be your children's best friend and make them happy. Forgive her so you may forgive your future self and allow yourself to establish healthy limits with your children without feeling guilty for doing so. Above all, you are and always have been loved.
|My mother as a child|
I feel it is so important for children to know this. Your mother is human and doing the best she can. You are loved. As a teacher, I am constantly giving my students this message. When they complain about something their mother has done that has upset them, I listen to and reflect their feelings and then remind them that she did it because she loves them and is trying to keep them safe - which is almost always the case. I feel it is very important for children to hear this, especially if the father is unable to support, or actively sabotages, the integrity of the mother-child relationship for whatever reason.
Back to my mother's illness...
When people ask me how I'm handling my mom's illness, I often reply by wondering out loud why it took so long to awaken to her beauty. At times, I regret all the wasted years when I could have enjoyed and appreciated her and reciprocated her love so much more than I did. But time is ultimately irrelevant. Awakening is the only thing that matters. Whether we do it years, months, days, or moments before death separates us from our mother, in the end the only thing that matters is that we did awaken. To awaken while our mother is still physically present is such a blessing - although I believe it's never too late.
So when the tears come - usually late at night when everyone else is asleep - they are a mixture of sorrow on the physical level and spiritual joy, for I am so grateful to have awakened. Perhaps the lyrics to my mother's favorite hymn say it best:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
It feels as if I have transcended the roles that have circumscribed my relationship with my mother all these years and have stepped across the threshold and entered her world with new eyes, able to appreciate the scenery I find there. I truly enjoy her company and presence, watching her favorite television shows with her, getting to know her friends, talking openly about important matters, laughing, listening to her play guitar, and running errands for her.
Now that my blinders have been removed by her illness, I finally can see how amazing and beautiful my mom is. I am in awe of her and love her more each day. Her essence shines through so strongly, like a bright sun that makes the details that differentiate us seem so trivial, small, and faded. I wish I could keep her around for many years to come. But perhaps a brush with death and the realization of our mother's mortality is what needs to happen in order for us to awaken, heal, and love more fully. Perhaps it is an initiation that awakens us to the truth of who our mother is as a human and spiritual being beyond the limiting roles we take on during our lifetime together.
|My mom and me|
I don't know how much time my mother and I have left together, only that our time will come to an end, for death is inevitable for each of us. It is perched on my shoulder and reminds me that every moment is precious. This time is an incredible gift, despite all the pain, and I must take full advantage of it because I cannot get it back to do over. Something like this reorders one's priorities. The advice I get from others who have traveled this path (as each of us will in time) is to spend as much time as I can with my mom now and not let other stuff get in the way. Make the time, and take the time. Be prepared by having my day-to-day affairs in order as much as possible so I can drop everything and be with her when I need to. And also remember to take care of myself.
This post is quite different from what I wrote last night. I am not attempting to interpret or invent psychological theory but to communicate how I am reconciling my own experience with my mother's mortality in hopes that sharing may benefit others. I apologize for any overgeneralizations I might have made about the mother-daughter dynamic (as I'm sure there are other paths up this mountain) and also don't mean to exclude males.
Grief has opened the floodgates of my heart, tears and poetry flowing. In closing, I offer a spiritual poem that wrote itself through me one night (and which is the only way I can account for the word fealty, which I have never used in my life but insisted on being written and not edited out):
The god and goddess
Hearts of glass shattering
Spilling a lifetime's worth of tears.
When it comes to a close
We bow deeply
And thank one another
For playing these roles
With such fealty.
It happens to each in turn:
Girl becomes mother
Set up to be knocked down
Never meaning any harm
Nor deserving such blame.
She removes the mask,
Hands it down
And all is beauty and love.
Really, that is all there ever was
When you see through
The impossible mantle
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