Emotional Health · Family & Friends

Understanding and Forgiving our Mothers

Across all  cultures, mothers are loved, cherished, and honored. This Sunday, we will once again observe Mother’s Day, an occasion that celebrates the person who occupies the central, but most complex position in almost every family. Much as mothers are revered, there is also much expected from them, and their faults and failures are met with anger, even outrage. There is no room in our culture for the “bad” mother. And yet no mother is ideal;  all have faults. Surprisingly, considering the high expectations we have for them, in order to succeed they must fail.

When an infant is born, she and the mother form a symbiotic bond, one in which they are merged psychologically and even physically. The baby has no ability yet to conceptualize mother as a separate person, and her sensitivity to the infant’s needs is crucial. Bonding psychologically, the mother also feels inseparable from her child, and after a brief learning curve, she is attuned to her needs in a seamless way. She hears her baby’s cries, even when in a deep slumber while others sleep in the house and do not awaken. In German, this is called “mutter schlaffan,” – mother’s sleep: she is listening, even when asleep.

If you have breastfed an infant, then you know there is also a physical component to the mother-child symbiosis. The baby’s cries can cause the mother’s milk to “let down” (begin flowing) even from afar. Many women have told me of hearing a friend’s baby cry when speaking on the phone to the mother, and experiencing the sensation of milk flowing in response.

What child would ever want to leave this blissful state of existence? None, except for the ubiquity of her mother’s failures. A mother, even in this state of attunement, cannot always respond immediately or perfectly to her infant’s needs. Much as she might want to, all kinds of things get in the way: other children, work responsibilities, etc. can cause small delays and miscues. Temporary states of frustration for the infant ensue.  As the infant matures physically and cognitively, she begins to perceive that mother is not always there, and a sense of being a separate person begins to emerge.

Psychologists think that it is precisely these small frustrations that cause the separation process to begin and blossom. The child must learn to soothe herself, based on the example set by the good care she has received most of the time. This is why British psychologist D.W. Winnicott coined the term “the good enough mother.” Perfect mothering is not the ideal. Small failures are necessary for maturation.

Anxiety and anger accompany this process, however, on both sides. The child, disappointed that her mother is no longer perfectly indulgent and responsive, rails against her progress even as she also delights in her new powers. And the mother develops an increase in the feeling we all have for those we love best: ambivalence. Both long for a regression to their former Eden-like state of bliss, but it is impossible.

And so begins a life-long process of pushing apart and then re-bonding. At every stage of development, from learning to walk, starting school, going to college, even marrying, children experiment with taking steps away from their caretakers. Because of the struggle with the wish to return to complete dependence, the child often uses anger to push their beloved parents away. This reaches a crescendo during the toddler years, and then again in adolescence, when she experiences an existential and acute sense of separateness.

While the child’s anger, as represented by the “terrible twos” and the adolescent rebel, is well known, much less attention has been focused on the parent’s anger. Mothers also long to regress to a state when they were able to love their children without ambivalence (and vice versa). We gaze longingly at their baby pictures, save their hair and teeth, and can still delight in telling the story of their birth many years later. All children are angry with us because they must pull away. And we are angry with them for doing it. We still feel an unbreakable bond with them, but why do they act as if they don’t?

On top of this “normal” maternal ambivalence, all mothers have personal flaws that influence their nurturing abilities. Childhood scars, resulting in personality factors, depression and other mental illnesses, and addictions are just a few of the many ways a mother’s abilities can be compromised.

Childhood scars manifest themselves in different kinds of personality damage. For example, mothers with narcissistic traits have basic, characterlogical difficulties with empathy. This is the foundation of the ability to read others’ needs and respond to them, so the mother-child interaction can suffer greatly as a result. Such mothers often see only themselves when they look at their children, and they often have trouble acknowledging and responding to their infant’s needs as they grow into distinct individuals. Narcissistic people can be selfish as well as self-centered, and often can’t muster the basic generosity required to be an adequate parent. The children of these mothers often have trouble forming a stable sense of self, suffering from feelings of low self-worth, emptiness, and lack of direction.

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  • Judy Orlando May 11, 2018 at 10:19 am

    In my experience (granted not professional), the universal, ever-present cause of depression in mothers – and fathers — is sleep deprivation. You can be a perfectly balanced human being (and aren’t we all?), but you’re not going to sleep unless you have a baby-nurse. Even if you have one and you’re nursing, you and your husband are still awakened constantly and you must whip out the ever-leaking breast, that recently-morphed sex-object-turned-appliance, lest your baby starve and you be deemed wanting for the rest of time.

    Rather than talk about the inevitable failure of mothers, and calling on us to forgive their (and our own) flaws, how about talking about the amazing resilience of both parents in the face of overwhelming exhaustion? How about the incredible strength of the parental instinct that turns ordinary (rested), independent people into willing slaves for as long as they’re needed (with residual lifetime strings), and the modern fiction that parenting is our greatest calling? Fie on this fiction. Parenthood may be rewarding, but it is neither sacred nor perfectible. Those who come to it with psychological problems are hampered, of course, but so, to a lesser degree, are the rest of us. It’s a design flaw — or maybe not a flaw but a necessity for insuring our children’s independence, and the restoration of our own.

    As for mutual longing for the symbiotic bond of infant and mother, where is it written that dependence feels good? It may be necessary at the beginning and end of life, but I, for one, would not choose to be on either side of it.

    How about taking a less judgmental turn? How about just enjoying each other as we are?

    Happy Mother’s Day!

    Yours with feeling (and apologies),
    Judy Orlando

  • Aly May 11, 2018 at 9:10 am

    Such a beautiful as well as informative article!

  • Cara May 10, 2018 at 7:14 am

    Very well-thought out article at a most appropriate time. Thank you for your research and I pray it helps many children and Mothers on their journeys ahead in life. Mother’s Day is not a “contest” of gifts given or “best” Mom awards, but a day to rest. Despite what impressions others might have of someone else’s Mother (especially those left as single parents for a time), a Mother’s love for their child comes from the heart always, and never the pocketbook.