My parents have rented a vacation cabin on Lake Michigan. I’m playing by the shore and realize it’s getting dark. I look around. I’m alone. I begin walking along the water’s edge toward a distant pinpoint of light. Could that be my mother looking for me? How could she lose me? Will she find me? Will anyone find me? Will I have to live with a stranger? Will they feed me? Could something bad happen to me? After what feels like an eternity, Daddy and Jimmy come up behind me. Daddy explains. He and Mama left the beach separately, each believing I was with the other one. I’m safe, but I want Mama! Why didn’t she come for me? Doesn’t she know how afraid I’ve been? That I’d want her to look for me?
This is my earliest memory, described in more depth in my book, The Bridge to Wholeness. I was three. Something new was set into motion that evening. I had become conscious of my separate existence in a very big, dark, and scary world. In their book, Into the Heart of the Feminine, Jungian analysts Massimilla and Bud Harris write:
“…early infancy is the time when the world of the family begins imprinting itself on our tiny psyches, and this is a critical time in our emotional development. We know by now that much of a baby’s view of the world is filtered through the mother’s body and the emotional attitudes her body reflects. Of course this means that the child of a mother who is overly anxious or is resentful of the birth will feel out of adjustment psychologically, and such feelings will be the beginning of a negative mother complex. When we grow up this way, our personality will be founded on a deep sense of anxiety, scarcity, and a mistrust of the world. In contrast, if our mother is sufficiently gentle, loving, and emotionally secure, she will help us develop a basic sense of trust in life and in our place in the world.”
This memory resurfaced after last week’s post in which I described an example of how my mother complex influenced a relationship. Since practically everyone has mother issues of some sort—whether positive or negative, recognized or not—it seems appropriate to share more of what I’ve learned.
Every child experiences anxiety when it becomes aware of its individuality and vulnerability, and mothers vary in their ability to assuage this, our earliest wound. Good mothers are naturally gentle, patient, good-natured, affectionate, reassuring and loving. They make their children feel confident, safe and secure. Mothering can be more difficult for well-meaning women with mother complexes, jobs, other external stressors, or undeveloped “maternal instincts.” Nonetheless, a well-intentioned woman with a powerful desire to provide loving care and ongoing reassurance can be good enough at meeting her child’s basic physical and psychological needs.
Unfortunately, many mothers are too wounded, stressed, narcissistic or oblivious to give their children enough basic nurturance. Some are angry, jealous or resentful. Some are unstable, mentally ill or abusive. Some are not there.
My mother was more than good enough. Although anxious and emotionally fragile, she was kind, gentle and loving. I admired her, loved her, and felt loved in return. She tried hard to provide me with a safe and comfortable life, and I did feel safe until she and Daddy divorced and then he died. But when she was pregnant with me and throughout my childhood, Daddy was rarely home because he was having an affair. The strain of this plus her full-time job left her with little energy for me, physical or emotional.
I wasn’t neglected. Mama boarded women students from the nearby university in exchange for minimal rent and baby-sitting. But she was rarely available during my waking hours…and I missed her. As I grew older it got easier to lower my expectations and ignore my need for her. By the time Daddy died, I was proud of my independence and saw my ability to hide my hurt as a strength. But deep within, a three-year-old child still felt sad, lonely, deprived, and sorry for herself.
Me at 5, recovering from the measles.
It’s taken years of digging through layers of rationalization and denial to see her. Besides feeling the aforementioned emotions, she tends to (1) project Mother onto self-confident and accomplished men and women she admires, (2) feel deeply disappointed and unforgiving when they fail to measure up to her ideals, and, most insidious of all, (3) assume she’s unworthy and unloveable.
I’m sharing the causes and effects of my mother complex to help others excavate theirs. Mine doesn’t compare to ones that were shaped by rejection or abuse, but this doesn’t mean I should deny my honest feelings. It’s too easy to fall into that insidious trap. Conventional wisdom urges us to toughen up, ignore our pain, and stay on the “sunny side of the street.” It advises against “self-absorbed navel-gazing” and “blaming your parents for your problems,” leading us to equate acceptance with blame.
This isn’t wisdom. It’s escapist rationalization. I know the pain of assuming I don’t deserve to live my own life, that I must hide my true self. And I’ve experienced the exhilaration of escaping that dark prison. We can’t become the mature individuals we yearn to be until we make peace with the inner forces that made us who we are.
Image Source: Google Images, Flickr.com.
Jean Raffa’s “The Bridge to Wholeness” and “Dream Theatres of the Soul” are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at Kobo, Barnes And Noble and Smashwords. “Healing the Sacred Divide” can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc.