This piece is written in a way that you wouldn’t expect based on the title – I don’t plan to parade wounds across the page, point fingers, or bash mothers. Instead, this is a piece about forgiveness and compassion and the contextual view of healing.
May all who are reading this find some peace and value here.
“Now the act of seeing begins your work of
And your memory is ready to show you everything,
Having waited all these years for you to return and
know” (-J. O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us)
About 8 months prior to writing this piece, I was contacted by a woman that found me from my circle work. She was looking for someone to facilitate a circle and assist on a panel, addressing the mother wound – could I help?
I felt the burden of her assumptions resting on that request – that somehow I am an expect in this topic (I am not) or that I’d have something to add to the conversation (I did and do, but perhaps not what she was expecting). I declined her offer, knowing that I needed clarity around my own thoughts before participating in big group work, and referred her to others that were able to assist. This blog is the result of my contemplation of and experience with ‘the mother wound’.
What is the mother wound?
The mother wound is, broadly, the wounding a person gets from their female-identifying parental figure – she was absent or ill (physically or mentally) or deceased; an alcoholic or addict; imperfect or selfish; too over-bearing or abusive; she rejected you or you rejected her; she was/is competitive with her young; or __________ (fill in the blank). Essentially, the mother did not match the ideal or expectation, and the child (young or adult) did not get what they needed from a primary relationship, resulting in hurt, betrayal, and possibly trauma.
The Mother is an archetype – a universal representative, which is perhaps where some cultural expectations come from. Traditionally, she was asexual, without plans or purpose outside of the home, and self-sacrificing for her young and partner(s) with one-pointed focus on serving others. (see classic feminist writing, including Adrienne Rich). It is important to acknowledge that archetypes are not meant to be living people - they are impossible to model, and this imposed impossibility is a form of oppression (which is one reason motherhood is a common topic for feminists).
What about the father? – this mess is inclusive
We often project the intense needs and expectations of parenting on mothers, who are the assumed center nurturance, secondary to restrictive archetypal models, cultural expectations, and gender norms. However, there is ‘father wounding’ and a Father archetype as well. For example, Richard Rohr, a Franciscan writer and teacher, addresses what he refers to as ‘father hunger’ (the need, mourning, and grief from an absent or unavailable father) in his writing and work with men. And men face the similarly impossible standards from the archetype. In general though, the father wound is less often discussed, likely because mothers are held to different standards than fathers (see resources).
Parenting is challenging without the added harm of bias and double standards of gender. Cultures fixated on gender norms and expectations keep parents small and in suffering, not able to effectively ask for and receive the help they need, perpetuating cycles that require individual and systems-level change to break (we’ll come back to this).
We are wounded; it is ancestral and we need the black sheep
“….our ancestors speak through our blood and bones. Like it or not, we are walking, breathing ancestor shrines” (D. Foor, Ancestral Medicine).
We are wounded by our families, and these wounds extend beyond mothers and fathers - aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings, family friends, families of making, families by marriage, polyaffective relationships, gender neutral/nonbinary caregiving relationships……. add any and all variants of family, lineage, and caregiving here, primary and beyond. The needs, expectations, and desires we have for our relationships, biological and cultural, are both/and - necessary and burdensome. We often don’t get what we need or expect, and the more necessary the need or more tightly we cling to that expectation, the greater the suffering. Not all blameless, our families are the people that know how to push our buttons and wound because they know our weaknesses and perhaps helped create our buttons. Between our needs and expectations and our family’s inability to meet them, and even our inability to meet theirs, the possibilities for wounding are endless.
Patterns of pain, need, and expectation are perpetuated because our caregivers are wounded and their caregivers were wounded. What we are often talking about then is actually ancestral and lineage wounds, beyond the individual mother or the father, whether behavioral systems that are shared and passed down (ex. abuse, adult children of alcoholics); genetic or physiological changes (see ACE research and genetic research); exposure to collective traumas like war, racism, xenophobia perpetuated or suffered by our ancestors; or spiritual trauma - in the my shamanic practitioner training, it was taught that ancestral and lineage wounding can impact 7 or more generations into the past and into the future (see resources).
“Hurt people hurt people”, and although the acknowledgement of their wounds does not negate behavior that might be unconscionable, it does offer insight and compassion for their behavior. We have to be compassionate with ourselves as well. For example, if we over-identify with our wounds, rather than by our resilience (ex. “ survivor” vs “thriver”), we are viewing the world through pain, disempowerment, and trauma over possibility and growth (ex. post traumatic growth). There is, of course, a caveat here with identity politics – over-emphasis of growth bypasses the reality of recovery of trauma through illusion. Your own labeling and recovery requires self-awareness, vigilance, and possibly professional and objective help.
“When an individual can’t (or won’t) do the inner work to heal their pain, the wounds get passed through the generations, metastasizing through our family tree in the form of mental afflictions, patterns of fear, and even physical injury. Until someone in the younger branches has enough support and awareness to face and grieve that ancient grief, it continues to find expressions in all of the following generations.” (- TP Turner, Belonging)
Often those in grief find themselves as outcast, black sheep, or “mistaken zygotes” (see CP Estés), removing themselves from pain, they also remove themselves from belonging. This sense of not belonging can amplify pain. Further, these pariahs might be wounding their families in return by calling the families to examine their dysfunction. However, it is these individuals who step out of norms that break cycles and create new ways of engaging and being and loving.
“…the black sheep are the artists, visionaries and healers of our culture, because they are the ones willing to call into question those places which feel stale, obsolete, or without integrity. The black sheep stirs up the good kind of trouble. Her life is a confrontation with all that has been assumed as tradition. Her being different serves to bring the family or group to consciousness where it has been living too long in the dark. As the idiom implies, she is the wayward one in the flock. Her life’s destiny is to stand apart. But, paradoxically, its only when she honours that apartness that she finally fits in” (TP Turner, Belonging)
More salt in the wound and seeing the other side: We don’t support parents well
As a culture, we idolize pregnancy. Not too different from the wedding, we often celebrate the pregnancy, then leave the new parent(s) to his/her happily ever after, assuming ‘they got this’. But do they? Do we? – got this?
Society (the over-culture) expects parents to be perfect, while downplaying how challenging, immersive, and unrelenting it is. However, because we inherited ideas about love, duty, parenting, and obligation from (understandably and permissibly) flawed people, perfection is unobtainable. If we have the privileges of awareness and resource, we might re-learn love and caregiving. But that re-learning is emotional, mental, spiritual work that requires time, and that is a mean most parents don’t have – time. And it is reasonable to consider that new models and understanding of love could still produce imperfect parents and wounded children.
One idea to help alleviate that challenge of parenting is the Good Enough parent, essentially a person no longer seeks perfection as a parent but empathy and growth. Another solution is community support (more below). Parents need community, children need community, and a perfect example is the occurrence of post-partum depression in the mother, which is related to the amount of support the parent feels “she” has during the post-partum period. We need each other. Period.
“When women deny themselves in order to fulfill real or imagined needs, they spend most of their time outside of their true creative range. The descendants of these women are left to find their way back to the root, to what holds meaning for them, and must sort through these core patterns. Prolonged self-denial acts like a pressure cooker, creating a toxic buildup of internal rage.... The daughters of women who have denied themselves in some way will experience the full intensity of this rage in themselves as they explore, and begin to recover, lost ground. As they renegotiate issues…, they will encounter all the previously unmet needs of their female lineage. Whenever a woman changes inherited physical, emotional, mental patterns of womanhood, she must face the unheard cries of her ancestors.” (-Tami Lynn Kent, The Wild Feminine) On women navigating self, caregiving, and lineage; written for those identifying as women, I believe this can be true for all genders.
Unfair and unhelpful normatives and expectations keep us in isolation. We need to speak then not only of the mother wound, but father wounds, ancestral wounds, un-belonging and societal wounds, the impossibility of parenting wounds. Because these are what we are really talking about when we speak of the ‘mother wound’, and it is time to unburden the mother with that wounding, oppressive, biased guilt. And speaking truths and realities lessens shame and hurt, allows for healing, and creates community. “Shame dies when stories are told in safe spaces” (-Ann Voskamp)
We need community care
Our culture glorifies and fetishizes the individual, requiring from them what is beyond reasonable capacity. We are supposed to be self-supporting, self-reliant, and independent, all while encumbering each person with vocation, caregiving (of children, elders, etc), tasks of self-care (ex. exercise), tending to home and community, etc. The impossible, Sisyphus task of life of individual grind never stops with all of the to-dos and shoulds- and supposed-to-bes; if anything, life seems to be speeding up. There is power and dignity in sovereignty and autonomy by the standards set in our patriarchal culture, but there is also significant cost.
Historically, we would depend on each other as larger family/village units, sharing parenting and work is shared across families to community (see resources), and we are severely lacking in these support networks now. We need a network of mutuality and reciprocity to manage stress and all.the.things. We are interdependent and are only fully human with each other, through each other, in kinship. (see Desmond Tutu, Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn). We need community care.
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other” (-Mother Theresa)
Seeking community care is a paradox of sorts. Wounded and exiled by our family of origin, we seek solace and belonging in a greater community or community of choice, navigating new relationships, vulnerability, and the possibility of hurt as well. We cannot escape our need for others – we are a social species, and as such isolation and loneliness are not only uncomfortable, they can be deadly (ex. see Brene Brown’s books and article). It is in community that, despite risks of pain to/from others, we unravel patterns in self-selected spaces that thrive on creativity, resilience, and growth-oriented love. And maybe we reintegrate biological or wounded/wounding family here as well. The journey is yours, and what your community looks like will be individualized and relationship-dependent. Immersing ourselves in a supportive community of choice is a biological, mental/emotional, spiritual, and political (dismantling harmful normatives) necessity.
Notice that I switched my languaging from 3rd person to 1st when speaking about ancestral wounds. I have experience with wounding from family; I am sure most of us do. <<< That is about where I will leave my experience, which is not up for public display or validation. It is also not my story alone to tell.
I became aware of lineage wounding when I became a parent; previously, the lineage wounding was easy to ignore and/or keep in the subconscious. From my interaction with friends and women in circle, this initiation through parenting into the discomfort of examining lineage and family patterns is not uncommon.
“When a woman has her first child, it often brings her lineage work to the forefront, making tension points in the lineage line all the more obvious” (-Tami Lynn Kent, The Wild Feminine; written for women, but I’d expect this activation of wounds and tension applies to men and nonbinary folks as well).
I have worked on myself for years to follow the wounds back to source, to learn how to self-soothe and heal, and to dismantle what I had learned so to not pass these same wounds onto my children (easier said than done and I’m not “there” yet….not even close).
But by becoming a parent, I also see how challenging the entirety of parenting is. Yes, I was hurt and for many years asleep to this pain because it was my “normal”; yes I need to help myself as well as ask for help when I need it; yes, I need to not pass these patterns along. And yes, I need to forgive. People are imperfect and are doing the best they can, in that given moment. Possibly a naïve world view, but one that gives me hope. To be clear, forgiveness does not give people a pass for bad behavior, but it does give the forgiver solace. And forgiveness is not a “one and done” deal, but a daily heart practice. “Without forgiveness, there is no future” (-Desmond Tutu)
I am forgiving. I am forgiving you.
I am learning to be a better parent.
I am learning to be a lover and creator of community.
I am also learning who I am, that the “old ways” were not working, and being comfortable with myself while finding the “new”.
“A woman’s issues of soul cannot be treated by carving her into a more acceptable form as defined by an unconscious culture, nor can she be bent into a more intellectually acceptable shape by those who claim to be the sole bearers of consciousness. No, that is what has already caused millions of women who began as strong and natural powers to become outsiders in their own cultures. Instead, the goal must be the retrieval and succor of women’s beauteous and natural psychic forms.” (-CP Estés, Women Who Run with the Wolves)
Here, CP Estés brings to mind, for me, the process of becoming parent (though the quote can apply to women in so many other ways) and of losing connection to self and family and origins by trying to fit molds and expectations. Replace woman with man and the issues are likely the same – a shrunken, acceptably-shaped individual to fit the cultural narrative and normative. This mirrors my own journey.
We are all trying to find our truest, most pure (wild) selves, while learning to live and love and heal in community, perfectly imperfect. And for this we must honor and forgive each other for the growing pains; examination of wounds – mother, father, ancestral, and cultural; and dismantling of harmful cultural systems that keep us stuck (ex. bell hooks’ ‘imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’). We are all in it, in this together. “We’re all just walking each other home” (-Ram Dass)
Questions for the reader:
- How have you experienced the mother (and/or father) wound?
- Have you considered the societal and ancestral context of this wounding before?
- How are you in relationship with your ancestors, and how do you work on lineage healing?
- On relationship with ancestors: “The choice is not whether or not to be in relationship with them, but whether or not these relationships will be conscious and reciprocal” (D. Foor, Ancestral Medicine)
- How are you being a good ancestor? – to family, community, humanity, earth?
- How do you participate in and help create community?
- How is the mother wound relate to a cultural/systems view of wounding and healing?
References and Resources
Estes, CP. Women Who Run with the Wolves
hooks, b. See her book Belonging, as well as her series on love, including Communion and All About Love
Foor, D. Ancestral Medicine: Rituals for Personal and Family Healing
Kent, TL. Wild Feminine: Finding Power, Spirit, & Joy in the Female Body
Lindbergh, AM. Gift from the Sea
Turner, T. Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home
Examples of double standards of parenting between genders:
Resources on shamanic/spiritual techniques for ancestral/lineage trauma:
Akomolafe, B. These Wilds Beyond Our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home
Foor, D. Ancestral Medicine: Rituals for Personal and Family Healing
Kent, TL. Wild Feminine: Finding Power, Spirit, & Joy in the Female Body
Somé, M. Of Water and Spirit
Also see Donna Callaghan, Journey of the Soul and Lauren Torres, Earth Bliss – local shamanic practitioners with whom I have completed training
Resources on the importance of community care
Eisler, R. Center for Partnership Studies and her writing such as The Power of Partnership
Flinders, CL. Rebalancing the World: Why Women Belong and Men Compete and How to Restore the Ancient Equilibrium
Turner, TP. Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home
Graphics about trauma: https://medium.com/@TraumaGeek/the-neuroscience-of-community-9f0a437d3a4f
The above content is written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT), RYT500, shamanic practitioner; sex-positive/affirming, trauma-informed sexuality counselor and educator (she/her/they/them); copyright protected, please cite accordingly. The picture is from Pexels (the milky way is a path of ancestors in some spiritual traditions).
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Thank you for reading. May you find hope and resonance in these words.
4 Replies to “The ‘Mother Wound’”
So well written as always! Much thinking fodder. Thank you.
Thank you for reading and receiving <3
Good article Allison. I thought you might enjoy a long excerpt from Erich Fromm’s Art of Loving. As you say when you try to be a loving mother the wounds of your ancestors come to the fore. He is not talking about that specifically, but that a woman needs to be fulfilled in herself to truly support a child in the most loving way:
I re-arranged the order of the last paragraph and omitted some lines in earlier ones, because it made more sense that way if you aren’t reading the whole chapter:
“Actually, the majority of mothers are loving as long as the infant is small and still completely dependent on them. It seems that this attitude of love is partly rooted in an instinctive equipment to be found in animals as well as the human. Specifically human psychological factors may be found in the narcissistic element of motherly love. Inasmuch as the infant is still felt to be part of herself, her love and infatuation may be the satisfaction of her narcissism.
… In motherly love, two people who were one become separate. The mother must not only tolerate, she must wish and support the child’s separation. It is only at this stage that motherly love becomes a difficult task, that it requires unselfishness, the ability to give everything and to want nothing but the happiness of the loved one.
The narcissistic, the domineering, the possessive woman can succeed in being a “loving” mother as long as the child is small. Only in the really loving woman, the woman who is happier in giving than in taking, who is firmly rooted in her own existence, can be a loving mother when the child is in the process of separation.
Milk is the symbol of the first aspect of love, that of care and affirmation. Honey symbolizes the sweetness of life, the love for it and the happiness in being alive. Most mothers are capable of giving “milk”, but only a minority of giving “honey” too. In order to be able to give honey, a mother must not only be a “good mother,” but a happy person-and this aim is not achieved by many. The effect on the child can hardly be exaggerated. Mother’s love for life is as infectious as her anxiety is. Both attitudes have a deep effect on the child’s whole personality; one can distinguish indeed, among children-and adults who got only “milk” and those who got “milk and honey.”
Beautiful words, Lauren. This in particular will keep me thinking and feeling for days: “Only in the really loving woman, the woman who is happier in giving than in taking, who is firmly rooted in her own existence, can be a loving mother when the child is in the process of separation.” Thank you for reading, reflecting, and commenting – gifts to me. <3
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