Learning to Mother Myself
Sometimes, the most powerful tools for mental health are our own self-knowledge, reflection, and inner work, bolstered by a community of like-minded people.
“Calgon, Take Me Away!”
Have you ever needed to get away from it all? Those of us who are old enough may remember the popular television commercial from the 1970s, in which the harried working mother retreated to her bathtub, calling, “Calgon, take me away!” as if a box of scented bath crystals would make everything better. We may joke about those moments, but sometimes we really do need to retreat, to pull back from the rest of the world to focus on ourselves. I know I do sometimes, and I never needed it more than I did in 2014.
I was at my wits’ end. My husband and I were living on a tight budget in a cramped, one-bedroom apartment, struggling to regain our footing after a serious financial setback, and my young adult stepson was crashing on our floor (we didn’t even have room for a couch) every weekend. On top of that, in searching for the root cause of my lifelong struggles with depression and anxiety, I had recently uncovered a deep wound – the mother wound.
What’s the Mother Wound?
By mother wound, I mean the psychic pain females experience due to the mother’s ambivalence or rejection of one's true nature and/or the inability of the female child to meet social expectations, caused by cultural pressures. Psychologically, the mother wound may begin with our actual mothers in childhood. For adults, it is perpetuated by the internal construct of our mother as she was in our childhood, yet inextricably combined with the social and cultural expectations of us and our mothers at that time.
This pain was passed on to me in the form of harsh and oppressive attitudes towards myself, which I had adopted unconsciously as the internal construct of my mother. That voice was constantly berating me, to the point where I believed its lies and often felt too crushed to pursue my dreams more than halfheartedly, if at all. It was the voice that told me I wasn’t good enough, or strong enough, or simply – enough. This internal dialog had for years kept my voice, my writing, my artistic expression, blocked.
Wounded, Not Abused
On the surface, it may seem as if I'm saying my mother was abusive to me, but that couldn't be further from the truth. While our misogynistic culture and a host of other ills may drive some mothers to be blatantly abusive, most parents are doing the best they can with the tools they have to work with, and most mothers, like mine, are loving and caring. Unfortunately, the social pressures within our culture can be isolating to mothers, who are often subtly influenced to fear any attention a child's uniqueness, creativity, or lack of inhibition may draw.
I was a highly sensitive and anxious child, traits I inherited from my mom that were reinforced by environmental and social factors such as my dad often being absent on military deployment. My mom experienced more hardship and repression in childhood than I did, and I'm convinced that a large part of the "maternal voice" I heard back then was channeled from previous generations. In fact, those insecure feelings of being "not enough" weren't expressed in reference to me, but how she felt about herself. Nonetheless, there I was, peering into a gaping emotional wound and wondering how to stop the bleeding.
The Ugly Ducking
I had come across the words to explain what I was feeling while re-reading the “Ugly Duckling” chapter of Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ Women Who Run With the Wolves. In the version told by Estes, the duckling’s mother makes many new mother mistakes. She has no guidance from older, more experienced mothers. She is ambivalent when confronted with her child’s social rejection, and tries to get the child to conform to cultural norms that deny her true nature. She gives up and collapses in defeat just when the duckling needs her most. Finally, the duckling leaves to seek a new family of her own people, undergoing many trials to find her spiritual home with the swans.
This story beautifully illustrates the problems with our current culture, which isolates generations of women from one another and cuts us off from our authentic selves by imposing all manner of unrealistic expectations for our appearance and behavior. As we begin to wake up to our true essence, we are drawn to others like us. As women waking up to our authentic selves, we find strength in sharing our common experiences and stories with other women.
We learn from Estes’ analysis of the fairy tale that we need relationships with strong, authentic, supportive women in order to build our confidence and coping skills, but that ultimately, we alone are responsible for changing our inner voices to something kinder, to support us by getting in touch with the wild, instinctive mothering nature that is our birthright.
From Ugly Duckling to Wild Woman
In the pages of Women Who Run With the Wolves, I was also reminded of the value of the archetypal Wild Woman as a symbol of strength, courage, and authenticity. Estes’ book values the old stories for their universal wisdom, the sharing of our personal stories, and community with other Wild Women, something I had found in limited amounts, but was craving more and more since I’d been sharing my small space with two men for some time.
Does Anyone Else Need a Retreat?
I can’t say exactly when my “Calgon, take me away!” moments turned into the more specific, “I need a retreat!” moments, but it definitely gelled for me when I tried to talk with my husband, Charlie, about the mother wound. No matter how sympathetic he wanted to be, he simply couldn’t relate to the trauma of being a woman in the same way a woman does. By Valentine’s Day of 2014, I had approached three friends – Amy Hilton, Katherine Roberts, and Brenda Star Walker -- to ask if they needed a retreat as badly as I did.
To my great surprise, they were excited about my idea, particularly the part about calling ourselves Wild Women and working together to heal the mother wound, both individually and collectively. Things came together quickly and smoothly. Within a week of Katherine putting it out there, our first Wild Woman Retreat – Learning to Mother the Authentic Self was popular on Facebook and almost booked to capacity.
Though we were disappointed she wasn’t able to attend in person, Katherine designed an amazing brochure for the event attendees. Brenda offered her property, Sukavah Bodeh, as our location for the weekend of March 13-14, led our yoga practice during the retreat, contributed food, and made us delicious carrot dogs for dinner, with banana boats for dessert! Amy led a DIY workshop that got rave reviews, introducing us to sustainable and safe personal products like shampoo, conditioner, and facial wipes. I coordinated the food, led a circle reading and discussion of “The Ugly Duckling,” and facilitated the sharing circle.
Sharing our Stories Changed Everything
We arrived at the pinnacle of the two-day retreat on Saturday night around the campfire. That night, each woman had the opportunity to hold the talking stick and share her story, or whatever was on her heart, with a fully present audience and no interruptions. As our laughter and tears flowed together, we were all brought to an awareness of how isolated we had been feeling, when in fact we shared very similar experiences.
I was profoundly transformed by our sacred circle, and have been healing the sources of my depression and anxiety at an accelerated rate ever since. That healing has come, in equal measures, from both new and deepening bonds of friendship with my Wild Woman sisters, and learning to replace the harsh inner mother with the voice of my nurturing, instinctive nature.
Though at first his feelings were hurt when I said my retreat needed to be for women only, Charlie grudgingly admitted I had more energy and seemed more balanced after my return. The truth is, for our stated intent, we could not have had the same experience if men had been there.
Men change the dynamic of groups. Due to the same forces which cause the mother wound, women in mixed groups tend to exhibit the following dysfunctional behaviors: allowing men to dominate the conversation, praising what men say but not what women say, being afraid to speak the truth for fear of ridicule or reprimand, flirting (which diverts the focus and purpose of the group), or worse, they may be unintentionally triggered due to previous traumatic events. None of these things would have been helpful to what occurred around our campfire at the first retreat.
For many, it is only when a group of women agree to hold one another in sacred trust that their authentic selves can emerge freely. Possibly the best argument for women-only, in my opinion, is the effect it has on how I get along with the men in my life. My relationships with my husband and my son have improved significantly since I began taking the time to nurture myself in women-only spaces.
Takeaways for Everyone
No matter what your gender identify, there are a few principles I derived from my experience that can apply to anyone:
Self-care is a must for mental health, whether to you that means a bubble bath, a special treat, a nap, a physical work-out, or a retreat into nature.
Self-reflection and introspection may surface painful issues, but if you search you can find wisdom and guidance to help you understand and heal them.
Inner healing work can be augmented by gathering a like-minded group, suitable to the purpose, that's committed to respectful witnessing of members sharing their authentic experiences and feelings.
Note: I originally published this piece in June 2015 on the website for Wild Woman Retreat, but that site has been retired. I did some minor edits and updates to make it suitable to this forum.