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Spring 1998

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Our Mothers' Daughters

"If the child-we-were asked us today for the best we've learned from living, what would we tell, and what would we discover in return?"
Richard Bach

Daughter. The essence of who we learn to be as daughter gives us guidance when we become Mother. Yet what do we really know about being Daughter, and is it a valid place to start on our journey as Mother? Richard Bach in Running From Safety: An Adventure of the Spirit, commented: "Childhood was not something I was much trained to treasure. The point was to get through it."

To get through it, we need Mother, who sets the scene for the drama which will become our life, whose response to us is often based upon her memories of childhood, when her mother also hearkened backwards into time, as did all the generations before them. We are not then the simple product of one lifetime but of many, although we struggle mightily against it.

In Don't Blame Mother, Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., discusses this rebellion: "Two of the primary fears of adult daughters in relation to their mothers are the fear of displeasing her (or even losing her love) and the fear of becoming like her...Our fear of displeasing mother is intensified by the myth that women's power is dangerous."

A mother's power misused is dangerous, but it can also be sublime. Caplan acknowledges both edges of this infamous sword when she writes, "Most women are very disconcerted when asked if they love their mothers: 'Of course I do-she's my mother!' Not to love your mother seems unthinkable at best, inhuman at worst...Why is it that in the space of a moment or two, we move from 'Of course I love my mother!' to blaming her for everything wrong in our lives? The very word mother elicits a wealth of conflicting, ambivalent feelings-protectiveness, a desire for her approval, need for her love versus rage at the terrible damage we feel she's done to us, however unwittingly. We feel justified in blaming her. After all, who had greater control over our lives when we were most vulnerable?

"Women have ridden this exhausting merry-go-round for generations, to our own and our mothers' immense pain and misfortune. The love and fun we've shared (fed by the cultural idealization of mothers) combines with our anger and disappointment (fed by the cultural denunciation of mothers) and results in profound ambivalence....Living with such powerfully loving and intensely painful feelings often seems impossible."

If living with Mother is this intense, then how much more profound it is when we must live without her. Mother loss can leave us without an emotional compass to guide us through the remaining stages of our lives. Hope Edelman, in Motherless Daughters, describes our reluctance to confront this possibility: "This cultural resistance to mother loss actually is a symptom of a much deeper psychological denial, which originates from the place in our psyches where mother represents comfort and security no matter what our age, and where the mother-child bond is so primal that we equate its severing with a child's emotional death. Because everyone carries into adulthood a child's fear of being left alone and unprovided for, the motherless child symbolizes a darker, less fortunate self. Her plight is everyone's nightmare, at once impossible to imagine and impossible to ignore."

This loss can also be experienced when Mother is in the home but either emotionally unavailable or punitive. Childhood then becomes a nightmare from which there can never be a guiding light. Daughters who want to break the chains of negativity must find a new path. Bach offers this advice for those who need to blaze a trail of their own, "Before your outer walls break, as break they must if you are to stay, build an inner place to protect your truth. Protect that you are infinite life, choosing its playground; protect that the world you know exists with your consent and for your own good reason; protect that your purpose and mission is to shine love in your own playful way, in the moment you decide will be most dramatic."

Our inner truth, the seat of our goodness, our place of power. This is what we seek when our memories turn back to childhood and reexamine old dreams. Sometimes we feel foolish in doing so, but more often we find this is where we discover our noblest selves. How fortunate we are when we can share this nobility across the generations.

Loretta Kemsley


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