Monday, September 6, 2010

Reviving Ophelia's Mom

And now for something completely different . . .

I tend to blog primarily about specific pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and postpartum issues, as most of you know and as some new followers surely can easily surmise. But there's occasional picture of my daughter I can't resist sharing, or zeitgeisty topics that come up, and sometimes it's good to take a Mother-May-I giant step back and look at the big picture. This is one of the latter.

The belief that the best thing for a child is a happy mother is not a groundbreaking one. It certainly could use a little more mindfulness at times, but it's definitely out there, and still, the other day I read something so profound I have to share it with you. This came to me from my lactation and holistic health consultant, the brilliant Jennifer Tow, via the Yahoo group which exists to give ongoing support to her current and former clients (it's quite the amazing group of women). I'm going to start with the revelatory excerpt that blew me away, and then I'll share whole thing from beginning to end.

Another friend once told me that [Jennifer's teenage daughter] was angry with me because I had neglected to show her that adulthood is a worthy place to go - a place where happiness thrives. She was right. I had gotten so lost in trying to fix things that needed to be let go of that I was never happy. I thought staying married was for my children, but it was teaching them all the wrong lessons. I was trying to fix the symptoms my children were having because of my unhappiness instead of changing my own experience.
To say this really grabbed me is an understatement, especially the bold. I think it's all too easy, despite cultural nods to "If mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy", to get caught up in feeling obligated to sacrifice for everyone else, that a truly devoted mother is a suffering one, that guilt is a natural state of being. I've felt it myself.

Here's a true confession for you: I had actually actively hoped that Lily was a boy. Not because I thought boys were any better than girls, or more worthy, or carried more status, or because I had any real preference, but because my dread of someday having a teenage daughter was so overwhelming, based on how unbelievably awful *I* was as a teenager. Really, I was an utter nightmare. I still apologize to my mom for the horrible things I said to her, the cataclysmic temper flares, as well as a whole host of terribly cliched ABC Afterschool Special problems. And on more than one occasion she laid down The Curse, intoning: "I hope someday you have a kid that acts JUST. LIKE. YOU." *Mom's eyes turn momentarily black, thunderclaps in the distance*

So I grew up, said my mea culpas, identified as a feminist, read "Reviving Ophelia" and later "Queen Bees and Wanna-Be's", all the while knowing that I wanted to become a mother someday, more than anything in life - but please, not a girl. I know teenaged boys can be hell on wheels too, but there's just something . . . extra-special about the kind of insane that girls often go for a few years there. And so often, as Mary Pipher pointed out, it has nothing to do with their healthy, contented childhoods. Thirteen or fourteen hits, and girls just sometimes completely lose their freaking minds.

Of course, I had to have a daughter. Of course!

Please, please do not get me wrong, I love this little girl more than anything in the universe. But for all of the above reasons, when I took a peek the day she was born, fully expecting to see a penis (I really had myself convinced), I had to take a serious *gulp*. And I literally did think to myself, "Oh, shit."

I adjusted immediately, and went on about the business of falling crazily in love with her, of course. But I do think ahead and gnaw on my nails about what's going to be happening with her in 10 years. And until I read Jennifer's post, my focus had really been on how to make HER happy, how to maximize her childhood, how to make sure her development was healthy in every way and that her self-esteem was solid and so on and so on.

And yet, I now see exactly how all of the above can be for naught if I'm demonstrating to her that life is not a happy place to be, and that adulthood is unpleasant or even miserable. Why would a teenager NOT be angry about the whole deal, in such cases, whether or not they recognize it consciously?

Here is the full text, the point of departure being a discussion on healing our families, from a very holistic POV, by the way, if that approach resonates with you:

While we surely need to tend to the presenting issues and help our loved ones heal, we need to be very careful that we are not distracting ourselves from the real healing that needs to happen. My daughter said something to me once that I think puts it nicely. I asked her why she always took her anger out on me and she said "because you're the mom--you're at the top of the food chain". My son once said to me, "Momma, as long as you are happy, everyone can be happy".

As mothers we are the anchors in our families. We tend to be the primary caretakers, the nurturers and healers. Of everyone. Except ourselves. We might see it as loving and giving and even noble to put others first, but in truth that may not be what we are doing. When we focus on healing others, we are often focused on "what is wrong with them". I learned a long time ago that no one is a healer who does not see the other as completely whole and already healed. We must see what is right. And when we focus on "what is wrong" with the other, not only do we hold them in that place, but we look far outside of ourselves rather than inward to know the truth of wholeness.

Even as an LC, I never see a baby or mother who I believe cannot succeed in breastfeeding. If I did, I would have no right to do what I do. And while I use tools and interventions, I really believe they have only become necessary because we have done so much damage to ourselves on this planet. They are not the reasons mothers and babies succeed. That is a question of healing at the heart and soul level. For some moms that healing does not translate into exclusive breastfeeding, but it does translate into a more whole and satisfying relationship and life process. It is the same for a midwife. In my mind, the sole role of a midwife (given a culture that trusts birth) would be to simply vibrate the energy of birth as a given, while the mother and baby entrain to that energy and allow their birth to happen. We are not there, but it is the world I see as possible. Healing is purely and only energetic. All of the tools we use simply support vibrational shifts. Nothing more.

So, back to us as mothers. When we try to fix everyone around us to the exclusion of ourselves, I think we miss the lesson. We miss the gift being offered to us by our loved ones, who in soul agreement with us, present these opportunities for us as well as for themselves. Relationships are reciprocal, even with our children--even with our unborn babies. Another friend once told me that [Jennifer's teenaged daughter] was angry with me because I had neglected to show her that adulthood is a worthy place to go - a place where happiness thrives. She was right. I had gotten so lost in trying to fix things that needed to be let go of that I was never happy. I thought staying married was for my children, but it was teaching them all the wrong lessons. I was trying to fix the symptoms my children were having because of my unhappiness instead of changing my own experience. This is not to say that we should twist the lesson and blame ourselves for every flaw and symptom and misstep in those we love. It is to say that we are responsible for and to ourselves. And when we heal ourselves, we give our children such an enormous opportunity to own their own healing.
So, my suggestion--when you look around at your family and see that there is imbalance, ask yourself, not only what do they need, but what do you need.

This comes at a time in my life where all the signs are absolutely pointing towards decisions that will make my own life a happier one, and will in turn make Lily's happier. I had been resisting, or at least questioning, some of those decisions for all the wrong reasons. Thank you, Jennifer, once again. Not only does our happiness legitimately matter, it's actually vitally important- and sometimes, culture being what it is, we need to feel like we've gotten permission to embrace that truth, so I hope this reaches some moms who need to hear the same thing.

Photo courtesy of my new favorite blog, Art History, LOL


  1. Anne, I just read a post on FMH about how many mothers take on the role of martyr & I've been thinking about it.

    The writer interviewed women for a project she was doing and one, "interviewee talked about growing up in the 1950s in a household with eight kids where her mother worked and was also involved in lots of church and civic projects. Her daughter said, 'She was not a martyr at all. I think that’s a great gift for children. If your mother is free then you are free.'"

    I loved that spin on it, not only happy, but free.

  2. i think i really needed to read what you wrote. we've had a rough year and both my physical and emotional health have been affected. as a result, we're making a very challenging decision. i worry about the cost to my kids, but as you pointed out, the bigger cost will be if i stay in a situation where i can't heal.

  3. I am linking to your post from my blog and quoting parts of this. This entry could not have been more perfect for the things going on in my life right now.

  4. Shary and alittlebitofgrace, I am so glad to hear it was good timing for you two!

    Kate, I just love those FMH's! And that IS a really great perspective.

  5. This is very important. Thank you.

  6. From a daughter's POV,

    I completely agree with this post. Looking back at the years after my parent's divorce, yes it was intensely painful, but I'm glad she initiated it. I've gradually come to understand that it was a lesson on surviving adulthood. No, more than surviving...responsibility and independence are valuable tools that I'm learning to use to make the best of my life.
    And now I need to go thank my Mom.

  7. I really appreciate that input, Britt.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this.