Thursday, September 27, 2012

Motherhood and Women and Power

One of the things that has stuck with me from my time at Omega Institute last weekend is the power of mothers.  A daunting number of the speakers had been abused during their childhoods and were damaged so much from their experiences.  Several asked the question, "Why didn't anyone protect me?  Where was my mother?"  In a couple of cases, it was the mother who abandoned the child and left her stranded, caring for her younger siblings or at the very least for herself.

The most moving example of the pain a mother can cause her child was given by the young woman from South Africa (I wish I knew her name, but she isn't listed in the presenters and I didn't write it down - I was too caught up listening to her to take note of it!  I think it might have been Samu Khumalo).  Samu was 19, raised in a township in utter poverty.  Her mother had 4 children, I think. Samu was the oldest.  Her mother, starting from when this young woman was 12, would leave their shelter and stay with various and sundry men, leaving Samu to take care of her siblings.  She managed to get through high school and wanted more for herself than life seemed ready to offer her.  I'm forgetting the details of her story but it had something to do with starting a group to empower girls and doing theater.  She got involved in Eve Ensler's play "I am an Emotional Creature."  She was telling us about her life and broke down in tears, "I don't know why my mother doesn't love me.  I don't know what to do.  I am a good girl.  I have done all I can.  I have cared for my siblings.  I did well in school.  I don't understand."  She was sobbing, wracked with the pain of her abandonment by her mother.  It was heart-wrenching seeing her pain and knowing there is no way to get past it other than to allow oneself to feel it just as she was doing with us.  I was glad she had so many sisters, 500 of us, there to witness her pain and to hold her in  our warm embrace.

Another presenter spoke of being abused by her stepfather for many years without her mother doing anything about it.  B. didn't know why her mother didn't do anything - how could she NOT have known.  This question stayed between them for a lifetime until B's mother was nearing death.  Then, finally, at the urging of her therapist, B told her mother what had happened.  Her mother, always a loving and wonderful woman, came through.  She told B, forcefully, "You are no longer alone.  You do not have to carry this alone anymore.  I am here for you."  What a gift to B to hear those words from her mother.  It sounded like it was exceedingly healing.  We were all there for her as well, feeling the longing of our own hearts to hear just the right words from our mothers before they die.

I wonder about mothers and their power over their children.  An acquaintance who worked with girls in a residential treatment center indicated his astonishment that children almost always want to go back to their mothers, no matter how poorly treated they have been.  They need their mothers, their love, their nurturing.  When they don't get it, there is a void in their lives which must be filled one way or another.  Some children are fortunate enough to find substitutes.  Or they have an inner strength which defies understanding and they grow up to be incredible people, tempered by the pain of their childhood.  Others never get what they need.  They feel empty, and they search for that love and approval for the rest of their lives.

"Thirty Seconds Old" - my younger son and me 30 seconds after giving birth to him.
As my children were growing up, it was difficult for me to fathom that I could possibly have as much impact on my children as my mother did on me or her mother did on her, but logically I suppose that must be the case.  How could it not be?  My prayer is that they know I love them unconditionally and accept them no matter what.  I want them to be happy.  I want them to feel fulfilled in their lives, whatever that takes.  I don't care whom they love - man or woman or in between, black or white or brown or whatever.  It just doesn't matter.  What matters is that they find sustainable joy in their lives and that they feel good about who they are.  They don't have to answer to me, just to themselves.  I want them to be able to come to me with their burdens and lay them down at my feet.  I will help however I can.  And I also trust that they have the wherewithal to figure out their own solutions.  I can't know what's right for them.  I can listen gently and compassionately and can, perhaps, help them find their way to their own needs and desires, but I cannot know what they need.  It would presumptuous of me to try to convince them to act a certain way or marry a certain person or whatever.  Who am I to know?!  It's difficult enough for me to discern my own path.  How can I presume to know that for another? 

My children have had pain in their lives.  Both of my sons have had life-saving operations.  My younger son's operation left him with some life-altering repercussions.  It was painful going through the operations with them as the responsible adult because I couldn't know if they would live or be permanently handicapped or physically or psychologically scarred.  It was mind-blowingly painful to be present to their experiences and know there was truly nothing I could do for them other than be there and manage my own anxiety sufficiently well to be able to be present to them.  I couldn't make it better.  I couldn't heal them.  I was helpless  I had no control.  For a woman raised with a strong need to control things, this was a very tough lesson.  I learned to surrender and to trust that all would be well, one way or another.  And it is.  My sons are splendid men.  They have scars, but they wear them well.  They are stronger men for the operations they have had.  They have worked with their adversity and turned it into strengths.  I am proud of them and so happy when we spend time together.  My heart bursts with joy.

Nuzzling her Baby
And my daughter - she had no operations.  She's the middle child and has had more than one birthday when one of her brothers was in the hospital and her parents were completely preoccupied.  She's sweet and loving and compassionate and also a tigress.  She is wonderfully intense and fabulous and committed to important causes.  She's been a vegan since she was 11 or 12, despite my unwillingness to prepare two meals for the family to meet her needs.  Instead she became a wonderful cook and baking is now one of her strong passions.  She is a strong woman who knows her mind.  Open-hearted and compassionate, very self-aware and knowledgeable, not to mention intelligent as can be, she is set to make a huge difference in the world.  And, best of all, she will still cuddle up to me on the couch as we watch a movie and will put her arm around me as we walk down the street, and will let people know she thinks I'm cool.  What more could a mom ask?

Beautiful Woman
Sometimes I wonder what my kids think of me - when they were kids, I was in the process of learning to paint, and my subject matter was usually the nude - pregnant women and men for several years.  My older son told me he refused to have friends over because he didn't want them to see the drawings.  Later though, when he was in college, he took some of my artwork to his apartment.  It was a set of three drawings of women's breasts.  When people would comment on them, he'd quip, "Yeah, those are my mom's breasts."  (They weren't mine - I just drew them.)  He got a kick out of seeing their response.  I also was outrageous and did Contact Improvisation, a form of dance which is all about the interaction between two people and the space between them.  I often had fellow dancers over who would lounge all over each other, draped as if people were just other pieces of furniture.  The kids took it in stride but as they got older they let me know they thought it was weird - "Mom, it's like clothed sex."  Then my daughter ended up at Oberlin where Contact started and had friends who did it there.  I think that normalized it a tiny bit, but she still wasn't interested for herself.  I guess they had the grace to accept me as I was, even though I was "weird".  Perhaps it gave them permission to follow their own bliss and do what they wanted to without having to worry about conforming to the societal norm.  Neither I nor their father could be accused of having done that horrible thing!

I think my kids think I'm cool.  My daughter said as much when she told me her friends thought I was cool because I gave her the book Cunt to read.  I wanted her to get more comfortable with her body.

They also know I have limits and can be strict - or was when they were kids.  I don't drink much alcohol at all, so it's a big deal if they see me with a glass of wine at dinner or hear I had one. They know how I feel about drugs - I'm not a big fan.  So I know they think I'm a bit of a stickler about those things.  Oh well.  Better that than a raving alcoholic who passes out each night...

I was strict too. My older son had a group of friends over one night for a sleepover.  They called themselves nerds, and it was true.  Their idea of a great night was bringing over a bunch of computers and networking them together so they could play computer games all night.  As long as I provided sufficient junk food, they were in heaven.  I didn't interfere much - just went down to let them know when I was going to sleep so they'd keep it down.  They were good kids.  One night, though, as I was going to sleep, I heard noises outside around 1 AM.  The gate creaked open then clicked shut.  I waited a moment then went downstairs to see what was up.  I asked where everyone was.  They told me they were in the bathroom - 2-3 big guys in a 16 sq ft bathroom?  Doubtful.  I gave them the eye and asked where they really were.  Finally someone confessed that they'd gone for a walk to 7-11, about a mile away, at 1 in the morning.  I was pissed.  They knew better.  I didn't know what to do.  I was a single mother with two younger kids in the house as well as these 14-15 year old boys.  I didn't know what these kids might be up to.  So I called the police to ask them to help me out.  They came over to question me to find out what was up.  While they were there, the boys showed up, sheepish, concerned, then freaked out.  The policemen were completely nice and kind.  They told the boys they were out after curfew and shouldn't have been.  They explained that they could have gotten into trouble and that it wasn't respectful of me to do that since I was responsible for them.  They suggested I call the boys' parents and have them come get them.  Yes, at 2 AM.  An hour or so later, some bedraggled and frankly confused parents showed up to pick up their chagrined boys.  My son was mortified and pissed.  No one seemed to understand why I had reacted how I had, but I felt completely justified.  The boys were on the brink of becoming teenagers and being able to drive.  I wasn't about to let them think they could get away with sneaking out at night from my house, even if their reason was completely innocuous.  Needless to say, I wasn't the most popular parent from then on out, but the kids respected me with a healthy fear.  My son is still friends with almost all of those people, and we get along well.  I like them completely, and I think they know they can count on me to be fair and even-handed and honest, if, perhaps, a bit over-reactive.  So what?  It was my job to protect my kids and keep them safe.  They didn't have to like me!

I know my heart is bonded to my children for eternity.  I would do anything possible for them.  Isn't it interesting that I can't quite wrap my mind around the idea that I mean so much to them too? 

How is it for you?  Did you get what you need from your mother?  If you're a mother, how do you perceive yourself vis-a-vis your children and their needs and their relationship to you?  How do you think they'd describe you?

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