“A mother is not a person to lean on but a person to make leaning unnecessary.” -Dorothy C. Fisher
For me, Mother’s Day has always been a mixed experience. As a daughter in a long line of wounded mothers, I have long struggled to reconcile myself with the painful history that I inherited. Learning to accept the mothering that I got and all that I didn’t was the foundation on which I built my own experience of mothering. Mothering, I have learned, is generational and has an almost genetic quality to it. When we are deeply loved as children, a reservoir of resilience and self- confidence gets stored up inside and it is this that gets passed along. Without this loving attention, this reservoir can be left dry, leaving us continuously in search of the unconditional acceptance we associate with mothers. For me, learning to mother began with figuring out how to fill up my own cup.
While, the experience of being loved unconditionally is unique in the world, it, in fact, doesn’t have to come from your biological mother. It just has to be a true experience of being witnessed, appreciated and forgiven in a steady stream of relating. Grandparents, counselors and dear friends can, and often are, the people who wake up the seed of your own loveliness, showering you with the tenderness and warmth that allows you to grow into a loving mother yourself. The key here is that you have to have the courage to be loved. Coming from a line of wounded mothers brings with it a defensiveness that keeps love away. We don’t trust the experience of receiving because that pathway of worthiness has not been laid down. Wanting to be filled and believing in the worthiness of your own ability to hold love is how self-mothering begins.
One of the saving graces in my evolution as a mother came through my life long relationship with my dear friend, Sarah. She has always been part sister, part mother to me for more than 30 years. I often credit her when I think of the mother I was able to become, because it was with her that I learned how it felt to make mistakes and be forgiven, and to see what it looks like to be given the benefit of the doubt. Learning these heart skills with Sarah allowed me to slowly become the mother that I had longed for myself. Raising my four kids gave me plenty of practice in giving them the encouragement and witnessing I had always craved. Not surprisingly, overcompensating for my early losses came spontaneously and often unseen. For many years when the kids were little, I would swing between the space of over-exhausted giving and the emptiness of lack, without enough internal resources to know my own boundaries. I still remember the day someone told me, “Boundaries are how you love yourself.” So it went, little by little, that I learned how to mother myself as I mothered my children.
Carving out a separate identity, not always being someone’s something and taking time away now and again from my family not only allowed me to grow Good Clean Love, but myself. The self-imposed distance I created allowed me a clearer perspective out of the day-to-day to recognize where I still needed to fill myself up and make peace with the parts of myself as a mother that weren’t always the mother I had hoped to be. At a distance I could recognize the damage I inflicted on my kids, as well as the gifts I gave them. And this was exactly what I needed to reconcile the broken places with my own mother. She, like me, worked her whole life to try to fill up her own inner reservoir of self -love. And in the end, no matter how loving our mother has been, if we have engaged with the deep work of self- mothering we realize that the best mothering lets us stand on our own.