I'm just resurfacing after a 5-day trip back to see my mother, who is 92 years old and suffering from dementia. She got pneumonia and was released home from the hospital the day I arrived in Oklahoma to see her. I went to visit her two years ago, thinking it might be the last time I saw her and here I was back again, two years later, thinking the same thing. My mother had to be on oxygen at home and take antibiotics, something she is not used to doing. My mother was a Christian Scientist and barely took an aspirin her entire life. Having dementia makes deviating from the norm worse. She was very confused and kept angrily asking why she had to "do all this crap" and wondering if she got pneumonia from something she ate. Needless to say, I explained things to her many times and found my best bet was to try and change the subject. Sometimes it worked and other times it was like Groundhog Day, the Sonny and Cher song starting the day, and everything repeating, conversations and all. One of the ways I tried to stay centered (did I mention there was also dysfunctional family drama going on around me as well?) was to read a book I brought with me called The Motherline by Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, Ph.D.
This book caught me in just the right place. Before I left for Oklahoma, my 13-year-old daughter went on her first week-long trip away from us with a friend to the beach. I have a lot of faith in my daughter and know that she is strong and capable and has good sense, but she's also 13 and my only child. After I gave birth to her I was surprised to notice that I had intense and somewhat morbid fears of her being hurt or dying. As I would hold her and walk past our swimming pool I would clutch her tighter and walk as far away from the water as possible as if some unknown force would pull us both in and I would be unable to save her. It was the awesome power of motherhood, of the mother goddess Demeter, that had me in her grip. I knew I was responsible for not just keeping her alive, but caring for her and raising her with care and attention and the kind of nurturing I felt I didn't get when I was a little girl. I was getting the chance to do it differently, to give my daughter what I felt deprived of: a mother who truly saw me and tended to my needs and feelings with tender loving care.
But I grew up feeling emotionally abandoned. My mother was an artist, a former dancer, and her head was in the clouds much of the time. Many times she would forget to pick me up at the time she had said she would be there; she would tell me my feelings of anger were too upsetting to her and I needed to stop being angry or sad--negative emotions were to be replaced by positive ones in her religion. I grew up stuffing my feelings, trying to please her, yearning for her attention, until I stopped caring and turned all my anger on her.
Many years and much therapy and healing work later, I finally got to raise my own daughter with the love and care and nurturing I knew I once needed and craved. But it's never perfect, and as my daughter began the process of individuation and pushing away, I was shocked at this turn of events. I was not ready. I was unprepared. What happened to the little girl I poured so much love into--why didn't she want me anymore?
Then I remembered. It slowly dawned on me: the story of Persephone and Demeter was playing out. The daughter is snatched from the mother and the mother grieves until she is reunited, but she only gets her daughter back part time, for during the other part she must carry on her own life. Only now I am not Persephone, the daughter, with whom I had related for so long; I am now Demeter, the mother. And as my daughter left for the beach on spring break, I worried what would happen to her out in the ocean without me, the mother goddess, to watch over her. What if a riptide pulled her out to sea as happened once when she was seven years old in the very same waters she would be swimming in now. She cried for me and I swallowed my panic and struggled with the elements, feeling the adrenaline pulsing through my body, reached her, and pulled her in with me to safe waters.
All these watery symbols of emotion, of the feelings I was denied, I am now swimming in, caught between the young daughter who is becoming a woman and my own mother who is like a child, near death. And I can't help but see my mother differently, now that I have forgiven her for not being the perfect mother I needed, now that I understand how I can't be the prefect mother to my daughter. Now that I can see how my mother was orphaned, too, and her mother was orphaned, and back it goes, this generational pattern that I have not played out in the same way. I have not orphaned my daughter, but in some ways I have orphaned myself. For many years I denied myself the artistic soul that my mother lived out because I was afraid I would sacrifice my daughter the way I felt I had been sacrificed by my mother. Only recently, since my daughter has started the individuation and separation process have I allowed myself to consider that it is a part of me, just as it was a part of my mother, and to deny it would be to allow a vibrant part of me to wither and die.
As Ruth Lowinsky says in The Motherline, "a daughter longs to be mothered by a mother like the potential woman in her... there will always be mourning for the mother we didn't have... Further difficulties arise because we mothers also have great expectations of ourselves. Most of us are determined to differentiate from our own mothers by being better mothers. We raise our children as we wish we had been raised; we bring to them the values of the generation that formed our consciousness. We pour our love and our passion into this work, and therein lies the rub. Our children are not impressed. No child is grateful to her mother for not visiting upon her the sins of the mother's mother. The young one simply suffers the empty places left unmothered in her own childhood. " As I read these words I felt their truth as much as I wanted to wish it wasn't so. But, of course, it was so. My daughter will have her own wounds, will see me through her own eyes.
Lowinsky says, "we must be able to face the ways in which we failed them. We must release them from our yearning to be affirmed as good mothers and let them be people living in a time we [may] find difficult to comprehend. The wrestling between mother and daughter takes place in many arenas. Among them are the struggles to differentiate bodies, to differentiate style in clothing, lifestyle choice of career and mate, to sort through differences in temperament, and to sort out what has been the mother's responsibility for the child's pain. Both mother and daughter must wrestle with the cultural prejudice that at once devalues female experience and projects impossible power on mothers. And they both must wrestle with the real archetypal power of the mother: the power to give birth, to nurture, and to destroy.... But because every mother is also a daughter, the wrestling goes on and on."
And so the motherline appears to go full circle and connect back again, perhaps it is the symbol of infinity. As I sat with my mother and allowed her anger over what she was powerless to comprehend, much less control, the tears rolled down my face. I understood her feelings. Despite her confusion, my mother was able to comfort me when she saw my tears. She said, "Everyone has to go some time." I asked her if she was ready. "As ready as I'll ever be," she spontaneously answered, but then took it back, "but I'm not sure I'm quite ready just yet." Yeah, I know, Mom, it's hard to let go.