Mother Musings II

by Meinrad Craighead

On Thursday, I am going to see a documentary about this artist, Meinrad Craighead, who was once a nun and then devoted the rest of her life to creating sacred images of nature and the feminine. I’m drawn to this painting called Mother and Daughter, which clearly was inspired by the myth of Demeter and Persephone. It is said that you can't know Persephone without an understanding of Demeter and you can't know Demeter without knowing Persephone. I think this is true of all mothers and daughters, even when we don't want it to be. As daughters, we can try to disown parts of the mother we don't like, but unless we do it consciously, healing the wounds rather than covering them or pushing them down out of sight, they become our shadow aspects. And you know that little poem by Robert Louis Stevenson that goes,

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, And what can be the use of [her] is more than I can see. [She] is very, very like me from the heels up to the head; And I see [her] jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

The funniest thing about [her] is the way [she] likes to grow-- Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;                                    img_18491 For [she] sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball, And [she] sometimes goes so little that there's none of [her] at all.

[She] hasn't got a notion of how children ought to play, And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way. [She] stays so close behind me, [she's] a coward you can see; I'd think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

One morning, very early, before the sun was up, I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup; But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head, Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

This is the problem with our shadow aspect—it never really goes away; it just dogs us until we do something about it, essentially face it, work with it, and integrate it. Otherwise, it keeps popping up when we least expect it and we end up making fools of ourselves, as in, “Oops, how did that slip out?” Or, “I always swore I’d never say that to my child. I sound just like my mother!” Of course, sometimes it’s this very trickster-like element that allows us to heal—kind of like looking in a funhouse mirror. We recognize our mother in the reflection of our own distorted image and we cringe. What to do?

Once we have dealt with the pain and the wounding through grief work (and I’ve done a lot of that), I think all we can do is just notice, laugh, and embrace it. For we can never really put the shadow to bed. It is our teacher, and so our mother is our teacher, and our grandmother, and all of our ancestors that speak down through the generations to remind us who we are. As well as being part of a particular family with all its foibles and flaws, we are also part of the human race, fallible and imperfect. We are not gods, but we are enough. It is enough to be a human being who stumbles, who doesn’t always get it right, who doesn’t need to prove anything-- even that I am not my mother. But I am my mother’s daughter.

So when I take in this painting of Mother and Daughter I see the reflection and the opposites; one can’t exist without the other. It’s a little cosmological joke. It reminds me, once again, to accept, to embrace, to love life, and the one (and many) who gave it to me.

A look at the meaning of the myth of Persephone: Initiation

Persephone (SoulCollage card) You may know the myth of the maiden Persephone: While innocently picking flowers in a field the earth suddenly opens before her and Hades, god of the underworld, rides forth on his horse-drawn chariot, abducts and rapes her. The story of Persephone is also the story of her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest. When she learns of Persephone’s disappearance, she does what any mother would do: search high and low for her, and when she cannot find any trace of her, is wracked with grief. She takes out her anger and resentment on the mortal world over which she presides and causes a severe drought and famine over the land. Eventually she learns that Persephone was the victim of a plot by Zeus, uber-Olympian, and his brother, Hades, who wanted to make her his wife. Persephone is eventually allowed to return to her mother but not before Hades tricks her by giving her a juicy pomegranate before she leaves. Upon taking a bite, she unknowingly binds herself to his realm, but is allowed to live half of the year on earth with her mother.

I recently read a feminist revision of the myth, which left out the rape and changed the story so that Persephone and Hades were equal partners and she made a choice to live part of the time with him and part of the time with her mother. While I can appreciate the desire to turn this into a fable of equality, in which Persephone is less of a victim, it misses the point of the myth. And as someone who loves understanding archetypes, fairy tales, and myths, with all their shadowy elements from a Jungian perspective, I see the story of Persephone differently.  At least one way of looking at it is as a tale of initiation: a young woman's coming of age and need to separate from her mother so that she can become her own person.

While the imagery of Persephone being kidnapped and raped by Hades is not one that on the surface any woman (let alone mother) would ever subscribe to or condone on any level, if we look at it metaphorically, its meaning becomes apparent. (We mortals shouldn’t mess with the gods and their myths. Their lessons are often severe and have teeth -- the better to eat you with, my dear.)

Perhaps because my own 12-year-old daughter is going through puberty and I have watched her in a sense be "snatched away" from me, it hits close to home. I am reminded that there is no easy way to go from girlhood to womanhood. It is in some ways a violent shift, involving the shedding of blood, the raging of hormones, and leaving the comfort of "home," or what is known and safe up till now – and venturing out into the world at large. I know how Demeter felt as she searched for the long, lost little girl she had known only a short time ago.

Hades represents on a masculine level what Persephone, the naïve, feminine, is required to face at some point in coming of age: the loss of innocence and the gaining of experience. This involves risk-taking and venturing out into the scary world without mommy to hold her hand as she has become used to. (And who amongst us has not been seduced or tempted by the bad boy, the dark haired charmer who drives up in his snazzy car to whisk us away on a daring first date?) Every one of us as Persephone must venture into the darkness, the unknown, and find ourselves as well as our inner masculine so that we can use our personal power in the world. While the consecration seems harsh and brutal, Persephone survives it and goes on to marry Hades and preside as Queen of the Underworld. She did what we must all do: consecrate the marriage between our inner masculine and inner feminine to achieve balance and wholeness – the ability to call upon the yin and yang of these energies when we need them.

From Demeter's point of view, which I can now thoroughly embrace as a mother of a daughter who is starting the leave-taking, it all seems harsh and scary out there for my tender young daughter, but I must let go.  I can relate to Demeter's grieving. Many times as my daughter has raged and pushed me away in the throes of her coming of age, I have had to remind myself that this is normal; this is what she needs to do; she needs to claim her own identity, separate from mine, and the ties that have bound us until now. We have had talks about these "battles," and she is always so relieved when I let her know I don't take them personally, that I see that she is going through the painful process of expressing and finding her authentic self. She must push away; and I must allow it. (And I remember my own struggles as a maiden in her position. How I longed for a mother who understood and could contain my feelings.)

And at various times, my daughter, Chloe, like Persephone, has come back to me (from her time in the shadowy underworld of negative feelings) and let me know she appreciates my tolerance and understanding; and at times she comes to me as the little girl again who needs to feel close to her mommy. I see the relief on her face. And she, too, tolerates my anger and perhaps a little bit of my pain in letting go. It is not of her choosing, as it is for any of us. At some point we are called to the journey, to become the heroine in our own lives. We will either answer that call with courage and meet our fate or we will stay undifferentiated from our family and afraid to take a bite of what life has to offer. It is a difficult but necessary reordering of the mother/daughter relationship and a drive towards wholeness that should not be thwarted.