There are certain days and times that are virtually guaranteed to bring about complicated, confusing, and contradictory emotions for many. Without fail, Mother’s Day is one of them. A day that was created to honor the unsung heroism of everyday mothering has deeper implications for those with difficult mother-child relationships.
Parents who are unable to love with genuine wholeheartedness leave their children with wounds that go all the way to the core of them. We hold mothers to a high standard in American society, not least because of the patriarchal culture this country was founded on. And when a mother cannot fulfill our hopes, expectations, and needs, the effects are deep and far-reaching.
The unkeepable promise
I often hear clients who are entering parenthood for the first time vow to be a different parent than the one they had. They carry with them inner children, still hurt and confused from the abusive, neglectful, or self-absorbed parenting they grew up in. They want better for their children. And for mothers, the weight of our own expectations to “do better” can feel especially heavy.
For these mothers, the pressure to make their children’s lives everything they didn’t have is enormous. And for a special subset of mothers, that weight can be crushing when life subverts our expectations even further. Today’s letter goes out especially to the mothers who can’t save their children from the hurt in life – though they have tried with everything they have – and whose grief is deeper than words.
The unspoken truth
Dear Mother of a Hurting Child,
No one tells you, when you become a mother, that watching bad things happen to your child can feel so much worse than experiencing them yourself. That every pain, big or small, is like a fresh cut, making little pinpricks and great, gaping slashes through the tender tissue of your very human heart. They don’t tell you that watching your child struggle, cry, rage, and grieve as the world strikes unfair blows below the belt can invoke such a tsunami of helpless rage. They don’t tell you that watching your child fight for their life in a hospital bed, a toxic workplace, or a bad marriage feels like it stops your breath. They don’t tell you that the devastating moment of receiving a life-altering diagnosis for your child turns you inside out. They don’t tell you that.
They try. They really do. But you can’t describe something like that, you can only experience it. They can’t really describe the feeling of questioning your every decision, staying up at night reliving every “bad mom” moment and worrying that you’ve hurt your child by adding to the collection of hurts we all receive throughout our lives. They can’t really tell you what it’s like to second-guess every choice, every word, every facial expression, wondering the whole time: “Am I turning into my parent? Does my child think I don’t love them? Do they know how desperately hard I am trying to emulate something I never witnessed myself?”
The burdens we carry
And we don’t want to put that burden on our children, as the burden of managing our emotionally immature parents so often fell upon our small shoulders. So we take it in, deeper and deeper, unknowingly piling more and more onto those same small shoulders of the child who lives inside us. The child who is still trying to read the room and guess at what the adult before them needs, so she can meet the need and feel safe and loved – even if it’s just for a moment. She sees our own children before us, hurting in ways we can never fully protect them from, and feels panicked and overwhelmed because she can’t make it stop. No one told her the job was too big for her, so she keeps trying to do it. And every time she can’t, she fears the worst: that she really isn’t good enough. That she is a failure. That everything bad that happens is truly and irrevocably her fault.
Oh, dear wounded inner children.
You are beautiful. More beautiful than you know. And I don’t mean beauty in the shallowest sense, the definitions and parameters of which change with the winds. I mean soul-beauty. The beauty that comes from a place of vulnerability, of love, of trying. The beauty of love shining through your Swiss cheese heart, casting a softly powerful radiance on everything and everyone it touches. A wounded mother’s heart is the embodiment of the truism: The wound is where the light comes in.
The light in the wound
When you enter motherhood with unhealed wounds, the pain echoes from the past and into the future. The pain and grief are real. So is the love. The courage. The resilience.
We can’t save our children from pain.
There is learning and growth in pain.
We can’t give them our children the life we didn’t have.
We can give them the best life we can, and we can be there with them to weather the hardships we can’t prevent.
We can’t take away all their bad days.
We can help them face the bad days with the sure knowledge that they do not face them alone. We can help them know they are loved.
The love in the light
And we can take the hand of our inner child, hold her close, and whisper, “I love you, too.” Today, we can honor the loving mothering of our deepest core Self. Her love shines through us and within us. Her love is for us.
Happy Mother’s Day, dear ones. May today be a day of love.