Healing the Mother/Daughter Relationship by Dorothy Firman
For twenty years my mother, Julie and I have been leading mother/daughter workshops. We started because we were both therapists who had witnessed the overwhelming amount of material in therapy that is about this relationship. We had also begun to explore our own relationship consciously, so that we could be together in new ways. We didn't know when we started that we would continue, nor did we know the profound affect that these workshops would have on us and on the many women who have attended.
I'm at a workshop about mothers and daughters and feel a strong need to tell you how much I love you. I've experienced your joy at my birth and the love that you have given every day of my life. I have held onto your love in such a selfish way because you have been to me the only person who ever loved me in such an unconditional way. Because of this, I won't let you go-- I don't ever want you to leave me-
I know I need to separate to be whole and to learn to love me better. In separating or letting go, I can only love you more. I imagined the joy of sharing with you in a new and beautiful way. We were dancing and touching, hugging and letting go and joyously returning to each other as separate but loving women.
I may never send this card because you may never understand, but that doesn't matter. I'm feeling stronger and more worthwhile already. I love you, mother, and am glad that I chose you for my mom.
Our workshops end with participants writing a letter to their mothers or daughters or themselves. We offer to send these letters to the recipient and many women give us permission to read and use them in our work. The letters are a culmination of two days of intense work on this most intense relationship. Women come alone or with their mothers or daughters. In some cases sisters and mothers, or three generations come together. In most cases, women open up to new possibilities for their relationships to their mothers and daughters, to other people in their lives and, most importantly, to themselves.
I'd like to introduce the philosophy and principles that we operate from in doing this work. The workshop combines both a psychosynthetic view (for more on psychosynthesis, a spiritual psychology, go to the Synthesis Center web site) and some grounding and exploration in techniques and principles of Transactional Analysis, a humanistic psychology (For more on T.A. (Transactional Analysis), read I'm OK, You're OK , by Thomas Harris.) The combined philosophies and methodologies work extremely well together. Psychosynthesis offers us first, a larger context in which to put the relationship. At the level of the transpersonal, we attempt to see beyond the limitations of the relationship, beyond the major subpersonalities that both mother and daughter present and into the deepest nature of the relationship, a nature that we see to be essentially loving. Psychosynthesis, as well, gives us techniques for accessing the unconscious, for working in imagery towards release and healing and for a model of true Self-consciousness. T.A. brings the valuable perspective of developmental psychology, helping us to accurately assess and aim our work at the ages and stages that stand out as the core trauma for each woman. The ego state (subpersonality) model of parent, adult and child, offers a clear, usable and understandable model for noticing where we get hooked and for learning to communicate more clearly.
Our basic premise is that at the core of mother/daughter relationships is a bond deeper than any other that the girl child experiences and that this bond is based in love and nurturing, and in a larger archetypal context of bonding and passing on from one generation to the next the truths and mysteries of being female. We believe that the mother/daughter relationship is a powerful one, perhaps the most influential of all for the female. In addition, this relationship shapes, in large part, the daughters future and reflects the mother's past, not only the mother's personal past, but her cultural heritage, the current socioeconomic political situation, her familys history, and more. All reflect in unconscious and conscious ways in the raising of her children. And for the mother raising a daughter, the task is somewhat more intertwined with her own history because she is, in some significant way, raising herself, redeeming or repeating her own childhood through her daughter. Thus the relationship is complicated, fraught with much unconscious material, carried in many cases from generations back. And that is why it is so often filled with pain. Complicated as it is, however, the bond is great. No one seems to be able to let it lie, leave it alone, be done with it. It is carried through to death. And so, working towards healing and creating a clean relationship both internally within ourselves, and externally with the other, is extremely important.
The mythological story of Demeter and Persephone points to one archetypal aspect of the relationship and perhaps the most crucial: the mother/daughter bond. Persephone, her mothers only daughter, wanders far afield in search of beautiful flowers. Finally, she is so far away that she is abducted by Hades, god of the underworld, to be his bride. Demeter, in her rage and grief, causes the earth to be barren (the first winter) until her daughter is returned. She celebrates her return with the joy of spring.. Why, though, would a daughter return to her mother? Is it not the way to leave and not return? This question brings us to a major aspect of our philosophy in this work, that the mother/daughter bond wants to transcend the relationship of mother-as-parent and daughter-as-child . Developmentally, it is assumed that the final stage in that relationship is separation from the mother and a move by the daughter into autonomy. And in fact, this issue is one of the prime areas we find unresolved: the inability to separate into autonomy. But, our assumption is that even successful completion of this developmental stage is not the end, nor is it sufficient, that in fact, successful completion of separation leads to a next stage: reunion. In fact, we can wonder whether the difficulty in separation from mother is in part due to the fear of losing the relationship altogether.
Reunion is a stage characterized by the meeting of adult mother and adult daughter, primarily free of hooks from the past. In this stage, the two equals face each other as women with a deep bond. The stage often unfolds into a mutual adult-adult and mother-child interaction, in which, both women can play adult, child or parent in relationship to each other. Finally the daughter can truly parent the mother ( as so often happens when a mother is dying.). Not that she must, but that she can. Can I, finally, hold my mother in my arms with the same feelings of love and nurturing with which I was held as a child? And can I finally be with my mother as an adult? Both are available in the reunion.
A model that includes the possibility of reunion and transcendence of parent/child roles will help support the woman in freeing herself from the issues of the past. In assessing our work, we find that two warring experiences exist in most women in relationship to their mothers. The elements of this conflict are love and pain. Not love and hate, for few women we have ever worked with or known find themselves hating their mothers at a very deep level. It is our belief that pain and love fight it out in most mother/daughter relationships until one of them gets the upper hand. Unfortunately, pain is too often the lasting experience a daughter carries with her from her life with mother. The workshop experience is designed to acknowledge the pain, begin to heal it, and rekindle the love that may be fading or tarnished. Daughters, far more than mothers carry this pain about the relationship. In the workshop setting, we often witness an amazing scene. Young women bring their mothers to the workshop. The mothers, aged 40 to 70, come "as a favor " to the daughter, or "to explore their daughter's world," or "to help their daughter with her problems." Within a few hours these mothers are back to being daughters, back to their own mothers and the same battle of pain and love. At a recent workshop a mother came with her three grown daughters. As we talked this woman shared in a small, crying voice how her own 85 year old mother always criticize her. "I do my best, but its never good enough for mom." Suddenly she was both six and sixty, still bound in the web of an unresolved relationship with her mother.
But with the commitment that any woman can bring to this relationship, it does not have to end there. Love, acceptance, and new ways of communicating, are available and with this reunion, whether it be with a live mother or with the inner mother, allows every woman a chance not only to find her mother in a more loving way, but to find herself in that same context of love and acceptance. And there are many ways to honor this commitment. It might be to take this or another workshop, to explore the relationship in therapy, to join a book group reading books on the mother/daughter relationship, to talk to friends or to begin, carefully and respectfully, to open the channels of communication with the mother or daughter that you have.
For one human being to love another:
that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks,
the ultimate, the last test and proof,
the work for which all other work is but preparation.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
And yet, aging means greater wisdom, acceptance, understanding and compassion and this time of life can fill both mother and daughter with a sense of timelessness and eternity. The healing that is available is great for this is our last connection on this earth. When both see through the eyes of compassion and commitment, the process can be deeply rewarding even in its difficulty. To live towards this positive and healing end point in our relationship, the process must begin today. This will lay the foundation for whatever work comes as aging takes on its powerful role. In addition, while it is most everyones tendency to shy away from this frightening topic, my advice learned from my own lifes work is Dont!. At aged 70, I began that conversation with Dorothy over lunch. Tears streaming into our salads, we considered my aging, my death, my needs, her needs, our hope and fears, and our love.
I do not believe that the answers are easy nor do I believe that the painful process of facing all the needs of an aging mother can be accomplished without sacrifice and lots of soul searching. Along with these tough choices, however, the aging process can be an enriching and spiritually fulfilling time. It can be a time when the old problems get solved. It is a time to finish unfinished business, a time to say those things that have remained unsaid, a time of introspection, a time of changing the ways we have related that haven't worked, a time of committing to love, in the face of pain and a time to begin saying Good-by. Now is the time to really see your mother or your daughter. Speak about the love and caring and, yes, about the hurt as well. Don't wait until mothers eyes are dim and daughters are too busy. Love each other. Listen and talk and make plans for the future before the future becomes today.