“Why should mothers, any more than anybody else, be good?” - Jacqueline Rose
Painful interactions in mother-child relationships aren’t any more uncommon than painful interactions in any other relationship between humans - say a marriage or a friendship or any other sort of relationship. Because we live in a society that idealizes motherhood and therefore buys into fairy tales about mother-child relationships, however, talking about these painful interactions has become a huge taboo. Daring to say your mom did something that you experienced as hurtful (or heaven forbid, traumatic) is taken as the exact equivalent of saying your mom is an awful, terrible, no good person who never did anything good in her entire life. Woah. We collectively need to sloooooow down. And take a really deep breath on the count of 1, 2, 3 together as a whole society. On the rare occasion when someone dares to say they were hurt by their mom, the Pain Police arrive in full force.
“But you smiled as a kid!”
“But I’m sure your mom loves you!”
“But your mom was so nice to me!"
When the people around you are deeply invested in the myth that someone can't possibly be hurt by their own mother unless her actions could land her in prison (and even then many will still make excuses for her), they expect you to play along. If this myth weren't so harmful, we wouldn't need to talk about it. But the truth is the pain and experiences of real people are being dismissed, silenced and ignored. And this is resulting in people who have been hurt by their mothers internalizing their suffering and even blaming themselves for it. As a counselor who specializes in the mother wound, I've often sat with clients as they've shared with me how much they have blamed themselves, sometimes even to the point of being suicidal.
While each client says it a little bit differently, the overall sentiment goes like this, “Since other people don’t feel hurt or unloved by their moms there must be something wrong with me.” My clients all deserved better. Everyone who has ever been hurt by their mother deserves better.
So what gives?!
Two things. We live in a culture that:
Sees empathy as limited.
We'll break each of these down.
1. Empathy as limited
Before we can talk about why our culture thinks of empathy as limited we need to first understand what empathy is. So what is empathy? According to Brené Brown empathy is "a way to connect to the emotion another person is experiencing" and it doesn't require us to "have experienced the same situation they are going through." This short video explains empathy in a really powerful way. Definitely check it out if you haven't seen it yet. It's one of our favorite resources here at the Mother Wound Project.
Unlike something like toilet paper you can't run out of empathy. It's literally impossible, and this of course is a really great thing! So when someone tells us they were hurt by their mother, we don't need to ration our empathy. There's enough to go around for everyone. Empathizing with one person (connecting with their feelings and not necessarily with their direct experience) doesn't take away from our ability to empathize with people facing other circumstances, some of which might include an abuser going to prison.
We live in a culture of scarcity, and this scarcity is no accident. Big corporations profit from it each and every day. If we can be convinced we aren't pretty enough, rich enough, educated enough, fun enough, fancy enough, what are we going to do? Buy things from these big corporations! But here's the thing. We don't have to play along. We don't have to buy into scarcity. We can remember the corny but all-to-true mantra that the best things in life really are free (and if they're free, they're also unlimited). So that means things like love, kindness, generosity and yes, empathy. Sorry, Pain Police. Your services are no longer needed.
2. Dehumanizes mothers
Now let's unpack how our society dehumanizes mothers. So, what is dehumanization? When a person or group is being dehumanized they are being denied their full humanity. Ultimately, the purpose of dehumanization is to portray other people as less than human so they are more easily overlooked, silenced, abused, oppressed or at worst even killed.
If mothers weren't dehumanized in our culture, it wouldn't be a taboo to speak honestly about the mistakes they sometimes make. If anything is human it's making mistakes. Instead, our culture teaches us to idealize mothers and pretend they don't make mistakes. And when we can't deny they've made a mistake, the script tells us to proclaim, "Oh I'm sure she didn't mean it," or "I know she tried her best," or "But she loves you!" All of this of course is just empty lip service. Moms know it. We know it. We all know it.
Why do we know it? We know it because the rest of our society doesn't work like this. When a surgeon screws up a surgery we don't say, "Oh I'm sure he didn't mean it!" When a builder builds a roof that falls in we don't say, "I know he tried his best!" When a husband abuses his wife we don't say, "But he loves you!" We don't make excuses for surgeons, builders and husbands because we value surgeons, builders and husbands. When they make mistakes, we're allowed to recognize those mistakes. When they do good work, we're allowed to recognize the value of that work. The same cannot be said for mothers. Anne Geroux, PhD puts it beautifully: "To idealize is to dehumanize."
"To idealize is to dehumanize." - Anne Geroux, PhD
Are you someone who wants to take your mother wound healing journey to the next level? Come join the conversation, learn more about the mother wound, and receive compassionate support in our now 100% free private mother wound healing community over in The Porch. Interested in keeping up with the latest Mother Wound Project news? Follow us on Instagram.