It’s a chestnut from the 90s, but it’s become a hymn for me. It never gets old. This Is to Mother You by Sinéad O’Connor is like the voice of God speaking to an emotionally abandoned child.
This is to mother you,
To comfort you and get you through,
Through when your nights are lonely,
Through when your dreams are only blue. This is to mother you.
Although I do change one word.
This is to be with you,
To hold you and to kiss you too.
For when you need me I will do
What your own mother
didn’t couldn’t do,
Which is to mother you
God as Mother?
My mother died over 10 years ago, but she still looms large in my psyche. Our relationship had always been pretty complicated, moving through love, anger, compassion, disrespect, hate, forgiveness, love, anger, forgiveness again. It’s still a mixed bag. Years of therapy and spiritual direction have brought me to a much healthier place. I change ‘didn’t’ to ‘couldn’t’ because I’ve come to understand my mother’s own emotional turmoil in my growing up years. In the midst of not getting her own needs met, she wasn’t able to take care of mine. Ironically, my mother’s mother lived with us. You’d think there would have been all kinds of mothering going on. But then, my grandmother had her own story – and so it goes.
So, as much as I appreciate those who prefer to use feminine imagery for the Divine, I don’t like referring to God as Mother any more than Father. I’m much more of an apophatic mystic, resting in the unknowability of God:
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
But, paradoxically, I also rest in the intimacy of God, the One who speaks to my heart and sends love to me through a YouTube music video. Also paradoxically, the song is about mothering. Maybe mother-ing is ok, but not an actual mother (I am nothing if not inconsistent).
Forgiveness and Emotional Scars
I forgave my mother long ago, but I’ve found that the emotional wound never goes away completely. Like the scar on my leg from a car accident almost 50 years ago that’s still surrounded by tender tissue painful to the touch, it flares up when something in my present life touches it.
I felt it begin to throb again last week when I read a blog post on the Feminism and Religion website entitled “Lessons Mothers Might Teach Their Daughters.” It wasn’t so much the content of the post (although it’s a very good article); it was the question raised in my mind of what lessons I wish my mother had taught me.
There are so many. I’ve had to navigate these 68 years, not only without her guidance, but often with deliberate rejection of the example she set of what it means to be a girl and then a woman. Sadly, in order to teach those lessons, she would have had to have learned them herself.
A major upheaval in our family occurred just as I stood on the cusp of puberty. My mother became pregnant. I absorbed a sense of shame about it from my mother and anger from my grandmother – not in any words that were spoken, but my 12-year-old self picked up on it. After my brother was born, my mother was depressed and my father was pretty much absent. When he wasn’t working or at the bar, he was sleeping or yelling at my mother. I was abandoned at just the time I needed my mother the most.
The messages that all this turmoil imprinted in me had a profound effect on how I understood sexuality (dirty), pregnancy (shameful), the role of women (subservient), and myself (unworthy). I entered junior high school and began a downward spiral from an A-student to suddenly failing several subjects. No one questioned why I was failing or why I started staying home sick as often as I could (I’ve often wondered: what is a guidance counselor for anyway?). No one took the time to wonder why my personal hygiene was slipping or why I spent so much time crying, alone in my bedroom.
When I entered senior high school, I remember clearly making a decision to turn my life around. I think that was the beginning of my self-sufficiency. The good part of that was that I started taking care of myself; the not-so-good part was that (as I see now) a 16-year-old doesn’t always make wise decisions. But I was all I had.
In my later teens, my relationship with my mother had deteriorated to the point that I had absolutely no respect for her. She betrayed my trust more than once. She shamed me about even the possibility of having sexual feelings for a boyfriend. She tried to control me by forbidding him to come to our house, which only succeeded in driving me out of the house.
Descent into Shame . . .
I found myself in some dangerous situations. I was sexually abused by someone I had met at work. I actually did tell my mother about this, but only because my brother heard me crying in my room and she came in to find out what was wrong. I told her what had happened. Incredibly to me now, I was more concerned about my father finding out; I felt a searing sense of shame. My mother listened, then assured me that she would talk to my father. Then she left. No hugs, no assurances of love, no nothing.
For years, I felt extreme shame and responsibility for what had happened to me. It took many years for me to come to the awareness that I had never learned crucial life lessons about relationships, healthy sexuality, and love. I was sent out unprotected into a world that was filled with danger for one so ignorant.
All the pain that you have known,
All the violence in your soul,
All the ‘wrong’ things you have done,
I will take from you when I come
I got married when I was 19. I can now see that I looked to my future husband as a protector, and was profoundly affected when betrayed by him as well. As a further blow, my mother took his side, without knowing all the facts. Her response, according to him was, “Well, Susan has never been a happy person.”
All mistakes made in distress
All your unhappiness
I will take away with my kiss, yes
I will give you tenderness.
Then Hatred . . .
I came to hate my mother. I think the tipping point was a phone conversation we had when I was in my late 20s. My brother, now in his teens, was experiencing depression and refusing to go to school. After she told me about this, she said, “I know what it’s like. I went through it, you went through it, Gary (my other brother) went through it.” I was stunned. She had known all about what I had been suffering – and had done nothing. I’m sure her mother had done nothing for her either, but still . . . even an acknowledgment of my situation, my feelings would have been helpful. I truly hated her.
Then Healing Begins
I was ordained in 1989 at age 38. At a continuing education event with Rabbi Edwin Friedman (1932-1996), I was immersed in family systems theory geared to clergy. A question asked by Rabbi Friedman knocked my proverbial socks off: which of your ancestors really ordained you? In other words, who in my family of origin had taught me how to be a pastoral leader? I was devastated to admit that, for me, that person was my mother. And those ways were extremely unhealthy.
Soon after, I entered an intense group program of psychological and spiritual healing. In a silent prayer time one day, as I sat cross-legged on the floor with my head bowed, I very clearly heard a voice say to me, “You don’t have to hang your head in shame anymore.” The voice came from inside of me, but it was not my voice. That hasn’t been my only mystical experience, but it was certainly the most profound and life-changing. One of the effects on my own spiritual practice has been a rejection of an unworthy, groveling kind of prayer posture to one of open heart and open hands. I owe my physical, emotional, and spiritual life to the therapists, spiritual directors, and the other misfit clergy in our little community of suffering. Certainly that program was not the end of the healing process, but it gave me a huge kick start on the way.
In my 40s, I forgave my mother. We would never be close, but at least I was able to face buying a Mother’s Day card without having an emotional crisis.
I have come to realize that my courage, self-determination, and fierce independence come from my childhood experience. I am grateful for those gifts. On the downside, though, I’ve had difficulty letting others too far into my life; being vulnerable was just not safe. I also became a perfectionist, always seeking control over my environment. I’m doing much better with all that (thanks to those years of therapy and spiritual direction!), but the temptation to backslide is always there.
I’ve been able to convert the rage of my inner child into passion for social justice. I’m especially drawn to feminist issues; I want every girl to have the lessons, the opportunities, the care and protection I never had. There’s a pissed off 12-year-old inside of me – and she’s wearing a pussy hat!
The on-going struggle for me here, though, is to find ways to channel that anger appropriately in personal relationships.
So the life lessons I learned are a mixed bag. Somehow, acknowledging myself as “girl, abandoned” has given me permission to grieve and rage with my younger self, as well as to be compassionate towards her. They’ve allowed me to honor the woman I’ve become because of and in spite of the wounds of the past, even when they flare up in the present.
I am grateful to know that I am not only a “girl, abandoned,” but I am also a “girl, found.”
Although my arms have always been around you
Sweet bird although you did not see me
I saw you
To comfort you and get you through
Through when your nights are lonely
Through when your dreams are only blue
This is to mother you