At the heart of mother/daughter dynamics is each woman’s primal need for feeling connected and acting as separate agent, with a separate identity, at the same time. A mother and daughter need achieve what Jessica Benjamin in Bonds of Lovehas penned as “mutual recognition”; to recognize each other as separate identities, each other’s likeness and difference, concurrently. In order for this recognition to take place, the daughter must subconsciously endeavor to recognize three women: her mother as a parent, her mother as a woman, and lastly, herself as a woman. By the end, she can see that her mother’s mistakes as a mother came from her struggles and disappointments as a woman, thus allowing her to forgive her mother’s deficiencies as a parent.
The problem for daughters in general is that they tend to objectify their mothers because they idealize them into singular entities of “mother.” Mothers then become the hosts of their daughter’s expectations and ideologies of what a mother should be. Daughters fail to see or recognize their mothers’ “separate subjectivities,” and instead, they tend to create their own version of what or who their mothers ought to be.
I came across this research while writing my book, and it helped me figure out that my main focus in writing was not in how I survived my childhood, but how I survived my mothers. It also helped me forgive my mothers, a thing that was impossible until I could “recognize” my mothers, not as mothers, because let’s face it – that’s a loaded word – but as women, as individual and separate identities that were formed and defined by their own childhoods and experiences – and perhaps even their own mothers.
I “recognized” my birth mother for the first time – not as the mother who gave birth to five children that she abandoned to the streets and to orphanages – but as a woman that had led a miserable and depraved childhood in which no one had loved her, caressed her face with maternal affection, or guided towards God or the beauty of life and love and hope. And when I saw her – not as the violent arbiter of my childhood – but as the wounded, lost, and mad creature that her life, her experiences had made out of her – forgiving her was the easiest and most cleansing step I had ever taken.
It was harder for me to ”recognize” my adoptive mother, perhaps because I had lived with her longer, but also probably because her wounds were knife-like lesions on my self-esteem. She abandoned and neglected me in more subversive ways than the mother that had given birth to me. But this research into Benjamin and “mutual recognition” lent me new eyes with which to “see” her – not as the mother that rejected me and refused to love me – but as a woman, a child-like woman who had been wounded by her own life’s experiences. In “seeing” her, I also saw her walls – high-reaching, impenetrable, a fortress built with the desperate pursuit of self-preservation I never imagined building for myself. I saw that it wasn’t me she couldn’t love – she couldn’t love anyone. And when she withheld affection, it wasn’t only from me – she withheld it from everyone.
By seeing my mothers as women – and not as the mothers that society tells us are supposed to be instinctively and genetically and psychologically predisposed for love, support, loyalty, selflessness, madonna-like representations of maternal care-givers – I was able to understand the pain and unhealed wounds that framed their mothering of me. Two incomplete and emotionally scarred women as they were, they were not equipped with the kind of love every child needs, and in an ideal world, should be entitled to.
In thinking about mothers, what’s important is that we can look them in their eyes and say, “I see you.” There is a woman behind every mother; a woman who perhaps did not live her dreams or had never been told that she could dream. Perhaps the woman behind the mother has childhood experiences she has never shared; secrets she has carried and hidden, lodged in her throat with the want of telling. Perhaps she is a cold and frigid mother, as mine had been, but if you look deeper, you may discover a specter of vulnerability that she thought she had destroyed. Whatever the case, look beyond the mother that gave for you, or denied you, or a little of both – the best gift you can give her is to discover the woman who lies beneath the title – the role – a woman whose unique experiences and losses defined the way she mothered you – whether it was bad, good, or just OK.
It is how I hope my children will one day look at me – and I will show them the woman they yearn to discover – longing to be forgiven for my clumsy and inexperienced mistakes in mothering them.
Copyright© 2010 by Marina DelVecchio. All Rights Reserved.