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The Halo We Bestow On Our Mothers Can Cause Untold Damage Affecting Generations…

Posted: May 9, 2020

If you had a mother who was either abusive, neglectful, or emotionally unavailable, you probably have a mother wound, that is passed down generations.

I escaped the autumn of her womb,
became part of an eternal winter
TROUBLED SEASONS, Tikuli Dogra

An abusive or emotionally unavailable mother is not as rare as one thinks, they’re everywhere around us. But these are often women who have been abused themselves, and are not given a choice in most things in their lives – their lives crafted for them by the dictates of patriarchy and society – and also given the halo of motherhood once they’re mothers.

Personal stories of 2 mothers

“I am a mother myself to an adult daughter now, and my relationship with my daughter is not good, when I look back I realize that I ruined it by looking after her physical needs like food, books, clothes but never being emotionally there with her. I was married at 16, I was just a burden for my mother. I never received any love in my marriage either and hence treated all relationships like duty devoid of any emotion. Now I know how my mother’s lack of love and support seeped into my daughter’s life too but maybe it is too late now.” Roopsa* 45, Homemaker, Jaipur

“My mother got married very young and had me within the first year of her marriage. I was told later that nobody was happy when I was born, so she wasn’t happy either. Since a very young age I was designated to look after my younger siblings and household duties and labeled as “unfortunate” by my mother. I never got any love from her. Now they want me to marry according to them, pay them all I earn and still look after the household. Any time I try to assert my opinion or rights my mother starts emotional blackmail, threatens suicide and my father and family blame me for her ill-health” Shilpa*, 28, Self-employed Delhi

*names changed for privacy.

These stories of pain are what we could call – “ghar ghar ki kahaani” – Mothers in a patriarchal system like India do not have many choices and often lack safe spaces to make their own life decisions. They often go through a lot of trauma and suppression while growing up as young girls; most often they don’t have a choice regarding marriage and/or motherhood – it seems like a forced “biological destiny” and nothing more.

The Mother Wound

In such a situation when they become mothers, the society imposes a pre-set frame of ‘motherhood’ on them which implies being a mother as the ultimate goal of an ideal Indian woman. Remember the all-sacrificing, unhappy but “great” Indian mothers of Bollywood, who never have one complaint about mothering or being? The phenomena called “Mere paas Maa hain”?

What this results in is the ‘Mother Wound’, a hurt and lack of emotional connect that mothers keep passing on from generation to generation. It isn’t a clinical diagnosis but in psychological terms can be defined as ‘a state of being under-mothered’.

Mother Wound stories are not imaginary stories, and not happening in some alien western space. In India where mother and motherhood are treated as the epitome of love, compassion and kindness it is almost blasphemy to say that a mother can be unloving and worse even abusive. Daughters face this more because sons anyhow are valued in largely feudal patriarchal societies like ours, though sometimes inter-generational trauma gets passed on to them too via their mothers.

What is the Mother Wound?

To put it simply it is a loss or a lack of mothering. This deficit in the mother-daughter or sometimes mother-son relationships passed down through generations influences how people experience parenting and how they parent their offspring.

When most Indian women manage to analyze their toxic relationships as an adult, or their first stints with anxiety and/or depression, or their need to use food, alcohol, or other addictions to seek solace, it hits a common root – emotional abuse in families, and often the mother wound.

Reasons for the mother wound

1.In India while on one extreme there is the glorification of mothers as the emotional all-sacrificing Devi, on the other is the authoritarian mother who even counts the breaths her children take. This could be because of their notion of discipline or parenting, or just an attempt to be seen as ‘strong women’ by the society.

2.Women are usually primary caregivers in Indian families, and may be overwhelmed by household duties or emotional labour for a large family, and the people getting neglected are children.

3.Often a mother may have her own issues due to which she may have been present physically, but is emotionally absent or is not emotionally attuned and available to a child. This has a long lasting impact on that individual, their relationships and choices.

4.Some mothers are not abusive or neglectful, but are always emotionally distant and unable to recognize the emotional needs of their children.

5.Quite often the mother wound is a repetition of the trauma that has been passed on to her by her mother.

6.Children who are raised by mothers who have some substance abuse issue, or mothers who have mental health conditions (undiagnosed or untreated), in a household that is abusive, mostly go through this emotional absence of the mother.

6.Some mothers may not have any of these challenges – these are mothers who do look after the physical needs of the children, interact with the children, but do not provide any deep love and attention which is a must to thrive in childhood.

Mother wound by ‘modern empowered’ moms

Times have changed and how, but for ‘mothers’ the order has just been made taller –

A modern superhuman mother is supposed to always be capable of handling everything with ease, raising good children, remaining sexually attractive to the father of her children, and having a successful career and an ‘Instagram–worthy’ marriage. In all of this often the collateral emotional damage is both to the women involved and their children.

3 stages of the cycle of abuse

Stage 1- PREPARATION 

Most Indian mothers refrain from open conversations about controversial issues, but to indicate that they are disapproving, might use a body language that is offensive- making faces, lifting/keeping things around you noisily, murmuring abuses, general sulking, blackmailing, and fasting as punishment.

Stage 2- MAIN ACT – those filmy mothers?

Often most children feel the pressure of stage 1 and give up to whatever the mother is demanding, but if that isn’t achieved then some mothers would up their game by throwing a loud tantrum. Ideally when there is an audience, loud accusations, playing victim, tears and shouting and accusing the children of not caring for her. This sometimes also involves feigning sickness- vomit, falling, becoming unconscious to get their way.

Stage 3- AFTERMATH – classic gaslighting?

This stage though mostly quiet and seemingly normal, does the most long-term emotional damage.

After the mother has her way she starts behaving as if nothing happened, and strikes a routine conversation, might even go back to showering some attention and love on the child, sending out the message that in order to get her love there can be no disagreement and no disobedience.

This cycle is repeated over and over again.

A good description of how this works

In her famous blog A Desi Girl’s guide to survival an Indian-Canadian sociologist who goes by the public persona of Desi Girl writes:

“Our young mothers with two three children under four years of age struggled to keep us well fed and quiet, while our fathers sat reading newspaper after work. Our little eyes were watching it all – how our fathers’ eyes controlled the things around the home. Their families had more say in our lives and our mothers hardly visited their parents. Our mothers didn’t start working outside homes until their reproductive goals were met. Meanwhile we became little pseudo helpers of our mothers to help with their child care duties.

At puberty things changed forever our loving fathers became distant and our mothers became so much more controlling. Sit with your legs crossed, don’t talk so loud, don’t walk like a horse, help me in the kitchen, and don’t do this do that became a regular incantation in our lives. We did not feel any discrimination in food, education and medical care. The discrimination we felt was so subtle that we could not even put it in words.

Those gender discriminating nutrition, education, and medical attention practices mentioned in the beginning never happened in our home. What happened in our homes has no name.”

Dealing with the mother wound

Once identified as the cause of trauma in the case of any individual, the mother wound can be alleviated at least to some extent by –
~ Acknowledging that your mother’s emotional absence never was your fault.
~ Seeing your mother as a flawed human being and not a perfect woman/mother.
~ Allowing yourself to grieve about all the hurts caused.
~ Validating and loving yourself, letting go off the past and if possible have a better relationship with her and others in the present.
~ Setting boundaries— which will include creating a fresh relationship with your mother if possible based on your needs and without any denial of your own emotional wellness.

And, to prevent it completely in the first place, raise the girl child joyfully, respectfully, let them choose the lives they want to live, and let them be mothers if they choose to – and they will be fully involved, responsible mothers. 

Mother’s Day 2020: Let’s look at Mom as a human being, with a persona more than just the mother that takes care of you, of the home, or also a working mom who tries to walk the fine line of work-life balance. Let’s look at the woman she is, and celebrate her this Mother’s Day, whether she is with you or staying away from you, during this period of lockdown. Let’s make Mother’s Day 2020 memorable for your mom, or if you are mom.

“My mother would take the Band-Aid off, clean the wound, and say, “Things that are covered don’t heal well.” Mother was right. Things that are covered do not heal well.” ― T.D. Jakes, Healing the Wounds of the Past

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Pooja Priyamvada is a columnist, professional translator and an online content and Social Media consultant.

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