Excavating A Wounded Child with a Mother Complex


child-walking-on-beachMy parents have rented a vacation cabin on Lake Michigan. I’m playing by the shore and realize it’s getting dark. I look around. I’m alone. I begin walking along the water’s edge toward a distant pinpoint of light. Could that be my mother looking for me? How could she lose me? Will she find me? Will anyone find me? Will I have to live with a stranger?  Will they feed me? Could something bad happen to me? After what feels like an eternity, Daddy and Jimmy come up behind me. Daddy explains. He and Mama left the beach separately, each believing I was with the other one. I’m safe, but I want Mama! Why didn’t she come for me? Doesn’t she know how afraid I’ve been?  That I’d want her to look for me? 

This is my earliest memory, described in more depth in my book, The Bridge to Wholeness. I was three. Something new was set into motion that evening. I had become conscious of my separate existence in a very big, dark, and scary world. In their book, Into the Heart of the Feminine, Jungian analysts Massimilla and Bud Harris write:

“…early infancy is the time when the world of the family begins imprinting itself on our tiny psyches, and this is a critical time in our emotional development.  We know by now that much of a baby’s view of the world is filtered through the mother’s body and the emotional attitudes her body reflects. Of course this means that the child of a mother who is overly anxious or is resentful of the birth will feel out of adjustment psychologically, and such feelings will be the beginning of a negative mother complex.  When we grow up this way, our personality will be founded on a deep sense of anxiety, scarcity, and a mistrust of the world.  In contrast, if our mother is sufficiently gentle, loving, and emotionally secure, she will help us develop a basic sense of trust in life and in our place in the world.”

This memory resurfaced after last week’s post in which I described an example of how my mother complex influenced a relationship. Since practically everyone has mother issues of some sort—whether positive or negative, recognized or not—it seems appropriate to share more of what I’ve learned.

Every child experiences anxiety when it becomes aware of its individuality and vulnerability, and mothers vary in their ability to assuage this, our earliest wound. Good mothers are naturally gentle, patient, good-natured, affectionate, reassuring and loving. They make their children feel confident, safe and secure. Mothering can be more difficult for well-meaning women with mother complexes, jobs, other external stressors, or undeveloped “maternal instincts.”  Nonetheless, a well-intentioned woman with a powerful desire to provide loving care and ongoing reassurance can be good enough at meeting her child’s basic physical and psychological needs.

Unfortunately, many mothers are too wounded, stressed, narcissistic or oblivious to give their children enough basic nurturance.  Some are angry, jealous or resentful. Some are unstable, mentally ill or abusive. Some are not there.

My mother was more than good enough. Although anxious and emotionally fragile, she was kind, gentle and loving. I admired her, loved her, and felt loved in return. She tried hard to provide me with a safe and comfortable life, and I did feel safe until she and Daddy divorced and then he died. But when she was pregnant with me and throughout my childhood, Daddy was rarely home because he was having an affair. The strain of this plus her full-time job left her with little energy for me, physical or emotional.

I wasn’t neglected. Mama boarded women students from the nearby university in exchange for minimal rent and baby-sitting. But she was rarely available during my waking hours…and I missed her. As I grew older it got easier to lower my expectations and ignore my need for her. By the time Daddy died, I was proud of my independence and saw my ability to hide my hurt as a strength. But deep within, a three-year-old child still felt sad, lonely, deprived, and sorry for herself.

Me at 5, recovering from the measles.
Me at 5, recovering from the measles.

It’s taken years of digging through layers of rationalization and denial to see her. Besides feeling the aforementioned emotions, she tends to (1) project Mother onto self-confident and accomplished men and women she admires, (2) feel deeply disappointed and unforgiving when they fail to measure up to her ideals, and, most insidious of all, (3) assume she’s unworthy and unloveable.

I’m sharing the causes and effects of my mother complex to help others excavate theirs. Mine doesn’t compare to ones that were shaped by rejection or abuse, but this doesn’t mean I should deny my honest feelings. It’s too easy to fall into that insidious trap. Conventional wisdom urges us to toughen up, ignore our pain, and stay on the “sunny side of the street.” It advises against “self-absorbed navel-gazing” and “blaming your parents for your problems,” leading us to equate acceptance with blame.

This isn’t wisdom.  It’s escapist rationalization. I know the pain of assuming I don’t deserve to live my own life, that I must hide my true self. And I’ve experienced the exhilaration of escaping that dark prison. We can’t become the mature individuals we yearn to be until we make peace with the inner forces that made us who we are.

Image Source:  Google Images, Flickr.com. 

Jean Raffa’s “The Bridge to Wholeness” and “Dream Theatres of the Soul” are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at KoboBarnes And Noble and Smashwords. “Healing the Sacred Divide” can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc.

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0 Responses

  1. Wonder full work. Have we not given ourselves permission to not deal with the tension that seeing life come to us as parents creates. We become good providers and disciplinarians, but rarely do we truly listen to our children. We are too busy!
    My mother complex is so strong, I usually pick women who are angry, talk about wanting to love and be loved, but unable to truly to be present in that muck and mire called intimacy. It has taken me walking through a living hell, working to release the pain of that trauma that I have carried in my body my whole life, and the willingness to truly be “alone,” before I could get to the place where I am able to truly be present for the one I am with.
    This does not mean the complex is not triggered, but that I am on many occasions I can see it and not respond to it’s urge to act out of that place of deprivation which usually becomes abuse towards self.
    Just a few thoughts

    1. And very insightful thoughts. Yes, the new life that comes to us as parents does bring deeply threatening tensions that many choose to ignore in favor of our cultural obsession with looking good, moving fast, and working hard to impress and earn money. Unfortunately, tension ignored is tension embodied and absorbed by those around us, especially the youngest and most impressionable. They get the message early that their needs to be heard are very low on the list of parental priorities. One result is low self-esteem.
      Thank you for giving us a glimpse of your mother complex. Your description reinforces how low self-worth makes it impossible to create intimacy with others because we don’t take our own needs and feelings seriously. Compassion for our wounds, no matter how insignificant they may seem, is the only road to compassion for others.
      The connection you draw between self-awareness and healing is also very pertinent.
      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts here.

    1. You’re so welcome, Catherine. Our wounds are portals to our sacred gifts; sharing what we learn on our journeys to healing is one of life’s greatest joys. Jeanie

  2. Hi Jeanie,
    Your words as always; beautiful and so eloquently written. I love how you freely share your life experiences, deep wisdom and insights with us all. I found myself nodding throughout, resonating deeply with your blog post, from title to last word. The black and white image of the tiny child walking alone on the beach spoke volumes to me, seamlessly merging with your own narrative.
    The Mother Complex, hmm where to begin?! Begin at the beginning I guess, no way out but through! (pun intended For the information we gather regarding our personal mother’s pregnancy, birth and atmosphere at home during those early years gives us our greatest clues if we are to excavate, in later years, our own mother complex. Thank you so much for this gem! Such treasure!
    I realise that although I am a ‘good enough’ mother, my own mother was not, She failed all her children miserably. Cold, distant and unavailable, I sought similar friendships and relationships with others for many years in order to re-enact that primal relationship and try to find my own version of whatever resolution was – i.e. find the fairy tale ending, discover that my love would melt her (or anyone else’s) frozen heart.
    Of course, it never worked that way, it couldn’t until I learned to melt my own frozen heart … which I discovered was in fact, my mother’s internalised one, and the reason she was so cold was because of her unavailable mother. Multi-generational cause and effect that span centuries no doubt! Although I will never condone my mother’s behaviour, I do understand where it all comes from, and that gifts me much peace and understanding.
    You are so right and I applaud you! We cannot quantify emotional pain, neither do we have to continue feeling as though we don’t measure up otherwise we do diminish our honest feelings and self-worth. Escapist rationalisation indeed! Brilliant telling! As I read your final words on this post Plato’s allegory of the cave comes to mind and the liberation (and dizziness) one feels as they finally leave the darkness.
    Blessings, Deborah

    1. Hi Deborah,
      Your musings bring so much insight and pleasure. A sincere thank-you for sharing them here, including this pearl: “…until I learned to melt my own frozen heart … which I discovered was in fact, my mother’s internalised one, and the reason she was so cold was because of her unavailable mother.” Reminds me of Jung’s saying that when we fail to heal our own shadows we pass them on to our children. Could there be a better reason for doing our own inner work?
      Oh yes, Plato’s cave! He was certainly ahead of his time, wasn’t he? Unfortunately, he’s still ahead of ours, too. The last century was the bloodiest our planet has ever known and this one isn’t starting off so great either. Collective humanity still has so little self-knowledge….especially the immature, wounded, needy and and power-hungry egos who believe that attaining positions of leadership will heal their pain, then ruin the lives of countless others who only want to be left alone to live in peace……
      Oh my. Look how quickly I stepped on my soap box. Sorry about that; the situation in Syria is so disturbing. A reminder to step down and reflect on the “mote” in my own eye that brought out this emotional response. 🙂
      Blessings back at you, Jeanie

      1. Such a pleasure to muse with yourself Jeanie! A psychologically, like-minded, poetical loving, Jung at heart soul … ‘to step down reflect on the mote in one’s eye’ oh my goddess, now there’s a poem in itself! Blessings, Deborah 🙂

  3. Wow! Jean, I am very moved by your level of self-awareness. It is the most important trait for Jews to cultivate for the task of repentance that Yom Kippur bids us to take up tonight and all day tomorrow.
    After reading your essay I wish I could reach out—even though we have never met—and give you a long hug in the hope that it would make you feel better and to thank you for the light you shed on my path.

    1. Thank you, Steven. And I’m very moved by Judaism’s commitment to bringing about more reflection, self-knowledge, forgiveness, and repentance in its followers. Surely this is exactly what all religions should be dedicated to. How else to heal the divides that are obstacles to spiritual growth and peace?
      I’ll happily accept a virtual hug from you and send one back. I admire the light you’re shedding with your writing too.

  4. I smiled when I saw your title. This week before seeing your post, I wrote about the importance of including our wounded childhood selves in a love relationship. This happened unintentionally in my early relationship with Vic, before we married. I had childhood wounds with a stoic mother who tried to hide that my dad was dying and her extreme anxiety and fear. No one tried to hurt me and I wasn’t abused or neglected. Just sad and confused. Vic, on the other hand, had dark secrets and ugly shameful experiences he kept hidden with a heroic personal. He was hurt and neglected. Looking back, I understand it was essential for our close marriage that he opened this part of himself to me. One of those unintentional gifts of life on which everything else pivots.

    1. You and Vic were way ahead of your time when it comes to relationship wisdom!.To know that you needed to talk about those old and painful hurts, to both be willing to share them and deal with them openly….these were things that neither Fred nor I knew were important early in our relationship. So they’ve had to surface gradually through the years. Sometimes they came out because we realized were the cause of conflicts; at other times, we resorted to being more honest with each other as a way of helping us understand ourselves and our relationship better. But either way, this opening to each other has been pivotal in our relationship too. Our partners can be the best teachers we’ll ever have…with the exception of our dreams…if we can open to them.

  5. As I was reading your post Jeanie, into my head popped a memory of when I was about 4 years old – of walking along a beach on my own and my parents were way ahead of me so that I couldn’t see them. But then I was lifted and returned to them .. lifted out of the air. And then the comments – Elaine saying about her stoic mother – those were mine too and it took me a long long time to dis-identify with stoicism though traces still remain. My husband and I were into our 30’s when we married and had children at a much later stage than ‘usual’ at that time and fortunately I had a good notion of the necessary value of not bringing my own emotional baggage into their lives … which of course I’m still working on …
    Thank you for this very meaningful post ..

    1. Wow! I’m kind of blown away. How interesting that you have an early memory so similar to mine. And that our mothers were both so stoic. And that it’s taken us both a long time to dis-identify with stoicism “though traces still remain.” And that we both had children a little later than most of our peers, (I was 27 before my first was born), and that we both were consciously trying hard not to unload our emotional baggage onto our children…. My goodness. And then here we are, both very introspective writers with a Jungian bent, a love for mythology, and a passion for nature and understanding the inner life, and you’re still working on your emotional baggage and so am I! And Elaine has most of this in common with us too!!
      Do you suppose these threads are common to many other women with the same skills and passions that drive us? Maybe we’re a prototype..if not an archetype! Some college student…maybe at Pacifica….? should do research on this. 🙂
      Thanks for writing. I really do find this fascinating.

      1. Yes, WOW 🙂 I agree Jeanie it is a very interesting bit of similarity … our parents were of a different time and place, witnessing and being a part of WW2 and their parents of WW1 and the Victoria era which meant our parents carried that with them too … stiff upper lip and all that … thank you for your reply! I am still smiling as I prepare for an early night and hopefully a dream or two. Too much busyness this side over the last several days …

  6. Very touching, heart rending, without sentimentality. Very insightful. Touching each of us in its own way, I am sure, with connections (& considerations) of the major figures in our life. I should speak for myself instead of generalizing perhaps. Okay, aspects of this story nail me to the wall.

    1. Thank you, Steven. I’m touched by the vulnerability you reveal in your last line. The experience of being nailed to the wall. I’ve been there. It’s a portal to painful wounds and an invitation to let ourselves feel them. Growth and healing lie on the other side. Our path. Our choice.

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