Compassionate Reflections on a Mother’s Love

“Whenever I see a red-haired woman, I think of my mother, the mother I never knew.”

Many years ago, screenwriting instructor Sandy Wilson (award-winning writer/director of My American Cousin) responded to my screenplay’s opening line by saying it felt like an arrow in the heart.

Indeed, such arrows, whether felt or shot, speak to the yin-yang of life’s journey. Is there anyone alive who has been spared from the wound of at least one arrow?

The further image of the unknown red-haired woman is seeing her, in my mind’s eye, walking down a hospital corridor, her long auburn hair rippling down her back, and disappearing into the darkness. My adoptive father once told me that he saw her, fleetingly, in her hospital bed. She was pretty and very young – and unmarried. My birth father was Scottish and in the air force. Did he ever know of my existence?

Part way through the adoption process my birth mother tried to get me back; but the system disallowed it. Initially, as told to me much later, her wealthy Irish family had put tremendous pressure on her to get rid of me, as a child out of wedlock.

Another image remains written on my heart, again in a hospital, at the closing moments of motherhood. I had wanted so much to pluck the arrows out of my other mother’s heart, through several years.

Yet, eventually one needs to find the border where our spiritual work is meant to take us, between where we can help someone else find inner peace and where the other person’s soul journey takes them beyond what we can offer. The boundary, however, is illusive. The path of compassion offers a third way.

Through that way, maybe I was successful in extracting one arrow. In her dying hours, I sat with my adoptive mother and could say out loud to her, with heartfelt truth, that I loved her and elaborate on the wonderful childhood memories she bestowed. Mom lay there, wearing an oxygen mask and unable to speak – a reality that broke Dad’s heart, while he also sat with her through those long hours, on the other side of the hospital bed.

Mom, slowly, now so frail, lifted her arm and put her hand firmly over my arm. She turned her head to look warmly into my eyes, pressing my arm gently with affirmation that she received and accepted my love. This gesture was huge for me.

Sometimes it can take a lifetime for the affirmation of love to be clearly expressed. It never is too late to give and to receive love.

I offer this blog reflection a week after the celebration of Mother’s Day in several countries, on the second weekend of May. For me, and for many individuals whose mother now is gone, it can be a difficult day every year, in the natural feelings around loss and the resurfacing of past memories. The grief is two-fold: the absence of a mother and perhaps also regrets about what could have been.

How we deal with death and move forward is a process of healing through time. How we deal with life, and negotiate our regrets, again, to move forward, is the focus of this blog. Do our memories include a peaceful sense of closure or, instead, include regrets about unfinished business, such as love and reconciliation never spoken?

In my experience, women can be very hard on each other in all interrelationships yet, most of all as mothers and daughters. Among my women friends, more of them had difficult relationships than not, with their respective mothers, fraught with inner and outer forms of antagonism. The consequences play out in unhealthy patterns in other life relationships unless the deep rivers of emotional pain can be accessed and navigated toward healing.

This psychological reality is universal. In previous blogs when I speak about the feminine principle of consciousness, please know that I do not romanticize its essence. A holistic truth resides in the following phenomenon: each of the two principles of human consciousness – feminine and masculine – has a life-affirming side and a shadow side. Nowhere is this truth more powerfully manifested than in the dynamics of mothers vis a vis their children, whether in reference to human families or our planetary realm.

For mothers and daughters, as for every person, my belief is that each of us has a responsibility to make meaning of the material that our family experiences have provided. All experiences impact upon us energetically at the cellular level. The fact is, we react or respond both emotionally and physically, at various unconscious levels. We then are called, as an essential part of our life’s journey, to resolve the inner wars.

Through my own journey, and witnessing other women in turmoil (as well as men), it has become so obvious where the socialization processes of Anglicized Western culture have fallen short – emphasizing intellectual and physical development that is disconnected from emotional and spiritual development – both in home life and conventional schooling. Even, and particularly, among well-educated professionals, the tendency for many people is to remain stuck in their heads, tenaciously holding on to the assumption that they can rationalize their way out of their emotional pain, or deny it altogether.

But the rational mind alone cannot access the depths of the unconscious. That is why increasing numbers of people in recent decades have sought out various psychological and/or spiritual processes to address their existential life crises.

However, for the mothers of the `boomer’ generation, and their mothers before them, human psychology was less understood, nor were appropriate treatments known or available. Worse, the stigma attached to any psycho-therapeutic or psychiatric treatment, in and of itself, obstructed many deserving individuals from reaching out for help. Instead, these individuals were tragically misunderstood, as well as judged and blamed by the people around them, in regard to expressing what I will sum up as difficult behaviours.

Such was my mother’s dilemma. First of all, she was diabetic. Following the diagnosis, every day of her life she had to stick a hypodermic needle into her body to survive. What most people did not know during her lifespan – including me until I was an adult and investigated it – diabetes is as much an emotional affliction as physical, because of the chemical imbalance in the body. Her daily ups and downs were like a roller coaster ride.

Secondly, yet actually the foremost tragedy of my mother’s emotional pain, was the timing of the diagnosis, immediately upon the loss of her third baby at birth. Diabetes, previously undiagnosed, had killed three babies carried to term. The doctor told her that she would not be able to bear more children.

I only can imagine the soul woundedness, a pain unfathomable in sinking to the ocean floor of a woman’s being. Not until midlife, when I studied and trained in psychology, could I finally even begin to fathom such a loss. Regardless, I could not live in Mom’s body or psyche, and the topic was unmentionable between us.

In her younger years Mom could be the life of the party, an attractive and dynamic woman. But her rage could be awesome. A volatile temperament eventually alienated everyone. In the later years, her hands increasingly became crippled by arthritis. She shut out the world and slept a lot to avoid the relentless physical pain. God bless my father for his incredible care-giving through those challenging years.

By that time, I had concluded that the rage she felt against her diabetes, the physiological disorder that killed her own babies, was what she had projected upon everyone. For she never fully embraced her own care-giving as a diabetic, resenting the daily regimen of the needle, and when to eat, what to eat, what not to eat, endlessly. In other words, she never forgave herself and the unspeakable grief turned to anger, then chronic depression.

So, within my heart, I forgave my mother several years before she died. Discussions between us as women, about feelings, remained mostly taboo. My responsibility was to take my own journey of healing and forgiveness, transforming sorrow and judgment into inner peace and compassion.

The single window that opened, rarely, shed light on her own childhood ruled by a neglectful mother who never took her daughter for medical check-ups, and treated her harshly. Consequently, my mother was overly protective with me, understandably over-compensating from her childhood experiences plus losing her babies. I give Mom full credit, regardless, for not treating me like a servant as her mother treated her, and also supporting my education.

Mom did her best to be a good mother. She hand-smocked my dresses as a toddler and beautifully sewed my clothing for years; prepared healthy meals despite her own dietary restrictions; welcomed all my friends into our home; good-naturedly played board games with us, and more.

During the final hours of her life, I recalled the good memories and comical anecdotes, anything that could show my acknowledgment of her loving support, to provide solace.

I relate this story because the message is so important – to have the grace and take the responsibility through our own life journey to understand a mother’s love, both in its omissions and human imperfections, as well as in its range of expressions, some less visible than others. It is too easy to be judgmental, and be blind to what has been given to us, through the limited lenses of our own needs and expectations.

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