Women and their mothers

Your inner relationship with your mother is primary. For everybody. The nature of the bond is the basis of all attachments and separations later in life and sits at the core of your emotional, psychobiological and physical connections to where you come from.

As a woman your primary and most potent bond is with a human being of the same gender. You recognise each other deeply and yet can become distant, entangled or disdaining. Close or far far apart.

A woman can feel deeply resourced if their mother is also resourced by her mother. Life flows from behind, down the generations. Both then feel safe and secure in their relative place, authority and sense of self.  Women who have not had that experience but have understood the larger arc of their mother’s life, who have integrated their mother’s absence or presence, and who do not feel under or overwhelmed by her, can also thrive.  In short, your inner relationship with your mother is crucial for survival, growth and the capacity to stand in your own authority, as a woman, as a partner as a professional.

The relationship between mother and daughter is a challenging one to grow up and out of, to find an appropriate distance that allows both to be free, yet connected. But it is a journey every woman can make if she would like her life to be in flow, her relationship with other women to be mutual and vital, her love for a partner and her professional authority to resource her and others. This is a large subject which this brief article only begins to explore from a systemic perspective.

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Right distance

The impact of the mother on a girl and the woman she grows into cannot be underestimated. It’s the primary connection in the family relationship system, but is also a genetic and very physical bond. Your mother was born with the beginnings of you inside her, in utero. The beginnings of the egg from which you were created was already present in her, at her birth, and so you were both also held within your maternal grandmother. So you are deeply connected to the feminine, to the line of women behind you, and as a result are also connected to the emotions and dynamics emerging from the major events and life experiences that your mother and grandmother experienced.

As a result, finding the ‘right distance’ between you, your mother and her mother is crucial. If you get too close it will limit your ability to grow up to be a woman and live your own life fully as a professional, a partner, a mother. Many women are entangled with their mothers and so feel overwhelmed by her presence or absence. They may struggle in relationship with other women, often projecting their mother onto them, and perhaps become controlling or needy in leadership and in life. This can be an outer expression of their inner battle for balance and the right inner distance with the source of life, their mother.

If a woman rejects their mother, they also reject the many resources that exist in her system. Finding the best balance, where the flow of life and love is restored, is a challenge for many. Distance, combined with a multi-generational perspective and compassion born from that perspective is key.

“I read countless tomes over the years as I tried to navigate the difficulties of being my mother’s daughter. My single best defence had always been that I was my father’s daughter. I was more my father’s daughter. I had somehow convinced myself that I was only my father’s daughter. “

Dani Shapiro from her book ‘Inheritance.’

“Our relationship with our mothers is often the key to how we relate to the rest of the world. All our subsequent relationships will be deeply influenced by this initial attachment to the person who brought us into the world. If we can find peace with our mothers, we are well on the way to finding peace within ourselves and with those around us”.

Barbara Morgan

‘We have children before we really know what we are doing!’

Anon

‘A man is his mother’s son until he finds a wife. A woman is her mothers daughter for the whole of her life.’

Anon

Mother too close

When a woman seeks attention and love from her daughter in a way that she wishes she had from her mother (and usually also her mother), or when a girl clings too long to her mother and is unable to make the journey to her father, then she may feel entangled with or burdened by her later in life.

This entanglement can become a lasting dynamic in her life as she feels increasingly unable to get away from her mother’s sphere of influence. Her inner agreement to stay, her inner unconscious ‘life sentence’ may be along these lines:

✣ “Your Mum’s not there for you, so I will be.” (“Later I’ll be resentful for this because it’s not my job to mother you and I feel trapped.”)

✣ “Mum you are/were hurt and I will make sure no one ever does that to you again, by staying close to you…” (Again, this is not my true role in the family, so it will cost me and I will resent it)

✣ “You have given me so much in my life. I can never repay you but I will try not to let you down, by always being available to you.” (This will keep me stuck and unavailable to myself or others)

✣ “Mum I will protect you from Dad and be your friend. I will keep you safe.”

✣ “You sacrificed your life to raise me and I will sacrifice mine to take care of you.” (But I might take out my resentment on other women.)

These inner words, these ‘life sentences’ keep the daughter stuck in her mother’s sphere of influence. The knots of these entanglements can be loosened over time through careful, respectfully facilitated personal work in a systemically orientated setting. It’s in this context that the balancing words, the ‘sentences for life’, which emerge in the process of a constellation, can be useful.

Here are some examples of ‘sentences for life’ which support an appropriate separation between mother and daughter. Like others in this article and on this website they are not intended to be used generically, but simply as examples of words that have touched the heart and soul of an issue for a particular client in a particular context and constellation:

“Mum you were hurt and I will leave that with you. It’s yours to carry not mine, I’m just your daughter, not your partner or mother.”

“What happened between you and Dad is not mine to solve. I am just your daughter, just the little one.”

“You are my Mum and you will always be my Mum. There is always a place in my heart for you, just as my mother.”

“I see you Mum and I will always be grateful for what you gave me, exactly the way it is. I accept my life at the price you paid and at the price I paid.”

“What I will take from you is…(specific relevant strengths, qualities etc) what I will leave with you is…(specific relevant burdens, pain, life experiences that belong to her, etc).”

“Because of you I can have a good life and I will honour that gift by living fully.”

“Please bless me when I am loving and when I am loved. Because of you, I have a deep respect for other women.”

Ascetics (deny self sensual pleasure, austere lives that may often be focussed on a spiritual path) lack their mother; addicts lack their father.”

Bert Hellinger

Mother too far

Some mothers are not able to be in close contact with their daughters due to their own systemic entanglements and traumas. Others are kept at a distance by their daughters in punishment for something they think she has done wrong, some way she has failed them. This can occur when trust is suddenly broken for example.

The distance between mother and daughter may be embodied, internalised in an inner ‘life sentence‘ for the girl who grows to become an adult. These resonant out of conscious awareness sentences limit the woman’s ability to function fully, to partner equally and to lead authentically:

✣ “Mum I will reject you before you have a chance to reject me.” (Which later can become: ‘I will recreate the distance between you and me in my relationships with other women.’)

✣ “I judge you as helpless and so bring that into my relationships with others. In this way I can unconsciously keep you present and rescue you over and over again.” (This can get expressed in professional life in leadership style, coaching and the helping professions.)

✣ “Because I cannot accept you fully, I remain engaged with you in the ways in which I remain angry, distant and disrespectful.”

✣ ” I lived ‘without’ you so now I live without any nourishment. I will avoid all indulgences and am strict with everything and everybody, especially myself. This is how I reach and connect with you.” (An ascetic, living in ‘the comfort of familiar pain’, often religious or ‘high spiritual’ in displaced yearning for connection with mother.)  

✣ “One of my daughters will find a way to represent you by being a lot like you, in an attempt to balance who I’ve excluded.”

✣ “I know that Mothers give birth and sustenance to life, business and relationships; what I cannot take from you I may look for in others and then I will reject them too. I will idealise them and then hate them when they fail me like you did.”

✣ “What I reject in you I will mirror and become – as a way to keep you close.”

The knots of these entanglements can be loosened over time through careful, respectfully facilitated personal work in a systemically orientated setting. It’s in this context that the balancing words, the ‘sentences for life’, which emerge or are co-created in constellations, can be useful. Here are some examples of words which may support an appropriate reconnection between mother and daughter.

“Dear Mum, I have resources that allow me to be present in a way that was not possible for you. Please look kindly on me if I use them.”

“When I can accept you fully exactly the way you are without wishing to change you, I am able to live my own life with deep respect for your fate.” 

“The greater truth would be that the love you longed for was not available for your mother to give.”

Mark Wolynn

“When I look at your life and see how and why you struggled, my heart opens and I can begin to live life differently.”

“Thank you for being as available as you could be. You gave me what you could and I will grow it into something wonderful. In this way I will remember you and honour what you were able to give me.”

✣ “Dear Mum, I thought I was supposed to have a perfect mother. Now I understand what it is to be a parent and can see how hard you tried. You are OK just as you are and were. You gave me the gift of life. Please watch me as I do something with it.”

“When children say to their parents “Under no circumstances will I ever be like you” they continue to love their parents blindly and are bound tightly to them. In spite of themselves, they commit themselves to follow their parents’ example, and so they become exactly like them.

 

When children fear becoming like their parents, they constantly watch them, because whatever they don’t want to become they must continually observe. It’s no wonder then that they become exactly like their parents.”

Bert Hellinger

“Children disentangle themselves from family entanglements by obeying their parents’ true wishes – to be happy and successful. It takes great courage for children to see their parents suffer and yet still obey the greater love, to see to it that they themselves succeed in life and fulfil the desires of their parents’ hearts.”

Bert Hellinger

“I wrote a letter to my mother, many years after she had died. In it I said ‘I dismiss you from all my expectations that you be greater than other women.’ She would have been very relieved!.’”

Bert Hellinger

Saying Goodbye

One of the most challenging stages in life is taking care of your parents as they become elderly and need both emotional and very practical support. Doing this without becoming ‘bigger’ than them, as their child, is a delicately balanced journey that many struggle with.

Watching your own mother travel on her final journey, to the end of her life, is often one of the most challenging that anyone has to face. If your relationship is strained, that doesn’t limit your deep awareness that she is the source of your life. This awareness can make what is already complex and challenging very painful. The difficulty can also come at a time when you are just noticing your own child being drawn into a pattern with you, that you recognise between you and your mother.  There is a lot going on in the relationship system. 

As a result it’s natural for people to search for different solutions to the problem of feeling abandoned, overwhelmed by or angry with their mothers as they support them in their final days. Forgiveness is one alternative that is often tried.  

Forgiveness 

Forgiveness is a common idea that many feel they ought to be able to ‘do’. However, from a systems point of view it often weakens and diminishes. The ‘forgiver’ can often be seen and felt as taking a superior, a higher position, as ‘the good one’ who absolves ‘the bad one’ of guilt through their superiority. 

When you try and forgive your own parent it can be particularly limiting and diminishing. And when a woman ‘forgives’ her own mother she not only artificially puts herself  ‘above’ her mother in the natural hierarchy, but also covertly communicates  ‘…and I am a better woman than you too.’  She will pay a price for that later on (intense grief, rage, guilt or a sense of stuck-ness for example) and it will not help you feel better about your mother.

For more on the dynamics that can emerge around forgiveness please see this article.

Relative place

At the most difficult time it is more important than ever to be in the right relative place with your mother. She in her place as your mother and you in your place as her daughter. 

This is difficult if you have become recruited or seduced into being in the ‘wrong place’ and relative size earlier in life. For example you may have taken a ‘higher’/’bigger’ place by trying to help, rescue or heal her. Or you may have taken a ‘lower’/’smaller’ place by becoming ‘the victim’ and feeling small and overwhelmed. Or you may have lost your place by turning away from her completely.

Finding place

Finding your true place and relative size as a daughter, not as a victim of your mother’s behaviour or as her helper or healer takes time and inner work, but can be liberating. Liberating for you but also, perhaps as importantly, for her.

For when we can release our mothers from our secret expectations and judgements, she and we can relax, grow stronger and find our relative place and size. 

A new constellation

Working with the applied philosophy that is a systemic constellation can be very useful. A constellation invites you to stand, with a representative for your mother, in the place that you have become familiar with. In the place you get stuck. Then, through a process that is deeply respectful and designed to return dignity to your mother, find a better place and distance. Through a combination of movement and the use of resonant language that surfaces the deeper ‘sentences for life’ a powerful and lasting inner shift can take place.

Many facilitators, including the author, offer workshops in which the constellations process can be used to release and change deep patterns, restore flow and reconnect that which has become separate.  

The mother-child relationship is paradoxical and, in a sense, tragic. It requires the most intense love on the mother’s side, yet this very love must help the child grow away from the mother, and to become fully independent.

Erich Fromm

“Many people seek self-acceptance without looking at the most important inner relationship – with their mother. They think that they can bypass her and somehow find self-acceptance. Self-acceptance cannot be found in this way.”

Barbara Morgan

“Are you open to your mother’s love? When we can’t take in her love, all the elements associated with being mothered – security, safety, comfort, nurturance – can feel missing in our lives. No matter how much we have, it can feel like we never have enough. “

Mark Wolynn

“The source of jealousy often stems from infancy. It’s the feeling of our mother’s attention repeatedly being drawn away to someone or something else that appears more important than we are.”

Mark Wolynn

Returning home

It is easy to resist the simple truth that a loving, balanced connection with your mother offers a loving, balanced connection with life, a vibrant sense of belonging and identity – and a peaceful, resourced relationship with yourself.

In fact this sometimes feels like a most unwelcome and unlikely idea. After all, isn’t it she who abandoned/abused/forgot/hurt/got too close/not close enough in the first place?

It’s a journey but over time you may see that your judgments over her, your rejection of her,  serve only to keep you overtly distant – but covertly deeply connected in a profoundly painful way.

Family system constellations and systemic coaching work was developed to facilitate and ease this level of difficulty in intimate relationship systems. In this context the process is beautifully designed to restore the flow of love between mother and daughter. The process offers a fresh path to insight and compassion, then returns clarity and dignity to the system.

The journey home can start in individual systemic coaching or in a constellation workshop, and will continue for years after – a lifelong journey back to reconnection, back to mother.

In professional life remember that it is common to see ‘the organisation’ as ‘the mother’. In other words there is very often some unconscious transference onto organisations. This can in turn lead to a fantasy that all our needs will be met if only we can belong in this or that organisation. That it is the ideal mother. Founders can also get caught in this, creating a business which they hope will ‘take care of them’ like a mother should.

The unconscious attempts to complete a fight with your mother through another woman at work is also a familiar pattern. So your relationship with your mother is an important elements to include when you reflect on your relationship with organisational and business life.

So, in your heart and mind go back to her and see her as she really was – as your mother yes, but also as so much more. A daughter, a sibling and grandchild. See her without judgement and with compassion for her difficulties, her pain as a result of her entanglements – that will have their roots in the time before you were born, maybe in the time before she was born. She’s just a human being, a woman doing her best with the resources she had available. Just like you.

When you look at your mother through a multi-generational, whole system lens, patterns, entanglements, compassion and fresh opportunities begin to reveal themselves. In this way you can integrate her as she is or was, start to slowly move towards her again and stand at her side.

A reflective practice for thinking about your mother in a different way

If you feel ready to think about your mother in a different way, to let some of your perspectives widen and soften, just imagine your mother as a little girl.

Long before she knew it was even possible to grow up and have a baby of her own . . .

Now imagine her with her mother, your maternal grandmother. Perhaps you knew your grandmother, perhaps you didn’t. Either way see her as she takes her place behind your mother . . .

Feel into what it might have been like for your mother as she looks up to her mother. How was that for her? Did she feel seen as a little girl? Did she feel safe? Did she feel loved? Did she know that she belonged? Her experience then will profoundly shape your experience of her when you were little.

Think about the times your mother was born into. What was going on in the world she arrived into? What resourced and what limited her in her relationship with your father? And what was going on for her mother and father and how did that affect the flow and dynamics in your relationship with her?

Now imagine your mother’s mother, your grandmother as a little girl, long before she knew it was possible to create a child. See her mother take her place behind your grandmother. . .

Look at the woman who is your maternal great-grandmother ….. and then see a line of women stretching out behind her, all the women she came from, passing life down the female line. Give a place to all the joys and all the challenges of their lives. . .

Now imagine your great grandmother looking down the generations, first at her daughter, your grandmother, then at the daughter of her daughter, your mother, and then at her daughter. You.

In that larger picture of your life with your mother and her mother and her mother, one behind another, see if you can say to your mother, innerly, one or more of these kind of sentences:

“I tried to help. But I was only a young girl and it was too much for me.”
“Please look kindly on me if I start to give you back what belongs with you.”
“It was and is too much and it’s not mine to carry. With great respect I begin to return it to you.”

“I felt overwhelmed by your presence/absence and that has kept me angry/resentful/sad. Now I will find a better place and respectful distance from which to be in relationship with you. At that distance I will keep a place for you deep in my heart.”

“I’m beginning to see the larger picture of your life . . . “
“When I was a baby I was dependent on you and you took care of me in the only ways you knew how. Thank you.”
“Now I am an adult woman I see you and take you. Not in my arms like a child but in my heart as your daughter.”
“I’m just your daughter, a woman. I’m no better than you.”
“My life came through you and from far beyond. Thank you.”

Can you allow your mother to be just your mother? To be the woman through whom your life came? Can you release her a little from your judgments or needs? Can you say this to her:

“Thank you. I receive, accept and include in me what you were able to give me, especially the gift of my life itself. I will do something with it all that honours what you gave and what it cost you.”

This article was authored by John Whittington.
The articles in this series do not offer specific advice but stimulus for your own reflections. They provide only an introduction into what’s possible in a systemic coaching or workshop constellations process. This way of looking and working can be combined with others to give an understanding of the human condition. The writing is always a work in progress as the author continues to observe and articulate the dynamics in human relationship systems.
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