In almost every language, a variation of mama is a baby’s first sound-word. And rightly so. The infant’s wail signals an urgent need, a summons to a nurturing maternal presence. To consider the cry being unanswered you must imagine a world without mothers, without nourishment, a world of unthinkable despair.
Mothers represent birth, life, sustenance, and the continuation of the species. In the symbolic world, Mother Earth embodies the mother principle. Numerous indigenous myths partner her with Father Sky. The two principles, matter and air, (matter/material from the Latin mater or mother) combine to create life. Father Sky provides sun, wind, and rain that replenish the earth, but all living things depend on the benevolent fecundity of Mother Earth to flourish and grow.
Our human roots are in the soil. Like most life forms, we spring forth from the earth and are dependent upon her for subsistence. In our conventional world, the Great Mother is not part of our daily reality. We no longer believe in the spirits of trees or the souls of animals. We know her through myths and fairy tales. “The archetype is, so to speak, an ‘eternal’ presence,” Carl Jung wrote in his Collected Works, “and it is only a question of whether it is perceived by the conscious mind or not.”
Across cultures, the Great Mother manifests in dreams and visions and artistic renderings and in inarticulate movements within our psyches that touch mind and heart.
In her idealized form, the Great Mother is a loving goddess, a good fairy or fairy godmother. (Think Disney’s Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty.) She watches over us, recognizes our longings, sends helpers. Sometimes she appears disguised as a wise old woman or kindly animal, a protective she-bear or a lioness that pops up in a dream. All power and magic are hers; what we lack, she supplies. She sees our situation, knows our needs. We never feel abandoned or alone. Whether we face internal or external chaos, enemies, tricksters, or evil forces, her strength, her courage, her fortitude support our efforts. She is loyal to us, unconditionally. In the most archetypal, primitive layers of our psyches, we believe in her existence. The idealized good mother/Great Mother is abundant Nature herself, all-giving, all-loving. She is super-human, a far cry from the flawed and fallible women who gave us birth.
In her destructive aspect, the Great Mother steals into our lives as the bad fairy who causes us to prick our finger on a spindle and sleep for a hundred years. She is the evil stepmother disguised as a friendly apple-seller. She is the shadow side of our feminine nature, vengeful because society does not accept her ferocity, her passion, her power. She is therefore despised or ignored. Much to society’s peril. But that is another story.
With our outer world broken and in decline, feelings of helplessness and confusion increase, and we are in need of a caring, comforting maternal guiding spirit that can offer refuge and restore our faith in our capacity to adapt and re-vision a future.
Inhabitants of the ancient Roman world looked for help from the Goddess Cura, or Care. According to Hyginus’ Fabulae, it was Cura who shaped clay into human form. Cura asked the god Jove to blow his spirit into the clay, and he agreed. But when she wanted to name her creation after herself, Jove objected and insisted it be named after him. While they were arguing, Earth rose up and demanded it be named after her since she supplied the clay. They asked Saturn to arbitrate. He ruled that since Jove gave the creature breath, he shall reclaim the breath after death. Earth, having given it body, shall reclaim the body. But because Cura first shaped the creature, she will possess it for as long as it lives. And it shall be named “human” because it was formed from earth (humus).
The myth tells us about the relationship between humans and care. Human beings are the creation of Cura. Her care and devotion are her lifelong gifts. Our educated modern minds easily distinguish between the factual and the mythological, between the symbolic and the literal, and yet because the universal motifs and patterns in tales energize the unconscious layers of our psyches, we are strangely comforted by them.
However, we look to science to fortify and confirm ancient truths.
Studies in neuroscience, psychology, and sociology support what the ancients knew about our innate need for mothering. In the 1950s, American psychologist Harry Harlow’s now classic laboratory experiments with rhesus monkeys concluded that for healthy development babies needed more than food from their mothers. Comfort, companionship, and love proved to be equally important for an infant’s healthy physical and mental survival. Harlow’s revolutionary experiments built on the research of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby who studied the effects of institutionalization on child development, especially the traumatic impact of separating infants and young children from their mothers. Their work led to a deeper investigation of parent-child bonding and encouraged a greater understanding of how infants attach to their caregivers and led to more sophisticated theories about attachment styles.
As our institutions tumble and fail, as we suffer destructive new weather patterns, face diminishing financial resources, and are unable to find or afford healthcare — fear, anger, and anxiety escalate. COVID, too, has altered the landscape of mothering. Especially during periods of stress and instability, we need maternal care and comfort from those who embody a mothering presence. Overburdened and lacking government or community support, mothers and caregivers who are tasked with overseeing family life, children’s at-home education in addition to earning a decent wage are now speaking out.
On social media platforms, in print journals and novels, in grocery aisles, laundromats and on park benches, the subject of motherhood is provoking confessions, arguments, and bonding. An online search of the subject reveals dozens of books that address the frustration mothers are experiencing. Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe by Sarah Mae and Sally Clarkson. Or the competitively assuring, The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp.
I sympathize. As a young mother, I entered graduate school not knowing exactly what I’d signed up for. As it turned out, that decision was more than choosing a career path; it was a life-changing event that opened me to undiscovered parts of myself. A conflict arose between my creative and domestic selves.
The writer needed silence, solitude, enormous energy, opportunities for adventure, muses, and the time and space to explore the hidden tunnels of Self. I was prompted to go down into the darkness to discover self-truths that had the potential to de-stabilize my identity.
My role as a mother demanded opposite qualities: predictability, stability, sacrifice, endless patience while enduring boredom and mind-boggling repetitive menial tasks. Above all, being a mother meant I needed to provide a constant loving presence for my children. It struck me then, as now, that the Greek goddesses, much like other pantheons of female deities, represent different and sometimes warring roles in our unconscious. Aphrodite (Venus), the love goddess. Demeter (Ceres), the Mother. Artemis (Diana), the solitary virgin huntress who lives in the wild. (The Goddesses in Every Woman).
At times, I was lost, frustrated, but I was also lucky. My children came into this world with exuberant spirits and abundant resilience. My husband abided with me; I had resources. Today’s mothers are burdened in ways I was not. School shooters were not a daily reality. “Pandemic” was not part of my vocabulary. Institutional safety nets, while not sufficient, allowed me to believe universal childcare and healthcare would soon be offered. My wages were not great, but we had hope. If anything, we mothers earnestly believed our efforts to improve the conditions of motherhood would bear results.
A foundation of hope may be part of our survival equipment. Has hope for our future disappeared? How do we mother our families as well as the greater community when we ourselves are exhausted and depleted? How do we address empathy fatigue? What are the collective values around “good mothering”? What does it mean to be a good mother to our family? To our country and our communities? We are both the frightened, tired, angry infant wailing in the darkness and the competent, alert, responsive, cherishing mother lifting that child to comfort and soothe.
To paraphrase Jung, the face we turn toward our unconscious is the face that turns toward us. If we view the world through the lens of fear, hostility, violence, how can we expect a wise, loving, and caring universe to reflect our gaze?
What we seek is a model of mothering that is not confined to gender or role identity and that benefits both the individual and the community. One I’ve found that comes closest to that is set forth in a transformational book titled: Restoring the Kinship Worldview: Indigenous Voices Introduce 28 Precepts for Rebalancing Life on Planet Earth by Wahinkpe Topa (Four Arrows) and Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D. The introduction addresses the critical differences between the dominant Western anthropocentric, materialistic worldview with its emphasis on rigid hierarchies of race, class, gender, dualistic thinking, and individualism versus a worldview that acknowledges nature as sentient, benevolent and composed of biocentric interconnected systems. The contributors to the book are tribal wise men and women who call us to the maternal care of the planet and each other, prizing mutual dependence, humility, gratitude, generosity, and community welfare over competition and personal gain. This book holds many voices. There are other visions, other pathways to transformational change. Angeles Garbes’ book, Essential Labor: Motherhood as Social Change, calls us to a new perspective on motherhood.
Jung proposed that if we hold the tension between two opposing ideas or choices, what feels like an impasse eventually births the spark of a third thing, a fresh spark from the unconscious that transcends the opposition.
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”