Daughters Discovering Mothers: the Yearning for Identity


One of the ways we learn to know ourselves is through language. Philosophy, psychiatry and psychology, linguistics and neuroscience – each investigates the relationship between language, thought, and self-identity. Some experts argue we can’t have language without first having a thought (I think, therefore I speak or write); other experts espouse the opposite: our language constrains what we’re able to think (the Hopis, for instance, were said to not have a way to express “the day after tomorrow”).

Forgetting the scholarly debates, common sense and experience tell us that thought, language, and knowing ourselves are intricately bound.

The Sick Child by Edvard Munch for Daughters blog postIn my earlier blogs, I’ve written about the relationship between empathy and literature (See, for instance, “How Facing Our “Shadow” Can Release Us from Scapegoating”), how literature offers a portal into lives like or unlike our own. When we read or listen to fiction or poetry, we are essentially opening our hearts and minds to universal human experiences, stories told in the voice of others that expand our capacity to better know ourselves more fully. Alaa Al Aswany, the celebrated Egyptian author and activist involved in the 2011 Tahrir Square demonstrations, writes: “Literature is not a tool of judgment – it’s a tool for human understanding.”

While language is a key element to self-identity, the paths to self-knowledge are various.

The spiritual route directs us to prayer, meditation, fasting, chanting, retreat or working among the destitute. Psychology offers an extensive menu of options: dreamwork; cognitive behavior therapy; mindfulness-based therapy; psychodynamic therapy; and the vast world of psychopharmacology.

To the Highest Bidder by Harry Roseland for Daughters blog postVia Creativa is another more rarely considered route to self-knowledge. It is the inspired creation of theologian Matthew Fox, a former Dominican priest in the Roman Catholic Church and an admirer of medieval mystics and visionaries such as Hildegard of Bingen, Saint Francis of Assisi, and Meister Eckhart.

Via Creativa, the path of creativity, is part of Fox’s Creation Spirituality, a four-fold path to awareness of self through awareness of the divine.

Via Positiva is the path of awe, beauty and joy, Via Negativa, the path of darkness, pain and suffering that are inherent in a spiritual journey, and Via Creativa, according to Fox, is the path of generativity and creativity, the path of poetry, art, and creative work.

The fourth path, Via Transformativa, is the way of transformation made possible through practice and awareness of the first three paths.

We gain self-knowledge through the words and sentences we choose to describe ourselves, but it’s also true that we can learn about ourselves through the words of others. Poems, like stories, offer an avenue into self-discovery.

In the spirit of Via Creativa, and with attention to language as a way of knowing, and to continue my own exploration of the relationship between mothers and daughters (See “Mothers, Witches, and the Power of Archetypes” and “Our Mothers, Ourselves: the Search for the Whole Story”), I offer several poems by women about their mothers. Here we find ourselves in their hidden moments of praise or sorrow, anger or joy.

Leslie Ullman for Daughters blog postThe first poem is by Leslie Ullman, the author of four poetry collections, most recently Progress on the Subject of Immensity, and of a hybrid collection of craft essays, poems, and writing exercises titled Library of Small Happiness. She teaches in the low-residency MFA Program at Vermont College of the Fine Arts and lives in Taos, New Mexico.

Being Not Her

I did not know how to flirt
or sew or navigate my days without
a trace of self-doubt. My demeanor
was serious (You need to have
a light touch with boys. And remember
to make them feel important). She
stayed married until death did them part
after 69 years. I married twice and did not
change my name. She adored men. I
was afraid men would distract me. Men
adored her. I wanted them to adore me
and also to leave me alone. I wrote poems
she didn’t understand and stopped reading
as our lives deepened into their separate modes.
I resented my native suburb, her comfort zone—
but oh, the lilacs and lily-of-the-valley every
spring, their perfumes thrilling, filling me
with the promise of being grown up, even after
I knew better. Every year I miss them
as I add annuals to my own high-desert square
of decent soil, guided by her words: don’t be afraid
to experiment. You’ll remember what thrives.

When I asked Leslie to tell me a little about the origin of this poem she wrote me the following, in which she stresses how time and maturity mellowed her relationship to her mother. She speaks for many women who awaken later in life to a new understanding of their mothers.

“I had been thinking about what it’s like to be an elder myself, with a mother still in the world. I also had been marveling at how lucky I was to have outgrown my resentment of feeling controlled by a well-intentioned but willful, self-confident, and often tactless mother, to emerge into a friendship with her. It occurred to me that many daughters don’t have enough time with their mothers for this to happen – they’re stuck with old business, which may be as much a matter of perception as of anything else, and never have time to feel liked and appreciated by their mothers, or to like their mothers back. I also think this has to do with outgrowing one’s need for a mother’s approval, which can take a long time!”

Audre Lord for Daughters blog postAudre Lorde described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” who dedicated her life and her work to fighting injustice. In the following poem, she speaks of a painful childhood, her need for motherly love from a light-skinned mother who disdained her dark-skinned daughter. The poet calls on the spirit of her personal mother and the Great Mother to hear her need and to heal her.

From the House of Yemanjá

My mother had two faces and a frying pot
where she cooked up her daughters
into girls
before she fixed our dinner.
My mother had two faces
and a broken pot
where she hid out a perfect daughter
who was not me
I am the sun and moon and forever hungry
for her eyes.

I bear two women upon my back
one dark and rich and hidden
in the ivory hungers of the other
pale as a witch
yet steady and familiar
brings me bread and terror
in my sleep
her breasts are huge exciting anchors
in the midnight storm.

All this has been
in my mother’s bed
time has no sense
I have no brothers
and my sisters are cruel.

Mother I need
mother I need
mother I need your blackness now
as the august earth needs rain.
I am

the sun and moon and forever hungry
the sharpened edge
where day and night shall meet
and not be

Alice Friman for Daughters blog postAlice Friman’s poem “Snake Hill” also speaks with urgency to a mother who is frail and dying. It recounts a childhood experience but now the roles are reversed: the child is mother to the feeble mother. Remorse and longing underpin the words that speak of how difficult it is to let go of a beloved no matter what our age.

Snake Hill

to my mother

We are on the final avenue.
Hush now.  What’s to speak?
Soon we’ll go down Snake Hill,
cobblestones and weedy lots.

Will you sing to me as we go?
In the toy store window, the guitar
I wept my heart out for,
the rubber bands still stretched with song.
We can buy it now.  There’s no end
to what we can afford.

I’m lying.
It’s gone.  The window.
The store.  The whole corner where
Frank’s Market spilled crates out to the curb.
But I’m still there, wailing,
and you pleading reason to I want
I want.  (What early prick of glass
keeps that vein open still?)

Snake Hill is steep.
The lyrics overflow the hour.  After,
it will take me years to turn
and face that climb alone,
each paving stone weed-wet with song
catching at my throat, my throat
filled with you.

Only the child
at the top of the hill
can yank me up again—by the heart’s cord
running down the roof of her mouth
to the cut bands of the throat—the child
who has no other choice, having nothing left
from that corner to retrieve.

Alice offered some background about her poem, which appears in her book Inverted Fire:

“About why I wrote the piece, well I was very close to my mother, and the thought of what was to come haunted me. What I’m remembering – Snake hill, Frank’s market, the toy store window where being three, I wailed for what I could not have, it being the heart of the depression and she surely didn’t have the necessary twenty-three cents – are scenes from my childhood in Washington Heights, New York City.”

Alice Friman’s seventh collection of poetry, Blood Weather, will be published by LSU Press in 2019. She’s the winner of a Pushcart Prize and is included in Best American Poetry. She lives in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she was poet-in-residence at Georgia College.

Naomi Shihab Nye for Daughters blog postNaomi Shihab Nye is a child of shared cultures, the daughter of an American mother and a father who was a Palestinian refugee. The American Poetry Foundation says of her poetry: “Nye’s experience of both cultural difference and different cultures has influenced much of her work. Known for poetry that lends a fresh perspective to ordinary events, people, and objects, Nye has said that, for her, “the primary source of poetry has always been local life, random characters met on the streets, our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks.” “Voices” appears in Tender Spots: Selected Poems.


I will never taste cantaloupe
without tasting the summers
you peeled for me and placed
face-up on my china breakfast plate.

You wore tightly laced shoes
and smelled like the roses in your yard.
I buried my face in your
soft petaled cheek.

How could I know you carried
a deep well of tears?
I thought grandmas were as calm
as their stoves.
How could I know your voice
had been pushed down hard inside you
like a plug?

You stood back in a crowd
but your garden flourished and answered
your hands. Sometimes I think of the land
you loved, gone to seed now,
gone to someone else’s name,
and I want to walk among silent women
scattering light. Like a debt I owe
my grandma. To lift whatever cloud it is
made them believe speaking is for others.
As once we removed treasures from your
sock drawer and held them one-by-one,
ocean shell, Chinese button, against the sky.

Memory, longing, and a deep recognition of what is carried from one generation to the next informs how each of these poets explores motherhood. And these I’ve shared are just a sliver of the rich trove of discoveries poets are engaged in. You may enjoy “Daughters in Poetry,” an essay and tour by Eavan Boland at The Academy of American Poets or you may prefer to explore the exemplary work of the many individual poets available at the Poetry Foundation.

In her book, Of Woman Born, poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, wrote: “Probably there is nothing in human nature more resonant with charges then the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies, one of which has lain in amniotic bliss inside the other, one which has labored to give birth to the other. The material here is for the deepest intimacy and the most powerful estrangement.”

As you sit with these poems, consider what one event crystalizes your relationship to your mother. What emotions does it bring up? What have you never said to her that you now wish to say? There. That’s your material!

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 

Top image, “Mother and Daughter,” courtesy of Colorado mixed media artist, Saundra Lane Galloway. Saundralane.com

Mother’s Day 2015: Struggling with Being a Mother and a Writer

As Mother’s Day 2015 approaches, I feel called to write about a subject I’ve lived intimately, a subject I’ve explored in The Conditions of Love and is now shaping my new novel Digging To China—the conflict many women feel between their creative and domestic selves.

Mother. Writer. Are these dueling destinies? How much do the roles oppose? Do the separate roles fracture our identities? How permeable or dense is the membrane between them? Mother. Writer. Where can we find the energy, the juju, the concentration, the tremendous love, care, and devotion needed in equal measures in both domains? Do you know what I’m talking about? I think you do!

Here’s what I can tell you about my own experience: I struggled. And I still struggle with finding a balance between putting myself into my written work and into relationships.

I love these two poems for their recognition of the split between the “milk-giver” and “the moon-ridden girl.”50s

Night Feeding
Muriel Rukeyser

In Mind
Denise Levertov

Even before I took up writing professionally, I was jolted awake by the voices of certain poets, women poets who were shoving open the windows of their houses and shouting in wrath and fury, despair and righteousness, about their lives.

The essay that I read and reread dozens of times, that spoke to me so directly I was astonished anyone could know so much about my life was Adrienne Rich’s When We Dead Awaken: Writing As Re-Vision. Her words startled me into recognition of my own guilt, my own confusion and isolation.

She writes:

 …I was also determined to prove that as a woman poet I could also have what was then defined as a “full” woman’s life, I plunged in my early twenties into marriage and had three children before I was thirty…I went on trying to write: my second book and first child appeared in the same month…If there were doubts, if there were periods of null depression or active despairing, these could only mean that I was ungrateful, insatiable, perhaps a monster…about the time my third child was born, I felt that I had either to consider myself a failed woman and a failed poet, or to try to find some synthesis by which to understand what was happening to me.

To feel oneself a monster…to suffer this in silence…to be at odds with one’s deepest desires…and to be isolated in one’s suffering—do these conditions still exist for women writers who are raising families (and male writers who are the primary caregivers in their homes)?

KaliThe truth is, the very attributes that contribute to a rich, deep, profound, and thrilling creative life are antithetical to sustaining a stable home. Writing, at least as I know it, thrives on the chaotic and unpredictable shifts and flashes of the imagination; it demands devotion, loyalty, ruthlessness in the face of despair, enormous amounts of energy and attention—all of which might otherwise be directed toward one’s beloveds.

Rich says:

But to write poetry or fiction, or even to think well…a certain freedom of mind is needed—freedom to press on; to enter the currents of your thoughts like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not suddenly be snatched away… To be maternally with small children all day in the old way, to be with a man in the old way of marriage, requires a holding-back, a putting-aside of that imaginative activity and demands instead a kind of conservatism…

Your attention suddenly snatched away. Split loyalties. The soccer game, the swim team, the poem, the essay: they all shouted at once, a confused and confusing cacophony that sent me hurrying in ten different directions.

But like Rich, I felt rise up in me an unquenchable desire to speak the truth about things unsaid and unspoken. I housed a hunger I hadn’t let myself feel until I heard the words of other women writers describing, most desperately, their hunger to have a voice. This is what we can do for each other: mirror, echo, witness, model.

creation-of-the-birdsOver time, I’ve come to adopt a different perspective, one that expands the view of what we are doing when we continue to embrace the warring imperatives of our souls—what the Jungians call holding the tension of the opposites. By creating a literal home we build a place to contain and house all our parts. This place/space holds our love, our security, grounds and shelters us against storms and unpredictable weather—I mean the turbulence inherent in a creative life. We need our homes just as our homes need us; we need a place where the offspring of our imaginations can grow and thrive.

Terry Tempest Williams writes with great eloquence about women’s voices and women’s silences in her poignant memoir, When Women Were Birds, an ode to her mother who died of cancer at 54. Her mother had bequeathed the author her journals—all of them blank inside. Williams writes:

She left me her “Cartographies of Silence.” I will never know her story. I will never know what she was trying to tell me by telling me nothing. But I can imagine.

terry tempest williams book coverAfter reading When Women Were Birds, it struck me that I did not know my own daughters’ experiences of what it was like growing up with a mother who also happened to be a writer. So I asked them each if they would write a few words for this blog.


  1. I recall falling asleep to the click, click, click….. zing… of the typewriter in the room next door.  There was something rhythmic and reassuring about it.
  2. I grew up with poetry infused into everyday life in a way that most don’t.  It was not uncommon to have you recite a poem (not necessarily yours; often not) in what seemed like random moments.  Before meals… at gatherings…   And to this day, I think I’ve picked up this propensity.  I’m often quoting/reciting poems or openings to books… quotes… at random moments.  I reference you whenever I do this with new people.  I just say “I grew up in a house with a writer.”
  3. Honestly… there were books everywhere in our house.  Before the bookshelves were built in the living room and sunroom, there were piles of books everywhere.
  4. You have this incredible and unique capacity to offer exactly the right “text” to someone (including me) at precisely the right moment.  Did then, still do.
  5. I have poetry books you gave me as a kid (kid versions) that I still have poems memorized from (e.g., “Who has seen the wind…” or “Jenny kissed me when we met…”)
  6. You seemed to struggle then (and still do) with trying to find a balance between being in your writing space and in normal everyday space.  When we were growing up, your writing space seemed to be more around the margins of your life with us (after hours… when we were at school). Now it is pretty central. But I think there is still the tension of how to immerse and be present with your writing and not disappear forever.  Not that you’d want to. . . but it seems the structure of when to go in and then pull out was more defined by us and your wanting to be present with us.

Dale & Young Daughters canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northeastern Minnesota

Jessica: Growing up with a mom as a writer certainly set me aside from my friends. I was encouraged to learn the language of colors and moods, not of apple pie and golf. My friends did not make the acquaintance of Mary Oliver, Robert Frost, or the man at the mic bravely sharing his work at a poetry reading on campus. A world unheard of by my friends was at my fingertips. Beyond poems and prose was the way I was encouraged to view the world: ripe, aging, new, dying, tragic, humorous, raw… full of suffering and hidden miracles. I would not trade my upbringing, second daughter of an amazing writer, artist, and poet. I am lucky to have learned and lived (and still do!) the language and veil of creativity from the best, my mom.

My daughters have been kind. Hugely supportive, always. I was, at times, a “space cadet,” a distracted mom, cranky and preoccupied, sometimes gone for weeks at a time to write, but I’ve always been haunted by what Jung said: that our children live out our unlived lives. And so, isn’t it better to live our passions honestly and not drop the burden of unfulfilled desires onto our kids? We never do know when we are launched on creative projects that compel and enthrall us—raising children, writing a novel—how smooth or bumpy the road will be. But follow it we must. And if we are lucky, as I have been, our children will also reap the rewards.

Dale & Adult Daughters at Luna Loon Lodge, Conover, Wisconsin



My post on Marshal Zeringue’s Blog Writers Read

1316794888_50_large1Writing my previous entry about Susanna Daniel reminds me that I did a post about what I’m reading several weeks ago for Marshall’s blog. If you’d like to read my thoughts on discovering Alexander Chee’s “hauntingly lyrical” Edinburgh, diving into Adrienne Rich’s “eloquent and empathic” A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008, or delving into the depths of The Ability to Mourn: Disillusionment and the Social Origins of Psychoanalysis by Peter Homans, Writers Read is the place to go.