The Fear of Abandonment: Missing Mothers and Fairy Tales

Hansel and Gretel (1890) by Marie Wunsch (1862-1898) for Abandonment podcastOne of my earliest and most frightening memories is the time I became separated from my mother in one of last century’s massive department stores. I must have let go of her hand, or she mine; which one of us wandered off I will never know. I looked around, and suddenly, inexplicably, she was nowhere in sight. I felt pure terror. In the busy aisles, unfamiliar adults brushed passed me with cold impassive faces.

Abandonment is one of our primal fears. For nine months, we inhabit our mother’s body, completely dependent on her for life-giving essentials. When the umbilical cord is cut, we become separate beings, unmoored from our source. Unlike other primates, at birth we are helpless and dependent.[1] Humans develop self-sufficiency at a slower pace than our primate cousins and remain immature longer than most. Without an attentive caregiver, our early existence is precarious.

Before Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, speculated that separation from our mothers at birth is the central trauma of our lives[2], European philosophers, among them Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre, theorized that fear of abandonment is a major component of modern consciousness. What they understood — the existential nature of our anguish, despair, and aloneness — we now embrace as a condition of our post-modern psyches.

Long before these renowned thinkers espoused their theories, our foremothers sat around a fire exchanging wisdom tales. P.L. Travers, author of the Mary Poppins series, shares her literary detective work: “When a woman is the chief character in a story, it is a sign of its antiquity. It takes us back to those cloudy eras when the world was ruled not, as it was in later years, by a god but by the Great Goddess.”[3]

Maternal mortality, dying while giving birth or thereafter, must have been high on women’s lists of ever-present dangers to their lives. Medical historians Van Leberghe and Debrouwere estimate that maternal mortality could have been as high as 25% in prehistoric times.[4] In traditional societies, a solicitous maternal presence insured safety, security, survival. Her absence could be catastrophic, often presaging an arduous struggle for her offspring for food, shelter, and love.

Common wisdom often comes down to us through folk and fairy tales. So it is not surprising that the tragic event of a mother’s death or absence, due to separation or illness, found its way into them. These cautionary tales illustrated the challenges an orphaned child might encounter after such a grievous loss: loneliness, poverty, despondency, victimization by revenge, competition, jealousy, envy, greed. The tales don’t just depict these woes, some were maps to transformation, from naïve and untested young girls to brave, self-sufficient young women. For heroes, the transformation required a warrior stance, slaying the enemy or killing the monster. But for heroines, the prescription was the deployment of charm, wit, cunning, generosity, kindness, gratitude, and respect for nature. Remedial attributes and virtues, rather than sheer courage and brawn, secured her success over malevolent forces.

Cinderella (1899) by Valentine Cameron Prinsep (1838–1904) for Abandonment blog postMany well-known tales begin with a mother’s death. Most often, though not exclusively, stories about mothers and daughters start in this manner. (“Cinderella” and “Snow White” are the best-known examples in the United States.)

In fairy tales, as in dreams, the opening event presents the initial situation or predicament that sets the story’s action rolling. “Vasilisa The Beautiful,” a Russian tale, begins with these words:

In a certain Tsardom, across three times nine kingdoms, beyond high mountain chains, there once lived a merchant. He had been married for twelve years, but in that time there had been born to him only one child, a daughter, who from her cradle was called Vasilisa the Beautiful. When the little girl was eight years old the mother fell ill, and before many days it was plain to be seen that she must die. So she called her little daughter to her, and taking a tiny wooden doll from under the blanket of the bed, put it into her hands and said:

 

“My little Vasilisa, my dear daughter, listen to what I say, remember well my last words and fail not to carry out my wishes. I am dying, and with my blessing, I leave to thee this little doll. It is very precious for there is no other like it in the whole world. Carry it always about with thee in thy pocket and never show it to anyone. When evil threatens thee or sorrow befalls thee, go into a corner, take it from thy pocket and give it something to eat and drink. It will eat and drink a little, and then thou mayest tell it thy trouble and ask its advice, and it will tell thee how to act in thy time of need.” So saying, she kissed her little daughter on the forehead, blessed her, and shortly after died.

The death of the mother precipitates the daughter’s journey to find her way in a seemingly cruel world. Bereft of a tender, caring maternal presence, sorrow and woe besiege the grieving child, a trope much more common in stories about a daughter’s loss of her mother than a son’s. In both cases, the abandoned child must “grow up,” that is, become her own true self; but the masculine-identified child is encouraged to take immediate action, while the feminine-Identified child is encouraged to suffer through the hardships. However, the tales also indicate that without the initial difficulty, abandonment, the heroine would not be required to discover her courage, self-respect, self-worth, and maturity.

In some tales, the mother figure is not dead but metaphorically “missing.” She is emotionally neglectful, passive, or narcissistic and inadequately loving, like the mothers of “Rapunzel” and “Hansel and Gretel.” Or she is beholden to her male counterpart. The consequences of having this type of mother are just as devastating as if she had died.

What do we make of all the wicked stepmothers? The frequency with which they appear indicates a truth about human wholeness. No person is all-good, all-giving, all-knowing. No human is without anger, jealousy, greed, what Carl Jung called the repressed shadow, the split-off and unacceptable aspect of our psyches. In the tales, the negative qualities society rejects are projected onto the figures of the wicked stepmother, the witch, and the hag.

Woe to him who thinks to find a governess for his children by giving them a stepmother! He only brings into his house the cause of their ruin. There never yet was a stepmother who looked kindly on the children of another; or if by chance such a one were ever found, she would be regarded as a miracle, and be called a white crone.

So begins the Italian tale of “Nennillo and Nennella.”

What mother hasn’t had moments of anger, frustration, exhaustion, and resentment and felt like a monster? What mother hasn’t wanted, against her best judgment, to lash out at a child? How shameful we feel accepting our emotionally-nuanced humanity!

In fairy tales, the dead or missing birth mother is idealized and angelic. In “Cinderella,” the perfect mother is represented by a fairy godmother who appears when Cinderella’s need is urgent. Like all good fairy godmothers, she supplies the necessary goodies for Cinderella’s transformation. In “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” before Vasilisa’s mother dies, she gives her daughter a wooden doll, a stand-in for a fairy godmother, and a perfectly attuned maternal presence.

Vasilisa finding her way using a shining skull (1899) by Ivan Bilibin (1876-1952) for Abandonment blog postBoth fairy godmother and magical doll represent the capacity of an abandoned child to internalize and elicit “the good mother” within. Despite early life disturbances, through facing adversity, the child develops the ability to trust her inner resources and intuition. Stories like “The Handless Maiden,” “Vasilisa The Beautiful,” and “The Miller’s Daughter” in which the heroine must perform a series of impossible tasks show the development of self to a greater degree. Help also comes from the natural world, from a frog that appears on the path, a wise bird, a friendly wind, and here, too, the heroine must consult her inner wisdom in deciding where to put her trust.

Human wholeness admits we are complex creatures: generous AND selfish, caring AND disengaged. In fairy tales, as in dream work, we can interpret all the characters, including the non-human ones, as “parts” of our psyches. We are the needy helpless children, AND we are brave heroines/heroes. We are Beauty AND we are the beast. We can be sturdy as a tree, blown about like a feather. We burrow in the mud of not-knowing, like frogs. We open our petals in the sunshine, like fragrant roses. Every aspect of a tale can be interpreted and considered symbolically for a more expansive and revelatory understanding of our nature.

The fantasy ending “of happily ever after” can be re-visioned with the knowledge that our suffering does not preclude joy and transformation, possibility and fulfillment. What the tales tell us is that we may be alone, but we are not forsaken; we are part of a vast universe in which helpful forces abound.

[1] Wong, Kate, “Why Humans Give Birth to Helpless Babies,” Scientific American, August 28, 2012

[2] Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, “The act of birth is the first experience attended by anxiety, and is, thus, the source and model of the affect of anxiety.”

[3] Travers, P. L., About Sleeping Beauty (1975), p. 59

[4] Van lerberghe, Wim and Vincent Debrouwere, “Of Blind Alleys and Things That Have Worked: History’s Lessons on Reducing Maternal Mortality,” Research Gate, November 2000

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.”

If you found this blog interesting, you may also enjoy “How Snow White and Her Cruel Stepmother Help Us Cope with Evil,” “Mothers, Witches, and the Power of Archetypes,” and “Write Your Own Fairy Tale.”



Our Mothers, Ourselves: the Search for the Whole Story

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe for Mothers blog post

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.

She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.

She gave them some broth without any bread;

And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

How entrancing those nonsensical rhymes were to us as children, the chant more compelling than the meaning. As adults, however, we hear the verses with more mature ears and try to divine their symbolic meaning.

What about the mother portrayed in the Mother Goose rhyme? Her origins may be traced to Queen Caroline, wife of King George II, and her large brood, or the rhyme may refer to an ancient superstition linking fertility to shoes. But even if the poor, old, overburdened woman is a stand-in for a real person, she also represents the archetype of a harried worn-out mother, her children starving for attention and love. As an archetypal image of an unfit mother, she reflects a set of conditions that exist across time and continents, as does the depiction of her childrens’ desperate situation.

Cultural images of a range of mothers and mothering abound. Consider the haranguing critical mother-in-the-sky in “Oedipus Wrecks,” Woody Allen’s segment of the film New York Stories. A female deity with tight curls and a kvetching voice, Sadie Millstein is the intrusive and unescapable mother from Hell, a Medea in her own right. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the all-good mothers, Margaret March, “Marmee,” in Little Women, or the self-sacrificing mother in Fanny Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life. Dickens gives us the negligent Mrs. Copperfield, and Mrs. Jellby in Bleak House. Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet is a loving mother but a social climbing fool. As we age, witches and hags, fairy godmothers and cuddling mamas tramp through our dreams.

We tell stories about our own mothers—to ourselves, to friends, to our partners and our therapists, but are the stories we repeat the whole picture? Whether our mothers were vicious or supportive, praising or blaming; whether we consider them a benevolent or malicious force, our mothers were our first love. As our earliest and most primary relationship, the way we attach to our mothers in infancy will shape how we respond to love the rest of our lives.

Understanding our mothers as complex figures free daughters to accept their undiscovered or disowned parts. The often painful quest to sort through the past and to explore who our mothers were beyond the stories we’ve told ourselves can satisfy an unconscious yearning for wholeness within ourselves.

Fountain of Goddess of Ephesus for Mothers blog postIn her book, In Her Image: The Unhealed Daughter’s Search for Her Mother, Jungian analyst Kathie Carlson invites the reader to dive deeper into the complex relationship between mothers and daughters and to consider that relationship in a fuller context that goes beyond personal experience. Carlson differentiates three points of view from which we can understand our mothers: the child’s, the feminist, the archetypal.

Carlson begins with the woman who raised us, our personal mother: “The primary relationship between women is the relationship of mother and daughter. This relationship is the birthplace of a woman’s ego identity, her sense of security in the world, her feeling about herself, her body, and other women.” Mother is The Source. She is our container, our protectress, the vital entity in which we grow, through which we are born, and upon which our survival depends. (I am speaking here, too, of transgendered women, of men who take on the primary caretaker role of “mother”). As mother, she holds our life and death in her hands. A problem arises, however, when an adult daughter continues to view her mother from the child’s perspective, when she evaluates the mother in terms of how she affects her (the child), expecting the mother to be all things “supportive, nurturing, unselfish, and infinitely caring,” qualities that suppose a super-human flawless being.

Carlson suggests the child’s point of view is egocentric and limited, but necessarily so when we are infants and children. As infants, we need to establish a bond with an all-powerful presence who will appear when we wail in hunger and who can fulfill our basic needs. The degree to which we have missed out on quality mothering is mirrored in the physical and emotional distress that may emerge as we develop. In extreme cases of negligence or abuse, children are vulnerable to a condition called failure to thrive (FTT).

Kali trampling Shiva for Mothers blog postA problem arises when we carry the developmental needs and expectations of childhood into adulthood and continue to suffer the rage or depression engendered by early deprivation. “Many of us,” Carlson writes, “have not had even adequate mothering, much less the ideal; many of our mothers have been too depleted themselves. We end up disappointed in our mothers, hurt, angry, blaming, needy, raging, yet unable to let go of our need for them. We feel starved emotionally…We feel terrified of becoming like our mothers…”

As Carlson notes, many carry within us this unhealed child and an attendant sense of unworthiness, which affects our other relationships. Healing the core woundedness, she explains, involves a deeper and more comprehensive view of our mothers, one that does not negate the child’s view but includes looking at our mothers as women with their own histories, needs, and temperaments as well as expanding our understanding of our mother as part of a transpersonal order.

If the first perspective from which we see our mothers is the child’s egocentric view, the second perspective is what Carlson calls a feminist perspective, and what I call a woman-to-woman perspective. From this viewpoint, our mothers are products of their histories, their biology, their culture, their temperament and genes. Seeing our mothers through this lens allows us to replace the ideal projected image with a more realistic and empathetic knowledge of who our mother really is. This is not to say an abused, neglected, or mistreated daughter denies or excuses wrongful mothering, only that by seeing her mother as a full human being for whom she can feel sympathy, the daughter is more able to separate from her mother and to feel compassion for her own deeply held pain.

The third perspective Carlson introduces in her book is the experience of the archetypal or transpersonal mother who “comes through” to us in dreams and religious symbols, in Mother Nature, and in experiences that help us reframe our emotional connection to our personal mothers. A way to understand how archetypes work in our lives is to imagine that all aspects of all mothers are contained in the collective archetype of Mother. She who is named the Shekhinah, the feminine complement to God; the Great Huntress; the Queen of Heaven; Hera; Astarte; Sophia; the Madonna; Kali; Lilith.

If, for instance, we have felt abandoned by our personal mothers or have felt her meanness and betrayal, we can look to the ancient stories and symbols that depict both the light and dark sides of the Mother. Knowing this, we are more able to relativize our personal experience. We do not deny or excuse the pain or the perpetrators of that pain, but we can feel less isolated, less bitter and resentful knowing our pain is part of the continuum of the human condition.

The Return of Persephone for Mothers blog postAs an interesting experiment, we can gather tales that speak to us of our experiences as the daughter of our mother. Do we identify with the abandoned and orphaned Little Match Girl, or the under-appreciated object of jealousy, Cinderella? Perhaps we feel closer to Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, who is separated from her mother by Hades, and dragged into the underworld. Perhaps there are more contemporary stories that resonate with ours. In any case, find stories that reflect your own experience and think how the story might be told first from the daughter’s point of view, and then differently, from the mother’s point of view. Imagine hearing Mrs. Portnoy’s worried voice narrating the trouble she sees ahead for little Alexander! What might you learn about yourself if you heard your own mother’s whole story?

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.”



Mothers, Witches, and the Power of Archetypes

Preparation_for_the_witches'_sabbath._Etching_by_D._Vivant-D_Wellcome_V0025875
Preparation for the witches’ sabbath. Etching by D. Vivant-Denon after D. Teniers the younger.

Anyone who has been raised by a cruel or neglectful mother can attest to a painful legacy of rejection. The effects of deprivation of good maternal care are uncontestably at the core of a host of psychological maladies. Our first relationship is with our mothers. Across cultures an infant’s first attempt at word-forming starts with babbling the sound Mamommy, maman, mater, mutti, amma, mare—as if from birth we are programmed to call out to the person most likely to sustain our lives.

But what do we make of negative mothers, those who do not care for and attend to us? Once, on a friend’s sheep farm where I’d gone to help with lambing, I witnessed the sad spectacle of a mother ewe rejecting her offspring. Tottering on its weak legs, the lamb struggled to nuzzle and suckle, but the ewe shoved the lamb from its udder. The lamb tried again, and again the ewe kicked and butted until the newborn lamb collapsed and gave up. Recently, while reading Peg Streep’s excellent book, Mean Mothers, this haunting image returned to me.

“. . . not all mothers love, unconditionally or otherwise. For the mother who doesn’t, the cultural myths of unconditional love and maternal instinct require her to hide and deny her feelings at all costs, even if she cannot always keep herself from expressing them in words or gestures. There’s no room in the mother myth for the mother who resents all the attention her infant or toddler needs, or who chafes at the necessary loss of freedom and self-focus the transition into motherhood usually entails.”—Peg Streep, Mean Mothers

Our personal mother may be cruel and inadequate in fulfilling our needs, but it’s helpful to enlarge our understanding of their influence by exploring the archetypal dimensions of motherhood and situating the personal within the context of the universal. As Carl Jung writes:

“. . . all those influences which the literature describes as being exerted on the children do not come from the mother herself, but rather from the archetype projected upon her, which gives her a mythological background and invests her with authority and numinosity.”—Carl Jung, Four Archetypes

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Behind the personal mother is the archetype of the Great Mother. She is the force that drives creation and destruction, fecundity but also the barren womb. The Great Mother is Mother Nature who brings us fruit and grain but also hurricanes, drought, and locusts. She is Gaia, Demeter, Isis, and all the other goddesses from the beginning of time who have been worshiped and propitiated, demonized and thrown out.  She is not our birth mother, she is the our psychic heritage of what motherhood attains, and she carries within her the poles of good and bad mothers that come down to us through fairy tales and myths.

“These are three essential aspects of the mother: her cherishing and nourishing goodness, her orgiastic emotionality, and her Stygian depths.” —Carl Jung, Four Archetypes

As the bad mother we know her as the queen in Snow White, as Cinderella’s stepmother, as Circe or Medusa, whose gaze turns us to stone. These figures stand for a reversal of positive mothering. Instead of providing food and comfort, they seduce and devour, harboring a secret malicious intent. They “eat up” our self-confidence or numb us with their betrayal. Many of us read these tales and identify ourselves in the narrative. We say, Yes, my mother is just like that, and we can understand that from the beginning of time there have probably been mean mothers, and realize, because of this long history, that we too can survive our own.

Among the archetypes, the witch is a fascinating figure. When someone calls another “a witch,” we know exactly what they mean. The witch has powers. She is uncanny and unholy. She lives outside the borders of civilization and has been ostracized because her ways stand in opposition to accepted values, thus challenging our own impulse to conform. To not conform, especially as women, puts us at risk of being called a witch (or the rhyming word that begins with a B).

“The witch figure presents an awesome image of the primordial feminine concern with herself. Maternal life spends itself like life’s blood flowing outward to nourish the sounds and bodies of loved ones. In the witch figure, life flows inward and downward to fuel the dark recesses of a woman’s psyche or a man’s anima.”—Ann and Barry Ulanov, The Witch and the Clown: Two Archetypes of Human Sexuality

The witch reminds us there may well be unnamable and untamable aspects of ourselves where passions stagnate and fester. What parts of us don’t fit into the conventional idealized feminine? Do we harbor an urge that wishes to transgress and to cross borders? Historically, innocent women have been tortured and killed because the prevailing masculine rule feared female sexuality.

What if we draw on the full complexity of the mother archetype and think of our mean mothers in another way: as women whose creativity has been stifled, the vital flow of their creative energies dammed up, ignored or rejected, and thus unavailable to be consciously used? Without a positive outlet, these women may experience a fixed negativity that damages their ability to nurture.

The hundreds of similar fairy tales illustrate the universality of certain psychic phenomena. In most tales, the witch is a persecutory figure. She pounces on victims who feel helpless to defend themselves. In reality, young children can be helpless victims of parental neglect, and good fairies do not always intercede. But as adults, we can see beyond our own situations to the archetypal dimensions that underlie our present reality and discover we do not suffer alone. In these tales, help of some sort usually steps forward to rescue the heroine, often in the form of animals, birds or toads. We can hope that these also represent archetypes: inner helpers cultivated in our own psyches who will lead us out of harm’s way.

Fuseli Night Hag Lapland Witches 2 for Mothers Witches post
The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches by Henry Fuseli (1796) illustrating lines 622-66 from Milton’s Paradise Lost “the night-hag when, called, / In secret, riding through the air she comes, Lured with the smell of infant blood, to dance / With Lapland witches, while the laboring moon Eclipses at their charms.”

 

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.”