On Mothers, patriarchy and false expectations

When, many years ago, I read Funerales de la Mamá Grande by Nobel Prize García Márquez, the figure of the ‘Big Mama’ the “absolute sovereign of the Kingdom of Macondo” didn’t sound like a hyperbole to me. I had already lived in Colombian towns where mothers were idolized and motherhood overrated to extremes.

Idolization of the mother figure, presented as a glorification of the feminine, is rather an inheritance from patriarchal times. Overstretched images of female beauty or saintly motherhood, a strategy used to cover up oppression, has contributed to patriarchy burying women’s voices and dominating social action to the benefit of men and detriment of women.

The more I traveled and met people, the more I witnessed how among Hispanics, moms respond to the supermom myth by overdoing their maternal role. We don’t have to go very far to find the overprotective, the intrusive, the co-dependent or the abusive mothers. And maybe, because we were immersed in such culture, all of us bear at least traces of each of these. Mea culpa! I confess my sins.

Many Latino mothers’ lives revolve around their offspring, and their ‘care’ can become asphyxiating. Which explains why it’s not infrequent to find awfully dependent adult children in our culture.

We also often find mothers overwhelmed with guilt, blaming themselves for their children’s shortcomings, feeling pushed to behave up to impossible expectations about what motherhood ‘should’ be.

If we were to be totally truthful to ourselves, Mother’s Day could each year be the perfect timing to examine unfinished business with moms, assess our current relationship with them and even quit seeking the impossible ideal of a mother that only has existed in our minds.

‘Good-enough’ mothers

To help average moms overcome guilt and shame about not being perfect, English psychoanalyst and pediatrician Donald Winnicott coined the term “good-enough mothers” in 1953.

Those were the days when psychology research started to support earlier Freudian thoughts that interactions between mother and child during the early years were central to the development of the child’s inner world. Mothers, paralyzed with uncertainty about the extent to which their deficits could affect their brood, flooded pediatricians’ offices.

Providentially, psychology also discovered that it’s the frustrations stemming from mother’s impossibility to attend her child’s every need what challenges the child’s forcing him to adapt to reality.

So, in a way, what Winnicott was telling moms was: dare to err. Your children might even learn to appreciate those mistakes as opportunities to mature and grow!

I’ve seen mothers doing sacrifices that children should acknowledge and praise. Many mothers proffer unconditional love; their hearts healing from wounds caused by insensitive accusations or blaming by their offspring, made in a moment of rage.

No doubt. Exemplary women, who forgive faults that only their mother’s heart could forgive, also exist. And, yes, many moms are available when things go oops! for their children.

But there are also dark sides to this story.

‘Good children’ and ‘not good-enough’ mothers

Let’s take the times of the infamous Colombian narco Pablo Escobar, when sicarios justified horrible crimes as means to meet the terms of their ‘duties’ as good sons. They were determined to take their moms out of poverty. Sadly enough, many of these mothers gladly and gratefully or at least silently received dirty money not even asking where it came from, as if ignoring the truth would made the misdeeds right!

Studies showed that most of the above moms were awfully permissive. It’s difficult to believe that Pablo Escobar’s mother herself never thought of his son as a criminal.

History offers many cases of mothers who used their children for profit. Far from being ‘good enough’ mothers, these moms – maybe forced by poverty and lack of methods for birth control -exploited their children. This was common in the early days of industrialization, when parents gave up their 5-year-olds to sweatshops for survival. These children worked 16 hours in a row; tied with chains and whipped to force them work beyond their capacity.

Even to this day, millions of children are exploited or neglected and abused in the world.

Not all moms are created equal

It’s easy to see that motherhood is in no way the same for all moms. While some rave on their experience, others may have trouble bonding with their child.

Many women decide to hand on their child’s care on to another person so they can carry on with their careers. Some openly neglect their children out of lack of knowledge about their parental role, lack of energy, mental illness or deficient love. And there are even moms who consistently say and do terrible things to their children, scarring their lives forever.

But in all truth, we have all been marked in some way by our mother’s mistakes. Moms are human! They will never be up to our idealistic expectations.

The consequences of prizing maternity too highly

I wish that we could from an early age understand that mothers can’t (won’t) be perfect.

Myths about mothers that continue lingering in our society, on one hand promote adoration of mothers and on the other hand allow for all the blaming mothers take for the weaknesses and shortcoming of their offspring.

Another troublesome aspect of valuing maternity too high is that women who decide they won’t have children tend to be seen as unsuccessful by their peers. Pressure comes from their families and friends. The choice of not having children seems unbelievable in a world that thinks a woman finds realization in maternity.

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Is your relationship viable?

You’ve had fight after fight and you are struggling to save the relationship. You tried counseling sessions; you listened to your friends’ advice, read books… and you’re still struggling. You’re not happy. You’couple strugglingre afraid of saying or doing something that might further hurt the relationship.

Most couples disregard the fact that they have personal histories that preceded their current relationship. These histories are made of childhood experiences at home, at school, with friends. This history includes previous relationships and also deeply rooted beliefs around which our lives have come to revolve. This background, this history and stories, determine the way we relate to others and lead us to forming assumptions that kill communication (you think that you know what s/he meant… but you don’t verify to learn if your conclusions are right).

Love is hard work. Crushes are fed with desire, expectation, sometimes obstacles that keep passion alive. They are exciting roller-coasters. However, once the relationship goes steady, people often leave the fire unattended. They feel the “goal” has been met, they belong to each other now, and they forget the ongoing need to nurture the relationship.

This is very dangerous.

To know if your relationship is still viable, it’s important to examine what  are you contributing to the relationship. Are the two of you growing together? Are you going in the same direction? Have you been supportive enough? Do you really respect and accept each other? Are you willing to negotiate and take responsibility for you mistakes? Are you competing or sharing?

When a couple comes for therapy to me, I let them know I am treating the relationship as a third party and I invite them to do the same: understand the relationship as a different entity. The struggles in a relationship are not about who you are or s/he is. The relationship is made of what you bring to it. It has a life of its own. You can nurture it or you can hamper it. You can keep it alive or you can kill it.

If in times of trouble you examine the relationship to assess if it’s still viable and you come to the conclusion that it’s not… the next problem you might be facing is that you would keep trying to fix it. It is difficult to end a relationship, after all you have made an emotional investment on it. Having a companion seems more desirable than being on your own. Changes are scary.

However, trying to fix an agonizing relationship against all odds, might lead you to even more dangers. You might find yourself trying to change the other person to suit your needs or to change yourself to keep it running.

Big mistake!

You can change the way you communicate or change some of your behaviors but you cannot change yourself and you cannot change the other. After all you didn’t engage in a relationship with the ideal other, your enter a relationship with a real person. Trying to change the other denotes lack of acceptance… you might be transmitting the message that the other is the wrong person for you and you cannot love her of him until they conform with your ideal. Ouch!

What needs to happen in a relationship is that either you have an unconditional acceptance of who you are and who the other person is or you will fall into a “violent” relationship.

Violence refers not just to the shouting, the insulting, the sarcasms or the hitting… violence includes your disapproval, criticism, rejections, belittling… because violence is not allowing the other to exist on their own terms.

Intimacy is not being naked on a bed or becoming confidants. Intimacy refers to a relationship where you can totally be yourself, express yourself, in the presence of the other without fear of being rejected, abandoned or betrayed.

If your relationship has become violent –as per the above definition- or/and you lack intimacy, look for help. If you have sought professional help and keep hurting, it’s better to end the relationship and avoid causing more pain.

Barriers to love

BDcard“Love is all there is,” some say. But really?

I find that we live in a society were all too often telling the truth, and I am talking about the inner truth, is not seen as an asset. I see people smiling when they feel like crying or shouting out loud in order to hide their grief or their fear. I also see people refraining from expressing their political preferences openly maybe because they are afraid of engendering discord. Especially among the so-called “spiritual communities” debate is seen as undesirable. Is like if we have built a society where only likeness could be trusted.

But in the world of duality in which we dwell we find ourselves constantly swimming between two waters.  Call it whatever you may: the law of polarity; the unity of opposites; Thanatos and Eros; destructive vs. constructive forces; yin and yang.

Our lives are driven by opposing drives or forces. One day, we love; the next, we hate. Today, we have faith; tomorrow, we worry or feel overwhelmed by doubt. We navigate through life driven by either duty or pleasure, pride or guilt and shame.

If we could at least honestly acknowledge the inevitable truth of our dual nature, we would not carry on pretending to be loving people when deep inside we are maybe despising others or pulling them out of our lives on the grounds that, for example, they are not as evolved, knowledgeable or spiritual as we are…

Loving those who are different could be a challenge. And there is no doubt that those people who are difficult to love are usually the ones needing love the most.

Friendship, partnership… any meaningful relationship for that matter… must be built on love, that’s true. But love is not of the very mushy nature depicted in novels and movies! True love is strong and veritable, long-lasting and loyal. And I am not referring solely to personal love. Unconditional love might also be strong and bumpy.

When we invest love on others, it’s better not to hold expectations that they would behave or feel or talk in a certain way. Love is based on acceptance. I love you for who you are not for what I want you to become. Another thing is that we could of course deliberately choose who to love based on our preferences and we need to set proper barriers to shield us from bullies. But often it’s love that chooses us. We’re tied to our family and we didn’t choose it. We’re tied to our peers, etc.

I think that if we’re constantly comparing our object of love against some ideal that we set up early in live, we’re likely to be disappointed more often than not. Expectation often comes from our unconscious desire for perfection. Perfectionism comes from growing in an environment that required perfection as a requisite to be accepted and loved.

The third person is essential for emotional health

A dad is trying to playfully connect with his 9 year old at a restaurant. The boy is standing to Imagehis left side and the father has his arm around him. Both seem a little uncomfortable. The dad starts throwing what feels like a math quiz at the child.

What’s the 40% of 50? the dad asks and the boy can’t easily find the answer.

The dad gives him clues, takes him to “what’s the 40% of a hundred?” to which the boy easily replies 40 and then the dad insists with the former question.

Even though this time the boy easily says 20, he is frustrated and concludes, “I’m not smart, dad.”

This simple anecdote of an interaction between father and son makes me think of a hundred things.

For one, how difficult it is to respond sometimes to the emotional needs of another person!

The father’s intention seems to be to communicate with his son, to play with him, to stimulate the child’s brain. However, he doesn’t seem to realize he’s making the child feel incompetent and stupid. Not a good foundation for a parent-child relationship, but unfortunately this interaction is not uncommon between adult and young males.

There was an implicit “leave me alone” plead from the boy that the father never got. I am pretty sure the child will remember this one as a humiliating moment where he perceived his father was more intelligent. He will probably also feel that his father sees him as a failure and therefore won’t feel proud of him. Not unlikely, the father-son memory will be recorded with some resentment that will mark even the son’s choice of career (not good for math, I will choose art).

The saddest thing though is not only that the father didn’t pay attention to the child’s discomfort (the father kept insisting) but that the dad’s good intention was not recognized either.

I believe in these cases a third person is essential. Was this a divorced father sharing weekend time with his child? The mother was not there. Would she have stopped the father from going on with the quiz to protect the child? Would she have interpreted and explained to the child what his father’s intention was?

I’ve seen how important it is for single parents to have a third person reinforce their authority, share responsibilities, explain their intentions to the child.

I’ve also seen how important it is for a child who is verbally mistreated in public to have a third person intervene and stop the abuse. It takes the blame out of him/her (“It is not something I did what explains my parent’s behavior”).

I am certain that in many occasions our perception of the world is tinted and biased because we lack the third person in our lives who can explain and interpret the facts for us. For example, a grandfather who provides a different perspective; the stranger who defends the child; the wife who explains the father’s intention; the therapist who allows for a space where emotions are acknowledged and things can be seen from a new perspective.

Let’s look for opportunities where our children can see the two sides of a coin. That will help them integrate lightness and darkness and grow emotionally healthy.