“Motherhood: Facing and Finding Yourself”

For a number of reasons, I was drawn recently to a Zoom program on “Motherhood” at the C.G. Jung Foundation in New York City. With two children and five grandchildren I have learned a little about what women give up on giving birth. The lesson becomes clearer as I age and each new baby comes into the family. My mother never seems to be too far away from the proceedings.

In the book on which the program was based, “Motherhood: Facing and Finding Yourself,” by psychologist Lisa Marchiano, the author recounts her initial reluctance to have children, given the pull of career possibilities. She writes that “It has been over fifteen years since that thought first struck me and my babies have grown into teenagers. Along the way, it has not ever ceased to be true that parenting is gut-wrenchingly difficult and always offers new insight about myself, if I care to see them. I have learned from my parenting experiences, and I have been privileged to witness the parenting journeys of mothers in my practice — some of them becoming mothers for the first time, others managing a relationship with their adult child, and everything in between.”

The book in some ways reads like a parable, a rich narrative thread that is further enriched by a variety of fairy tales that underscore the journey of motherhood that the instructor, informed by the works of C.G. Jung, compared to the process of individuation, coming into psychological wholeness which represents the coming of true Self. Jung wrote that “Unless one accepts one’s fate, one remains a mere accident, a mortal nothing.”

Marchiano writes that motherhood is an existential loss of freedom, like being thrown down a metaphorical well and finding yourself “at the mercy of inner and outer forces beyond your conscious control.” She writes in considerable detail about other losses, including the loss of control, voice and identity. Having a negative mother or damaging experiences in childhood exasperates the loss of self.

For the author one key to successful motherhood is coming to grips with one’s own shadow, a “collection of unacceptable aspects of our nature that we cast into the dark in the process of personal development. From our parents, teachers, and culture we learned what parts of ourselves need to be hidden. Anger, selfishness, and sexuality are some examples of those aspects of ourselves we may have learned to think of as unacceptable.” In turn we often project these features on other people. “What we don’t like in ourselves we will see in others.” The authors notes that “When we project our shadow material onto our children without becoming conscious that we are doing so, it can poison their lives. It is a spell they must break, and doing so often comes at a great cost.”

One of the most compelling parts of this book is the chapter, “Embodying Darkness,” a psychological confessional about when her anger at her daughter became extreme, writing “that I was at full volume, my face contorted with irrational fury. She grew back in terror and confusion, crying. She was so distraught that she vomited.

“In the moments that followed, all the anger was gone and just sadness remained. I cried and held her, apologizing to her. I remember thinking. ‘Today is the day I learned I am not a good mother.’ I had seen my own shadow.”

The author suggests that motherhood might be one of the few places in life that women can see their own shadows because it pushes women into such extreme feeling states. It is inevitable that children, and perhaps teenagers in particular, “will provoke out shadow side.” Marchiano does not mince words: “At an intellectual level, we may be aware that we are hypothetically capable of terrible things just by virtue of being human, but we may never before have met those.” To provide fuller context she refers to a “Newsweek” article about a woman who drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001. The writer says she was met with two kinds of horror on the faces of those she asked about the killings: “There is the unimaginable idea of the killings, and then there is the entirely imaginable idea of going quietly bonkers in the house with five kids under the age of seven.”

The last part of this book is titled “Surfacing,” as in coming back to the surface of life and perhaps time in the deep well after childbirth. These chapters include: “Claiming Transcendence,” meaning a personal god, the divine, or the spiritual parts of oneself that have been lost; “Claiming Creativity,” an essential, constructive aspect of the psyche; and “Claiming Authority,” or regaining contact of the instincts and the forgotten wisdom stored up in us. In Jungian terms this “Surfacing” is essential to the individuation process, the development of Self and wholeness.

I should add that the fairy tales included in this work, too extensive for a short review, are fundamental to the tone, breadth and psychology of “Motherhood” in that fairy tales have been long known to convey essential truths and for that reason have found a home in Jungian psychology. Moreover, the fairy tales cited predominantly capture the struggles of the feminine psyche and are a perfect narrative and structural addition to the book.

I’m also grateful to the author, her lecture and her book, for a chance to better understand my own mother who had seven children, all during wartime.

That’s for another time.

(Note: “Motherhood: Facing and Finding Yourself,” Lisa Marchiano. Sounds True, 2021.)



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