One of the hardest experiences a daughter can have in a mother/daughter relationship is seeing that your mother is unconsciously invested in your smallness. For women in this predicament, it’s truly heart-wrenching to see that, out of her own wounding, the person who gave birth to you unconsciously sees your empowerment as her own loss. Ultimately, it’s not personal but a very real tragedy of our patriarchal culture that tells women they are “less than.”

We all desire to be real, to be seen accurately, to be recognized, and to be loved for who we really are in our full authenticity. This is a human need. The process of becoming our real selves involves making peace with our capacities to be messy, big, intense, assertive and complex; the very things patriarchy portrays as unattractive in women. 

Historically, our culture has been hostile to the idea of women as true individuals.

The patriarchy portrays attractive women as people-pleasing, approval-seeking, emotional caretakers, conflict-avoidant and tolerant of poor treatment. To some degree, mothers often pass these messages along to daughters unconsciously causing daughters to create a false self, usually, through the mask of the rebel, the loner or the good girl. The main message is “You must stay small in order to be loved.” However, each new generation of women comes with the hunger to be real. One could say that with each new generation, the patriarchy is weakening and the hunger to be real is strengthening in women, and in fact, it’s now beginning to take on a certain urgency.

The longing to be real and the longing for mother

This presents a dilemma for daughters raised in a patriarchy. The longing to be your real self and the longing to be mothered become competing needs; there’s a sense you have to choose between them. This is because your empowerment is limited to the degree that your own mother has internalized patriarchal beliefs and expects you to comply with them.

Pressure from your mother to remain small comes from two main sources: 1) the degree she’s internalized limiting, patriarchal beliefs from her own mother and 2) the level of her own deprivation which comes from her being divorced from her real self. These two things cripple a mother’s ability to initiate her daughter into her own life.

The cost of becoming your real self often involves some degree of “rupture” with the maternal line.

On one end of the spectrum, for healthier mother/daughter relationships, the rupture may cause conflict but actually serve to strengthen the bond and make it more authentic. On the other end of the spectrum, for more unhealthy or abusive mother/daughter relationships, the rupture can trigger unhealed wounds in the mother, causing her to lash out or disown her daughter completely. And in some cases, unfortunately, a daughter will see no other choice than to maintain distance indefinitely to maintain her emotional well-being. Here your mother may see your separation/rupture as a threat, not a result of your desire for growth, but as a direct affront to her, a personal attack and rejection of who she is. In this situation, it can be heart-wrenching to see how your desire for empowerment or personal growth can cause your mother to blindly see you as a mortal enemy. In this situation we can see the massive cost that patriarchy exacts on mother/daughter relationships.

“I can’t be happy if my mother is unhappy.” Have you ever felt this?

Usually this belief comes from the pain of seeing your mother suffer from her own inner deprivation and compassion for her struggle under the weight of patriarchal demands. However, when we sacrifice our own happiness for our mothers, we actually prevent the necessary healing that comes from grieving the wound in our maternal line. That just keeps both mother and daughter stuck. We can’t heal our mothers and we can’t make them see us accurately, no matter how hard we try. What brings the healing is grieving. We have to grieve for ourselves and for our mother line. This grief brings incredible freedom.

With each wave of grief, we re-unite with the parts of us we had to disown in order to be accepted by our families.

Unhealthy systems need to be disrupted in order to find a new, healthier, higher-level equilibrium. It’s a paradox that we actually heal our mother line when we disrupt the patriarchal patterns in the mother line, not when we remain complicit with the patriarchal patterns to maintain surface-level peace. It takes grit and courage to refuse to comply with patriarchal patterns that have generational momentum in our families.

Letting our mothers be individuals liberates us (as daughters) to be individuals. 

Patriarchal beliefs foster an unconscious enmeshment between mothers and daughters in which only one of them can be powerful; it’s an “either/or” dynamic based in scarcity that leaves both dis-empowered. For mothers who have been particularly deprived of their own power, their daughters can become “food” for their atrophied identity and a dumping ground for their troubles. We must let our mothers have their own journeys and stop sacrificing ourselves for them.

We are being called to become true individuals, women who have individuated from the beliefs of patriarchy and own our worth without shame. Paradoxically, it is our fully owned individuality that contributes to a healthy, whole, and unified society. 

Traditionally, women have been taught that it is noble to carry other people’s pain; that emotional care-taking is our duty and that we should feel guilty if we deviate from this function. In this context, guilt is not about conscience but about control. This guilt keeps us enmeshed with our mothers, depleting ourselves, and ignorant of our power. We must see that there’s no true cause for guilt. This role of emotional caretaker was never a true role for us, it is simply part of our legacy of oppression. Seen in this way, we can cease allowing guilt to control us.

Refraining from emotional caretaking and letting people have their lessons is a form of respect for self and other. 

Our over-functioning contributes to the imbalance in our society and actively disempowers others by keeping them from their own transformation. We must stop carrying the load for other people. We do this by seeing the sheer futility of it. And we have to refuse to be the emotional custodian and dumping ground for those who refuse to do the necessary work for their own transformation.

Contrary to what we’ve been taught, we don’t have to heal our entire families. We only have to heal ourselves.

Instead of feeling guilty for not being able to heal your mother and your family members, give yourself permission to be innocent. By doing so, you are taking back your personhood and your power back from the Mother Wound. And consequently, you are handing back to your family members their own power to live their own journey. This is a major energetic shift that comes from owning our worth and is demonstrated by the ways that we remain in our power despite calls to give it away to others.

The cost of becoming real is never as high as the cost of remaining your false self. 

It’s possible that we may experience backlash from our mothers (and our families) when we become more real. We may experience hostility, withdrawal, sulking, or outright denigration. Shock waves may be felt through the entire family system. And it can be staggering to see how quickly we can be rejected or dropped when we stop over-functioning and embody our real selves. However, this truth must be seen, and the pain endured if we are to become truly real. This is why support is essential.

In his article, “Mindfulness and the Mother Wound” Phillip Moffitt describes the four functions of a mother:  Nurturer, Protector, Empowerer and Initiator. Moffitt says the mother’s role as initiator “is the most selfless of all the aspects, for she is encouraging a separation that leaves her without.” This function is profound even for a mother who has been fully supported and honored in her own life, but almost impossible for mothers who have known great pain and have not sufficiently healed their own wounds.

A patriarchy severely limits a mother’s ability to initiate her daughter into her own personhood, because in a patriarchy, a mother has been deprived of her own. It sets her daughter up for self-sabotage, her son for misogyny, and a disrespect for the mother “ground” out of which we come, the earth itself.

It is precisely this function of mother as ‘provider of initiation,’ which launches a daughter into her own unique life, but this role is possible only to the degree that the mother has experienced or found her own initiation. But the healthy separation process between mothers and daughters is greatly thwarted in a patriarchal culture.

The problem is that many women live their entire lives waiting for their mothers to initiate them into their own separate lives, when their mothers are simply incapable of providing this.

It’s very common to see the postponement of the grief of the mother wound, with women constantly going back to the “dry well” of their mothers, seeking the permission and the love that their mothers simply don’t have the capacity to provide. Instead of grieving this fully, women tend to blame themselves, which keeps them stuck. We must mourn how our mothers cannot give us the initiation they never received themselves and consciously embark on our own initiation.

The rupture is actually a sign of an evolutionary impulse to separate from the patriarchal threads of our mother line, to break the unconscious enmeshment with our mothers fostered by the patriarchy and become initiated into our own lives. 

My work of helping women heal their mother wound is to help women get out of this cycle of self-blame and to do the necessary grieving so that they can finally claim the power and potential of their own lives. Part of the process is about embracing this deep, existential grief so that you can finally be initiated into the freedom and creativity of your own life. And ultimately this grief gives way to genuine compassion and gratitude for our mothers and the mothers before her.

It’s important to see that we are not rejecting our mothers when we reject their patriarchal beliefs that say we should stay small in order to be accepted. What we are actually doing is claiming our life force from impersonal, limiting patterns that have kept women hostage for centuries.

Make a safe space for the longing for mother

Even though we are adult women, we still long for mother. What can be truly heartbreaking is to feel this longing for mother and know that your own mother cannot fill this longing, even though she tried her best. It’s important to face this fact and grieve. Your longing is holy and must be honored. Allowing space for this grief is an important part of being the good mother to yourself. If we don’t mourn our unmet need for mothering directly, it will unconsciously seep into our relationships, causing pain and conflict.

The process of healing the mother wound is about finding your own initiation into the power and purpose of your own life. 

This is not run-of-the-mill self-improvement. Healing the mother wound is essential and foundational; it is the in-depth, quality work that transforms you at the deepest level and liberates you as a woman from the centuries-old shackles that you’ve inherited from your own mother line. We must detox from the patriarchal threads in our mother line in order to step into our mastery.

Of the role “mother as initiator,” Moffitt says, “This initiating power is associated with the shaman, the goddess, the magus, and the medicine woman.” As more and more women heal the mother wound and consequently step firmly into their own power, we finally find the initiation we’ve been seeking. We become capable of initiating not only our daughters, but also our culture as a whole which is undergoing a massive transformation. We are being called to find deep within ourselves that which we haven’t been given. As we claim our own initiation by way of healing the Mother Wound, together as one, we increasingly embody the goddess that is giving birth to a new world.

Art credits: Tamara Tavenier