It is hard at times to compartmentalise that some women in this world have the ability to bring forth life. That the makings of us, our limbs, our beating heart, and the delicate flesh that shelters our being, all began to form while shielded in the warm comfort of a woman’s womb, and after many months, we departed from this first home and continue to grow outside of it. It comes as no surprise that many traditional societies revered women because of this, that the sacredness of the earth was likened to the sacredness of women as both embody birth, life, and regeneration. This innate strength cannot ever truly be reduced to scientific explanations or biology. Yet with the reproduction of life comes motherhood and there is a myriad of things which motherhood brings. The relationship that is formed between mother and child, whether it is one of lack, plagued by abandonment or inconsistency, or one of warmth filled with love and understanding, can be burdening or liberating, and yet these intricacies are not talked about as openly as it could be but is instead something to be unravelled in the confined, paid space of therapy which only a privileged few can afford. As I have grown, I have watched my life be steadily filled with the presence of women from all walks of life and I have always found that a conversation arises between us about our relationship with our mothers. Such conversations speak of feelings concerning topics such as womanhood, the grey areas of love, and the journey of reparenting oneself. What is interesting about these conversations are the sighs of relief which are not always literal but seen in the softening of the eyes, the release of bated breath, and the voice which rises in surprise that our lived experiences as daughters were similar and both unexplored. These repetitive and cathartic encounters are mere reminders to me that the mother wound is a truth which can often be left behind at the detriment of not just the liberation of many daughters but at its root, the liberation of mothers themselves.
In this essay, I will be exploring the idea and meaning of the mother wound. I will be discussing the wounds within, that are left on daughters by their mothers and in turn, the wounds left on mothers by the world and the systems we live in. I will be explaining the taboos which exist concerning the complexity of emotions that are apparent in motherhood, their integral role in the creation of mother wounds within daughters, and the urgent need for more open conversations about these complexities for the betterment of mothers and their children.
There are enough sociological and psychological theories to solidify the idea that who we are in our adult lives is an entanglement of influences and impacts we have experienced in our formative years and that our parents play an overwhelmingly crucial role in our development and attitudes towards ourselves and the world surrounding us. The notion of primary socialisation details to us the process whereby as children we are socialised into the norms, values, and practices of society through our engagement with and observation of our parents. Our family introduces us to the social world (Thomson, McLanahan, and Curtain, 1992) so the role that they play in those primary years are crucial. The late neurologist, Sigmund Freud, also believed that individuals were affected by their childhood not just concerning their level of socialisation in society but also that our adult personalities and actions are mere reflections of the unconscious influence our childhood had on us (Yorke, 1996). Therefore, we are broadly aware of how much our primary experiences in our family homes impact who we are and our attitudes to ourselves and others. Yet, the mother wound is different in that it specifically deals with the relationship between mother and child. Though the mother wound can be applied to both men and women, I will be looking at the mother wound between a mother and her daughter. Our relationship with our mothers is particularly poignant because it is our mother who brought us into the world and they are, in society, propagated as our nurturers and protectors and so daughters seek from them their first glimpse of femininity and how to perform womanhood. It is from them that we have a glimpse of who we may become as we grow into women, it is from them that we see the cultural perceptions of women being adhered to or turned away from, it is their beauty that makes us reflect on our own and it is the way that they receive and give love that first shapes our understandings of our place within such a complex emotion. Dr. Mari Kovanen defines the mother wound as a mother not being emotionally attuned or available to her as a child in the fact that she may have been present physically but emotionally absent (Kovanen, 2017). There are various childhood experiences which can cause the mother wound, such as a lack of security a child felt from their mother as well as empathy, or the child not being able or allowed to express their emotions (especially negative ones) and therefore struggling to manage their feelings. Then, of course, the mother wound can be created when the mother is not physically present enough, or at all, or a mother who whether consciously or unconsciously pours onto their child the burden of their own unresolved traumas.
When the relationships with our mothers are strained, absent, violent, or void of something that we crave but cannot name, we are left with a wound within us that affects us in ways that sometimes we may not be able to articulate or comprehend. The mother wound specifically can cause daughters to have low self-esteem, lack of emotional awareness, an inability to come to terms with their own emotions, ability to self-soothe as well as the feeling that nurturing relationships are not within their reach or capable of their possession (Lewis, 2020). Yet, as a daughter, the mother’s wound affects our perception of our own womanhood. How do we explore the tenderness within us if we have only seen a mother who has hid hers in order to show strength against the adversities of this world? As we become as hard as her to navigate the hurdles she faced before us, do we then believe that this is who we are? That our tears or unspoken desires to be seen as soft and fragile enough to be tended to is in fact a weakness that gives in to the lame perspectives of our gender. What about the fact that as we grow we may realise that within us is the desire to be affirmed more, to be told repeatedly that we are loved, that we are enough in our ways and our beauty because we did not hear that enough from the women who birthed us? Because her perceptions of us were embroiled by judgments influenced by her own culture that uplifts women when they are aligned to particular terms and conditions. The mother wound impales daughters as it does mothers but when it is left untreated within daughters, it creates a generational transference of this mother wound continuing relationships that are strained or broken, where resentment brews but is never soothed.
I believe that the mother wound reflects the cultural and societal limitations that exist in understanding the breadth of what it is to be a woman and the complexities of motherhood. In society, women have long been perceived as the gender which is at its core; nurturing, loving, peace-making, and understanding. The emotions which are gentle in their essence are tied to femininity and in turn, the idea is perpetuated that all women are naturally maternal beings. Yes, this is heavily influenced by the fact that many women are capable of giving birth but also due to the patriarchal society which works on the unjust balance of the powerful and the receiver of the power, and in turn, all things are measured in this binary way: if men are strong, women are weak, if men are violent, women are gentle, if men are angry then women are understanding and so on and so forth. In this restrictive understanding of gender, the woman falls short in that she has been taught to perceive herself through a gentleness that does not relate to the world because around her exists not gentleness but the cruelness of violence, inequity, and powerlessness. When women are understood in such a limiting fashion then the moment which she feels or acts in particular ways that go against the society’s normative view of her womanhood, she is said to be out of line. This has always been dangerous to the experience of motherhood. In expecting women to be naturally maternal we expect mothers to have an abundance of love, care, and kindness to their child. We expect mothers to be saint-like in their relationship with their child by pouring their heart and soul into their child for the child’s development. Society may not realise that the perception of motherhood is one that strips away the identity of the mother in the fact that once a woman brings life into this world she is not solely her own person anymore but becomes someone’s mother and all that she does is in debt to fulfilling that role. Adrienne Rich called it a maternal obligation that requires self-sacrifice (Jacobs, 2015), and what comes from this is the emotions which exist in conflict with or differ from the expectation in the sacrificial motherhood model are met with castigations, stigma, and judgment. We are shocked when we hear a woman say she regrets having children, we are shocked when we hear a woman say she feels her life was taken away from her when she had children and we are shocked when women feel a level of resentment towards their own children. I have heard mothers speak on their bittersweet revelations of guilt or nostalgia of who they were prior to having kids. It is important to understand that these conversations seem so shocking because these women have feelings that society has tainted with shame, such shame births secrecy and this secrecy becomes guilt that mothers are made to feel by people who will never share their experience of motherhood. The shock and stigma are caused by our socialised idea of women when in reality mothers should be able to openly explore such emotions not just for themselves but also for other women who desire motherhood but are not aware that these feelings can exist for them. Why? Because these realities, when unexplored, perpetuate the mother’s wound. This is because feelings such as regret or guilt can turn into resentment and jealousy which is felt in a mother who sees in a daughter all she will never be. Even if the mother loves her daughter endlessly, as a human being such emotions cannot be avoided or suppressed and do affect the daughter directly. When we are able to perceive women as individuals harbouring feelings outside of their motherhood then we are able to understand that they possess emotions which are riddled with the same toxicity and narcissism that can be present in every human, regardless of gender identity. These behaviours do not cease to exist in the moment of birth giving but in fact, are now not only affecting the mother herself but her child too. In the same way, we can understand that women face the brunt of societal and cultural pressures (molded by patriarchy and capitalism and misogynoir) before, during, and after their added role of becoming a mother and this weight is passed down onto their daughters. We see mothers burden their daughters with the taunting of their weight, of their age and lack of marital status, of particular beauty standards, of ways to be and see the world, of who to love and it is all a reflection of the influence such oppressive standards have had on them and their inability to conquer or resist it. The mother wound then highlights, as Bethany Webster notes, the passing down of the pain of being a woman in patriarchal cultures (Webster, 2021).
What happens to the daughters of unliberated mothers? I believe it is not the daughter’s role to liberate her own mother but it is important to see that your mother is also a woman who, like you, has experienced the unfairness of our patriarchal society. Through humanising our mothers and understanding them outside of the role they have undertaken, we are able to see more clearly the generational trauma she may have passed onto her daughter and where those roots lie in order to uproot them. Motherhood enhances a woman’s traumas because it is no longer contained in solely the mother’s body and her own experiences but instead her daughter now receives these wounds through the ways it has influenced her mother’s communication, thought processes, and love languages towards her. All of this is being observed and absorbed by the child. In this way, resentment is born in the child growing up to realise that her wounds are the debris of another person’s pain and now the pain is also hers, that she must independently deal with. Those with mother wounds are always in a state of becoming, as they try to understand themselves separate from their mothers’ gaze as well as the gaze of society and culture. It is a journey of self-actualisation that deals with healing and reparenting oneself, it deals with unlearning the ways of their formative years so they do not accept the same wounds from different channels or give those same wounds to those they love. The sense of loyalty and obligation which many daughters feel to their mothers should not equate to the rejection of who they are to guarantee their mother’s love. I believe that the more I seek to know myself authentically and accept the many facets of who I am, love, believe, and desire the I am conquering the wounds of expectation that riddled my youth. In the way that my mother’s culture perpetuates a self-awareness for women which is in reality the awareness of the male gaze, in centering my self-awareness on the gaze I seek to possess for myself, I am reclaiming a part of being a woman that has been absent for many of the women in my family and culture at large.
As an Igbo woman, it often feels like in my culture there is no place to talk about the complexity of mother-daughter relationships. Such critique is seen as incredibly negative and unwanted when taking into account the sacrifice which is entrenched in Black motherhood and in turn the respect which it must be met with but I do not believe this to be healthy for both the mother and the daughter. It is important to give space for these conversations for the healing of both parties. Yes, there are mothers who had children because they were taught their whole life that it was part of the parcel of marriage but once such a weight is felt by their children then such an experience is not theirs alone anymore. Critiquing these experiences is not devaluing the trials of motherhood but rather sheds light on the existing issues of culture and the violence that it has on women’s bodies and many women’s life trajectories. Daughters are allowed the space to speak of their experiences, their wounds, their anger towards their mother, or their needs from her. In expressing their pain and exploring their feelings, they are able to put words on times they have cried or felt that the love they have for their mother is a love that is inauthentic to what they have been taught to feel. It often feels like womanhood is reliant on living in the secrecy of emotions that aren’t tasteful, emotions that aren’t tasteful because they jeopardise the validity of the status quo, this in fact shows that the status quo is damaging to women and women alone. A mother is not supposed to feel guilt for having children and in turn, a daughter is not supposed to feel resentment at the fact that she felt her mother’s guilt. Yet, these emotions continue to fester and the bond between the pair is strained because they both feel what they are not ‘supposed’ to feel. It is ridiculous. As I encounter more and more women with mother wounds, I am aware that there are more and more women who became mothers while burdened with this trauma. It is no one’s role to invalidate the experience of daughters by making them feel ungrateful for their mother but instead to understand that through the liberation of their feelings, they are not passing down their wounds to their own children but are in fact liberating themselves in ways that their mother should have been liberated.
When I think of my own relationship with my mother, I think of who she was before she decided to have children and how what she dealt with poured into her relationship with her children. The behaviours she has that I do not like and that affected me are exactly what she received from her own mother as well as a direct influence of her surroundings in Nigeria and what being a woman in that period meant. I definitely know that no matter what, I am my mother’s child and that this means that I will share similar behaviours with her but to truly become myself and separate myself from her own traumas, I have to find myself and reconcile with the rejections that can exist in my own becoming. My respect for her is not absent in my critique of certain aspects of her mothering but instead, I am looking for what caused these aspects, what part of her should have been healed that I can heal for myself. The sacrifices in motherhood that Igbo culture makes daughters so aware of are sacrifices that are made when patriarchy deems that freedom of self must be exchanged for motherhood, that corrupt government and colonial structures mean an individual must depart from their home in search of something better, that marriage must equate to children. I look at these sacrifices with contempt because they are sacrifices she should not have had to make and I should not have to carry. So, let us reframe our understanding of motherhood to understand mother wounds, to heal daughters who are finding themselves and re-mothering themselves again because it is through expressing the totality of our lived experiences that we are able to find the beginnings of our freedom.
Webster, B., 2021. Heres Why It’s Crucial to Heal Your Mother Wound (and How to Start). [online] Bethany Webster. Available at: <https://www.bethanywebster.com/blog/mother-wound-healing/>
Bethany Jacobs, Mothering Herself: Manifesto of the Erotic Mother in Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, MELUS, Volume 40, Issue 4, Winter 2015, Pages 110–128,
Kovanen, D., 2017. Healing the mother wound – Part 1: Understanding the mother wound, good enough mothering and impact as an adult. [online] Counselling Psychologist | Reigate | Surrey | online | Individual & Couples therapy. Available at: <https://www.drmarikovanen.co.uk/healing-mother-wound-part-1-understanding-mother-wound-impact-adult/>
Lewis, R., 2020. The Mother Wound: What It Is and How to Heal. [online] Healthline. Available at: <https://www.healthline.com/health/mother-wound>
Thomson, Elizabeth, Sara S. McLanahan, and Roberta Braun Curtin. “Family Structure, Gender, and Parental Socialization.” Journal of Marriage and Family 54, no. 2 (1992): 368-78. YORKE, CLIFFORD. “Childhood and The Unconscious.” American Imago 53, no. 3 (1996): 227-56. Accessed April 8, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26304492.