Mothers. We all have them. Some are wonderful, archetypal in their ability to authentically and richly love and nurture. Others are harsh, rejecting, abandoning, damaging. However, most seem to be a swirling mix of positive and negative aspects~~as are we all~~though, with a decided slant toward the good.
As a psychotherapist, I have been given a unique view into the lives of children of all ages, and have heard many stories of various mother-child dyads. I have also been given the opportunity to see the ways in which folks internalize aspects of their mothers~~for good or ill~~and have witnessed the gradual resolution of destructive mother wounds. And I have seen this healing advanced through attention to, not only the mothers of one’s immediate family, but the other mothers encountered in life. For you see, most of us have known several mothers and, if we’re wise, will continue to collect new ones throughout our lives.
Mothering is not something that is confined to the women who birthed us way back when or to those who raised us. Mothering, is not a biological or a sociological fact. It is a way of relating offered by the women who grace our lives with their presence.
A relevant concept from traditional psychology is that of the maternal introject. This term refers to the process by which children internalize the qualities of their mothers. While the infant and toddler require the mother’s presence to feel safe, for example, by the time a child has made repeated forays into the world outside the family, she or he has hopefully learned to carry that sense of safety within them. This internalized mother allows them to gradually expand their world and gain a sense of autonomy.
The difficulty comes, of course, when the child’s mother is not safe, or not consistently so. But here is where that incredible resilience of the human spirit comes in~~and lucky that it does. Children who were given a mother who was inconsistent, confusing, or harmful often find positive mother figures, and instinctively use them to modify that original defective model. They internalize aspects of these mothers as well. Being able to draw on several maternal figures is important for all children, since it furthers the awareness that safety and support are not confined to one person or one relationship. However, for children who were abused, neglected, or otherwise given short shrift in the mother department, this task is essential.
The work of rounding out or healing a less than totally healthy maternal introject is an important aspect of maturation for most of us. We must make peace with the internal mother mix~~heal the aspects that were harmful, nurture those that remain beneficial~~all so that we can mother well, whether that mothering be of ourselves, our offspring, or within any important relationship of our lives.
The metaphor which seems to capture this process, and our task within it, is the Mom Quilt. To explain this image, though, a quick detour into the world of quilting is needed. There is a form known as the Crazy Quilt, which consists of many pieces of fabric of various colors, patterns, shapes and sizes. The skill of the esthetically inclined quilter lies in the placing of these disparate swatches, one against the other, to form a whole that is pleasing to the eye. A given fabric may not be particularly appealing in itself and would not be chosen for an entire spread. However, together with the others, in just the right placement and unified within the perfect border, it works beautifully. An added delight is that such a quilt is utterly unique, a one-of-a-kind creation.
This seems a particularly appropriate symbol for the task set for each of us~~the crafting of our very own Mother Quilt. The mother of our birth will certainly be included. If we were blessed with a loving and supportive biological mother, her fabric may be large and central to the entire quilt. If aspects of her influence were harmful, our task may be to cut her down to size, including her in a way that reflects her importance in our development, but no longer overpowers the entire quilt.
Other women~~aunts and grandmothers, supportive teachers, mothers of friends, fictional, religious or historic figures, professional or personal mentors, best girlfriends, and others~~have their own swatches worthy of inclusion. The size, shape, and placement of each will reflect the impact of that woman on our lives. And as we lend strength and love to others~~as well as to our own sweet souls~~these pieces, too, become part of the whole.
Now unlike a real life Crazy Quilt, our Mom Quilt will continue to be modified as the years go by. New women will come into our lives bringing with them new fabric, while others may decrease in importance as their swatches shrink or change position. Through the process of grieving when our mothers die, we may come to see them and their place in our lives differently, with a resultant alteration in their allotted portion of the whole. Indeed, our Mom Quilt must be a work in progress. With a light and flexible hand, we allow this creation to mature with us, while remaining open to new mothering figures who come our way. In just this manner, our quilt will provide warmth throughout a lifetime.
Yes, a Mom Quilt is a dynamic thing indeed. And utterly unique. We are the ones who determine its layout, who step back periodically to gauge the overall effect, who decide on needed changes. One nagging legacy of deficient mothering is that the child may unconsciously seek out ‘momming’ of the same defective style as the original. The Mom Quilt image can be used to clarify this process by encouraging us to search out new colors, shapes, and textures and to play around with positioning.
So on this Mother’s Day, here’s to every woman out there who mothers, nurtures, and supports others in the way best suited to their own talents and life situations. You are earning your place in the Mom Quilts of others!
And to those who are grieving the loss of a mother, or are struggling with the emotional harm inflicted by a harsh or distant one, I know that the classic Hallmark card doesn't accurately reflect your feelings on this day. Perhaps the metaphor of the Mother Quilt will soften the pain as it encourages you to step back and gain a richer perspective. This hurt will not always be so piercing.
On a personal note, to my own mother who crossed over nearly 12 years ago, your position in my quilt remains front and center. Your swatch, bright with the occasional darker swirl, continues to enrich my life as I discover aspects of your mothering I simply could not see while you walked this earth. I love you.
Blessings this day to all mothers~~and to all their children,