In response to the recent spate of articles sensationalizing parenting choices and emphasizing negative attitudes towards motherhood (just in time for Mother’s Day!), I wanted to offer a different perspective that examines motherhood as a transformative, empowering, and sacred rite of passage and how we can support that process.
The psychiatrist Carl Jung defined an archetype as “a universal and recurring image, pattern, or motif representing a typical human experience.” The Mother archetype is a particularly powerful one, since our very existence is dependent upon the reproductive and birthing capabilities of our mother.
The Mother archetype, as with all archetypes, encompasses both positive and negative (shadow) aspects:
• Maternal solicitation and sympathy
• Life giving
• Magic authority
• Wisdom and spiritual
• Encompasses all that cherishes and sustains
• Fosters growth and fertility
• Place of magical transformation and rebirth
• Secret, hidden, dark, the abyss
• The world of the dead
• Anything that devours, seduces and poisons
• Is terrifying and inescapable similar to fate*
On a cultural and psychological level, we all relate to these aspects in one way or another. They are hard-wired into our collective unconscious and are expressed through symbols, myths and other representations throughout every culture.
Motherhood is a rite of passage, one that requires unconditional love, interdependent energy, and supportive rituals by the members of our family, friends and our community. In modern culture, most of these have been distilled down to gift-driven events such as the baby shower and Mother’s Day. Some women are now choosing to incorporate more soulful rituals or practices, including the making of belly casts or holding a Blessingway as a way to celebrate the transition to motherhood.
The workplace is often not supportive of the needs of pregnant or postpartum women. Stress, lack of accommodations for pregnancy-related or lactation needs, and maternity leave policies are typical issues. On the health care side, the emphasis is usually on the baby’s health. In many cases, hospital births are treated like a medical emergency and not the physical, emotional and spiritual transformation of woman into mother, which is compounded if a mother experienced a difficult, traumatic or surgical birth. The trend of mothers choosing home births, birthing centers, or the use of doulas to facilitate woman-centered, natural births that respects the mother’s inherent birthing capability demonstrates how some women are taking ownership of motherhood on physical, emotional and spiritual levels.
Many mothers no longer live within proximity to other women family members who can support and guide them in this journey through pregnancy, birth and beyond. Or, sadly, the relationship they formed with their mother was corrupted in some way, making the transmission of wisdom, love and energy difficult or impossible. The internet has given mothers ways to connect and receive guidance via email lists, message boards or structured play dates for their children. This approach can be very helpful for many mothers, but some end up feeling isolated if the online communities are not balanced with the physical presence of other family members or friends.
The journey to motherhood can be accompanied by anxiety, ambivalence, and a need for women to maintain a separate, distinct identity for fear of losing themselves. Women may be guilted into making difficult decisions and feel they must resist pressure from society and status quo in order to soulfully manifest an aspect of themselves that belongs to the natural order of life (for those that choose it.) The soul of motherhood is increasingly becoming fragmented.
Attachment parenting is one way women are reclaiming positive aspects of the motherhood archetype. Yet modern culture tends to view the once typical practices associated with mothering and attachment parenting in general (baby-wearing, breastfeeding, co-sleeping and even homeschooling) within the context of the negative aspects of the mother archetype (see “Inside the Rise of Extreme Parenting”.) Modern, post-Freud culture emphasizes the need for separation of mother and child post-birth, milestone by milestone. We fall short as a culture and community in honoring and supporting the interdependent nature of this sacred relationship.
When a mother experiences a birth trauma, surgical birth, or loss of child, motherhood may be threatened at the soul level. Well-meaning but insensitive statements including, “At least the baby is healthy”, “You can always have another one” or “it was God’s will” do not respect or hold sacred space for the mother to heal from the wounded and fragmented aspects of her soul.
A mother who experienced a trauma or loss needs deep support, love, and healing rituals at the individual, family and community level to help reintegrate at the soul level. Birth trauma can cause a mother to disconnect emotionally or spiritually, which can affect bonding with her child. The loss of a child – including miscarriage – can make a mother feel she has been stripped of her identity and status. We need to let those mothers know they are not broken or lacking; that they are whole and perfect as they are.
Women who suffer from post-partum depression who otherwise had a healthy, uneventful pregnancy or birth may also need soul healing. Mothers who are not emotionally secure, are being abused, or do not have their core needs met can also benefit from healing and integrated the fragments aspects of their soul.
Motherhood is a life-changing transformation that takes place on the physical, emotional and soul level. It should be celebrated and honored at all stages (pregnancy, birth, postpartum, and beyond), in ways that allow women to feel centered, whole, and empowered. This process should also include women who adopt or are stepmothers. As part of this transformation, we must find constructive, soulful ways to support mothers so they can fully step into their role with love, wisdom and confidence.
Photo credit: Picasso, Mother and Child by a Fountain, 1901 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) by clairity