Mothers, Again

A week or so ago, I was plowing my way through an article by Jacqueline Rose on the huge significance mothers have in psychoanalysis. On the one hand, Rose was wondering whether it was fair to place such a burden on mothers, whether they really were the place that the buck stops as far as some fundamental things about our identity are concerned, and on the other hand she was intrigued by the way that knowledge seems to wither and die around mothers; they are not, she seemed to suggest, open to taming by knowledge the way most other natural phenomena are. Now this was one heavy article and if nothing else became clear, it was apparent that over the past couple of years I have lost my tolerance for obtuse prose. Even a year ago, I might have made the effort to get to the bottom of what it was saying, but for the time being I read it, somewhat perplexed, thought I maybe had the gist, wasn’t sure, kept thinking I’d read it again and allowed my attention to wander elsewhere.

And isn’t it funny how these things happen. Yesterday I was reading the title essay in the collection by Irvin Yalom, ‘Momma and the Meaning of Life’, and found its perfect counterpart. Yalom is writing in his sixties, his mother’s been dead for ten years, but his resentment rumbles on. ‘She was vain, controlling, intrusive, suspicious, spiteful, highly opinionated, and abysmally ignorant (but intelligent – even I could see that),’ he writes. ‘Never, not once do I remember sharing a warm moment with her.’ And yet what provokes him into writing the essay at all is the recurring dream he has of being a young child, about to embark on a fairground ride into the House of Horrors, and searching for his mother in the crowd of onlookers. When he catches sight of her he waves his arms and calls out: ‘Momma! How’d I do, Momma? How’d I do?’ Yalom can’t quite figure it out. ‘I fought with Momma, defied her, screamed at her, avoided her, and, finally, in my midadolescence, stopped speaking to her altogether.’ So why should it be that, towards the end of his life, he is still dreaming of catching her attention. He wonders: ‘Can it be – and the very possibility staggers me – that I have been conducting my entire life with this lamentable woman as my primary audience?’ Can it really be, Yalom marvels, extrapolating outwards from this piercing desire for his mother’s approval, that despite everything about their relationship, he still turns to her ‘for the meaning of my life’s work?’

This is, I think, exactly what Jacqueline Rose is talking about. Yalom is an extremely experienced psychoanalyst, one who can explain the nature of his fraught relationship to his mother in a dozen different ways. He can intellectualize about his needs and her needs until kingdom come. But no matter how old or eminent or wise he may be, there is still a part of him that longs for his mother’s approval, utterly regardless of empirical data, experience or understanding. And so, in the essay, he describes how he lies back in his chair and returns to the dream, in order to (as he calls it) squeeze its secrets out. What happens next, the fantasy he creates to settle the matter, I found quite remarkable. Yalom allows his mother to give him a right ticking off. He was always ashamed of her, she chides him, then he stopped talking to her and deprived them both of a relationship, after all she had done to ensure he had a good education, all the work she’d put in to earn money, the care she’d taken of him and the rest of the family, and worst of all, there were never any thanks. In his imagination, Yalom allows himself to be put in his place, mumbles his thanks with genuine gratitude and not a little shame. But the sticking point concerns his books, the dozen or so books he has written that his mother brags about, barricading herself into her nursing home chair between their piles. The problem seems to be one of ownership. Yalom knows he wrote those books, but his mother has other ideas. ‘These are my purpose,’ she tells him. ‘I worked for you – and for them. All my life I worked for those books – my books.’ Yalom is unnerved by this. He sees it as an indication of his mother’s unwillingness to let him go and live his life in freedom. The mistake of ownership of the books is an indication of a more sinister merging, whereby what’s his is never his, but must return, at least in part, to the mother, as a kind of permanent tax on his existence. This seems to be the crux of the matter, the reason his mother still appears in his dreams, and he tells her (as kindly as he can) that he wants her out of them. Inevitably, his mother gets the last word: ‘Your dream? That’s what I want to say to you. That’s the mistake, Oyvin – your thinking I was in your dream. That dream was not your dream, Sonny. It was my dream. Mothers get to have dreams too.’

And that’s where the essay ends; mother and son reconciled to some extent, but still confused over the basics, over what belongs to whom. I found this a very evocative little story, not least because it ends so enigmatically. What does it all mean? What is this point of connection, of intermingling between mothers and children that can’t be thought about, or that can’t be thought out, into the open, into a clear resolution? It’s not about the rights and wrongs of relationships, about who did what to whom; Yalom lets his grudges go very easily when it comes down to it. No, it seems to me to be about something we might call a bond. The bond, between two creatures of the same flesh. It’s not something that is easy to think about, any more than the earliest days of life, which are filled for mother and child with each other. That bond is the first thing we know, before we have any words or thoughts or clear feelings to know it with, so it’s no surprise that it’s almost impossible for a son or daughter to comprehend in any abstract way. But what comes with the bond is tremendous loyalty; a loyalty that remains true to the notion of the bond and its conditions regardless of what happens in life. Hence Yalom is still waiting for his mother’s approval, still longing for her gaze that brings him the security and the strength he needs, even at 60, to be sure he is living his life with some meaning.

If you ask me, that bond of loyalty is the most overlooked, underestimated and misunderstood element in the whole confusing history of family relationships. Parents fail to trust to it; look at Yalom’s mother in his fantasy, still aggressing him for some proof of his love for her, still haranguing him with all that she can’t let go because she doesn’t trust him to remain fundamentally loyal. It’s the King Lear moment, and many a parent has succumbed to it, I don’t doubt. And children worry about the price the bond might extract, the way it might hook them back into a regressive state of dependence and similarity. Yalom can’t quite see that it’s okay for his mother to think those books are hers; that it doesn’t diminish his ownership in anyway. He’s not convinced that they may share the same current of creative energy whether in books or in dreams, and remain independent, but from the outside we can see it’s perfectly possible. Someone should have told them both that their loyalty to one another was never in question, and that if they agreed to trust to it, it could come without cost or condition. Of course, they might not have understood that in words, needing to feel it, but the bond would have continued in any case between them, enigmatic but indestructible.

13 thoughts on “Mothers, Again

  1. Interesting essay! Your conclusion is intriguing: that trusting the bond of loyalty would release parent and child from the demand for proofs that cause pain. Two of your statements jumped out at me. One: “The bond, between two creatures of the same flesh.” That evokes a mythic quality that evolved in the 19th century. My daughters and I share no genetic connection. I love them passionately, profoundly, and have since they were first in my arms. Second: “But what comes with the bond is tremendous loyalty; a loyalty that remains true to the notion of the bond and its conditions regardless of what happens in life.” Children are hardwired to bond and love their parents–but it isn’t regardless of anything. I think that also pertains to social sentimentality about mothers and families and the ubiquitousness of “forgiving.” The bond can be broken. Abuse can break it. And sometimes it doesn’t break the bond when it ought to, and instead the adult child lives with Yalom’s ponderings and anguish a thousand times compounded. Loyalty to denial, dysfunction, violence and lies is better left behind. Sometimes that necessitates releasing the bond to the source of all light and love.

  2. What a wonderful post! I’m with you on the diminishing tolerance for obtuse prose, having to wade through rather a lot of it in my working life as well. But I’m struck by how you demonstrate in the paragraphs that follow that plaint your own capacity to convey some very complex ideas in clear and elegant prose. This is why I so love to visit your blog.

  3. David – I am looking forward to your response very much. There was a lot I could have said and didn’t, fearing for my word count, and there was a lot that I felt myself not quite grasping in either essay. I rely on you and my other blogging friends to help me out with that and am never disappointed.

    Lilian – what an interesting response. Because I do believe that you can have a bond between adopted children and parents that is tremendously strong. I don’t think, though, that to bond and to love go hand in hand, which is why I tried to talk only about loyalty. I do think that parents (as you suggest, abusive ones) can lose the right to a child’s love. I’m careful to talk about structures that remain in place, and they can be empty, there can be choices taken not to fill them. But as Yalom discovers, the longing for love and understanding or recognition from a parent may still ghost in the space, or even cry out in it, long after that choice has been made. I quite agree that those kinds of soured relationship are sometimes better left behind by an adult, but I think the bond might remain, however inconvenient or even unwanted.

    Kate – thank you! And – groan – isn’t that obtuse prose hard work! But it does allow the writer a lot of wriggle room to express themselves and a lot of wriggle room for readers to interpret. Already, I can see places where I wish I could clarify more what I meant, or add another few sentences! But I appreciate no end your kind words, and send a hug of thanks for them.

  4. i think there is still a bond between me and my father despite — it all. there is no love, respect, or communication, but if there were no bond then it wouldn’t cause such significant pain in my life.

  5. but i wonder reading this… is there a bond with my mother who did care for me till she died when i was 2? but if i cannot remember her, is the bond still there?

  6. You know … I actually don’t think it’s OK for Yalom’s mother to claim his books as hers. Her doing so doesn’t diminish his ownership of his work in any way, but it does reinforce an unfortunate implied ownership of him personally, and an inability to distinguish his individuality.

    IMO, the best series of thoughts would be: I parented this child, this child had a success, I am proud of the child, and I am proud of myself for contributing to this child’s life in a way that helped him to be successful.

    But that’s a very different sequence of emotions than: Your work is mine.

    Loyalty aside, I think it really is a problem when lines of individuality are blurred between parents and children. And it’s a problem for the parents as much as for the children … how many frustrated parents live vicariously through their kids, because the child can’t cut those ties, and permits that subtle vampirism to go on, lifelong?

    I have to say that I’m suspect of anything calling itself loyalty, and acting like … well, like a leech. 🙂

    I also wonder why it is that seemingly successful people do still want their parents’ approval. I don’t necessarily think it’s a universal phenomenon … I tend to think it’s symptomatic of something deeper in the person’s inner life that needs attention. But then, I tend to think that all “real” people are symbolic in the external world, and that the subtext of relationships is more real than the relationships themselves.

    Yalom will never get what he needs from his mother. So … where does that leave him? Does it leave him with a literal need from his literal mother, or does it leave him with something deeper and harder to wrangle with?

  7. I also read this one and was struck by Yalom’s acceptance of the fact that his mother has had such a powerful and ongoing influence on everything he’s done. This also reminded me of some advice a therapist gave me which was that one of the main tasks in therapy is to sort out what is ours and what is the other person’s (mom, lover etc.) Maybe it’s an incomprehensible mess some of the time (the connection that is) but we keep returning to that primary bond with different thoughts, emotions etc.

  8. You’re right about the bond. I think the big complications in life come from mistaking a loyalty bond, which does not need to (nor should be broken) with the bond of the parent-child role (for lack of anything more creative to call it). How parents and children respond to the latter bond and allow (or don’t) it to be broken is key. It must be broken, at least in some places, in order for children to become adults in their own rights, but quite often the parents don’t want to break it, or the children don’t want to break it, or everyone discovers it seems to be made of some sort of unbreakable material. Combine those problems with a broken loyalty bond (that never should have been broken), and well, then you’ve got REAL problems, haven’t you?

  9. Emily – You did cross my mind as I was writing this, and I wondered how you would feel. I think you are right – that if there were no bond to your father, his betrayal would be something you could grieve, rail against, and eventually allow to slumber. Your mother is a very interesting question and one that in all honesty I’m not sure how to answer. Except maybe, as I think about it here, I feel there is one, still, because it informs the love you bring to your children. If you had only known abuse, would you have known how to love your children the way you do? Even if it’s deeply buried, I think that tenderness and care, the regulations and the order of the bond, resurface in your relationship to them. I hope that’s an okay answer.

    David – such interesting remarks. I agree with you – Yalom’s mother is in no way right to own his books like that. And I also agree wholeheartedly that merging does neither child nor parent any good, whatever short term gain either side may see in it. But I feel that Yalom cannot control his mother’s response; she clearly won’t back down or go away. So if he wants to stay balanced about the whole thing, his only hope is to wrangle with that deeper thing – the entanglement itself, and let her go, too. Two people must agree to merge, however forced or blackmailed that merging may appear. If Yalom can find a genuine response of ‘Whatever’, the black magic is broken. Your point about loyalty and leeches is also very true and something to think about for another day.

    This thought: ‘I tend to think that all “real” people are symbolic in the external world, and that the subtext of relationships is more real than the relationships themselves.’ is just exquisite and I can only thank you for it. You just crystallised there something I might have felt but dimly and was without the means to express.

    Pete – how interesting also, that act of sorting out what is one’s own. This could be extended to issues of guilt and responsibility, I suppose, and even beyond that, to issues of grief and anxiety. Well that’s also given me pause for thought – at the sheer complexity of such divisions and the suspicion that the very act of relationship might be poised on the seam of such shared, uncertain emotions.

    Emily – and never a truer word spoken! Quite so, I do agree. Letting children go is the hardest thing a parent has to do (and facing up to it with my son, I am acutely aware of that). And yet there is no other way, and he won’t be free to love me unless I do. The last thing I want is love as coercion or duty. It feels like walking a tightrope with no safety net, but if I believe in his loyalty (and I do), then it will be okay. You are so right that when it gets messy, the trouble begins.

  10. Rebecca – thank you so much! I would warmly recommend any of Irvin D. Yalom’s books if you like case histories. He writes very accessibly and very interestingly about the people he has helped.

  11. Very interesting ideas and a well done post. Why is it though that fathers rarely come into the picture? And I wonder how, since these days many fathers are much more involved in parenting and at the very least assisting with mothering, how will that affect the way we think of mothers when we are adults? Will some of the mother anxiety move to fathers? Just thinking.

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