On the windowsill in my psychotherapy office sits a sand-art picture, a simple black frame filled with colored sand. Each time you shake the frame, the sand shifts seamlessly into a new design.
I keep it there for my patients. When they notice it, I ask them if they’d like to examine it. “Shake it,” I suggest. Then I tell them why I keep it in my office.
“Our minds are like sand dunes, filled with hidden treasures, your stories,” I say. “Every story you have ever lived or imagined is buried inside you, waiting to be revealed as the grains of sand shift and open up new possibilities.”
All of us are storytellers. We don’t know when we might unexpectedly shake up a forgotten story, just like shaking the sand-art picture brings up new images. Reality—like our stories—is always shifting and deepening, which is the goal of therapy: to awaken stories that remind us of our vulnerabilities, strengths, and new possibilities.
I don’t tell my patients my own story, but it’s my story about my mother that has informed my thinking.
As I write this, it’s been almost eight years since my mother died, but I still sometimes find myself arguing with her in my mind, alternately judging and forgiving her, rethinking our complicated bond. It is said that many people who become psychotherapists do so to better understand themselves. This is certainly true for me. Over the past forty years, I’ve specialized in the mother-daughter relationship. Helping my patients understand their mothers has helped me become familiar with parts of myself—and my mother—I might never have known if not for the stories I’ve heard.
Stories are great teachers; they have the power to heal. The tales from my office and my life may help you untangle your stuck places and develop compassion for yourself and, possibly, for your mother. While you didn’t pick your mother, as an adult you always have the opportunity to choose new pathways. It’s never too late to let go of frustrated expecta- tions and celebrate a connection you might have thought was doomed to disappointment and hurt.
PART ONE: Welcome to Womanhood
Imagine that you are searching through a box of old photographs, seeking a picture of your mother. Find one that strikes you, and look at it closely. Notice the expression on your mother’s face. What is she wearing? Notice her clothing. What is the background of this picture? If it is outdoors, what is the weather like? The light? If it is indoors, notice the furnishings that catch your eye. If there are other people in the picture, how is your mother relating to them? As you contemplate her at this particular moment in her life, be aware of what she is feeling.
The Most Important Woman You Have Ever Known
It’s 1991 and I’m elated, seated in a small circle in the center of a crowded conference room with six volunteers. My workshop, Therapists as Wounded Healers: Healing the Mother-Daughter Relationship, is packed. I’m at the prestigious National Eating Disorders Association’s conference in Columbus, Ohio, training mental health professionals on how to work with daughters with eating disorders and their mothers. It’s a diverse group; women dressed in every imaginable outfit, from conservative business attire to colorful, flowing bohemian garb, fill the room, all eager to learn about treating the families of clients with eating disorders.
I created this workshop to help therapists pay attention to their inner lives; therapists’ wounds need to be honored, rather than buried. When they work with families, their own wounds are inevitably triggered, which is why many therapists shy away from working with families. Therapists need to notice and become comfortable with how easy it is to blame, demonize, or idealize one’s mother. Working on ourselves is the therapist’s best tool when it comes to maintaining objec tivity with patients.
Earlier, I asked participants to imagine rummaging through a box of old pictures. “Find a photograph of your mother,” I instructed, in a slow, quiet voice. “Take your time, and select an image that has something special to tell you about who she is as a person.” I paused and lowered my voice. “Your mother is the most important woman you will ever know.” Pause. “Your mother welcomed you to womanhood.” I chose my language carefully, intentionally creating an atmosphere of reverence and respect for mothering and motherhood, both ofwhich the culture at large generally devalues.
Now, all eyes are on me, awaiting further direction.
“We’re going to introduce ourselves to one another, this time in a special way. Bring up the picture of your mother that came up for you in our meditation. This is one of the internal pictures you carry of your mother. Your mother.” I deliber- ately emphasize the word “one” to underscore the complexity of the mother-daughter bond, and I repeat “your mother” to highlight the uniqueness of the relationship. “When it comes to our mothers, people generally have mixed feelings.” Since the beginning of the workshop, I have emphasized that ambivalence is part of all healthy, close relationships.
“Just follow my lead,” I add. “I’m Judy, daughter of Peggy. I was welcomed to the world of womanhood by Peggy, captain of the cheerleaders, always smiling.”
As I speak, my heart begins to race and my head pounds. My prepared words feel hollow. At this moment, I have no access to the picture I usually bring up, the mother I romanticized throughout childhood: the pretty, popular captain of the cheerleading squad who married her high school boyfriend, the captain of the football team, my dad. At this moment, it is my neglectful, unreachable mother who creeps into my mind. I freeze at the traumatic memory that arises.
It was a hot June day, and I was eight years old, lying in a hospital bed, sweating. I had been weeping, and my eyes were glued shut with my tears. I needed my mommy, and she was not here. I cracked my eyes open to see if she’d arrived. She hadn’t.
I gazed around the stark, stuffy room. I kept staring at my new pink silk party blouse hanging in the metal closet in the corner. My lace-trimmed white cotton socks peeked out of my black patent-leather Mary Jane shoes on the floor. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t because my throat was raw and burning. A white uniform was speaking. “It’s all over, dearie. You’re back in your room.”
My room? Like a magician, she read my mind.
“You probably don’t remember coming up here last night or me, either. I’m your nurse.”
Nurse? I know only one nurse, Miss Elaine, who works in my doctor’s cozy office around the corner from my house.
“You were drugged when they brought you in from the operating room last night, and I’m taking care of you. Don’t cry—your mother will be here soon; visiting hours start at noon. I know your throat is sore, honey—that’s what happens when they take out the tonsils. But you’ll feel better—I’m sure she’ll bring your favorite ice cream. The cold will really feel good on your throat. So wipe away your tears.”
I had been dressed for my cousin Winnie’s birthday party. Instead, my mother had brought me to the hospital. My head throbbed as I remembered the sinking feeling I had when the orderly tore me away from her. A tear trickled down my face.
“Wipe away your tears; you’re going to be fine!” said the white uniform. But I wasn’t fine. For my whole life, my mother had told me I was fine, even when I wasn’t.
It would be more than a decade before I confronted my mother. “You should have warned me I was having my tonsils out, Ma. You should have prepared me. Why didn’t you tell me the truth?”
I am suddenly jolted back to the present moment. I’m leading a workshop, and I’m overwhelmed by my own dark feelings. A familiar ache runs through me; I thought I’d resolved my resentments about my mother, but I am wrong. I’m terrified and flustered. I’ve attempted to create a climate in this work- shop that validates the complexity and ambivalence inherent in all intimate relationships, especially the mother-daughter bond. I’ve framed this workshop as an opportunity for everyone to work on the unhealed parts of themselves. At forty-nine years old, I have a professional reputation that rests upon being an authentic, vulnerable, and self-revealing psychotherapist. “Without hard work on ourselves, we are doomed to repeat the past” is one of my signature statements, yet now I must face it—an unhealed wound has derailed me. I’m having trouble staying present and centered.
The group is waiting for me to begin. Knowing I need to pull myself together, I whisper my mantra and ground myself: “Breathe in deeply, and exhale completely.” As I take three deep breaths, slowly inhaling and exhaling, I feel my body calm down and I regain my equilibrium. I am re-anchored in the present moment.
A quick glance around the circle, and I realize the group is oblivious to the fact that I drifted off. The introductory process I’ve activated has been mobilized. The woman to my right, with long, curly, salt-and-pepper hair, is speaking. Her voice is a whisper, barely audible. I’ve missed her name and must lean forward to hear her.
“Speak up, and repeat yourself, please,” I say gently, won- dering if she is always so timid.
“I’m Rhonda, daughter of Mary Beth. I was welcomed to the world of womanhood by Mary Beth, always . . .” Her voice disappears. Rhonda is wincing. A low mumble has replaced her whisper. “I was welcomed by my mother, Mary Beth, always depressed.” Her eyes are downcast. Like so many daughters of depressed mothers, Rhonda cannot find her voice. “Like mother, like daughter” is one of the themes that has come up all morning as the group participants have worked on understanding, repairing, and deepening their relationships with their mothers.
Next to Rhonda sits a young woman who looks to be barely out of high school. Tossing her short hair back and thrusting her face forward, she speaks in an unusually loud voice.
“I’m Marilyn, daughter of Sophia.” She stops speaking and smiles at the group. “I was welcomed to the world of womanhood by Sophia, the sexpot.”
What is it like to have a sexpot for a mother? I wonder. A picture of my own flirtatious mother jumps into my mind. She is wearing a navy blue taffeta dress. She loved to dance in a sexy manner—another of her legacies to me. I bookmark Sophia’s introduction; later, I will invite the group to explore how a daughter’s sexuality is shaped in the family she grows up in.
Introductions flow. “I’m Julie, daughter of Gloria. I was welcomed to the world of womanhood by Gloria, queen of secrets.” The speaker is a slight woman in her forties whose voice sounds like chimes. She is followed by Maxine, a stocky, thirtysomething blonde, who was welcomed to womanhood by Karina, always at the stove.
The last to speak in our small inner circle is a slight, anxious-sounding, middle-aged woman with flame-red hair. “I’m LuAnne, and I was welcomed to womanhood by JoAnne, large and always smiling.”
What did LuAnne’s mother do with her anger? I wonder. Hide it beneath a smile, like my mother did? LuAnne described her mother as large. Like many mothers of daughters with eating disorders, did JoAnne bury her intolerable feelings beneath binges?
While one part of my brain has refocused on the group, another part of me wants to disappear. I’m feeling like a fraud. Here I am, a psychologist, training professionals to revisit and repair their own ruptures with their mothers while my own unhealed wounds prevent me from doing the essence of what I’m teaching: honoring our mothers. I’m mired in shame. How will I be able to help others if my scars are so raw? What do I need to do to heal my own ancient wounds?