Julia Vaughan Smith: Writer, Action researcher, Thinker, Public speaker
Three things motivated me to write this book; firstly, the 15 years I spent learning about emotional (attachment or developmental) trauma; secondly, my interest in the Death Mother archetype talked about by Marian Woodman and latterly by Daniela Sieff. Finally, wrapped around both was, of course, my own relationship with my mother that I wanted to explore more deeply.
Through developing a deeper understanding of emotional trauma I became curious about a mother’s response to her daughter left its mark from conception onwards. Up until then I had had some understanding about the impact of physical and sexual abuse on children and noticed that adults who showed signs of emotional trauma had not necessarily been subject to such abuse or neglect. One suggestion made on me was that this was a result of many women failing in their attempt to end their pregnancies. I wasn’t convinced by this; while recognising that for many women being pregnant is not what they want, or the circumstances they find themselves in are far from ideal for becoming a mother.
This led me to read about maternal ambivalence, the potential swing between love and hatred for the infant, and how, while this is not a rare experience, it is one that mustn’t be talked about. Some writers say that it is the shame of experiencing this that is devastating to the mother, and that talking about it would feel unbearable. It is also likely that the woman would be criticised or seen as a bad mother, which she isn’t. Thus women suffer in silence. Putting this together with my understanding of the neuro-physiological response to threat and feeling unsafe, it seemed to me that infants would sense any hint of hatred in the mother and their trauma response would be activated. The more frequent this was, or the extent to which it was enacted, would deepen the trauma wound. The evidence suggests that mothers who are well supported in pregnancy and afterwards, and for whom the pregnancy is welcome, are better able to manage any maternal ambivalence. Those in different circumstances may find that more challenging.
About the same time as I was researching this, I had come across the Death Mother archetype described by Marian Woodman, a Jungian psychoanalyst. I am not a Jungian trained therapist, so my interpretation may not be absolutely correct, however, my understanding is that archetypes are active within our psyche and have a strong influence on our behaviour. The All Loving Mother is another such archetype, the Death Mother being the shadow side. The Death Mother wants to kill off the person they have ‘entered’, not literally, but kill off their creativity and life energy. This appears as a voice or thoughts about ourself for example, ‘I will never be any good’; ‘this project will fail’; ‘this book is a waste of time’ and ‘I am useless’. I have experienced what I call ‘Death Mother’ psychic attacks on my creativity, my work and on my value. They are like being rolled over, in a storm of anxiety and terror. I had one a few weeks ago when about to press the button to publish this book. I became terrified that I had betrayed my mother (and there is a widely held belief that ‘thou shalt not betray thy mother’) and mothers in general. I convinced myself in that state that I should not publish the book. It lasted a few days and was distressing. I brought myself out of it, by chance, thinking ‘well if I don’t publish it, it was cheaper to write it than to have had 3 years of psychotherapy’ and that made me laugh! I came back on stable ground. I know I have written compassionately about my mother and mothers throughout the book. I had set out determined not to vilify, label or blame mothers as I saw that as part of the problem.
How does this archetype get into us? It could get into us from our actual mothering, perhaps our mother’s maternal ambivalence or cruelty created this internalised version within. It could be from other carers, a grandmother or teachers. When reflecting on it myself, I recognised that my teachers in the later years of junior school were focused on diminishing us, not celebrating us, we ‘had to learn our place’. This of course reflected the patriarchal society at the time (and is still around of course just differently expressed), containing the embedded messages about women’s place and against creativity and individuality. These have affected our female ancestors back in time, as have other embedded messages for example about race or within some religion.
Key to much of this is shame, and what Daniela Sieff refers to as ‘toxic shame’ that is associated with aspects of mothering. A mother who feels shame finds it hard to relate fully to her daughter (or son), she may believe she is a bad mother or she may blame the baby – in either case pushing them away. The idea of a ‘mother entity’ who wants to do us harm is a challenging idea for many. The prevailing myth is that mothers are all loving. I know from my experience as a psychotherapist and friend this is not true.
I interviewed a number of women researching the book and what became clear was the depth of pain and suffering around in relation to adult daughter relationships with their mothers. That shifted my focus, from the Death Mother, to that of daughter:mother relationships, as I wanted to write something that would be of value to those who wanted to understand more and change their part of these relationships. I recognised that daughters entangled in these ways with their mothers felt they had no choice, feeling caught like flies in a spider’s web.
I also wanted to use the process of writing to enquire into my own relationship with my mother. My first working title for the book was ‘On Being a Daughter’ as I wanted to explore that more deeply for myself. I learnt so much as I did my reflective writing in parallel to writing the book content. I realised how I had become locked into a narrative that left me as the hurt one, and how I used the narrative to repeatedly hurt myself without taking a wider perspective. I realised what my part of the relationship was as an adult. This brought me up short many times. I also stayed with what I knew of my mother’s childhood experience and found a place of embodied compassion for her which honestly wasn’t really there at the beginning. It struck me how we were both deeply affected by the loss and unprocessed grief in our lives and how that contributed significantly to the relationship we had. As I said earlier, it was therapy by writing and exploration, and through facing some truths about myself.
The book has ended up as a self-coaching book for daughters and will also be useful to coaches and counsellors in respect of their clients. I hesitated to write a self-help book, and like how one Agent described it ‘this is an intelligent book for an enquiring reader’. While the focus is on self-enquiry and changing our patterns from ‘there and then’ operating in ‘the here and now’, I wanted to have some theory about childhood influences and emotional trauma. I talk about some of the challenges about finding compassion for mothers who have been cruel or abusive, and that we need to have compassion for ourselves first. Personal change is able honouring and resourcing ourselves, facing our truth, and self-enquiry without judgement. We need to become our own loving mothers more of the time, so we do not entangle others in the hope they will become that for us. We need to give up on the wishful thinking that ‘if only we do enough, or find the right way in, our mother will become who we desire’.
I end with a quote from Marion Woodman, which I can’t find the source for, but will be from one of the books listed below:
“ One half of the wound of life comes from the direction of the father and the masculine energies. The other half of life’s necessary wound comes from the mother world and the place of the feminine energies. Where the blow of the father may feel like a curse to be overcome, the wounds from the mother have the feeling of a spell that binds the soul.”
You can buy Daughters: How to Untangle Yourself From Your Mother from online book sellers, some book stores or directly through my website HERE
©Julia Vaughan Smith March 2023
Sieff, Daniela (2009) Confronting the Death Mother:An Interview with Marion Woodman The Psychology of Violence Journal of Archetype and Culture Spring 2009
Sieff Daniella (2017) Trauma Worlds and the Wisdom of Marion Woodman Psychological Perspectives 60:2, 170-185
Woodman Marion (1980) The Owl was the Bakers Daughter. Inner City Books
Woodman Marion (1985) The Pregnant Virgin. Inner City Books
Woodman Marion (1982) Addiction to Perfection. Inner City Books
Parker Rozsika ( 1995) The Experience of Maternal Ambivalence: Torn in Two. Virago Press
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