Julia Vaughan Smith: Writer, Action researcher, Thinker, Public speaker
‘Daughters: How to Untangle Yourself from Your Mother’
Do join me - I’ll be delighted to talk to you about the book and why I wrote it and will do a reading at 5pm. You can drop in or let me know in advance. The café is open for tea, coffee, cake and cream teas.
I recently had the experience of being devastated by someone’s response to request I had made. It wasn’t the content of what they said it was the tone. I had realised my hurt child had been activated and I was distraught. When I reflected, I recognised the pattern. I had reached out for support, which I realised carried a hope that it would bring praise and encouragement. What came back was something I experienced as critical and negatively expressed. This had deep associations for me. I am now in my 70s, so this inner child was hurt a long time ago, and it is a pattern I have become aware of before and, I thought, done some therapeutic work on. And yet, here it was again. I am sure the other person felt they were being helpful; I don’t really think they set out to cause me distress.
This is a similar response to many who carry pain from childhood, and it might not be from the mother, it could be from the father. My book ‘Daughters: How to Untangle Yourself from Your Mother’ focuses on daughters and mothers and I talk about how quickly triggered we can be when an experience in the present is similar to something in the past.
What helped move through this?
It was a journey (again) through a dark wood. I had also been very tired from having had a lot of work on, so I was vulnerable and didn’t have the resources to protect that hurt child.
The important learning is that I came through it; parts of me knew what I needed and helped moved me through while respecting this pain and not trying to push it away. My Healthy Self came back into a leadership position with its ability to calm me, bring curiosity, compassion for myself and creativity.
The relationship with our mother leaves all kinds of legacies. This is one of mine. One I had met before several times. It really is a spiral of learning, each time we meet it again we do so from a different point from last time, due to the learning we did then.
If it feels familiar to you, maybe map out, like I have done what the stages were and what really helped you to ‘come back’ to the resourceful adult you are. For a while we get stuck in the wounded and hurt child, who may be quite young.
I will get to the stage of being able to be grateful to the other person in this instance, for enabling me to learn more about this legacy of trauma.
You can order a copy of the book through my website or any book seller. It is available in paperback and e-book.
Julia Vaughan Smith
I first wrote about this in October 2020 after I had completed my research and planning for Daughters: How to Untangle Yourself from Your Mother. What struck me at the time was the guilt some daughters feel talking about their mothers’ failures in mothering; they often qualified what they said with something that excuses the mothers’ behaviour.
More recently, this ‘commandment’, Thou Shalt Not Betray Thy Mother, appeared again, this time within me. As I get near to publishing the book I can be overtaken by anxiety that I am betraying my mother for even suggesting that our relationship was difficult at times for me.
One of my motivations for writing the book was to give voice to all the daughters who have suffered to a greater or lesser degree from the way their mother related to them, from conception onwards. Many things affect how mothers relate to their daughters, including their own psychology and childhood experience, the circumstances at the time of pregnancy and afterwards, the support around them, life circumstances, as well as the behaviour of the infant and how well that could be tolerated. A number of daughters have suffered greatly from abusive, neglectful, critical or narcissistic mothers, and have largely kept silent outside, perhaps of a therapy room. Some mothers weren’t able to protect their daughters from physical or sexual abuse, and some refused to believe stories of sexual abuse so daughters kept quiet out of fear of not being believed – and in some cases to protect their mother and the family.
It's not that there is nothing to say. It’s that the commandment endorsed by society keeps daughters silent. Within this I think there are a at least four reasons some of which I referred to in the blog of October 2020:-
Throughout this book I have been determined not to blame mothers; and indeed, see blaming as part of the unhealthy entanglement. Mothers are daughters, with their own childhood history and stresses in adult life. There are few places where mothers can talk about any negative mothering experiences for fear of being shamed. Some act out of their stress and emotional trauma in their behaviour towards their children.
The response of our neuro-physiology in responding to a sense of danger doesn’t concern itself with the motivation of the mother’s action. Many mothers have a motivation to ‘be a good mother’, I doubt any set out to fail their daughters (or sons). However, if through their own psychological development they are unable to feel a strong loving connection with their child their behaviour may at time have been rejecting, hurtful and frightening. A pattern of leaving an infant hungry for too long, or crying alone for too long, produces a fear response in the infant and a lack of trust in the carer. Each generation has its own ‘mothering/parenting guru’ or instructions/expectations. Mothers who want to be good mothers, and who don’t trust themselves to do that naturally, may take on those instructions even where they may not really be in the best interests of the child. In my childhood, it was 4 hour feeding, whether the infant was hungry or not, and no matter how much the infant might have been crying due to hunger. Fashions have changed but the challenge for mothers continues.
Is it possible to bring understanding and compassion for mothers and be able to talk of our own experience without feeling we are betraying them? I’d like to encourage us to try. It may be in how we talk about the relationship, and the extent to which we are owning our own part of it as an adult. There may also be some things that we should be mindful of sharing widely out of respect rather than because we feel we mustn’t. We may need to examine the narratives we use more deeply as it is easy to get into a story pattern which leaves out some elements. At the same time, we need to feel able to talk about our own experience and the impact on us, without feeling we are betraying another. Protecting those that hurt us makes sense when we are children, as we have nowhere else to go, but as adults we can come to this with a different mindset.
Julia Vaughan Smith
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
In my interviews and through my writing this injunction is often not far away. Talking about experience that was not good for us as a daughter often comes with some sense of guilt and a desire to say ‘but she was under great pressure’ even when the behaviour of the mother is harmful.
I think this is for two reasons. Firstly, most of us recognise that being a mother is not easy for many, from the very beginning and through to the daughter being adult. There are huge societal pressures and expectations placed on mothers, telling them what they must, mustn’t, or have to do ‘for the baby’. Each generation has its own set of demands on how mothers are expected to present themselves to the world. If they fail to comply with these rules, then watch out for the attacks on them. Their autonomy as a mother is regularly undermined, including at times during childbirth. We recognise the gendered issues for all women, and those particularly focused on mothers. At one level, we protect her as we know women are so often not protected.
At the same time there is a societal illusion of the all loving and giving mother. The reality is often very far from that for the mother, as well as the daughter. The second reason, therefore, is because we too, are supposed to uphold that illusion; we take in an unspoken requirement that we should protect our mothers from being exposed as falling short of that impossible ideal. To break the silence is to be exposed.
Before all the mothers rush to protest, this is not about blaming anyone. Mothers are also daughters, they carry their own daughter experience within them as a mother. That might have been a damaging relationship for them. They are put under incredible pressure, and there are few places where mothers can talk about the stresses for them without feeling shamed. Writers about the common and understandable experience of maternal ambivalence, the swing between love and hate towards a baby, say the problem is how shamed mothers feel about it. That means they don’t talk about it with others or get support for themselves in the day to day care for their child. Those who have a lot of support around them are held in these pressures; those who don’t are more vulnerable to them.
The response of our neuro-physiology to a sense of danger doesn’t concern itself with the motivation of the mother’s action. It responds to subtle or not so subtle indicators of being unsafe. For example, in my infancy the ‘feeding rule’ was to feed 4 hourly regardless of infant hunger, or of maternal discomfort. It was about training and giving the mother time for other things (usually domestic). My mother followed that wanting to do the ‘right thing’ for her daughter. The impact on me must have been that at times I was left very hungry for a time or fed when I wasn’t hungry; I had no autonomy or say in the matter. Every time this happens it leaves a marker of lack of safety and mistrust. If repeated often, those markers become deeper and ready to be enhanced by any further action which produces a similar response. The motivation was to ‘be a good mother’ but the impact doesn’t take that into any consideration.
There are all kinds of stories I have heard when the mother might say ‘I did it for your own good’, but that can include being hit, restrained, put in a cupboard ‘until you can behave’. These are not good for us and we become silenced by the need to keep the illusion alive, because talking of these things can be shameful and we are often told we are over-sensitive or making it up. Some mothers are cruel to their daughters, are negative and controlling, or undermining and smothering, or addicts or make unreasonable demands on a young child. I am afraid that is the truth.
I am writing about this to bring compassion for mothers in terms of their own daughter experiences and the pressures and demands on them; and to help daughters talk about their truth and how that affects them now they are adults. As adults we have resources available to us that we didn’t have as children and we can become aware of, and change, how we continue to respond to our mothers, externally and internally, and step out of an entangled relationship with her.
Julia Vaughan Smith
Next blog in November: The Death Mother
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