A Psychotherapist & Mom Explains How To Navigate The Mother Or Father Wound
After having my first daughter, I was astounded by the number of needs she had. And yet, I had done enough emotional work to understand that her needs were all valid and that her demands of me were so right.
But damn, did it trigger the younger parts of me that weren't allowed to be needy. When I was young, I had to figure out how to be exactly who my mother needed me to be in order to receive her love and affection.
This belief—that my authentic self was not "enough," and then the coping strategy I employed to rectify this "lack," adapting the self to meet my mother's expectations—was evidence that I was a recipient of an intergenerational inheritance: a mother wound.
A "mother wound" is a term that was first brought into mainstream conversation in 2014 by writer Bethany Webster. It's a phrase used to describe the generational pain and trauma that often gets passed down between mothers and children. But is the mother wound really the problem?
What is the mother wound? Plus, its limitations
In a patriarchal culture, women are socially conditioned to think of themselves as lacking. To cope, women develop savvy strategies to perform an identity that will be affirmed and deemed deserving and worthy. Most women know these daily habits all too well: Smiling when we feel sad or angry, nodding along when we want to say no, working hard when we need rest, being in control when we want to go wild, and giving when we want to take.
Our society isn't organized for us to address the pain of the mother wound. We are a fast-paced culture, one that encourages women to self-deny on behalf of a capitalist and misogynistic agenda. We internalize and carry oppressive beliefs about ourselves and pass them on to our children.
While the term "mother wound" can be helpful to explore how internalized misogyny gets passed through generations, it also has its limitations. I am critical of this term, which locates the wound inside of the mother.
I argue that the term distracts from the sources of the pain and social neglect mothers experience—mothers do not parent in a silo separate from this culture, and it's no surprise that there is not a coined term for a "father wound."
Therefore, I will use the term "patriarchal wound" for the remainder of this piece, to locate the problem outside of the mother and as a way to not further criticize mothers.
How does the patriarchal wound show up?
Some of these beliefs you might hold are:
- I should hide my true self if I can't guarantee acceptance
- I have value only in relation to others (when I am giving, caretaking, pleasing)
- I must be better than other women (not equal to or admiring of) in order to maintain my position of power in the family or community I am a part of
- I must turn my anger inward (manifesting as eating disorders, depression, addiction, and anxiety) in order to continue to be nice and guarantee external affirmation.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? If so, you are not alone and you are not the problem. The patriarchal wound doesn't exist because there is an inherent defect within women and moms but rather because the body that you were born into has not received the social respect it deserves.
When we grow up without being honored for who we are, we develop a mask to move through the world more easily. This mask will never feel quite right because it's not the real thing but rather the protective shield that has preserved the true being underneath.
Steps to healing the wound
Here are four steps to begin to heal the patriarchal wound you carry and reveal the authentic you so your children can too.
Begin to recognize it
Start to listen to the voice inside you when you contemplate going your own way. What does it sound like? Some familiar patriarchal wound beliefs include:
- My mother sacrificed so much for me, so I owe her something in return
- Going my own way is selfish or disloyal
- When I do what's right for me, I could hurt my mother, family, etc.
- I am responsible for healing my mother's pain
These beliefs exist for good reason. When we witness our parents struggle as children, we have no choice but to blame ourselves or wonder if we are the problem because we are dependent on them and therefore can't feel too negatively about them.
However, these thoughts could be holding you back from living freely in yourself. Remember, adults are capable of being disappointed. It's not your job to please them, especially if it compromises your integrity or being your truest self.
Face the pain and allow yourself to get angry
Just like a literal wound, emotional wounds need to be tended to, and we must apply suture in order to heal. If we don't, pain often stays within the family and therefore continues to get passed down through generations.
This is because women are often given the message that society cannot tolerate our big and justified emotions, including anger. Often that anger is then misdirected toward ourselves and our children.
Anger, one of the primary human emotions, has often been a reaction for injustice—and a message for us if we choose to listen to it. If we don't allow ourselves to feel it, we cannot identify what it needs to be released.
I remember a huge realization when I determined that the times in my life that I have been most liked by others were the times when I felt most deprived of my human needs for food, love, and care. To this end, because mothers are expected to be even-keeled, constantly warm, and giving, we have had no choice but to rage against ourselves.
Motherly's State of Motherhood report found that 43% of mothers reported feeling completely burnt out: tired, irritated, and resentful. While tending to the needs of others, our own negative emotions get bottled up and weigh heavily. Deemed unfeminine and unbecoming, and sometimes even resulting in social punishment for People of Color, we deny our rage and instead opt for self-doubt and guilt. This keeps us stuck but socially digestible–a misogynistic culture loves a silent and compliant woman who doesn't question the status quo.
Instead, I want to invite you to investigate your anger about your and your ancestors' need to self-deny to be accepted. Ask yourself: how do you want your anger to be released? I have visited rage rooms to release my anger, participated in scream therapy, and created a "rage corner" in my daughters' room for them to go where they can safely express their anger.
This has taught them, and me, that self-contained anger (I make clear that my anger is mine, and not their responsibility) is good for me and good for my family.
Encourage your children to be different in the ways they are authentically different from you
Notice if you believe that closeness and sameness are the same thing, as this is one of the beliefs that reinforce a patriarchal wound.
Oftentimes we felt we had to be "like" our mothers in order to be accepted by them. What would it be like to allow your child to be different from you?
Encouraging them to set boundaries with you, to disagree with others, to turn down hugs when they aren't in the mood, to trust their intrinsic signals of what is right rather than external cues of what is acceptable, and to tell you they dislike the things you like.
Giving your children what they need will enable the little one in you to get something that she needs: a space to exist in her own right, unthreatened by difference and separateness.
Empower yourself to get the things you needed then, now
Those of us that didn't get our needs met often subjugate them. Not all needs need to be met, but they do need to be recognized. Instead, ask yourself:
- What did I need when I was little that I had to deny?
- How can I give those to myself or connect with others who can meet them?
- How do I feel when I get my needs met?
Sometimes getting in touch with what we need can bring up grief because we become connected to the pain of what it was like to live without it for so long.
This inquiry and revisiting is balm for the soul of the little one in you. If you need some help identifying your needs, check out this Needs Inventory developed by The Center for Nonviolent Communication.
Consider that it's possible to be both empowered and loved. Rocking the boat, disagreeing, being disliked, and being angry are all parts of being a full human. Unlearning that you need to hide your true emotions and way of being in order to receive love takes time and practice. This piece is an invitation to listen to the internal whispers, pay attention to your eye rolls, and notice the times you swallow when you want to scream. These are all doors toward self-healing by honoring, not hiding, what is real and true for you.
Lia Avellino, LCSW, CEO of Spoke Circles, is trained as a relational and somatic psychotherapist and supports individuals and groups in being real and vulnerable. She believes that deep and intentional connection is the balm for healing and that we all have what we need within us to find our way. To this end, Lia has committed her professional life to bringing the science and ethos of therapy out of the clinical realm and into community spaces. In her role as the Advisor of Head and Heart at THE WELL, relationship columnist for Well Good, and facilitator & media commentator, she uses experiential learning frameworks to empower people to work through issues that are meaningful to them.
She graduated with distinction from Columbia University and has received awards for innovative research and excellence in the provision of therapeutic care to underserved populations, while managing a national component of President Obama’s initiative to reduce teen pregnancy across the nation. Her writing and commentary has been featured in GLAMOUR magazine, The American Journal of Sexuality Education, Best Life, ABC’s The Tamron Hall Show, Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, CNBCs MakeIt, Motherly, and more. Lia lives with her husband and 3 children in Brooklyn, NY.