Mothering our mothers

I was with a few women the other day and one of the topics that came up was the difficulty in coping with the gradual realisation that our own mothers may be unwell with a poor or uncertain  prognosis. What does that mean for us as mothers in our own right, trying to care for our very young families and trying to be there for our mothers physically emotionally and spiritually? It means feeling over stretched, and can be especially intense when we are pregnant, And the very fact that it is our mother and not another relative makes it somehow more intense.

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The small discussion that ensued made me reflect on our relationship with our mothers and mothering, and I started to see some parallels between preparing for birth and preparing for death; they are both about waves of separation. Becoming a mother and letting go of a mother seem to be somehow linked.

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Journeying within our own mothers

Perhaps one of the reasons we feel differently about our mothers is that for many of us we lived inside her for 9 months! Our journey with our mother starts when we live within her during pregnancy. Some “energy workers” even point out that part of “us” existed in our mother’s eggs when she was growing inside her own mother, so perhaps in an energetic sense we know her very well, more than other relatives, we grew with her and are part of her from a long time back!

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In that womb time most people would agree that in the last months of pregnancy we feel our mother’s rhythms, her wants, her heartbeat, the lilt of her walk the sound of her voice and perhaps even her smile. We know when she feels fear, or anger and when her heart is open with love. Some midwives even suggest that a breech presentation enables a baby to hear its mother’s heartbeat more strongly and perhaps breech babies need that energy of the heart more than other babies.

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Birth; a time of separation

When its time to let go and leave our womb home (and our mothers),  we initiate the time for birth, provided we are given the opportunity, and are not induced  of course. What makes us ready as babies to “let go” and be born is unclear. I always remember my mother in “wives tale” mode saying to me that birth is a process of separation, and that sometimes that process can be painful, for the mother and sometimes for the baby. I have always been mindful of that little snippet of ancient wisdom which my mother heard from a traditional midwife who attended her mother’s own 8 home births. in my work as a doula.

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Even though when we are born we do physically separate from our mothers, “mother nature” herself immediately prompts us to seek her again with all our newborn reflexes, crawling, snuffling, reaching bobbing to find that point of connection at her breast where we can hear her heartbeat once more and feel comfort and holding. We leave and we return! The instincts that prompt us to do this last well beyond the first “golden hour” and research has shown that even babies who are three months old and have only ever been artificially fed will still make an attempt to seek the breast.

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Labour: a misnomer?

In English the name we give to the process which brings us to birth is “labour”. It suggests that giving birth is hard work, Your body will work hard and perform its physiological task. If birth is difficult or surgical there is often this (false) implication that maybe your body didn’t work hard enough or correctly. It implies that labour is unidimensional. Labour is anything but unidimensional of course! It is a delicate interplay of the physical, the psychological, the emotional the spiritual and the unknown. It is a transformational rite of passage which offers women an invitation to access something within them they may not have known about themselves. Strength, vulnerability, autonomy, passion, determination and instinct are a few things women sometimes cite.

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In other languages however, this process of “labour” and birth is actually called “the separation”, the word “parto” means just that; letting  go, to leave, to separate.  It is from the Latin Parere I think. So birth is a process of separation, not simply a matter of hard work! Both mother and baby separate.

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Weaning and beyond

When we wean from her breast, when we crawl and then walk away we separate more. And even for those babies that have not been breastfeed or who are not parented by their birth mother, this weaning or moving away happens. Even though as adults we live quite separate lives from our mothers, sometimes in different countries, if our relationship is good, and sometimes even if it isn’t there is still that pull, that unusual different energy reserved just for our mother(s). Perhaps it has something to do with the lesson in unconditional love a mother can give us? Perhaps its more complex.

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When we become mothers ourselves our children’s behaviours and our responses are often benchmarked against what we experienced as children from our mothers. Some of us have good experiences and some of us not so good  ones. The transformational invitation of parenting enables us to parent ourselves and address some of the hurt we may feel from our own childhoods. We don’t have to do that, but the invitation is certainly there.

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Finally letting go

But then the day comes, or maybe the year comes, when we realise that our time with our own mother is limited, and everything comes at once. All emotions arrive. Tiredness, uncertainty, loneliness, mortality, the unknown. Its as if we become that child again seeking the warmth and the familiar heartbeat, and we feel the terror and the panic of not finding it any more. There is no pushing away the inevitable, no stopping it however much we want to.

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In that sense it is a bit like labour; we often want the intensity to stop, to to calm down, to give us a rest, but the energy of birth rolls on like a series of waves and we deal with each surge as it comes. We somehow find our own personal deep coping mechanisms and our trust. When labour is over we put our coping tools  safely away to use for the next labour maybe, and even when there are no more labours, what we learnt as birthing women never leaves us. These innate lessons of birthing are available to us in every one of life’s intense transformations; they are the gifts of the birthing woman that we give to ourselves!

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Birthing and dying; arriving and leaving

And so in our meeting there were comments on how similar birth is to dying. Both ask us to let go and release. Its hard to mother young children and to have time to process what we feel about letting go of our own mothers as so many emotions arise at the same time, but if we look closely we will see that the emotions and the vulnerability they expose merely offer an invitation to experience the intensity of living and loving.

Sometimes this process is hard, confusing unfamiliar and unknown, again similar words that can be used to describe birth. What is important is to find yourself time, give yourself support, surround yourself with other women who are familiar with the territory, accept all offers of help with young children,seek professional support if you need it, talk to your midwife if you are pregnant and tell her how you feel, eat well, get plenty of rest, find your reflective space where you can connect with your emotions and as ever, BREATHE.

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And one day (unbelievable as it seems when we are young), we will be asked to release our mothers with grace and gratitude hopefully realising that neither time nor space can separate us.

This post is dedicated to all those I know and love who have let their mothers go.

Midwife Jeannine and her mum Maureen (RIP), who told me all about her many births, who loved her children and who was loved in return, and who shared my own  mum’s birthday!