More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Finding the Good Mother Within

Being Under-Mothered
No one teaches us how to be good mothers -- we stumble through on instinct, read self-help books, get advice from friends, and rely on the support of our partners. And usually we draw from the examples of our own mothers.

For some women, their mothers' flaws overshadowed their childhood experiences. They grew up with mothers who were emotionally withdrawn, depressed, or abusive. The laundry may have been neatly folded, but a secure emotional bond was missing. In her book, Mothering Without a Map: The Search for the Good Mother Within (Viking, 2004), Kathryn Black explores the affects of being "under-mothered."

After talking with hundreds of under-mothered women, and armed with her own experience, Black explores how a mother without a good role model can unleash her own mothering potential. Kathryn, your mother died when you were 6 years old. In your book you revealed how your maternal grandmother who raised you was emotionally absent, and your tales of rejection and abandonment by her were heartbreaking. How did your own experience lead you to write this book?

Kathryn Black: When I embarked on motherhood, when my children reached the age I was when my mother died, I began to think, "What do I know about mothering? I don't even have the example of my own mother." I realized that I not only had the blank space of my mother, but I had the very powerful model of my grandmother. And I did not want to mother my children the way she did. But, like so many women I interviewed, I could feel her in me when I was interacting with my children, and it scared me. And above all, I wanted to mother more deliberately, thoughtfully, and joyfully than I was mothered by my grandmother.

When I started talking to other women and doing the academic research, I realized that this idea of growing up without a mother was very broad -- it is not rare for a woman to get to adulthood feeling under-mothered. I met a lot of women who said, "Mother was there but where was she? Why didn't she come to my events? Why didn't she talk to me? Why didn't I feel met and seen?"

Making a Home vs. Being a Mother
AB: You've talked about how the emotional aspects of being a mother are more important than the responsibilities of making a home for children. Tell me more about this -- isn't it loving to take care of your family's needs?

KB: My grandmother was a great homemaker -- every day we had full healthy meals and laundry appeared in my drawer cleaned, mended, ironed if needed. She was very comfortable with the whole domestic arena. And I think a lot of that is important. But it is way less important than the emotional piece. I'll give you an example of the emotional piece: When I was 7, the winter after the spring that my mother died, I went shopping with my grandmother. I found my way to the greeting cards and sat and read every greeting card. And I suddenly realized she wasn't there. And it was growing dark outside and I panicked. I was really scared and I looked everywhere in the store for her. I finally went to the door where we had come in and I saw her driving down the street. She was literally leaving me behind. I don't know that she would have gone home. Maybe she was just so angry that she was going to drive around the block and see when I would have left the store. She never told me what she was doing.

What it told me was that she wasn't there for me emotionally; she could leave me at any moment. And so it made me fixate on her, it made me focus on her needs, and try to fulfill them. Which was the exact opposite of what a child needs. She was supposed to be doing that for me.

Of course, there are so many reasons why she couldn't do that, and I understand those as an adult and as a mother. Once I became a mother I could begin to touch the depths of what losing her only child meant to her. She was deeply wounded, she was shut down, and she couldn't allow herself to love me. But I only know that now, and of course all that growing up time I had no idea.

The Good-Enough Mother
AB: One of the women you talked with in the book, Alexandra, was a single mom. And she was continuing her mother's legacy of having a babysitter relationship with her child, versus a mothering relationship with her child. Did you interview any single moms who were able to overcome their mother's legacy?

KB: Absolutely. That's why I interviewed women across all the ages and stages of mothering. I interviewed lots of older women who worked or who were single through the major child-rearing years. One in particular, Hannah, was a grandmother, with four of her own children and three stepchildren. She had to go back to work right after her divorce. She worked really hard to connect with her children when she was home, being emotionally available to them. I think what happens for women so often is just sheer exhaustion, and we can only do so much. And I think single mothers have such a hard road. But certainly the message of my book is that flawed mothering in the past can be overcome with your own children.

Above all, nobody gets to be the perfect mother, nobody gets the perfect childhood. All of us have something to deal with. Sometimes it's a major problem, and sometimes it's much more subtle. Many of the women I talked to felt that there was a gift in having a very clear understanding of who their mothers were and what their mothers did in parenting them. As one woman said, "There are some benefits to having a lousy mother, but I cringe when I say that because she didn't mean to be a lousy mother." If you're willing to take a look at your childhood experiences with your mother, I think the chances of being a really good mother are so great. Better than the woman who had the good-enough mother.

AB: What does it mean to be a "good-enough mother"?

KB: D.W. Winnicott calls this concept the "ordinary devoted mother." What he meant by that was not that there's a minimum that mothers can do and their kids will be okay. What he meant was being a devoted, good mother is an ordinary act. It goes on all the time. It doesn't have to be some "Super Mom." It's a mother who delights in her children. It's a mother who sees her children for who they are and loves them for that and allows them to be that way. I think a lot of mothers get an idea in their heads about the kind of children she wants to have instead of the kind of children she has. And that's very hard for children.

AB: In the book you talked about John Bowlby's reassuring idea that you can't have too many loving, devoted eyes on a child. So what about dad? How can a father dilute the under-mothered factor?

KB: Women told me again and again that one of their greatest supports was their father. With fathers, his emotional support of the mother helps her have a healthy attachment with her children. And of course the father has an attachment relationship with the child also, and he can have a secure attachment when the mother doesn't.

AB: How can a woman overcome being under-mothered?

KB: Take a really careful look at what you experienced. And I think particularly for women who experienced the subtle under-mothering, where mother was well-meaning, but there was something critical missing. It takes a lot of courage to look at your mother and see her clearly. You have a strike a balance in blaming her for everything. And you also can't deny your own experience. It doesn't mean engaging any differently with your own mother. It just means seeing her clearly. Sometimes it means figuring out what her story was. And this was very true with my grandmother -- I needed a clear understanding of what her experiences were so that I could not get stuck in blame. I have great compassion for her, and for what happened in her life.

AB: What are some examples of the things that your grandmother didn't do for you, but that you're doing for your kids, in terms of supporting them emotionally?

KB: I make an enormous effort to get my feelings and my needs out of my interactions with my kids. For example if one of my children is really angry about something, sometimes that makes me really angry. I don't want him to be angry, I want him to stop his silly thinking. And I try so hard to get away from that, and look at him and try to hear, what is he angry about? Is he really scared? Or is he really angry? What does he need?

One of the things I know absolutely is you have to know each of your children as individuals. My children are very different from each other emotionally. One of them really needs to explode and vent, and once he's done that, he's fine. I've had to learn to sort of metaphorically put my arms around him when he won't let me literally put my arms around him, when he's really unglued about something. But I know if I can just hold him emotionally, let him have those scary awful emotions, he'll be fine.

AB: Have you forgiven your grandmother?

KB: Yes, I would say I hold no grudge against her. She's dead now, and she died without our relationship changing. And I understand that she could not change. By the time I had my children, it was just too late for us. In the book I talk about some women who have reconciled at death. Sometimes it's the only bridge for the things that have gone on between you.

For me, motherhood is so consuming and so fulfilling and so joyful that I can't help but feel blessed. I don't need to look at the past anymore. And I say in the book that this journey toward finding your own map involves looking back, looking in, and looking forward. And you don't want to get stuck looking back, you don't want to get stuck on your inward part, because your joy, your future, your children's future is the looking ahead. So I missed out big on the child side of the mother-child relationship. But I have the mother side in spades. So I can't possibly look at my life and say I was so unlucky. I look at my life and say, "Wow, look at this. Look at these gifts."

Kathryn Black and her husband have two children, Ian and Willy. She is also the author of In the Shadow of Polio, named by the Boston Globe as one of the 10 best nonfiction books of 1996. She lives in Boulder, Colorado.
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