“You are born to one mother, but if you are lucky, you will have more than one. And among them all you will find most of what you need.”
― Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D.
Today is Mother’s Day. A day in the year which can be so evocative and provocative.
You may love today. You may hate it. You may feel ambivalent. Pressured by Hallmark. Delighted to celebrate the woman who raised you. Delighted to be celebrated by children of your own. You may feel sorrow today because your mother is no longer alive. You may feel triggered because the woman you call mother is no one you want to celebrate. You may feel a combination and range of feelings due to your own life experiences being mothered, mothering, or trying to and maybe even, in your eyes, failing to be a mother.
No matter what your experience is on this day, I hope you can allow your experience to be valid, and that you take care of yourself in whatever way you need.
And, if today feels especially hard for you because you didn’t receive the kind of mothering you wanted and needed growing up, I want to share some thoughts with you that may bring you some solace and comfort and, perhaps, even inspiration for how you can view this day and more days moving forward.
I have 16 mothers. How many do you have?
“It takes a village to raise a child.”
This phrase must have been said to me a few dozen times across the course of my pregnancy and my daughter’s early infancy this past year.
Friends, neighbors, colleagues, and well-wishers would say this to me, followed quickly by offers to bring by food or to reach out to them if my husband or I needed help.
I valued their offers so much and I took (and take) comfort from these words because (no surprise here!) raising a child is hard. It’s a lot of work and it can be exhausting much of the time. Having a community and resources of all sorts around you can make it so, so much easier.
It does indeed take a village to raise a child.
And, as a therapist who specializes in complex relational trauma, I’ll say, too, that it takes a village to mother an adult.
Even if we are born to, adopted by, and raised by incredible, functional mother figures,* no mother figure is perfect.
(*Please note: Throughout this post I use the term “mother figure” because I do not believe that mothers as we experience them are necessarily gendered female. Mother figures can be male, agender, genderqueer, trans, non-binary, or any other gender idenfication. For the sake of this article I will use the term mother figure and I mean it to imply the person or persons who you personally identified with the act and emotion of mothering as a child and young adult, regardless of that person’s gender identity.)
No one single mother figure is capable of giving a child and adult all of what they need, all of the time, and in all the myriad ways this might look.
I say this not to diminish the best efforts of mothers, but rather to normalize the reality that mothering is a Herculean, sometimes-impossible-in-scope and never-ending job and that even the most well-equipped mother figure will fall short from time to time.
And, very importantly, if you were raised by a mother figure who struggled with a mood or personality disorder, or addiction or unresolved trauma, or if your family experienced poverty or some other kind of insecurity and chaos which took your mother figure away from you emotionally, logistically, or otherwise, you will likely have experienced even more gaps in your mothering experience despite their very best efforts.
This can be so hard, painful, and it can have complex impacts on us well into adulthood.
Looking to one person to be the source of all nurturing, guidance, strength, empathy, reassurance, comfort, wisdom, safety, camaraderie, championing, and support is likely going to be frustrating for you because it’s impossible for them. Even at the best of times.
So this is the hard news.
But the good news is this: you don’t get just one mother figure.
What do I mean by this?
Yes, we are all born of one woman’s body. And that woman may be the person you identify as your primary mother figure.
But the act of mothering, the qualities that I spoke of above – providing nurturing, guidance, strength, empathy, reassurance, comfort, wisdom, safety, camaraderie, championing, and support – these qualities and actions do not have to be relegated to one individual and certainly not just (or ever) to the woman whose body we were born from.
You can have many mothers, many mother figures in your life who can provide these mothering qualities and actions for you.
These mother figures can be flesh and blood, or pen and paper, spiritual, or intuited or otherwise.
They can be known in real life, witnessed from afar, read about or even watched in some way.
They can be lifelong constants, known for only a short season, or even situational or episodic in nature.
Mother figures can be anyone and anything that provides you with what you personally identify as and long for from mothering.
For example, as my blog post title states, I personally feel that I have 16 mothers.
I have my true mother. The woman whose body I was born of. My one parent. The person who raised me, who sacrificed for me, who inspired my bibliophilia and my knack for making interior spaces beautiful and comfortable, who I look like and sound like, and who I love very much and who did an incredible job considering the circumstances. She provides me with mothering in the deepest of ways.
And I also have deeply loved and cherished girlfriends, sisters of the heart, who show up for me time and time again in the most loyal and dedicated ways when I most need them. They provide me with mothering in a way.
I have strong and dynamic real-life wise women mentors who inspire, stretch, and coach me. They provide me with mothering in a way.
I have my own therapist. She provides me with mothering in a way.
I have a kind-hearted, generous, patient, and nurturing husband. He provides me with mothering in a way.
I have my curated collection of admired and resonant thought leaders: authors, psychotherapists, bloggers, activists and politicians who I know and know of in varying degrees who shape my mind, comfort, and guide me in my work and way through the world. They provide me with mothering in a way.
I have my connection to my spirituality which, though I can’t really name, organize or even pinpoint, provides me with mothering in a way.
As I have learned to recognize mothering from the mother figures I have intentionally and unintentionally gathered around me over time, I’ve felt myself heal, strengthen, grow, and feel more supported and fulfilled than I ever thought possible.
I’ve gathered these mother figures around me, and I’ve also internalized their mothering energy inside of me.
This is not because I received little or no mothering from my mother. On the contrary, like I said, she did an amazing job considering the circumstances.
This is, rather, because even the best mother cannot be perfect and she cannot meet her child’s needs 100% of the time in all the ways they need and want.
That’s where the mothering village comes in.
A mothering village may be the bricks that build the house or they may be the grout between them.
In other words, they may play the foundational mothering role for you, or the adjunct, supplemental role.
They may be many or they may be few. Quantity does not matter as much as quality (and this is completely subjective!).
A mothering village is anyone and anything and in any way that fills you up and supports you and nourishes you and allows you to move more enlivened through this world.
And while I wish that all children, adolescents, and young adults in the world would have a village of mothers surrounding them from birth, aside from a lucky minority, this usually isn’t the case.
This is the hard news.
But the good news is this: children become adolescents who become young adults who become full-fledged adults.
And with adulthood comes, usually, more agency, resources, and personal power than we likely had as children and teens.
And with this agency, with these resources and personal power, an adult who has gaps in their own mothering may begin to more actively and intentionally seek out a mothering village.
Maybe this looks like beginning a journey in therapy with a caring therapist.
Maybe this looks like marrying or partnering a person who provides supportive, loyal, and loving mothering energy.
Maybe this looks finding one or many mother figures inside of your partner’s family.
Maybe this looks like seeking out and investing into good, reliable friendships.
Maybe this looks like electing to live with a roommate and making a heartful home with them.
Maybe this looks like forming a relationship with a professor or professional mentor you admire.
Maybe this looks like curating your Instagram feed to be a continuous scroll of kindred thought leaders.
Maybe this looks like going to church or temple, and letting the delivered words of wisdom permeate your soul.
Maybe this looks like going out into nature, to the mountains or to the woods, and laying down your body and burdens upon the great mother figure of us all: Mother Earth.
Whatever and however this looks for you, I’d invite you to consider that, as adults seeking out more fulfilled, healed, and meaningful lives, it’s our privilege and our responsibility to fill in the gaps of or build upon our own early mothering experiences.
In doing so, we can cultivate our own mothering village and help ensure that our adult selves consistently and dynamically receive more of the mothering energy we longed for as children and still long for as adults.
It can be provocative, I know, to suggest that the woman who birthed or raised you may not be “enough” as a mother.
I hope my intent has come through clearly: I don’t mean to disparage mothers or suggest that your mother is “not enough.”
As a new mother myself, I’m profoundly aware of (and in a way that I only intellectually grasped before) of how utterly enormous this role can be.
I have so much compassion for mothers.
My intent, again, is not to disparage, but rather to provide a sense of freedom, permission, and possibility for mother figures and for their children.
I hope, if you’re a mother reading this, you don’t feel shamed or blamed. I hope, instead, you feel validated and seen in how huge your task is and curious about how helpful it might be to your child if they were mothered by others in a way.
If you’re a reader who is in need of more mothering, I hope you read my words and felt curious and maybe even a little inspired about what it might mean to more actively seek out and cultivate your own proverbial mothering village.
At the end of the day, here, I’m talking about reparative relationships and reparative experiences.
I know that I’m going to fail, disappoint, anger, frustrate, and struggle to meet my daughter’s needs some of the time as she grows. This is normal. This is natural. Will it be painful for me? Yes. Will it be hard for her? Yes.
So my hope as a new young mother is this: that she will one day be able to say that she has many mothers because, when she does, I’ll know she has more support than I as just one person alone can give her. And that will only help her. So that’s what I want. I want my daughter to have many mother figures as she grows and moves through the world because that’s what I want for all of us: many people out there who care about us and who contribute to our well-being.
This Mother’s Day, I would invite you to think about who and what might already compose your mothering village and who and what you might need and want to seek out and be curious about inviting further into your life to support you even more.
Please leave me a message in the comments below to let me know what came up for you as you read my words. I look forward to hearing from you.
Other resources you might enjoy exploring:
- The five healing tasks of the un- and under-parented.
- Mother’s day may not feel easy for you. And you definitely aren’t alone.
- What does it mean to re-mother ourselves and why is it so critical for our growth as women?
- Stop going to the hardware store for milk!