When my beloved brother, Juan Carlos, died in 2013, I reeled into the darkest place of my life. We’re told that when someone dies, the greatest grief is the loss. We aren’t told about the griefs that loss will uncover. For me, that grief was my antagonizing relationship with my mother, whose house I left when I was 13, never to return. My mother, who still punishes me by denying me her love whenever she doesn’t approve of a decision I make about my life, which is often. My mother, who told me when I left an abusive relationship, “Tu no pensaras vivir conmigo.” The thought of moving back in with her hadn’t crossed my mind. Still, it was devastating to learn she wouldn’t take me in—I was a newly single mom of a 1-year-old. That kind of rejection leaves you unanchored in the world. It was a longing for an anchor, a foundation, that fed my obsessive research on strained mother-daughter relationships.
In the journey, I found there is a name for women like me — unmothered — and there is a name for the pain I carry: the mother wound.
The mother wound is defined in various ways, depending on who you talk to. The general consensus is that the mother wound:
- is the pain of being a woman passed down through generations of women in patriarchal cultures;
- is the series of traumas that pass down from generation to generation that have a profound impact on our lives;
- includes the dysfunctional coping mechanisms used to process that pain and trauma.
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Stories about fraught mother-daughter relationships have been around for thousands of years. In ancient stories, figures like Persephone and La Malinche are daughters whose transition into womanhood has been thwarted by their mothers or a person representing the mother figure. In almost every fairy tale, the heroine has no biological mother, and the lack of a mother has a significant impact on the heroine: The stepmother in Cinderella and the queen in Snow White both try to destroy the protagonist.
These stories all comment on how long and hard the road is for a woman to self-actualize. Our society is still patriarchal — it forces the role of mother on women and demands it become their sole source of identity. It demands that women deplete themselves in order to mother. There is no safe space to process the rage that often results from this kind of oppression, so it is sometimes taken out on the children, especially daughters, who may remind the mother of her unlived potential.
So much of what I encountered in my research resonated. It helped me see my mother as a woman, not just a mother. I saw a woman who had encountered and endured countless obstacles and traumas, and I began to understand that while my mother did the best she could with what she had, it was also true that the little girl I was didn’t get what she needed. The woman I am today still carries that cross.
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There were questions that remained unanswered. My mother was a brown, immigrant woman who endured the kind of extreme poverty I only saw in the Save the Children commercials of my childhood. Yes, we were poor, but I never went hungry, and I didn’t watch my little sister succumb to a curable childhood illness like my mother did. How did this shape the young woman my mother was into the mother she became? Also, the research I found was focused on white people who were cisgender and in heterosexual relationships. I wondered: How have slavery, colonialism, immigration, genocide, and racism shaped and exacerbated the mother wound for people of color and indigenous folks? How do homophobia and transphobia play a role? I turned to literature and found answers in stories by writers of color: Toni Morrison’s novels such as Beloved challenge the image of black mothers as self-sacrificing and all encompassing. Jaquira Díaz’s essays examine the impact of mental illness, white supremacy, colonialism, and drug abuse on her relationships with her mother and grandmother.
Ultimately, I was searching for stories that could help me understand my mother and why she couldn’t and still can’t nurture me. I needed to know I wasn’t alone in my suffering and that I could survive being unmothered. I found that I can make something beautiful out of my suffering: I can create spaces like the Writing the Mother Wound movement where I help writers make art about their experiences; and I can establish relationships like this one with Longreads where I can help stories like these get published.
In March 2019, I moderated a Writing the Mother Wound Panel at AWP19 in Portland, where writers Rene Denfeld, Jaquira Díaz, Michele Filgate, Elisabet Velasquez, and I shared our stories and upbringings. Though our experiences were different, our pain was the same. We all found ways to restore ourselves, and even take back our power, through writing and community work. Seats filled up quickly and people lined up in the back, against the walls, and spilled out into the hallway of the convention center.
What I discovered was that I was not alone and that my work was giving people permission (and I dare say, courage) to write and share their stories. Many of us are shamed into silence and discouraged from writing honestly about a relationship that has shaped us like no other. We have to talk about it and write about it. This is how we can find and make healing. This is also how we discover the many ways we have and can continue to mother ourselves, and remember that it is not only mothers who are responsible for a child’s nourishment.
Complicating the idea of motherhood can help create a world where mothers are seen first and foremost as human beings, with distinct identities and needs. When a mama is seen and supported, we all benefit.
I’ve heard the saying time and again that the healing is in the wound. This series is evidence of those possibilities.
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Listen to Longreads Contributing Editor Danielle Jackson in conversation with series creator Vanessa Mártir on the Longreads Podcast and hear author-read excerpts from the series.
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Also in the Writing the Mother Wound Series:
‘A World Where Mothers are Seen’: Series Introduction by Vanessa Mártir
I Had To Leave My Mother So I Could Survive, by Elisabet Velasquez
Frenzied Woman, by Cinelle Barnes
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