I was taken by the crucible called motherhood a quarter-century ago: my son Ian turns twenty-five today. The baby who was born smack on his auspicious due-date (seven-eleven!) arrived to find a mother in emotional disarray, to say the least. I have said it countless times, in keynote talks…classes for grad students…casual conversations…and even in my book: Motherhood brought me to my knees. Cracked me open. Excavated me.
I had planned for Ian to sleep in a cradle in our room during the early weeks, but on our first night home his snuffling baby noises kept me so on edge, his closeness so chafed at me, that he was alone in his own room beginning the following night. Then I could feel tense and guilty from safely down the hall. My first years of mothering were thus: my need to escape Ian’s crushing dependency on me, and the guilt, the anger, and the ever-present gnashing conflict of my two deepest impulses — to attach, and to pull away (not necessarily in that order). When Ian was about four months old I said to my husband, “I feel like he’s sucking all the me out of me.” But actually he was sucking the real me, terrified and enraged, out of hiding.
I was adopted when I was five days old in one of the pioneering open adoptions in San Francisco. Mom (my adoptive mother, who died when I was 21), was a charismatic, energetic, powerfully attractive woman with exquisite taste in everything, and a keen business sense. She wasn’t home much, but there was always some caring housekeeper around to attend to me, and to do the cooking. Many hands attended to me but never the ones that felt like home.
Ian’s birth and infancy had reawakened long-buried feelings in me from my own complicated infancy — grief, terror, rage. When he was around eight months old I spoke of my motherhood struggles with a therapist, who explained to me, “You never grieved for your childhood, and that is what’s now coming up.” The irony was laughable — several years and thousands of dollars worth of therapy had failed to do what my baby boy was doing effortlessly, without an hourly fee.
Ian’s innocent, natural demand for intimacy was eroding my defenses, stretching open my unhealed wounds, the losses of what I’d never received from my own mother — connection, security, predictability, attention. Ian was calling on me to provide him with these basic strands of attachment — the most fundamental nourishment needed by infants — and in trying to meet his demands I was scraping an empty, aching well.
As old feelings bubbled up they threatened to undo the precarious construction that was me at that point, so I offloaded them onto Ian: I saw him as a bottomless, impossible-to-fill receptacle of attention, and then feared him for that. No wonder I felt anxiety every time he looked to me for connection: not only did I have nothing to give, I saw it as a doomed task, since I’d obviously never be able to give him enough!
I found it almost impossible to just…settle. To be present, to Ian and to myself. No wonder my heart seized with a sense of sadness-over-what-was-lost when I read Andrea Potos’ poem “Instructions for the New Mother” — this was many years and many nuggets later, when Ian was maybe fourteen or so. I fantasized of being able to go back and have a do-over, to give him and me this gift:
Give up your calendar and clock,
start flowing with milk time.
Hunt for the frayed scraps
and threads of your fears.
Wrap your child’s cries around
the skein of your days.
Stop racing to meet your familiar ways –
will always beat you.
Lower that small fist of resistance
still struggling to rise within you — start now –
unclench your life.
Do people grow down before they die?? (Ian, at around five)
The Gift of Clarity: What is Theirs, and What is Yours?
In my clinical experience as a parent counselor I’ve found that this tendency to unconsciously substitute our own history for our child’s present reality is a common dynamic, an almost-automatic psychological process. Parenting for Peace is, at its core, a path of consciousness, and this is just one dimension of our relationship with our children to be mindful and conscious of. Unchecked, it can insidiously undermine the effectiveness of even the most diligent, devoted parent. “Is this my child’s, or is this mine?” is a very helpful inner question to ask ourselves in many parenting situations.
Thank God for nursing, the one mother-thing I knew I could do perfectly for Ian. It provided the only moments of relief from my vague but persistent fears of incompetence, relief from the intangible but relentless drive running deep inside me to always be trying to do it better, or at least do it right. Do what right, I couldn’t define.
A big part of my mothering journey, my personhood journey, and the research journey that culminated in Parenting for Peace, was to gather, like pearls, nuggets of helpful guidance and healing clarity around the psychoemotional mine-field that is parenting. When we spend a lot of time with a child of a particular age, our own unresolved feelings from that age tend to surface. When a mother has a baby in her arms, the baby she once was is there too, fully present in her. Accordingly, a central parenting focus (typically one for which we’re woefully unprepared) is “the art of meeting yourself again.”
I still vividly remember the one and only time I swatted Ian’s behind: he was six or seven and was stubbornly, defiantly ignoring me right to my face. Something primitive inside me uncoiled and I whacked him. I regretted it immediately and ever since, not just for the obvious reason of having been violent with him, but also for the modicum of his respect I lost in that unbridled moment. (We lose the admiration of our children when we “lose it.” It’s a mammalian thing: all animal behaviorists know that our ability to have authority over young creatures is severely eroded if they see or feel us get angry. Credible leaders don’t lose their composure, it’s as simple as that.)
She never lets her brain out for a vacation. (Ian, about his third-grade teacher, just before we moved to a Waldorf school)
The Power of Striving
You…you…you…psychiatrist! (Ian deploying what for unknown reasons he believed was the most heinous possible insult, around age six)
Through all my mothering struggles I never stopped striving — for insight, for healing, for wholeness. And that changed everything. Frankly, I believe it is why both Ian and his younger sister Eve survived, and even flourished. Waldorf educator Nancy Jewel Poer reassures us that it isn’t our perfection that nourishes and teaches our children, but our striving. And now there’s hard science to back it up.
We know through the latest interpersonal neurobiology that a huge part of early development involves parents essentially downloading their own brain’s social-emotional functioning to their child’s developing brain. Striving carries a level of mental force that can change our brain — UCLA psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz wrote an entire book about it, “Mind and Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force.” He developed a successful treatment protocol for severe OCD solely using mindfulness practice, through which patients not only changed their behavior but their brain structure!
So the mental force generated by striving…the mental force that can change the brain…can certainly change the download. What we hand down to our children as we parent is not simply a linear, one-for-one duplicate of ourselves, and that is where the stunning possibilities of parenting for peace lie: through refining our own consciousness we throw the door wide open on our children’s potential…so they can soar!
This is dedicated with endless love and button-bursting pride to Ian.
Like I wrote in the book, being your mother has brought me everything.
About Marcy Axness
I’m the author of “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers,” and also the adoption expert on Mothering’s expert panel. I write and speak around the world on prenatal, child and parent development, and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my new book I’m delighted to be speaking at many wonderful conferences all over the world in the coming months, and I’m happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As a special gift to Mothering readers I’m offering “A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool.”