Women who are out of touch with their Motherlines are lost souls, hungry ghosts inhabiting bodies they do not own, because for them the feminine ground is a foreign place. Often they suffer because their personal mothers or grandmothers are so negative, depressed, or uninspiring that they have no access through them to the Motherline.
In my psychotherapy practice I see many women who feel isolated, abandoned, and self-estranged. Many feel barred from access to their own true natures by a mother’s punitive attitude, neglect, or abuse. Some grandmothers provide a sanctuary for their granddaughters, a haven from the mother-daughter storms.
But some are not so helpful. There are negative grandmothers who bind and abuse their daughters’ souls. In turn the daughters bind and abuse their daughters’ souls. In turn the daughters bind and abuse their daughters. Often I sit with a woman and experience a telescopic experience of generations of pain.
The negative personal mother or grandmother bars a woman’s access to her feminine self as long as she is perceived as larger than life. The negativity feels archetypal. But when the older woman is brought down to size, as a suffering being herself, the daughter can sort out her own sense of self from that of her mother and grandmother. She can become the kind of mother and crone it is in her nature to be, instead of reliving the constrictions of generations past.
Because most of our grandmothers came of age in a time that denied the feminine, split it into angels and whores, and tied up women in tight corsets that denied them contact with their bodies, many of our grandmothers became henchwomen of the conventional, denying their daughters’ sexuality, teaching them fear of their child-bearing capacity. Like the Chinese mother who binds her daughter’s feet, such a woman cripples her daughter so that she may fit into the cultural requirements that have already crippled the mother.
My own grandmother punished my mother severely for a childish game she played with a friend when they were eight or nine. The two friends lay one on top of the other. A baby doll came out from between the legs of one of them. They were enacting the drama of sex and birth. My grandmother found them doing this and was very upset. She talked to the other child’s mother, and both children were punished. My mother’s natural connection to her sexuality was deeply wounded, she tells me, by this conventional attitude of her mother.
The relationship between grandmother and granddaughter is often easier than that of mother and daughter. My love for my grandmother was not compromised by the difficulties my mother experienced with her.
Sometimes, however, a daughter will be allied with her mother against a powerful, negative grandmother. Such a grandmother casts her shadow over both lives. The mother never fully emerges from her status as a daughter; her daughter tries to protect her mother from her grandmother, and is not mothered herself.
I heard such a story recently from my mother-in-law. She is a tiny woman in her mid-eighties. A brilliant plume of white hair lights up her face and her dark eyes. I watch her with her grandchildren, with the infant great-grandson who is the first of a whole new generation, and marvel at the generations she spans. As we work together in the kitchen, she tells me stories from the Motherline to which I have become attached through marriage. These days most of her stories are about her grandmothers, as though her psyche is reaching for support to the crones of her childhood. They are not happy stories.
She tells me that when she was very young her mother’s mother came to live with her family. This was supposed to be a help to her mother, who was “frail.” Her mother’s first pregnancy had brought triplets who died at birth. “She was torn by that delivery,” my mother-in-law says, shaking her head in the way women do about the terrors of childbirth.
She never really regained her strength. After my sisters and I were born, my mother had trouble keeping up with all the work. Her mother came to help, to do the cooking. But this was very hard on my mother because my grandmother took over the kitchen. My mother had three daughters, and she wanted to be the one to teach them how to cook. She felt pushed out of place by her mother, the life squeezed out of her. I remember when I was fifteen, I came into the living room and my mother was lying on the couch, weeping and weeping. “What’s the matter Mama?” I asked. “I hate my mother!” she said. I was shocked. We never said such things in our family. That was the beginning of her nervous breakdown. She screamed and cried a lot. Finally her mother died, and then she began to have a life. But by that time I was grown up and out of the house.Naomi Ruth Lowinsky, Ph.D., is an analyst member of the San Francisco C.G. Jung Institute, and a widely published poet. Her recent memoir, The Sister from Below: When the Muse Gets Her Way tells stories of her pushy muse. She is also the author of The Motherline: Every Woman’s Journey to Find her Female Roots and four books of poetry. The most recent is The Faust Woman Poems and Adagio & Lamentation. Lowinsky has written many essays in what she considers her “Jungian memoir” mode, They have been published in Psychological Perspectives and in the Jung Journal. She teaches and lectures in many settings. She is the winner of the Obama Millennium Award for a poem about Obama’s grandmother.