Counseling Keys

How counseling and its mental health focus aids in faster healing, recovery, adaptation, and overall satisfaction in career, family, and other relationships in one’s life.

Why We Blame Mothers

It all goes back to the primary relationship with Mom.

I pulled a classic mother faux pas the other day. My grown daughter walked in my room beaming with excitement to share a story and I ruined it by reflexively reaching out to adjust her hair. While I immediately yanked my hand back, it was too late. The damage was done. I watched in horror as I saw her face frown and felt her energy evaporate. Her enthusiasm was gone and her guard went up. I had shattered it in a heartbeat when I tried to ‘fix' her. Then something came out of my mouth and miraculously the music began to play again as her heart softened and she continued her story. I made a mental note to never ever screw up like that again…a promise I’m sure I made to myself before.

What changed the dynamic and allowed her to continue her story? It was her ability to receive my gesture as a loving act instead of the critical form of control it seemed. Of course, I also stopped, apologized profusely and then explained that mothers have a built in reflex to groom their children in a similar way that animals groom their young. I shared that we don’t mean to fix hair or wipe smudges off a cheek and that it is actually our primal way of loving. I also promised to rise above my reaction and not do that again. She was able to soften because she realized my overbearing Mom-ism did not come from a place of judgment and control; rather it was like a mama cat purring and grooming. (She loves cats. Phew!)

Since my daughter is grown, I have had time to reflect on the struggles and joys of being a mom. The struggles come in the form of feeling responsible for all that can go wrong. Seriously, how many times do we hear people blame their mothers? Even a great neuropsychologist colleague that I highly respect claims all of our issues go back to the foundational relationship with the mother. That’s an awful lot of responsibility. I don’t know if I fully agree with him, yet I do see the deleterious effects of mean mothering in children and adults (even in their later years).

I have heard women in their 60s break down and cry when relaying criticisms their mother voiced to them as children. Comments like: "You are pathetic," "You’ll never be successful like your brother," "I wish you were never born," "Stop bothering me," "You are a spoiled and selfish brat." These women were never hit, starved, or publicly humiliated, yet these comments stung and served to foster a fragile sense of self and lasting low self-worth.

No wonder mothers get blamed. Mothers have a powerful influence in shaping our identity. Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D. talks about the incredible importance of motherhood in her book, Goddesses in Everywoman. She compares Jung’s female archetypes to Goddesses and points out that Demeter, the mother archetype, provides care for our physical needs, understanding and emotional support, and spiritual wisdom to cope with disappointments, grief, and to find meaning in life.

That’s a tall order. Physical care. Emotional Support. Spiritual Wisdom. Meaning in life. Author of Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain, Sue Gerhardt, captures the powerful role of motherhood when she writes, “Meaning emerges as the baby begins to recognise (sic) whether the mother coming through the door will bring pleasure or pain.” 

So if a mother brings enough pleasure to a child, those positives can eclipse any negatives and the child will expect pleasure from the motherand transfer that expectation onto the world. Good stuff.

I wonder why the world doesn’t treat motherhood as the awesome job it is. When a child is asked what they want to be when they grow up, I don’t often hear today’s children respond “mother.” Doctors, lawyers, firemen are heralded. I guess today’s mother is expected to be a dual role of cool smart professional at work and nurturing caring mother at home.

Whether a mother has a career or stays at home, motherhood is a monumental job. One that deserves more than a day of casual observation. Yet thank goodness Anna Jarvis spent her life to create Mother’s Day and pay tribute to her amazing mother, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis. This mother of Mother’s Day spent her life organizing Mother’s Day Work Clubs that hired women to help families with tuberculosis and to help wounded Union and Confederate soldiers. She’s even more inspirational as she gave to others while suffering the most unimaginable grief of losing eight of her 12 children.

Ann embodied the Demeter mother archetypeshe provided physical care, emotional support, spiritual wisdom, and gave meaning and inspiration for all of us. As I think about her, I want to be a better mother to my community. As I think about my own Mom who passed a week before Mother’s Day two years ago, I want to be a stronger and more spiritual person. As I think of the many mother and sister friends in my life, I want to be more emotionally available and whole. And as I think of my daughter, I reflect on how Phyllis Chesler in Women and Madness describes that the original mother-daughter archetype is the Demeter & Persephone story and that the modern day fairy tale of Cinderella twisted the archetype making Cinderella a victim of an evil stepmother. I want to be a Demeter mother and I want to be an example for my daughter to grow into a Demeter mother. Maybe for Mother’s Day, I’ll get her a cat named Demeter to remind her how much I love her when I attempt to adjust her hair.

Happy Mother’s Dayevery dayto every Mother throughout time.


Kimberly Key is past division president of the American Counseling Association and author of Ten Keys to Staying Empowered in a Power Struggle.


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