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Taking the Mother Out of Mothering

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Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto

Nothing brings up issues we have with our mothers like becoming a mother ourselves. Therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas' belief is that we internalize the way in which we were mothered, and we begin to unconsciously do ourselves, what we experienced in our primary relationship with our mothers. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Thomas for many years, and I spoke with her recently about the psychology of motherhood. Her professional work (as well as being a mom) has helped her realize that becoming a good parent starts with being willing to give ourselves the care and nurturing that we desire to give to our children.

First, it is important that we identify the mental and emotional wounds that we carry from the way we were parented. My parents were both addicts, and I carry deep feelings of abandonment from my childhood. As an adult, I realized that I self-abandon in seeking love and attention from others. My childhood left me with a yearning to feel unconditionally accepted by others. If we felt neglected -- left to prepare our own meals, or in some other way -- there’s a good chance that we self-neglect now. Perhaps we rarely (or ever) visit the doctor for checkups, or we quit attending our book club because it meant time away from our child. Thomas herself says that she can be tempted toward guilt. She thinks things like: “I should feed my daughter healthier food choices; I should read with her more; I should take her to a dermatologist.” “Should” is a sentiment that we mothers often use to condemn ourselves, a fast track to mommy guilt.

Each of us had a mother. She wasn’t perfect.

Thomas says that we cannot give to our children what we are not capable, willing, and able to give to ourselves. She offers that once we identify our wounding, it is imperative that we stop blaming our mother for her flaws and shortcomings. Each of us had a mother. She wasn’t perfect. What we can do about changing our wounding is to take responsibility for ourselves now. This asks us to accept that what we are now doing to ourselves is what we experienced and internalized as children, and that we become conscious of our choices, motivations and behaviors. As I became conscious of my pattern of abandonment, I started to ask myself “How do I self-abandon?” The answers began flooding in. I saw that when I felt sad, lonely, or upset, I’d abandon myself and my true feelings by eating sugar. I needed something to make me feel good and sugar worked temporarily. Even as I realize I was taught this behavior early in my life, I accept that I am now responsible for my choices and feelings. My mother is not.

So, rather than practicing abandonment, or guilt, or neglect, we can choose to give ourselves what we need. When we fly, we’re distinctly told to first secure our own oxygen mask before tending to that of our child. We need to meet our needs and show up for ourselves before we’re really ready to look after anyone elses’.

Whether we know it our not, parenting is a great way to re-parent ourselves. Within each of us there might be a young one who is in need of some love, attention and nurturing. If we are still carrying blame and resentment toward our mothers for pain and discomfort we have today, it might be time to consider the practice of re-parenting ourselves. Thomas says that re-parenting is the way to assure that we will not pass negative feelings and behaviors on to our children. As we heal ourselves, it is also likely that we can mend broken hearts that might exist between ourselves and our mothers. After many years of practicing re-parenting, I was finally able to reframe my thinking and feelings of abandonment about my mother and her addiction. Today I no longer take my mother’s choices personally. I no longer see that her addiction was a result of her not wanting to love and care for me, but rather her own self-abandoning behaviors. I see that she used drugs and alcohol to abandon herself, while I used sugar to do the same. Today I’m teaching myself and my son to allow our feelings and deal with them by making more productive choices.

These re-parenting techniques and tools can assist any mother who desires to take motherhood to a new level. And for mothers who might worry that their children will learn negative habits from witnessing us, re-parenting is a sure-fire way to course correcting and can possibly alleviate some of the discomfort our kids would have likely experienced. All the while remembering our children do what we do and not what we say.

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