For Survivors of Maternal Abuse and Neglect
What does it mean to celebrate mother’s day if your mother abused or neglected you?
Or maybe the better question is, how do you survive mother’s day – a day when you have to be reminded relentlessly that a consistent, safe, nurturing relationship with a mother is something you will never have?
It is supremely normal to have strong urges to hurt oneself or lash out at others when we are triggered by memories of abuse and neglect. For each of us this looks different. It might be subtle – not opening mail, skipping self-care activities, or picking a fight with someone who matters.
It might be loud – hurting our bodies or the bodies of someone else, lambasting our hearts and telling ourselves we are bad, we deserved it, we are not, after all, loveable, like other people are loveable. The old behaviors pop up – whether it’s food, alcohol, drugs, money, sex, self-inflicted violence – the thing we did to take ourselves out of ourselves might suddenly (re)appear as an option.
We might not even notice as it sidles up to us and says, “hey, I’m here, don’t worry, I got you.”
When we hear the echo of past hurt we often find ourselves sucked into the old ricochet of violence and loathing. Like getting caught in a rip tide, sometimes we look up later and say, “I’m so far out, I didn’t mean to.”
Or sometimes it feels more like – “I couldn’t hold on any longer. What’s the point. I will never have the love that I need.”
Sometimes we say, “help.”
Sometimes we look back towards the shore and it feels so far away that we think, “no one will come. No one can hear me out here.”
And this is it – the old logic – the logic of abuse and neglect, when the only person we can turn to is the person who hurts us, or isn’t there. We have to do tremendous things to survive under those conditions, and it can be very difficult to leave behind that coping, no matter how dark, when our conditions have changed.
There is another way. With time, courage and healing, mother’s day, and other reminders of the old wounds, don’t have to turn into tunnels of loneliness and self-harm.
Here are a few ideas for staying safe this mother's day, and beginning to think about healing.
Compassion for the Urge
As contradictory as it may sound, for many people, honoring the urge to hurt ourselves can be the first step towards healing. We are all human, and we do the best we can. Sometimes the only thing we know how to do is something that hurts, or isn’t effective in the long run. But it doesn’t mean we aren’t trying. And if your mother didn’t mother you, then we have to learn later in life how to mother ourselves.
Taking a Step Towards The Present
On days like mother’s day, getting grounded in the present becomes especially important. If our bodies believe that we are in the past, we are more likely to enter that tunnel of self-destruction. There are many ways to get grounded in the present, but here is one practice that can help:
And from this place, this place of feeling safe, and now, and here, you can ask yourself – what would help me feel more whole today? Is there a friend I can reach out to? Is there something gentle I can do for myself? Maybe that means making a meal, having a glass of water, sitting in the sun, taking a walk, cuddling the dog, watching a good movie, cracking open your journal or box of paints, or putting on some music. Or maybe it means signing up for that Muay Thai class you’ve always considered taking. Who knows? You know.
Because you’ve survived to this point. You have what it takes.
And you deserve to feel safe, loved, nurtured – safe, loving and nurturing. On this day and every day.
Finally: Reconceiving the Notion of Motherhood
For some, reconceiving the notion of motherhood is the essence of beginning to heal. “How do I begin to connect with the people who act the way I wish my mother had acted? I will never have the mother I needed then, and I cannot have a new mother now. But how can I fill my life with mentors and friends who can show up for me and treat me respectfully, teach me things, and witness me in the full range of my human experience?”
“How do I show up for myself the way I wish my mother had shown up for me? How do I treat myself respectfully, learn new skills, and witness myself in my full human experience without judgment?”
The answers to these questions may take a while to figure out, but beginning to ask the questions in a safe place, maybe in a journal or with a trauma therapist, can be the first step towards healing.
With love and hope.