What does it mean to be strong? To be weak? Today we are more accepting and empathic of what was once called weakness, such as mental health problems, limited capacity, and sensitivity. This is a good thing. However, the postmodern viewpoint wants to do away with any criteria or judgment that might label one character trait as weakness and another as strength. Our relativist culture says that all things are equal and truth adapts with each person. Judgement, however, is always bad and stigma and intolerance must be eradicated. Who are we to call one attribute a weakness and another a strength?
How does this new philosophy affect our view of motherhood? While I do agree that mothers are often misjudged and we need more cooperation between women with less fault-finding, the truth is this – mothers need to be strong for their children. So we need to know what strong means and what weakness looks like. We want to be the hen that gathers her chicks under her wings – not the hyena that runs at the first sign of danger, and certainly not the storm our children must shield themselves against.
A few years ago, after having my fifth baby, I went for a hike with my Dad in the mountains behind his house. He is an accomplished mountain-climber so the hike was nothing for him. I, on the other hand, was huffing and puffing my way up that mountain. I did quite a bit of complaining. My Dad is not the kind to turn-back so I knew my complaints fell on deaf ears. Yet I am sure I succeeded in ruining the hike for him. To anyone witnessing the scene, my halting steps, frequent stops, and endless groans of agony compared to the stoic demeanor and effortless climbing of my father would have obviously noticed that there was a real difference between the two of us. I can make all sorts of excuses about why I was weak (I have at least five good ones). But when we dwell too much on excuses, we tend to forget the core of the matter – it was a struggle for me, and it wasn’t for him.
There is one thing we should all be able to agree on – no matter our religion, culture, gender, or age, suffering and hardship should be alleviated as much as possible. Yet, our sufferings may point us to knowledge, if we let them.
Yes, I had reasons for my weakness, but it was weakness nonetheless. That doesn’t mean I am of any less value than my Dad. I have skills he doesn’t, (empathy comes to mind) yet, it would not be wise or compassionate for me to ignore that I was suffering, and my Dad was not. Suffering cannot always be alleviated, and there are certainly reasons why I probably will never get up that mountain as effortlessly as my Dad did (he seems to have superhuman lung capacity). However, after that climb, I had two choices: avoid hiking at all costs or prepare myself for the next one. I decided on the latter. The next summer, I visited my dad again. This time I was ready for our hike. In the intervening year I had exercised consistently and eaten well. It paid off.
The truth can be hard to take: we are weak in some areas. I know I am. But as mothers, we have profound motivation to face our weakness and attempt to overcome it: our children. There is a false idea thrown around these days that children are naturally resilient – they will be fine despite my temper, despite my selfishness, and despite my moodiness. We can certainly try and help them learn resilience, but we are all born with varying capacities to bounce back from difficulty and to handle stress. As millions of therapists around the world know well – mothers can do a lot of damage. The lack of resilience displayed by a mother will increase her own children’s lack of resilience.
(I have noticed the phrase “kids are resilient” is often used to justify some policy or decision which is harmful to children. Case in point.)
Our actions, or lack of action, have consequences – and a mother’s actions have compounding consequences. Parents do much of the “turning” in determining how our kids “turn out”. Of course children make choices and parents are not totally responsible for those choices. We are not the only influences on our kids. However, our children experience reality first through us – we are their reality. If we mess up and don’t attempt to do better, the resulting chaos can echo through a lifetime. These aren’t easy words to write, or read because we are all imperfect, but if we want to raise healthy kids, we carry the burden of our awful and wonderful responsibility.
Today we will examine a “weak mother”, one lacking resilience – the ability to bounce back from adversity or stress. Sometimes it is easier to learn from a bad example, so we can see what we don’t want to be like. It is also nice to learn from fictional characters. As a writer, I am grateful I can judge the following woman harshly and pick apart her behavior without being critical of a real person.
Miss Havisham: A Weak Mother
In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, we meet a mother, who even the most post-modern among us would have to agree was “weak.” Miss Havisham was jilted at the altar by her lover. She couldn’t get over it. In fact, she wore her wedding dress for the rest of her life and decades later she still hadn’t cleaned up the dishes from the wedding party. (Now I don’t feel so bad about taking six days to fold laundry.) She decided to torment any man she ever met from that moment on. Perpetually mourning over her misfortune, she became stuck in her vengeance and resentment.
“The agony is exquisite, is it not? A broken heart. You think you will die. But you just keep living. Day after day, after terrible day.”Miss Havisham
She seems to be receiving some secondary-gains from her misery. There is something “exquisite” about having a perpetual excuse for fragility.
She decided to adopt a little girl, who initially she seemed sincere in desiring to help. But eventually she poured her weakness, her anger, her envy and resentment into that poor little girl. She saw that through her beautiful adopted daughter, she could reap her revenge against men.
“Believe this: when she first came to me, I meant to save her from misery like my own. At first I meant no more. … But as she grew, and promised to be very beautiful, I gradually did worse, … I stole her heart away and put ice in its place.”Miss Havisham
Miss Havisham was consumed with her own emotional turmoil. She completely ignored the needs of this innocent child, Estella. The child became just another outlet for her misery. Rather than attempting to cope with her trauma, to alter her perceptions of the world for the sake of her daughter, she pulled her into the darkness of her own world. She twisted the innocent and pure heart of Estella and made her a co-conspirator in revenge.
Estella didn’t have inborn resilience to resist the onslaught of a broken mother. She was tutored in coldness and apathy. She felt the lack and knew she was twisted, but she did not know how to untwist herself.
“I have a heart to be stabbed in or shot in, I have no doubt, and, of course, if it ceased to beat, I would cease to be. But you know what I mean. I have no softness there, no—sympathy—sentiment—nonsense.” “I have not bestowed my tenderness anywhere. I have never had any such thing.”Estella
The time came when Miss Havisham saw the damage she had done. Estella stopped visiting her; she resented and hated the woman that had been too weak to overcome a broken heart. Then she turned her revenge toward her mother. When Miss Havisham complained of Estella’s uncaring nature, Estella cried,
“You should know,” said Estella. “I am what you have made of me. Take all the praise, take all the blame; take all the success. Take all the failure; in short take me.”
First See: Confronting Our Shadow
While surely none of us reading this are as bad as Miss Havisham, we can see in this extreme example glimpses of how our own weakness and inability to confront the monster of our “shadow” – can inflict suffering upon our child. And we don’t want that.
“Confronting the shadow means to stop blaming others”Edward Edinger
We are all tormented by our weaknesses but acknowledging them is the first step. This step can be impeded by such ideas as “You are doing the best you can,” and “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Personal honesty is necessary, however, crippling guilt isn’t gonna help. We have to have grace for ourselves. We acknowledge we have made mistakes but we are learning and can move forward.
One easy way to see what weaknesses we have as a mother is to simply ask our kids. My friend, Susie, did a brave thing one day. She felt that God wanted her to work on a weakness, so she gathered her children and said, “I do not want you to hold back and I will not be offended or angry but, what would you change about me as a mother?” The answers came fast and hard. They have a great relationship with their mom so they were honest with her. Brutally so. Their main complaint was that she has the tendency to overreact. “You get too upset when bad things happen.” “You get too worried and too angry, it stresses us out!” She could tell that this was a genuine issue with them.
Susie said hearing her children say these things was tough. She was aware of her propensity to overreact, but hearing how it affected them was very difficult.
“Falsehood is easy, truth so difficult.”George Eliot
When we think of Miss Havisham, wearing that filthy wedding dress with rats eating a 40-year-old wedding cake, we see that she is stuck. She can’t let go of the wickedness done to her, but she also can’t face the misery she has caused. She can’t forgive herself so the reality of the havoc she created is too much, so life simply drains from her.
“Forgiveness is the giving, and so the receiving, of life.”George MacDonald
In 2nd Corinthians 7 we read that Paul is happy for the “godly sorrow” that has led his friends to repentance, which replaced the “worldly sorrow” they had been struggling with.
Yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
Miss Havisham needs to dump her worldly sorrow – it keeps her in rags. She needs another kind of sorrow – the Godly kind that can lead to change. This sorrow leads to truth and forgiveness, not revenge and misery.
“Nothing makes one feel so strong as a call for help.”George MacDonald
We all need help. As mothers we must seek help so we can be strong for our children. It is not our child’s role to help us deal with our emotional turmoil. To our children we must be an example of emotional resilience, fortitude, and overcoming struggles – not ruminating on them. Sure they will see us have a bad day – but they need to then see us have a better one the next day.
The Light of Truth
There are times in motherhood when I have felt everything was dark – the responsibility too much for a woman as imperfect as myself. This is just what Miss Havisham felt. The difference between us and Miss Havisham is that we will not stop seeking the light.
“In shutting out the light of day, she had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural healing influences; that, her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker.”
Great Expectations can be a frustrating book to read. You just want her to open her eyes to the horror she is creating! You want her to loosen her grip on her grief and hug her beautiful daughter! You want her to show mercy, and to laugh with Estella and Pip as they play together! But she never does – her walls are up – she cannot see.
Christ says, “Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear.”
We can’t chip away at our weakness if our eyes are closed. We need to open our eyes and be grateful they are open. Open eyes will reveal painful truths about ourselves, but they will also reveal great joys and potential.
Healing With Open Eyes
“The whole trouble is that we won’t let God help us.”George MacDonald
I firmly believe that God will help us overcome if we are open. If we do not let the guilt of having made mistakes close us down, we can learn how to do better. Help will appear – books, podcasts, scriptures, art, friends, etc. will fall on our path to give us insights and answers.
Susie said an amazing thing has happened since she heard those difficult truths from her children. Now she is hyper-aware of her propensity to overreact. When an experience presents itself in which she would typically “freak out” – she slows things down. She can now read her lines before speaking them. Rather than declaring, “Are you freaking kidding me!!!!” She plays it differently, she more calmly says, “Hmm, you’re kidding me.”
We might not be able to control circumstances but we can control how we act. If only Miss Havisham could have noticed the power she had over her reactions – over her grudges.
By the end of the book, Miss Havisham begins to see, and she seeks forgiveness.
“What have I done!… My Dear!”Miss Havisham
What if we didn’t realize what we were doing and the time seems past when we can undo the damage? What if it’s too late? It is never too late. God never stops striving with any of His children. I have seen parents of adult children come to awareness and ask forgiveness of their grown children – relationships heal. It is never too late to see.
Miss Havisham was a Weak Mother. We all are. But we, in seeing what Miss Havisham did not see, can avoid her mistakes. We can be bounce back despite hardship and weakness – by opening our eyes, forgiving ourselves, seeking help and hope, and altering our behavior. We can be strong for our children.
“Our strength grows out of our weakness.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
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Devouring Mother Series:
I have written previously on the Devouring Mother – the mother who destroys her children’s potential and stifles their progress. This term was first used by Carl Jung and often is used to represent an overprotective mother. However I want to examine several incarnations of “Devouring Mothers” in literature and culture over the next few months.
I am no expert on Jung. I have studied a bit of his work and find him quite difficult to unpack, but I do think he is a genius. I am using his ideas and terminology to suit my own, less-sophisticated, purposes. I want to use the deeper wisdom he, and others, have brought us, and make it more accessible to you and me. Basically I just want to learn how to not be a crappy mother, and maybe even a good one.
Another example of a “Weak Mother” in literature would be Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. A great example of a woman of resilience and emotional maturity is featured in the book and film, The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio.
Kids “Resilience” Used Against Children
On Jungian Archetypes:
Article on Impact of Maternal Depression: