“Hard work makes a mother. We like to think something magical happens at birth, and for some it does; but, the real magic is keeping on when all you want to do is run.”
— Call the Midwife (‘Nurse Phyllis Crane’)
The dust has settled, the smoke has cleared, and here I sit as a completely different person from who I once was. Anyone else out there with a difficult second born child? Based on the many conversations I’ve had with mothers, this seems to be the going trend. The experience I had with my second born son forever changed me for the better…eventually.
The default temperament of this baby was misery. Pure and sheer misery. The constant cries literally brought me to my knees most days, as overwhelming levels of anxiety washed over every bone in my body. I would have emotional breakdowns every couple of months while I waited out the chaos, hoping he would magically snap out of it once he could eat solids…or sit up…maybe when he could crawl…or when he could walk..or God forbid, would I have to wait until he could talk?? These milestones proved to show no sign of improvement to his miserable little self. The neediness and the constant cry for attention drove me to the ground. Survival mode was my closest friend for the first few years of this little boy’s existence.
“What we can’t handle or manage, we don’t like..”
— Stan Tatkin
During these initial years, I did not like my second born — and that was a hard pill to swallow. What made matters worse is my firstborn child had to witness the gradual decline of his once content, stable, and self-controlled mother. I sadly recall a very difficult day when I lost my temper and was yelling at the baby to stop crying (not my best mommy moment). I turned around to see my four year old son walk to his bedroom and close the door behind him. I proceeded to follow him, gently opened the door, and saw him lying on his bed with his fingers firmly shoved into his ears. To this day, this memory brings tears to my eyes. I swiftly came to his side and apologized for my emotional outburst. I told him I would do better. Going forward, I did my utmost best to venture off alone somewhere in the house when a private ‘freak out’ session was in order. Looking back, it was such an added blessing to have my firstborn child with me; it definitely helped keep me going, and gave me purpose outside of the universe of ‘cranky baby’.
“The purpose of life is to find a mode of being that’s so meaningful that the fact that life is suffering is no longer relevant.”
— Jordan Peterson
In the midst of this trying season, I managed to stumble upon Jordan Peterson, who is a well renowned clinical psychologist. I watched one of his many Youtube videos, and randomly found his talk about ‘The Big Five Personality Traits’ (one of them being agreeableness vs disagreeableness). This peaked my interest, as I am typically a less agreeable person by nature. I learned that the majority of agreeable people on the planet are indeed women. He stated, “..you’re wired to be exploited by infants”. I then began to laugh and thought to myself, “YES, that is exactly what my little ornery baby is doing…he is exploiting me!” Right then and there a revelation was born — I am not agreeable; therefore, I am not easily exploited; therefore, I am losing my mind because I have absolutely no control over my current situation. It was a ‘light bulb’ moment that greatly helped me understand myself in the context of motherhood. And I guess it’s no surprise that I gave birth to a child with a temperament very similar to my own (which my husband conveniently reminds me of every so often).
“‘Child’, said the Lion, ‘I am telling you your story…I tell no one any story but his own.’”
— The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis
Before this insightful self-awareness kicked in, I did experience pockets of wondering, “What is wrong with me?”…“Why can’t I adapt to this child’s temperament?”…“Why do I lose my cool so easily?” Now, it’s important to note that just because I am less agreeable, this obviously never excused bad behaviour. I never leveraged my temperament to promote a lack of self-control; instead, it meant I had to work very, very hard to try and maintain a healthy level of self-regulation, especially during the first few years of my second baby’s life.
“..give thanks in all circumstances..”
— 1 Thessalonians 5:18
I also wrestled with the comparison game. Some days I felt like a ‘lightweight’ mom. Here I had a healthy baby boy — what the heck was I complaining about? I initially dismissed my feelings of anxiety and stress, as there were mothers out there who were dealing with much more stressful situations than my own. I thought, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way”…”I shouldn’t be struggling as much as I am”. Thankfully, throughout all of these moments of self-doubt, my older sister helped me understand that we cannot compare our suffering to others (and this was coming from a mother with a child who has Type 1 Diabetes). She knew a struggle far deeper than my own; yet, she helped me acknowledge and accept that just because my pain and suffering was not as severe as someone else’s, my feelings still mattered, and they needed to be expressed and worked through. How freeing this was for me! In fully embracing these negative emotions, I was able to mourn my own personal suffering, and then ultimately I was able to gain perspective and see the blessings that surrounded me each and every day. This was a wonderful balance that gave me a vast sense of self-acceptance, as well as a genuine heart of gratitude.
“You will come to know that what appears today to be a sacrifice will prove instead to be the greatest investment that you will ever make.”
— Gordon B. Hinckley
To my great and utter joy, this very difficult stage did not last forever. Eventually, my strong-willed boy reached an age where communication, consistency, and firm discipline helped restore most of the control I had originally lost. I vividly remember that beautiful spring day, walking with my two boys along a nearby scenic route. My second born was now three years old, and life was progressively getting easier (and more positive) in regards to my relationship with him — things were looking up!
As we were slowly meandering along, he stopped to look at some rocks along the path. I waited for him as he explored the environment, and then I noticed he picked something up. I walked over to him and asked him what he had found. He held up his prized possession and exclaimed, “A heart!” I stooped down and inspected the object in his hand. It was half an acorn, and the inside resembled just as he had described it — a heart. He then extended his little arm towards me and proceeded to give me his “heart”. I couldn’t help but see the metaphorical significance this precious moment had offered me. My boy was an acorn. The hard, rough exterior represented the extremely difficult stage of his infancy. But with time, the outer shell cracked, and deep within, the heart (at last) exposed itself. The clouds had separated, and I could finally see the light. A new chapter had begun.
While we journeyed back home that afternoon, the tears streamed down my face as I firmly held half of that little acorn in my hand. I had arrived. I had survived. Hallelujah, I had reached the depths of my little boy’s heart.
Eight years. Nearly 1/5th of my life and 100% of my son’s life. That is how long it has taken him to learn to wear his seatbelt. Every time we get in the car, I sing my little ditty, “Buckle, buckle, buckle”. I wait for the children to get buckled – and off we go. And yet if I forget to check after my ditty, if I assume they know by now, I will inevitably look back and see one of my “under-8s” roaming around the van, untethered. They are distracted by a bug on the window, are fighting over leg room, or any other number of excuses. By eight something seems to click and I don’t have to badger them anymore about seatbelts. On to the next habit-formation.
Scientists say it takes 66 days to develop a habit. I don’t know what kids they were raising. Nevertheless, the work of habit-building must be done. And done by us. When it is done, it pays off big-time – it is the bedrock of self-control.
As our world becomes more steeped in materialist and subjectivist philosophy, we see adjectives such as disciplined, dutiful, and self-sacrificing change from their previously held status of terms of endearment to terms of derision. Instead, we honor self-fulfillment, living our truth, and extravagance. Our society has toppled the previously held ideals – the pursuit of truth and virtue – and chosen instead self-interest.
But as parents, we see the effects when children are not schooled in virtue and when good habits are not engrained from the beginning of life. It rarely turns out well for anybody. Children without self-control are no closer to fulfillment, but grow to be slaves to their weaker natures.
It may be “judgmental” to say that a life full of good habits, a belief in duty, and a willingness to forgo momentary pleasure – is more rewarding and beneficial than one of self-indulgence, but this judgement will always prove true. So we must “train up our children in the way they should go”, not as a tyrant rules their subjects but as a loving teacher – through example and training.
Self-control is built in the rhythms of a mother singing “buckle, buckle, buckle” – or “eat your veggies” or “no TV till chores”. It feels like it will never kick in – but it will. If we are disciplined, they will learn discipline. They may even learn that being “tethered” enables freedom and creativity. The quotes and clips below may help motivate us in this rarely appreciated but crucial duty of motherhood – discipline-building.
“Educate your children to self-control, to the habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning will, and you have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society.”
“Discipline is the precondition for freedom. Much of the development of skill is painful repetition…the sacrifice of the present for the future, but once you manage that, then things open up for you.”
“A great deal of the current cult of pleasure, of luxury, of liberty in love, and all the rest of it, appears to me to be perfectly childish; and childish in the literal sense that it is greedy without any grasp of consequences.”
G.K. Chesterton: Illustrated London News, May 18, 1929.
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
George Bernard Shaw
“Willpower is what separates us from the animals. It’s the capacity to restrain our impulses, resist temptation – do what’s right and good for us in the long run, not what we want to do right now. It’s central, in fact, to civilization.”
“There is a battle of two wolves inside us all. One is evil: it is anger, envy, greed, arrogance, jealousy, resentment, lies. The other is good: it is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, truth. The wolf that wins? The one you feed.”
“Teach the children so it will not be necessary to teach the adults.”
“Education is teaching our children to desire the right things.”
Bring your desires down to your present means. Increase them only when your increased means permit.
“What lies in our power to do, lies in our power not to do.”
This video shows well how the artist is born out of discipline. We often hear that discipline stifles creativity, rather it is its precondition. In the video we hear them speak of the institution and university as the teacher of discipline – however I believe that parents have an even greater role to play. By the time our kids are 18 if they have not begun developing self-control at home, it will be difficult to learn it elsewhere.
“Nietzsche was a great admirer of the Catholic church.. Despite the fact that he was also a radical critic of Christianity. The Catholic church forced everything to be interpreted within a single explanatory framework, and that was a disciple, and once that discipline was established then the disciplined mind was established then it could explode in every direction and that is exactly what happened….the library is too large to wander through it unaided.”
…...Blest the Babe, Nursed in his Mother's arms, who sinks to sleep Rocked on his Mother's breast; who with his soul Drinks in the feelings of his Mother's eye! For him, in one dear Presence, there exists A virtue which irradiates and exalts
-Excerpt from the The Prelude by William Wordsworth
I enjoyed this podcast which discusses the beautiful poem The Prelude by William Wordsworth
“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”
When we look back on our childhood, what memories stand out? A few Christmas presents are memorable, most are forgotten. The many hours of TV or video games don’t have the contrast to stand out.
It is Unique Experience that we remember, like the trip to Yellowstone when our car ran out of gas or the time in France when we thought a bidet was a toilet. These are the memories we will laugh about with our family for years to come. We remember change, hardship, and adventure. We remember our travels.
From a young age I had the opportunity to travel to many countries (my dad was in the Military). While travel has remained a rewarding hobby, I am increasingly convinced that for our children – traveling is a near-necessity.
As the world gets smaller and opens to us – through our phones, TV, and high-speed travel – it should follow that the average young adult is more educated in geography, culture, and history than his predecessors. The opposite seems true. Rather than opening our worldview, technology has simply focused our minds upon that with which we are most comfortable. Algorithms aren’t trained to expose us to new ideas or expand our view but feed us more of the same.
Youth are increasingly ignorant of the realities of life outside their small spheres of comfort. Our perspective has become hyper-focused on the here and now. The vast expanse of human history and culture is left unexplored (but not unjudged). If we do venture into foreign lands, we often stay in a comfortable resort or focus on capturing the perfect image for Instagram, rather than pushing past our comfort zones.
“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”
Impressionable youth now seem sure on one of two things: their own culture is the most repressive or the most enlightened. The truth is much more complicated. But how do we encounter complexity and grapple with it? It is rarely discovered in a textbook or a professor’s lecture. Complexity is seen when encountering new people: their art, their history, and their culture. In the reality of the living-world you will find no slogans or neatly wrapped ideologies. You will find a beautiful and tragic mess – and one much different, and much the same, as the mess in your own backyard.
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
It is staggering to consider how many people occupy this planet of ours. Only when we travel can we start to appreciate the reality of humanity’s vastness. Every white hilltop village in Southern Spain, every bustling city in Central China, every favela in Rio – are home. And home is important – it is what shapes us, each of us. It is important to step into these homes of humanity. If we don’t, we never feel foreign; we never see the world in its strangeness or appreciate our own home.
“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.”
Robert Lewis Stevenson
On a recent trip to Spain with my husband and two oldest children, I loved feeling like a foreigner again. I discovered new ways to eat, relax, dress, and interact. I want to be more Spanish after that trip. I want to put more thought into how I dress, the way Spanish women seem to. I want to enjoy conversation as I eat food more slowly, and not feel guilty for every bite of bread. I want to touch my friend on the arm when I speak to her – bring more emotion and joy to our conversations.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”
We hear a lot about “bigotry” and “ethnocentrism”. While these labels are sometimes misplaced and overused, these prejudices deserve our attention. If we were genuinely concerned, if we honestly wanted to overcome these vices – what would be the pathway out of them? Walking the streets of foreign lands may be a good start.
The Smallness of High School
I didn’t like high school. When I was a Sophomore, we lived in England and I went to a small high school on an Air Force base. I would have a feeling of dread descend on me every Sunday night, knowing another week of school lay ahead.
“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”
That year my 22-year old brother stayed with us while he did an internship in London. My parents (they were far from over-protective) allowed him to take me on a trip to Athens and Istanbul. Our plan was this – immediately upon arriving we would take the train from Athens to Istanbul and then return and travel around Greece. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you look at as Chesterton does) upon our arrival we discovered there was a train strike. Luckily my brother is a decisive and confident traveler so he quickly flagged down a taxi. The driver drove us for about 20 minutes until we reached the local bus station. Once there we looked across the street and saw the train station we had just left -this incident prejudiced my brother against taxi drivers for the rest of the trip. We found a bus to take us to Thessalonica and then another to Istanbul. Along our journey we slept in hotels full of cockroaches. I developed severe blisters from all the walking. I suffered the consequences of some bad gyros. We got lost countless times. We were awakened every morning at 5 by prayer calls from dozens of minarets. We became friends with some Turkish street-boys as we soaked in the majesty of Hagia Sophia. We visited the temple of Delphi, and hiked to the top of the Acropolis to stand before the Parthenon.
When we returned to England my perspective on high school changed. It wasn’t that I suddenly enjoyed school – rather the dramas and worries of high school lifted from my consciousness. I saw the insignificance of it because I had seen so much else of significance. I am forever grateful my parents let us go on that trip. There were times I thought. “How in the world could mom let us do this!?” (Particularly when I was pulling my brother away from punching a Turkish taxi driver). But thank goodness she did. That adventure has proved to be one of the core experiences of my life.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
Travel is Worth It
International travel can be prohibitively expensive. It might not be within our capacity to take our child to Athens. I had to start a side business to finance our most recent trip to Spain. But when we consider how we spend our money, where our resources may be best spent for our child’s development – travel seems worth it. When my husband and I got married we decided that for our family – travel is more important than material things. We don’t spend much on clothes, cars, or other luxuries.
Nevertheless international travel may still be beyond our reach. Luckily for us, we live in a multicultural world – we can go to another part of town and find a world our children have not encountered. We can invite a family from a different religion or nation to our home for dinner.
Visiting poor neighborhoods is often avoided to protect our children’s sensitivities – I think this is a mistake. When I lived in South Africa, I was shocked one day when speaking with a wealthy Afrikaans woman. I had been teaching English classes in a poor township. I asked her if she wanted to join me next time I went. She asked where it was. Every time since her childhood, when that woman went to the grocery store she went over a bridge that overlooked this township. Thousands of her fellow humans lived there – but she had never seen them. I wish her mother had pointed it out to her so she could be aware of some of her neighbors.
We want our children to not only see their neighbors but also have an informed vision of the world and its history.
When you tell a child that Columbus traveled from Spain and discovered the New World in 1492, they have no reference point for what 1492 means, what Spain is, and what was so “New” about the world. But when you travel to Spain, you can show your children things built in 100 AD, in 1400 AD, in 1860 – they can start to build out a timeline of antiquity. You can visit Seville – where Columbus departed and visit his grave in Seville Cathedral. Tour palaces and cathedrals paid for with wealth taken from this New World. See evidence of the devotion to Christ in the monuments and churches which compelled, in part, this exploration to new lands. See some of the complexity of the stories of history.
Return and be Changed
“Our obligation to our own family or ‘clan’ is greater than our obligation to the faceless multitude.”
Many will say – why not focus on our own neighborhood? Shouldn’t we appreciate the culture we were born into? Our priority should be our home and community. But too often we are blinded to that responsibility by our lack of perspective. Travel is a means of gaining it. When we open our eyes to the world, we return and rest them upon our own home. We appreciate things we had not noticed due to lack of comparison. We see areas where we can improve and see patterns of history repeating in our culture. We drop silly traditions and hold fast to important ones.
After we returned home I asked my son what he enjoyed most about our trip, he said, “The late-night tapas.” But since our return we have had several discussions relating what he saw and learned in Spain to things taught in school, seen on TV, and discussed with friends. He is making connections he couldn’t before.
As parents, we want to raise kids that are deep, kids whose worldview is wider than their own comfort, whose empathy and understanding were earned, kids who see history and social issues in context, kids who have real-world knowledge to back up their beliefs. Travel can help.
Video on how new experiences can “turn on” our potential and reduce anxiety.
As parents we have a difficult task. We want our children to have a healthy respect for others. We hope they can have a positive outlook on life and others intentions. We want them to live out with faith and hope in mankind. And yet, we don’t want them blind to the dark side of men.
I remember my first job at University, cleaning bathrooms in the Science building at 5am. I was only 17 and was quickly shocked to discover that my boss was a vindictive tyrant. I had no idea that anyone would choose to make someone’s life miserable. I figured all people just wanted to “live and let live”. I quickly realized that power in the wrong hands leads to misery.
But whose hands are the wrong ones? We want our children to be able to recognize the realities of power and to be weary of abdicating their responsibility and freedoms to others. Below are some quotes and clips which may prove helpful in teaching about power’s destructive capacity.
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”
“Only those who do not seek power are qualified to hold it.”
“To someone seeking power, the poorest man is the most useful.”
“Power attracts the corruptible. Suspect all who seek it … We should grant power over our affairs only to those who are reluctant to hold it and then only under conditions that increase that reluctance.”
“It is not in the nature of politics that the best men should be elected. The best men do not want to govern their fellowmen.”
“This work was strictly voluntary, but any animal who absented himself from it would have his rations reduced by half.”
George Orwell, Animal Famr
“When one with honeyed words but evil mind Persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.”
“The wisest thing in the world is to cry out before you are hurt. It is no good to cry out after you are hurt; especially after you are mortally hurt. People talk about the impatience of the populace; but sound historians know that most tyrannies have been possible because men moved too late. it is often essential to resist a tyranny before it exists.”
Relevant Clip from Jordan Peterson
C.S. Lewis dives into how corruption/power first appeared in the hearts of men.
Since starting this website I have been asked several times if I would start a podcast or do a YouTube channel. I have been hesitant – I don’t have a lot of time, I like the anonymity of writing, and I think my voice sounds strange. However, I was recently asked to do a presentation on Devouring Mothers for a small conference so I am sharing that video here. If this is a format that proves helpful or interesting I will try to produce quality videos as often as my schedule (kids) allow.
The Devouring Mother is a topic we could write many articles on; I have written a few already, and have others in the works. This, however, is a quick overview of some of the iterations of the Devouring Mother we want to avoid, as found in literature. Below are some resources with more information on the topics covered. Thank you.
“Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people wanting to be important.”
We all seek to be a positive influence on others. But motivations matter. Often as we seek fame or praise, we lose goodness, we shift our focus from others to ourselves. In this shifting we will compromise morality for power, we will justify sacrificing others for our benefit. We use our short time on earth in shallow ways. This painting of Lady Macbeth reminds us of the ways our powerful feminine nature can be twisted by self-interest. What a force for good she might have been! But she choose to seek importance and twisted her own potential.
“I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God’s thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing in all thinking.”
As our world becomes secular we are making ourselves into our own God. But a world of little gods, worshiping themselves, becomes a dark place. Our followers on our Instagram may grow, but our sense of worth will not. We are made for a much more glorious purpose than self-worship. Our children need a mother that seeks to discover the precious purposes He has for her and accomplishes them. A woman who uses her passions and talents to bless the lives of others – in unseen or visible ways – is truly glorious.
So when we stop and introspect about our daily motivations, I hope we can honestly ask ourselves – “Am I doing this to be important and admired, or am I doing this so I can be God’s hands?”
“The love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self.”
What a blessing our little neighbors are! Our sons and daughters – who push us out of the door of self-interest and into the world of others. We are more free, more empathetic, more virtuous because of the love we have for our children.
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.”
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 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.”
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”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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!”
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.
Being a mother is a battle. Being a wife is a battle. Some days not eating the entire pack or Oreos is a battle. Anything difficult, or worthwhile, will be a battle. But the battles in our mind must be won first. First we must notice the battle – the choice before us. Should I get snippy at my toddler for dumping water in the kitchen floor, or should I stop and teach? Should I let-go of this minor aggravation that is driving a wedge between me and my husband or continue my tactic of silent resentment?
It was Joan of Arc who spoke of this battle in the mind. A peasant girl of no influence, no pathway to heroism – who nonetheless went on to lead armies and inspire millions. She won her internal battles of self-doubt. She followed the voice that said she could overcome. She didn’t retreat to instinct or an unchangeable nature. There are many who claim we cannot change. We are determined, free will is an illusion. I have a bad temper and always will. I am sensitive so will always be easily-offended. What a hopeless doctrine of misery! And it’s rubbish. We can change, we do change. That willful change happens in our own mind.
“We are what we repeatedly do…excellence, therefore, isn’t an act, but a habit and life isn’t a series of events, but an ongoing process of self-definition.”
We may think we are incapable of feat rivaling Joan of Arc. Our insignificant “battles of the mind” will have little impact, ultimately. And yet, it was in small battles of the mind that Joan of Arc became capable of the confidence, faith, and determination required to lead armies. If, through our “battles of the mind”, we could rule ourselves – overcoming impatience and petulance by repeatedly, through numerous such incidents, teaching our child rather than yelling, communicating with our husband rather than resenting – what could stop us from becoming a Joan of Arc in our own right?