Mother Love by Sara Connell

Apr 28, 2017 | Issue 1: Mothers, Memory Piece, Sara Connell

The story I played out growing up was The Ugly Duckling.  For a time, even the nickname given to me by my mother was “Ug.” My two younger sisters seemed to move seamlessly from the womb into the family unit. I constantly felt the outsider: at worst, pathologized; at best, misunderstood.

     “You’re too much,” my mother said to me often.  “You feel things so deeply.”   I was too dramatic, too emotional; my dreams were “delusions of grandeur.”  To my mother, an introverted self who wanted above all to blend in with people and with life, my passion and my extroverted personality probably was just that — too much.

     The disconnect was confusing because there was no doubt my mother was loving.  She baked brownies for my friends after school. She let my sisters and me get dirty outside, build forts and mess up the house.  When we wanted to play “hospital” with teddy bears and Barbie dolls, she made fake blood out of Karo syrup and gave us bandages and medical tape from the first aid kit.  When I was older, she drove me to dance classes, theater performances, swimming.  She was a “good mother” and the fact that my personality — something in my being — offended, meant that I must be bad.  The more I tried changing myself to receive the love I wanted, the love for the person I was, the less I succeeded.  I left for college feeling demoralized.

     After college, I moved to London with my fiancé. I remember the first months in England; I walked the neighborhoods and streets of the city for hours at a time, stopping in bookstores and museums, libraries. I was in the land of the classics: Shakespeare, Dickens, the Brontes, and all I wanted to read were Mother Books.  I read Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, White Oleander — books about young women working out issues with their mothers. I read every mother book I could get into my hands. I felt like another duckling from the classic children’s book Are You My Mother?, asking everything I encountered “Are You? Are You?”  I did not hear an answer.

     I entered therapy although I felt even speaking about my family was a betrayal. “You have to learn to mother yourself,” the therapist said. “You have to grieve the way you wanted your mother to treat you and begin to accept both her and yourself as you are.” Doing so seemed to involve many days of her sitting in silence while I cried on her brown chenille sofa.

     At night, I would creep upstairs to the guest room in the house I’d rented with my husband. It was a small, square room, with eaves, that overlooked a garden and the Thames River beyond.  Through the window, light would pour in, soaking the room in white when the moon was full.  I had not grown up with a feminine idea of god. As a Catholic, we had Mary, but she was, to me, always relegated to a vessel role – a pawn for God’s bigger vision.  Regardless, I experienced the light in that London room as feminine, as divine, as maternal. The white light poured itself around me.  In the warm nucleus, I felt the presence of what I later read Carl Jung describe as The Great- or Archetypal- Cosmic Mother.

     I kept returning to the room, under the eaves.  The light beckoned me as if to say “give all your pain, your fear, your want to me. I will take it.”  But the light asked something of me too.  I was to stop playing out the little duckling role – the outcast. If I was to allow in the love I wanted, I needed to become a swan.

     “What if you stop wanting all your mothering to come from your biological mother?” the therapist asked one day.  According to her, I was limiting myself by demanding so much from one human person.  “We will each have many mothers in our lifetime.”

     According to her, as I filled myself with the new self-mothering, wholeness, love, I could ask the “Are You My Mother?” question to others.  Without words, I asked my new friend Sandy, a woman my mother’s age who was in the same counseling training program with me. She invited me for weekends at her home, brought out dishes of comfort foods, poured art supplies onto a table and said “Have at it.” I asked the professor in my new course of study to be my mentor.  I asked a friend for a hug.  I asked my husband to hold me.  Yes, Yes, Yes. There were mothers and mothering, everywhere — if I were willing to open up and receive.

     And then, during a massage session, the therapist asked me about my relationship to my biological mother.

     “It’s fine,” I told her.  Since I’d finished the work with my therapist, my mother and I had begun to talk. Calls went from once a month to twice.  My husband and I moved back to the US. I visited on holidays now.  My mother and I had found our common ground of books, theater and kept our discourse to those.

     “You need to open your heart,” the masseuse said.  “You need to let your mother back into your heart.”

     I remember being offended.  “Who are you to give relationship advice? Who are you to suggest I haven’t?”

     I hadn’t.  Even with all the expanded mothering I’d received (from friends, colleagues, mentors, the light in my guest room) I’d maintained a habit of self-protection with my family.  In relation to them, I kept myself as the wounded duckling — protected myself with emotional distance, as if I were standing behind a clear pain of glass.

     The masseuse’s words floated above my head when I walked through the grocery store.  I woke up thinking about them at night.

     A week or so later, I stuck my head out of my new bedroom window in Chicago. I declared to the light that had been with me in England that I intended to try.

     Four years later, my relationship with my mother grew into a solid tree.  We went to lectures together, and to a conference on feminism and the Sacred Feminine.  We had more visits, long walks in the woods.  We were two adult women now, forging a new bond.  Daily conversations went deep, into uncharted territory. One day I told her about the light in the guest room in our house in London.

     “I call it Divine Mother,” I explained.

     “Divine Mother- I like it,” my mother said. She nicknamed it “DM.”

     There was no way, I – or she – could have known what was coming.

     Ensconced in our new life in the US, I couldn’t get pregnant.  Four years of stillbirth, miscarriage, fertility treatments and so many injections the skin on my buttocks was a constellation of purple and red.

     “I have an idea,” my mother told me one day on a visit.  She handed me a letter.  “Read it, and tell me what you think.”

     In the same cursive handwriting I remember from her writing notes on napkins in the lunches I took to school, she offered to be a gestational carrier [surrogate] for my husband and my baby. A year later, she became the oldest woman in Illinois to give birth to a child– our son.

     We joked that DM had a hand in this wild experience.  My mother moved in with my husband and me in Chicago.  We lay sometimes in the same bed, curled around each other, our hands on the baby inside.  Parenting books quoted the “it takes a village to raise a child” idea. We were a village doing a pregnancy.  At 9:00 in February, the week after the largest snowstorm Chicago had seen in ten years, a team of doctors lifted my son out of my mother.  As his first cry crescendoed across the walls, the room erupted in tears.  The doctors expressed awe at what they had helped happen. I cried at hearing the sound of my child’s breath, a sound I had waited for, listened for, prayed for, for seven years and nine months.  And my mother and I cried together.  Life, the Universe– our Mother Love– this force that propelled us to this moment– had taken us over the brink of whatever walls we thought separated us, into a kind of oneness.  I looked into her eyes and saw myself, and behind that, DM, or maybe the Soul.

     On certain nights, I feel the presence of the light from my room in England pouring into my bedroom.  To me, that light is probably the truest answer to the little duckling’s refrain Are you my mother? I think, if we let it, life will bring us mothers of all types, and again and again to the Great Mother — the one who is always there, bringing us home.