The message associated with this is “I’m here for you.” When you really take that in, then even in adulthood you will reference Mother as the place you can always come back to for refueling, comfort, or support. When the world beats you down, when your marriage falls apart, when your feelings are hurt, you can always turn to Mother.
If Mother is not consistently available, is self-absorbed or absorbed elsewhere, is erratic and unstable or unable to be emotionally present for the child, then we don’t experience her as home base. There is no Mother’s lap. This may show up in adulthood as difficulty establishing a sense of home.
There’s nothing easy about having a narcissist for a mother. Probably no picnic for her either. We never lived up to her expectations or filled the void inside of her.
There was no mother’s lap in our house. If she was sitting, she was knitting or doing other handwork that was not to be disturbed under any circumstances. The only sentient creature allowed in her lap was a miniature dachshund.
The last time my late brother saw her, he drove nine hours out of his way to visit, bringing his son along. After ten minutes of her not saying a word to them, he got up, took his son and left. When she was dying, I asked if she wanted me to call either of her sons. The answer was no. After decades with her children having no sense of a place for “refueling, comfort, or support” she knew they were unlikely to come in any case. We always think we need to point out others’ flaws and limitations. In almost every case, people know their failings very well.
It was lonely for her partners and children and lonely for her. No home base leads to wandering through cities, countries, relationships. For years, I found my sense of home either on sets or stages or on the road. I felt most myself while traveling. A sense of possibility opened up. Sets and stages provide a temporary sense of family, sometimes functional, sometimes not.
I was able to give my children the home base I did not have and in turn experienced a sense of reparenting. It is yet another piece of how to break toxic generational cycles. If you have or suspect you have Complex PTSD, please read Pete Walker’s book about it. Consider the innocence of your child self without the shame and blame around abuse and then embrace them and give yourself the sense of home you did not have growing up. As Walker says in one of his other books, The Tao of Fully Feeling, “Many survivors suffer intensely from a lack of love without knowing that it is lovelessness that causes them so much pain.”
Every child deserves to have this kind of joy:
That’s all for this series. I haven’t forgotten about my father’s role in all of this, but that is still in process. I am preparing to launch into a new phase in a new city as I finish up a book, so posting may be light for now. Thank you for your support, especially on Patreon. [books links above are affiliate links]
With separateness comes danger. In the best of circumstances, Mother is there providing protection. A very young child often senses Mother as all-powerful. She shatters the darkness, shoos away noisy children and barking dogs. If the mother consistently protects the child from intrusive and overwhelming stimuli, the child feels safe. Mother here is morphing from safe enclosure to Mama Bear.
How well Mother fulfills this role of protector cannot be reduced to only whether she provided protection but must also include how she provided it.
No one protected my mother from her stepfather’s assaults and she either didn’t know how or didn’t have the capacity to protect her own children. She was either immersed in some form of work or raging at us. There was no middle ground and I did not have a sense of safety. Her method of keeping me safe was constantly warning me about murderers that apparently congregated in front of our house nightly, ready to enter as soon as the lights were off and murder me in my bed.
The great tragedy of my mother’s life beyond the incest and emotional neglect – substantial enough – was that there were no remedies for her. There was no trauma therapy and it was a time when assaults against children were never mentioned.
The great puzzle is why the cycle gets perpetuated instead of interrupted. There are so many factors including environment, biochemistry, resilience, and more that mental health professionals are only beginning to understand. One factor has to be the way emotion is stored in the body and what happens when that is never addressed. There is discomfort that causes some to withdraw and others to lash out. There’s a proverb that says a crushed spirit dries up the bones and that was my mother’s fate. She lived with pain in the bones of her spine, especially later in life. Today, she’d be treated with somatic therapy, but she’s been gone ten years this month.
In many ways, I merely did the opposite of what I experienced growing up. No imaginary murderers, no scare tactics, no oversharing, age appropriate discussions, and so on. Knowing what it was like without protection, I protected my children and they always felt safe with me. That is one more part to breaking generational cycles.
Next week, the last in this series, Mother as Home Base.
This year, I’m including a piece from my co-author for Write To Be Heard, Aaron Gansky on his experience that day:
On September 11th, 2001, I was still in college. To save money, I lived at home with my parents, and commuted. I didn’t have class that day, so I took the opportunity to sleep in. But those plans changed when my father began banging on my door. “Get up. We’re under attack,” he said.
In the grogginess of my sleep, I had no idea what he meant. I thought someone was breaking in. My first thought was, “Let them take the TV. I’m sleeping.” But my father continued to call. “Get up. You have to see this.”
I didn’t realize at the time that the world would never be the same. It had been irrevocably changed, and we had been changed with it.
I came out of my room to see one of the two Twin Towers burning. I didn’t know much about them other than this: two months before, in July of 2001, my wife (then my girlfriend) had been in those towers training for her job at Morgan Stanley Dean Whitter. Her and several of her friends had enjoyed their time in the Big Apple, seeing the sites, taking in the unique culture, and studying hard in their classes.
When the second plane crashed, I called Naomi at work. “Are you watching this?”
“We’re watching it,” she said. “Not really believing it.”
Morgan Stanley’s headquarters were in the World Trade Centers. My wife and her friends were watching their friends die. It didn’t take long for her branch to close, and she immediately drove to my house, where we sat together, hand-in-hand, watching the horrific events unfold. The whole situation was surreal. We were watching a movie, we told ourselves. This was some elaborate marketing campaign, perhaps. Our minds simply refused to allow us to believe that something like this could happen.
As the news coverage showed men and women jumping from the windows, smoke billowing up around them, my wife began to tell me about the people she’d met in the towers. “There’s a man on the 74th floor who shines shoes. He was saving up to throw a party for his son’s first birthday later this month.”
I didn’t say anything. There was nothing to say.
“There’s a cafeteria on the 82nd floor. The guy there makes the best Rueben sandwich. Nicest guy I’ve ever met. Always smiling.” After the inevitable silence, she asked. “What did they do to deserve this?”
And then the Pentagon.
And then Flight 93.
Years later, I’d talk with a friend of my mother’s named Cathy (whom I had been taught to call Ms. Cathy). Her husband, Mr. Bob, worked at the Pentagon. He was there on 9/11. She told me in very plain terms his experience. He’d been on eastern side, though. The side that wasn’t hit. Like everyone else, he’d been watching the news in his office. The explosion took him completely off guard. Thank God he was far enough away that he wasn’t harmed. He, like so many other first responders, immediately went into action. With no regard for his own personal safety, he ran toward the blazing inferno and ruins that was the remains of the western side of the pentagon. He gave no thought to the fact that he had a wife and children still at home. He knew only this: he had friends on that side of the building. Friends who needed him now in a way they’d never needed him before. She wouldn’t say how many people her husband pulled out of the pentagon that day. I don’t think either of them knew or counted. That was never the point. The point was to save lives. And that is exactly what he did.
In my house, sitting beside my soon to be wife, it’s hard to say that we were afraid. Afraid isn’t the right word. Our hearts broke for the people in the buildings, for the people on the ground running for cover as the towers fell and debris and black smoke and dust consumed the streets. Our hearts broke for those at home, watching the events unfold as they tried in desperation to reach their family and their friends in the buildings, even the children in the day care centers below the towers.
But our hearts also swelled with a certain pride as we watched heroes—every day heroes, without super powers—rushing into a building they knew would fall. These men and women were not in the towers when they were struck. They ran in to them, knowing they would not run out. This was not folly—it was bravery—the type of courage normal people see once in a lifetime if they’re truly lucky. Their sacrifices allowed countless people to escape the carnage before the towers fell.
And the families of those men and women rushing into a doomed building, watching the events unfold on their televisions, or just outside their windows.
We worried for them, but we were not afraid.
America was not afraid.
We were resolved. As resolved as those men and women rushing into the buildings. As resolved as those who were running out. As resolved as our soldiers in uniform who mobilized immediately to defend the country they’d sworn to protect.
Perhaps the most impactful moments were not the planes crashing into the towers, or the pentagon, or the fields of Philadelphia, or when our firefighters and police officers and military mobilized to action. They were the days after. The weeks after. The months after. The years after.
My favorite political cartoon of the era simply depicts the Republican Elephant and the Democratic Donkey rolling up their sleeves together. One says to the other, “To arms, old friend?” The other responds, “To arms.”
America has a history of letting our political, social, economic, and cultural differences divide us. But in the wake of 9/11, we were no longer Democrat or Republican. We were not gay or straight. We were not black or white.
We were Americans.
In the years that have passed, that unity has slowly bled away. We’ve slipped back into our old ways. We affix letters to our names to denote our political affiliations. We use social media as a means to attack those we disagree with. Today, political turmoil boils around us. The news covers our differences, and the violence that sometimes breaks out over such differences.
If we remember nothing else today, let us remember this:
We are Americans, and we are not afraid.
Whether we are running out of the building or into it, we are Americans.
Whether we are shining shoes, or selling stocks, we are Americans.
Whether we are teaching classes or students learning, we are Americans.
Whether we are black or white, straight or gay, republican or democrat, we are Americans.
Robert Halligan Profile published in THE NEW YORK TIMES on November 15, 2001.
SHOPPING ACROSS THE POND
To a proud Englishman, America is a country of vexing
insufficiencies. Its supermarkets know not of H.P. (House of Parliament)
sauce and tins of steak and kidney pie. Marmite, sadly, remains a
Several times a year, London-born Robert Halligan, 59, a vice
president at Aon, an insurance brokerage firm, would cross the pond to
stock up on such indelicacies. He would cheer on his beloved Tottenham
Hotspurs, visit his sprawling family, including five adult children, and
drop by a specialty shop to add to the locomotive steam engine models
he had been collecting since his trainspotting boyhood. Every weekend he
brought the old country to his wife, Jerrie, and their son, Trevor, in
Basking Ridge, N.J., by cooking a lard-loving British breakfast (sloppy
bacon, fried bread, eggs splashed with grease) and Sunday lunch (roast,
two vegetables, potatoes, Yorkshire pudding).
Yet for someone who clung to his British identity, Mr. Halligan
flourished in America, where he moved with Jerri, his American wife. He
gardened here, played golf and danced beautifully. He was a kind,
solicitous grandfather of 10 with a knack for joke- telling. And here he
celebrated the holiday he loved even more than Christmas: as a citizen
of two countries, Robert Halligan adored Thanksgiving.
Ehtesham U. Raja of Clifton, NJ was 28 years old when he died in the World Trade Center. He’d
gone there for a conference and was in Windows on the World. He was a
1996 graduate of The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied
Science at Columbia. He had his MBA from Goizueta Business School at Emory. His nickname: Shamu, from his friends in Pakistan.
“He was a very kind, caring,
compassionate, loving, and intelligent person,” says his mother, Asmat
Fatima. “He was respected and admired by those who knew him. His talent
and sense of humor made him standout in any crowd. But it was his loving
and caring attitude that always made me proud.”
Raja, born in Lahore, Pakistan, worked for TCG Software in
Bloomfield, N.J. After graduating with a bachelor of science in
industrial engineering from Columbia University in New York City, he
worked as a security engineer at Citibank on Wall Street, then,
according to his Goizueta Business School application, he returned to
Pakistan to work for Citibank Lahore, take the GMAT, and apply to
“He was in the best years of his life,” says Fatima. “Everything
seems to be going in his favour. After years of dedication and hard work
he finally achieved this status. He had all the plans to pursue his
career in finance. He was full of hope for his future.”
Raja also enjoyed sports. He was a swimmer and played cricket, squash, soccer, tennis, and polo while at Columbia.
A memorial service was arranged by TCG Software. “They were proud to have him working for them,” his mother says.
“It is still very hard to believe that he is missing and lost
forever,” she continues. “I have to be emotionally strong as Ehtesham
has a younger brother, who is at a very impressionable age.
“[Ehtesham] knew life and lived life. His time was limited but in that time he touched so many people. . . . May peace be with him now and forever. He will stay in our hearts and memories forever.”
Here Mother is teacher not simply of some isolated subject but of a much bigger curriculum. She orients the child to successfully living in the world. She teaches her child how to get along with others, how to make good decisions, and how to manage time, meet responsibilities, and pursue goals. Mother is in this sense the first “life skills coach.” Each of these capacities is huge, and any particular woman may be better at teaching some of them than others.
It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that the woman who hissed “Saggy Tits” and “Chicken Chest” at my increasingly slumped teenage shoulders was perhaps not the best mentor on how to make my way in the world.
My mother had good skills for nursing, household tasks, as well as all kinds of handwork, including counted cross-stitch, crewel embroidery, and knitting. Self-worth, managing emotions, navigating interpersonal situations? Not her strong suit. The three of us cringed, muscles tensed, faces carefully neutral, on the rare occasions we dropped something on her antiseptic kitchen linoleum. There were no mistakes, only catastrophes that made her mouth form a tight line and her pale eyes harden.
Between the outright neglect during the decade of her Valium addiction to the general absence of verbal assurance, she was not equipped to teach anyone how to hold a conversation, pursue goals, or make good decisions. Time management meant two things: never be late and work without ceasing. The first has served me well. And I do have a strong work ethic, but it took me decades to feel okay about time off and relaxation.
Two incidents were a revelation that there were other ways to live. The first was when I was 12. A friend’s parents drove us home from the movies and interrupted my normal staring out the window reverie to ask me what I’d thought of the movie as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I tentatively offered my opinion and held my breath. The dad agreed and elaborated as in an actual conversation. I exhaled. Years later when I saw Little Man Tate, I was equally amazed that the mother (played by Jodie Foster) did not berate her son for spilling his milk. She was more concerned with him than the mess. She gave me a new model to break old patterns.
Part of breaking these multi-generational cycles has been learning some of these life skills and passing them on. At a round table, my kids and I shared dinner conversations, working out problems, being silly, learning from each other. Sometimes we solved the world’s problems, though they had to pick up navigating office politics on their own. We all have our limits. It’s about opening up more than we were allowed to with progress, not perfection. They’ll do even more for their future children.
A mother may have difficulty cheerleading for several reasons. She may be so undermothered and unsupported herself that she doesn’t know about cheerleading, she may be more focused on her own needs for support, she may be unaware of her child’s needs, or she may be threatened by her child’s achievements and growing autonomy. She also may be too harried or depressed to have the energy to cheerlead.
My mother had no capacity to cheer anyone else on, including herself. She sought healing most of her life to no avail. She was definitely undermothered and certainly unsupported when she tried to get help against her stepfather’s rapes. She responded to her own children with abuse and neglect, continuing the generational cycle. She swung between feeling threatened and betrayed by any autonomy shown by her children and being too depressed to leave her bed. When her two sons left home, she took it as a personal betrayal.
Here’s one small example of my mother’s version of cheerleading: when I was 12 or 13, I was practicing in the backyard because I couldn’t do the splits or a cartwheel. I was frustrated that I couldn’t seem to make progress. She responded by doing a bunch of cartwheels around me, mocking and denigrating me the entire time. It felt like the opposite of cheerleading. She did not pause to teach, much less encourage me, and I gave up.
Feeling unsupported is lonely.
Decades later, I learned that it’s not unusual for abuse victims to have tight hips. All the trauma and emotion is stored in the body. The body remembers everything. Thanks to the work of Peter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, Pat Ogden and others we’re finally learning the importance of discharging old trauma stored in the body. Learning to do so is one more tool in healing from abuse and breaking familial cycles.
A mother’s role in providing reflection is one of her most important. It is how children feel known and come to know themselves.
Mirroring happens both verbally and nonverbally, and there are several levels to it. The first is one where children feel contacted, met. When a child feels seen, she can recognize herself as a developing person. If the child feels invisible or not seen, often that child will feel not fully real. So the most fundamental message of mirroring is “I see you – and you are real.”
For most of my life, I never admitted this even to myself, but I check mirrors, photos, and film of myself to see if I exist. It’s part of why I did some modeling for photographers and a painter. It’s why I’ve watched film of myself – to see myself or, more accurately, to see that I have a self, and to try to figure out how I might seem to others. Now I know that being an “invisible child” to avoid my mother’s wrath came at a price. As a result, I’ve been invisible to myself. Even when I have seen myself, it’s like looking in a funhouse mirror after all the public humiliation, ridicule, mocking, and other abuse from my mother. I wonder if childhood abuse is why some artists paint self-portraits. It’s not always narcissism. Sometimes it’s to confirm one’s own existence.
Not surprisingly, mirror work is difficult for me and I resist consistency. Some prefer to use an internal “spirit mirror.” Either way, you literally face with all those voices that are normally white noise in the background of your life: denigration, hatred, mocking, etc. in order to counter them with positive affirmations. Louise Hay says it’s the most effective tool she’s found for learning to love yourself:
Because the mirror reflects back to you the feelings you have about yourself. It makes you immediately aware of where you are resisting and where you are open and flowing. It clearly shows you what thoughts you will need to change if you want to have a joyous, fulfilling life. As you learn to do mirror work, you will become much more aware of the words you say and the things you do. You will learn to take care of yourself on a deeper level than you have done before.
Since a child’s first language is touch, much will be communicated by the mother’s holding and handling of the infant as well as by the way she continues to touch her growing child. Does the touch communicate real caring and love, or is it simply accomplishing the task at hand?
The main message associated with this function is “I love you.” This is crucial to the development of self-esteem. When it is present, the child thinks, Mommy loves me, so I am somebody.
It is my father who holds me in the photos from my childhood. I don’t remember any loving touch from my mother. She was in many ways a human cactus. My mother’s mother didn’t love her and my mother didn’t love herself. I’m not sure my mother loved anyone. A few dogs perhaps. My daughter maybe. African violets definitely. The rest of us were bystanders.
Her touch was utilitarian. Checking temperature, accomplishing the task at hand, punishment. My late brother and I never had the sense that she loved us. She presented one face to the world and a different, meaner one at home. According to her, everything wrong in our families was the fault of our respective fathers. My mother’s family had a long tradition of tall tales meant to obfuscate serious problems within the family. My grandmother lost her favorite daughter in infancy and all of her nurturing – if she had any – vanished. My mother was not nurtured and her nurturing only came out in her nursing career. Not at home. All we as her children could do was nurture our own children, giving them what we wished we had.