What is 'Mother Wound' and why is it becoming a focus in core psychological healing and pop culture

26 March,2023 09:52 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Mitali Parekh

Early attachment style with the mater, what has been Insta-labelled Mother Wound, is becoming a focus in core psychological healing and pop culture. And no one’s wondering why

Several strains of mother-daughter conflict came together in Qala’s plot

It*s so easy to draw women to movie theatres and OTT screens: Just tell their stories. And in the now times, Qala, Everything Everywhere All at Once, The Eternal Daughter, August: Osage County and Gillian Flynn*s haunting Sharp Objects showing us stories that Sigmund Freud forgot - that of mothers and daughters. And not in that limited, fading beauty, rising beauty trope; but in layers of complexity. Women ingesting, digesting and regurgitating trauma, daughter after daughter.

So, Qala*s Urmila Manjushree may prefer a son to a daughter, but she*s also discerning of exceptional talent, which will become a vehicle for her personal ambition. She is a sexual being, not again solely for ambition, but also personal pleasure. Evelyn Wang is overworked by her need to succeed to justify her decision - to her disapproving father - of moving to the US with her boyfriend. Her veiling her daughter*s sexuality comes not from her own disapproval, but the fear of it from her father. This pull-push of rebellion-seeking approval risks the fate of all known universes in the film. By the end of Qala, there are no winners - not Urmila, not her daughter Qala, nor Jagan. In Sharp Objects, Adora Crellin*s daughters - Camille Preaker and Amma Crellin - process and manifest trauma differently. One internalises and takes it out on herself; the other takes it out on the world.

Mother and daughter, Evelyn and Joy Wang*s complex relationship, threatens to end all universes at all times, in Everything Everywhere All at Once

The also read here

"The early attachment pattern we have with our mothers," says psychologist and psychotherapist Samindara Sawant, "becomes the default attachment pattern repeated in all our relationships. In severe cases, with mothers who have unresolved trauma and dysfunction, this can cause deep scarring [in the children]. This is colloquially known as the Mother Wound."

Why does this relationship, more than Freud*s espoused ‘daddy issues*, hold more dynamite to blow up your psyche? Because fatherhood is a social construct; motherhood is biological up to the point of in utero stress and breast-feeding. And after that, the physical needs of being comforted generally and when ill (even colicky), changed when soiled, and fed when hungry, are mostly by default, assigned to the mother.

Raichel Martin, Gauri Shringarpure and Samindara Sawant

"From birth to the age of two to three are crucial non-verbal years when the child is very dependent on her mother," says Sawant. "And as the mother-child relationship evolves, depending on whether that pattern is reinforced or changes, it manifests in every other relationship that the child has."

If the mother has emotional disregulation, disciplines harshly, is emotionally unavailable, it affects the child*s self-belief and belief in people around her. And because the mother is your creator (and your destroyer, as Booker winning author Arundhati Roy once described her mother, activist Mary Roy in an interview), you spend your life replicating the pattern, hoping to heal it. A 35-year-old marketing manager does not trust her husband can take care of her financially and emotionally, though there is nothing in their history to set a precedent for this. "So I end up taking up more responsibility than required," says the Navi Mumbai resident. "This includes financial management, although we both have independent careers. I don*t even like taking money from my husband."

Determined to have a loving relationship with her mother, Riddhi Shah forced her mother to buy into the healing process. Now, both artists do projects together and Riddhi needs to call her every day to ask her favourite thing about the day, and whom she met

Self-reflection with a psychologist traced her insecurity to the age of 13, when she lost her father in an accident and her mother was paralysed waist down, six months later, by the trauma. "Since then, I have not felt the warmth of a parent. I had to take care of my mother - who couldn*t even bathe - my brother, the household chores and cooking," she says. "The finances weren*t good and this continued for two to three years."

This also seeded the belief in her that ‘my mother is not there for me when I need her*. Her mother was emotionally absent, and biased towards her brother. "Once, her friend wanted to come over with her pregnant daughter but said, ‘your daughter is not pregnant; she may get jealous and cast an evil eye on my daughter*," she says. Her mother didn*t say anything. Recently, in a fight, her mother told her, ‘Why should I do anything for you? What have you done for me?*"

So now, she admits to this writer, she only does things out of duty, indifferently, and is trying to work on letting go of expectations. "She remembers my brother*s wedding anniversary, but not mine."

"The crux of my conflict with my mother is a trait we both shared for a long time," says Raichel Martin, Matunga-resident and content writer, "and that is letting our emotions lead the way. I still remember the day she packed her bags and stormed out of the house. It was because she was angry, not because she had a plan. She even took with her all the photographs of my younger sibling and me." Over the next few years, she almost convinced the family that she was going to come back. "I felt that each time she connected with us, it was solely because she felt lonely."

Daughters Camille Preaker and Amma Crellin process the trauma passed on by their mother, Adora Crellin, differently

This absenteeism - hardly ever malicious or intentional - sows fear of abandonment or a deep sense of being unloved in a child. "It shows up a lot in women as resentment and anger towards their mothers. And possibly, as a pervasive sense of injustice. There*s also the inability to express our feelings since this is not encouraged; it is even penalised [if the mother is deified in a culture]. Feeling unwanted is common," says mental health practitioner Gauri Shringarpure. A feeling of abandonment, and over attachment to any other available person, are some of the most devastating effects.

A government worker was the last of five children, coming eight years after one sister who had a progressive degenerative disease and thus, needed more attention. They were the only surviving ones of their siblings, and eventually, she was the only one left. "All my parents* attention was focused on my sister," says the 37-year-old. "They tried everything including allopathy, alternative therapy, religious practices. But I felt so neglected that I once said to a teacher that my parents only cared about my sister. They also expected me to be an adult and do everything by myself."

When the Mumbaikar was 10, her sister passed away and her mother sunk into depression that needed medication. "Adolescence was coming and I was left to fend for myself - emotionally and with academics. I needed mom to ground me, and without her, to channelise my energy, I made terrible friendships right into my early 20s," she says. One particularly toxic friendship was with a confident girl, and it ran only on her terms - when she wanted to meet, where she wanted to meet, etc. "She was super-confident and I felt if she saw the good in me, I must be good. I would do things compulsively for her. It broke when I started demanding an equal friendship." Shringarpure thinks that for those with a Mother Wound, "finding expression of their true selves is difficult."

The need for a mother*s physical presence is so deep that it doesn*t need to be an event as big as the one above to feel rejected. It could be something as simple as lack of quality time after school, for instance. "The Mother Wound is powerful," emphasises Shringarpure, "because the bond between the child and the mother goes way back to the womb. The gestation period is a period of nourishment, growth, safety and security for the unborn child. It continues to be, or rather is required to be the same, till about the age of eight. If this environment is compromised because of the mother*s inability to be present for the child for whatever reason, the trauma gets passed down."

Shringarpure, who is co-founder of a mental and emotional well-being organisation, adds that for the attachment to be secure, the mother herself needs to be emotionally secure and well-integrated within the self. "This is where the issue lies," she says.

Even today, my worst nightmares are about her leaving me," says Riddhi Shah. "But my mother was only trying to survive. The afternoons were the only time she was able to sneak out to meet someone she was close - a friend or sister-in-law - or buy art supplies. But afternoons was when I came back home from school and settled for a short nap. I dreaded waking up to an empty home. I would panic, check the shoe rack, and if her Kolhapuri chappals were missing, it meant she had gone out and I*d sink."

The 33-year-old Nepean Sea Road-resident also missed being hugged and cuddled, she says. "My mother has the largest heart, and is a warm and loving person," she says, "but she is not hugger; she didn*t inherit it as a love language. I went to a school where hugs abounded; we were taught that sometimes you don*t need to offer a solution, just sit with a person and their problem could dissolve. My mom used physical affection to comfort me only when I was grievously ill - like on bed rest because of a back injury." It complicated matters that her mother and elder sister communicated and bonded differently. "For me, the feeling of family was with my school teachers."

Shah also developed hyper-independence, began leading the fluid, bohemian life of a grass root social worker, making families in every school, panchayat and tribal cluster she worked with. Very early in life, she concerned herself with existential questions: How do I make a difference to the world? She developed a desire to do intense work.

Just like Shah, our government employee friend tries to be a mother figure who looks out for everyone in most situations. "Over time, I*ve learnt to grow out of some of it," she confesses, "and channelise it towards animals."

The marketing manager*s relationship with her mother - and this was a decision shared by many women we spoke to - cemented her decision to not have any children of her own. "Most Indian parents say they have children so that someone can care for them in their old age and not necessarily because they enjoy the process of raising a child. We have a dog; we don*t expect anything from him; we love him for what he is."

Martin, 23, works every day on managing her emotions, but that she says, has led her to not trust how she truly felt about a situation on many occasions. "I often push ahead on logic, and suffer. I have a hard time receiving compliments; I think the person is lying, or I can*t connect emotional value to it." She confesses to catching feelings for others easily, but "it*s hard for me to get into a relationship. I fear things will fall apart eventually. Also, I tend to overcompensate - saying sorry all the time, letting people offend me, being the listener even if I*m not being heard."

Shah says she has had several long, beautiful, mature relationships with men, but has stopped short of commitment. She has also decided to not have children. And in the thick of the COVID-19 induced pandemic, she decided she did not want to have a hateful relationship with her mother.

The way out of this womb, say experts, is the decision to heal, and gathering the courage to undergo the process, as painful as the original labour of birthing. "The point of therapy is not to blame anyone," says Sawant, "but to recognise that parents are imperfect beings, with their own baggage. In our culture, we are not allowed to have unpleasant feelings towards them. Healing involves recognising how much we have been impacted by this practice, and how we can grow out of it."

The government worker found the path when she fell into anxiety and depression when preparing for the civil service exams. Her father noticed and pushed her to seek it. Then, while studying Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy, she applied it to herself. "I am emotionally dependent on my parents," she says. "I want them in my life, although I am learning to draw boundaries, they still trigger me in ways no one else can." One of the things she has recognised is that her mother loves children - she went back to work as a kindergarten teacher after she recovered and still teaches. She was raised in boarding schools without a family; her uncles took over the responsibility of getting her married. To not come from a blood family, and being unable to create one, is a rare and unimaginable trauma, which passed on unknowingly to her daughter.

Shah decided she was going to fight her way to love. "I realised that my mother and I didn*t know each other, but I was going to bridge this [the gap]. I forced her to buy into this healing space, and she has. She has waded through every difficult conversation I have had with her - about boyfriends, her intimate life with our father. We have sometimes banged the door shut on each other*s face. But then, I have gone back to Amma and tried again."

And it has worked. For the past year, Shah*s life involves taking her mother around Puducherry where she lives part-time, on her bike.

In Mumbai, she waits to head home and talk to her mother. "I have almost healed my relationship with her, and have become a whole person," she says. "We*re an Enid Blyton family now - doing pottery together or painting, sitting on the bed in my sister*s house and chatting."

The downside, she says, is that no one tells you that when you heal, you don*t know who this person you*ve become is. Your life choices, favourites in movies and even relationships are associated with the person who held the body before; they do not serve the new you. "I don*t know how to have conversations with men anymore, for instance," Shah laughs. "Maybe I should go back to fighting with my mom…"

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