I am always a little surprised when a mother tells me with great shame and in great secrecy that she finds she doesn’t particularly like her child. Of course we don’t always like our children! It seems there is too much secrecy around this fact, and greater acceptance of the wide range of feelings that motherhood stirs up would reduce the shame and self-judgment that many mothers feel.
There are many reasons that a mother may find she doesn’t like her child at a particular time. For sure, we are likely to see our worst qualities reflected in our children. When this happens, it will be very hard for us to like them in these moments. How we handle these instances can make a big difference in our ability to be there for our kids – and for ourselves.
The film Lady Bird is a poignant portrayal of a wounded relationship between a mother and daughter. It explores that ways in which our self-judgment and shame keep us from being able to accept our children. In the film, Marion McPherson is a middle-aged woman raising her teenage daughter, working too hard for too little money. The family lives on the “wrong side of the tracks.” Marion had had hopes of moving her family to a larger house in a better neighborhood, but was not able to make this happen. Marion’s own mother was a violent alcoholic.
Marion emerges as a warm-hearted but troubled woman struggling with shame and self-doubt. At the emotional climax of the film, we learn that she has poured her heart out to her daughter in numerous drafts of letters, all of which she crumpled up and threw away for fear that her daughter would think her writing wasn’t good enough. Marion’s sense of inadequacy runs very deep indeed.
Marion’s 17-year-old daughter, who goes by the nickname Lady Bird, has inherited some of this shame. She dreams of living in one of the large, stately homes in the nicer parts of town. When she befriends a popular girl at school, she lies about where she lives, hiding her family’s modest circumstances.
Just as she can’t accept herself, Marion struggles to express her approval to her daughter. She is frequently cruelly critical. As the film opens, we see the two of them driving, discussing Lady Bird’s college choices. Marion tells Lady Bird she will never get into an East Coast college, and, with her work ethic, ought to “go to City College, and from there to jail.”
In an important scene, Marion takes Lady Bird to go shopping for a dress for the prom. Lady Bird tries on several dresses, critical of how she looks in each one until she finds one she really likes. As she stands admiring herself in the mirror, the lack of approval from her mother is palpable. Lady Bird challenges her mother to express her full, enthusiastic for how she looks in the dress. Marion cannot do it. “I just want you to be the best version of yourself possible,” she says, as a lame explanation. “What if this is the best version of me?” asks Lady Bird. (If you haven’t seen the film, this trailer samples a few of the scenes I have mentioned above.)
As viewers, we have empathy for Marion. We see that her limitations are a result of her own wounds. Yet we feel the ache of the gulf between her and daughter that is never quite bridged.
A fairy tale from Sierra Leone entitled “The Story of Two Women” contains an image of confronting our most shameful aspects while mothering, and the healing potential inherent in cultivating self-acceptance and compassion.
In the tale, two women find themselves childless. Seeking a remedy, one journeys to a village where there is an old woman who knows the medicine for having children. Before the old woman agrees to help her, she asks the young woman a series of questions about how she will treat the child. The young woman answers always in the affirmative.
“Will you wash of its filth?”
“Will you allow it to wet on you?”
“Will you be able to be vomited on?”
“Will you like the vomit”
“Well, sit down.”[i]
The young woman must go through several trials that night, but the next day, the old woman gives her a basket and some medicine. In the basket is a girl child covered with sores. The young woman carefully lifts the sore covered child out, covers her with kisses, and lovingly washes her with medicine. As a result, he sore covered child is healed, and in a little while, the young woman becomes pregnant with a child of her own.
Seeing her success, the second woman decides also to seek the old woman with the medicine for having children. This woman, however, does not answer in the affirmative to the old woman’s questions. She is insulted by them instead. She is subjected to the same trials, but complains about them bitterly. In the morning, the old woman gives her a basket with a sore covered child in it. Unlike the first woman, the second woman stuffs rags in the child’s mouth to keep her from crying. She doesn’t want anyone to know that she has a child with sores. The second woman not only doesn’t have a child – she quickly dies.
“The Story of Two Women” teaches us the necessity of accepting our own inner sore covered child. If we cannot accept those parts of ourselves that are shameful or disappointing, it will be much more difficult for us to accept the less likable aspects of our children.
When we can welcome with compassion what is most despised in ourselves and our children, this material can be transformed. Motherhood may provide a redemptive opportunity to reclaim rejected parts of ourselves because we are able to relate to them more compassionately when we see them carried by our children.
Marion is challenged to find and express unconditional love and acceptance for Lady Bird. At the end of the film, Lady Bird reads the crumpled up and discarded letters from her mother that her father rescued from the trash. Each letter expresses Marion’s profound love for her daughter.
Marion finds it difficult to accept herself – and Lady Bird – fully and unconditionally. But she tries. When we find ourselves experiencing irritation, embarrassment or disappointment with our children, we may find that cultivating greater self-acceptance is the healing factor.
[i] Ragan, K., & Yolen, J. (2000). Fearless girls, wise women, and beloved sisters: heroines in folktales from around the world. New York: W.W. Norton.
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Originally published at PsychCentral.