I never knew my mother and now I feel sad

The pain of early childhood haunts me

By Cary Tennis
Published July 8, 2011 12:30AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've been reading your column for the past four years and have really found refuge and inspiration in your words; I have never found the courage to submit a piece to you until now. Much has changed in the last four years. I went from being engaged to now single, but I feel like I've escaped unscathed for the most part and learned a lot about myself in the process.

I harbor a lot of pain; most of it stems from my childhood. My parents split when I was very young, too young for me to even know who my mother was. I grew up with a workaholic father who is never around and overbearing grandparents. I felt at a very young age that nothing I did was ever going to be enough for my family. I was raised in an environment where a child is loved by how much he/she can accomplish and not just being who she is. I still held on to a lot of those resentments and have found no real way of making peace with it or myself. I feel extremely lonely and long for a family that loves me for me but know deep down that's never going to happen because it has been 11 years since I spoke with my father. I think I have a very idealized version of how a family should be and when I'm confronted with the reality of my own, my dreams become shattered and I'm pulled into the resentment again. I feel like I'm constantly running away from that feeling so I don't feel so hopeless.

Due to my background and my upbringing, this has impacted me in relationship aspects of my adult life. I'm fulfilling my own prophesy by sabotaging every close relationship because I know people will leave me. It seems lately that I'm only approached by married or unavailable men, and when I confront their intentions they run for the hills.

I'm a little sad and lost and really wish I could go somewhere that I'll feel safe.



Dear Lost,

All I know is that we are vessels carrying all these feelings, and we have to decide what to do with them. We can shut them off but the faucet bulges like in a cartoon if we do that, and then there is distortion of the pipes that these feelings come in; or we can open the spigot but then the faucet is constantly running and a roommate thinks it should be turned off because it makes an annoying sound. Or we silently move these feelings around like furniture in a new flat, hoping for a pleasing arrangement. Or we take it to a professional who does much what we would do anyway, moving it around and occasionally brightly asking, Hey, what if we hang this here? which seems bizarre but you try it and it works: Now after all this time your favorite painting hangs over the piano and everything seems better.

What you are describing are the strange workings of consciousness and the inner life. So for instance if you were a poet, this would be your oatmeal. That is to say, all these uncomfortable feelings would mark the starting point for a creative and emotional exploration that would lead to, if not wisdom, at least a finished dish, something you could digest and profit from, that is, cooked oatmeal. (Darn it, I've been reading all this contemporary poetry, and it's getting to me.)

Speaking of reading, artful literature regulates the personal weather. You know those sudden clouds that erupt on the horizon and threaten rain, then decamp unceremoniously? You know how suddenly it rains without a cloud visible? This personal weather you speak of is the echo of old things.

As to your longing for a family, and your feelings of loneliness and vulnerability: Thank you for rendering this as faithfully and carefully as you have. To have never known your mother must leave a strange loneliness indeed. I am also motherless. But I did have a mother for a long time, especially when I was young. Now I am pained from time to time when the image of her will appear.

In a certain way, now that my own mother is gone, I recoup the feeling of having a mother in the presence of my wife's mother. So that is an idea for you: To find the mothering archetype, or the essence of mother. But of course it is different if you did not have a mother to begin with. That might make it harder to locate the essential psychological relationship and then duplicate it. But not impossible. It is within you, I daresay. I daresay you contain within you a vibrant archetype of your mother. Speak to your mother. Address her. Invite her.

Generally speaking, your question is: How to bottle and categorize the oozing, woozy miasma of consciousness that will not square up and is constantly reappearing in new shapes? How -- basically -- to live from day to day with all these feelings and thoughts? This is the work of a human life. Once we have settled where to eat and where to sleep, we turn to domesticating our own howling chicken coop of a head.

The key is to stop fooling around and begin listening and staring at these phenomena, to learn your own inner language so you can converse with your many selves. This indeed is the civilizing force of art, of writing: that we find languages for the flow of consciousness, we find reflections back to ourselves of what is going on in our heads.

Now that I think about it, that word "reflecting" has significance. Because one of the things about having a mother that is so nice is that she reflects us back to ourselves, and so helps us learn how our being is seen. So if you did not have a mother, you may want to have some catch-up work, like with a therapist who can put you in touch with some of the experiences that we typically have with a mother. You might find this in a variety of other ways. You might find it through intense experience of nature, for instance. You might find it by meeting people of similar background, or by traveling and having surprising experiences.

It may well be that something has come alive within you and is saying to you, It's time to...?

What? It's time to what? That's the question!

It is secret. This unutterable task before you is secret and unique to you. No one knows precisely what mothering you need now. Nor can anyone know what we would have been like had we been cuddled the way we needed to be cuddled when we needed to be cuddled. It is secret. It is hidden even from us. But it can be worked out when it is felt. It can be felt through experiences in groups, or through talking with a skilled guide, or possibly also by fishing on the surface of a clear and cold lake high in the mountains. Whatever. There are many ways. The key thing is that behind uncomfortable feelings is often a precise command. If you can sit with these uncomfortable feelings and learn to hear them, you will eventually hear a command, or suggestion. And then the key is to have the courage to follow it. It may say to go visit your brother. It may say to buy a ukulele.

The key is to live as a secret visionary -- that is, to take these things seriously. You may not want to tell anyone else. You don't have to wear purple and become a sudden wild-eyed saint. But live your inner life with some courage; be to your inner life like a fierce protective mother.

Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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