My son was recently cast as Aladdin in the musical of the same name. It was a matter of great pride, and personal joy for me. A sense of fulfillment, like one would have when their child graduates from college. I felt his success was my reward for years of meditation. It made me think of motherhood, and the role of children in our personal development.
We all know how important mothers are in the lives of their children. There is sufficient empirical data on how the absent or narcissistic mother destroys the child’s psyche. However, we seldom ponder on the role that the children play in the lives of (m)others, and how they help shape our golden years. My son’s performance and my reaction to it forced me to reflect on what he brings into my own life, and how I have grown and transformed as a consequence of motherhood. The following is just a fraction of the change in me, to verbalize everything would create a tome…..
“There is no such thing as an infant” – these are the famous words of Winnicot. He meant to indicate that the mother-child representation encompasses a duality. The sum total of this duality exceeds either individuality. To study either pole on its own is an exercise in futility. The two form an interdependent system, and both are transformed as a consequence of their relationship with each other.
Prior to children, I was bindaas. Bindaas is a Hindi word that was introduced into the Oxford dictionary a few years ago. It signifies an invincible, careless attitude towards life. I was absolutely fearless, irreligious, bold, terribly inflated, driven by success, and materiality. I was deeply loved, but felt entitled to that love since it was mine unconditionally and unquestionably. It is the absence of something that brings to us the awareness of it. I took the love of my family and friends for granted. It was timeless, unending, eternal, a part and parcel of my existence, and I never consciously thought about it. I was an ignorant child that inhabited an adult body.
And then, something miraculous happened. The love of the adults around me was insufficient for existence, I had to develop *into* one of those adults, who loved, and sacrificed unconditionally, unquestionably. And so life asked “are you up to the challenge?” My ignorance, and my fearlessness, said ” Of course! No big deal !!! ” Nothing was a big deal at the time. Life was a breeze. And then I was given a child to care for. Reflecting back on that, I am amazed that I was given this gift. At the time I may have had the potential, but I certainly had not done anything to be deserving of the trust that the universe showed in me through this act of creativity. But as they say, everything happens for the best.
An infant goes through a tough developmental process upon its expulsion from the womb. But for me too, it was an expulsion from the paradise of eternal acceptance, and unconditional love. It wasn’t enough to be accepted, I now had to make myself acceptable to this little bundle of flesh and blood. It wasn’t enough to be cared for, I had to care for an entity that depended on me for its existence. I had to develop the ability to look beyond his screams, pee, pooh and discomfort and retain my calm, patience and compassion during times of distress. I had to put him, and his interests, ahead of mine. I was to remain hypervigilant in the face of sleep deprivation and sheer exhaustion, for even a moment of distraction away from the welfare of the infant, could mean the difference between life, injury and death. I learnt to disregard my self interests, my life became dedicated, and subservient to the child’s – thus I was taught by instinct the way of sacrifice, the way of the universe, the way of sublimation in love. This sublimation and passion filtered into other aspects of my life where I have remained deeply passionate about any and everything that I undertake – I will put my heart and soul into it. Thru contemplation of this process, I developed an appreciation for the feminine principle that drives such endeavors, I grew to appreciate my own femininity, I thought about the trials and tribulations of mother earth, the nature and the natural and our environment. By understanding how my internal resources were being taxed, I understood how we taxed the environment. I also learnt how to prevent my body, and soul from being exploited, and understood the ways of natural catastrophes. I came closer to the creative, sustaining and destructive processes of life, understanding why the creator allowed mankind to live.
Long ago, one afternoon, I had just cleaned up my 2 bedroom apartment from top to bottom, when my then 5 year old – the same who is in the picture above – spilled a glass of milk on the table, which seeped onto the carpet. I had looked at him with accusing exhaustion : “look what you did, I just cleaned up the whole apartment! You make me work so much!” My son looked up in surprise from the picture of the “bootiful mommy” that he had been drawing at the table (I still have that drawing!), and he said “But you’re our mom! Its your JOB to cook and clean for us !” I will never, ever forget those words, they rang so true, and changed my entire outlook on life. A 5 year old knew more than I did what a mother’s job was and he was resisting all my efforts to shirk my responsibility. In the years that followed, I learnt to listen to them with an open mind. Last year I had put on some makeup, and dressed a bit different than I usually do. When my son returned home from school, I posed provocatively and asked “so how do I look?” his face screwed up in dismay “You look young!!!” he lamented. “I like you the way you look.I like you looking older.” My attention immediately was drawn towards his emerging masculinity. What he seemed to be really saying to me was that at 13, he was already battling the demons of his emerging sexuality, struggling to maintain the austerity and sublimation required by the academic and artistic rigors. The last thing he needed was to be tantalized by my sexuality. Through his words, I learnt to look for the underlying emotion – a skill that I effectively use with my clients. I must thank my children for teaching me how to do psychotherapy in the real sense.
As a mother, I was nowhere near as good as my mother and my grandmother had been with me, and my own inabilities made me much more appreciative of the efforts that my family had put in for me. My own difficulties made me reflect on all the wonderful things that my family had done better than I ever could – something I had not really thought about ever. My sons helped bridge the unconscious gap, and bonded me closer to my family.
I could no longer afford to be bindaas, or fearless. I developed caution, and a caring attitude. With the birth of the baby, I experienced my first feelings of fear. Nothing I could do could separate me from those who loved me, but one little act of carelessness, one slip, and my precious baby could smother, or drown, or fall off the bed and injure himself irrecoverably. I was horrified to realized that my carelessness could cost a life, and the feeling has stayed with me. It may not be the physical life that is impacted by my carelessness, but I have become aware of the psychological impacts my behavior holds for those that love me and depend on me. For months, until the little thing gained weight, and the ability to move his head a bit, I would wake up terrified in the middle of the nights, I was constantly fearful that he may be uncomfortable, or worse. I slept over the wetness in the bed so he could have the dry spot. Over the years, I learnt to pray, and fear the wrath of the gods. I could go without, I could be uncompromising, but my relationship with the universe needed to be in the favor of my children. The death wish, the fearlessness, and the uncowering attitude towards the universe gave way to a peaceful submission to the will of the gods.
From Khalil Gibran, I learnt that the infant was not mine, that I was merely a vessel thru which he was brought to existence, that I could have the gift taken away anyday. The transient nature of life was brought home in a very meaningful way everytime my sons were late from school. I was even afraid for my own life, for I knew what it meant for the children to be motherless. I became careful about my own health and wellbeing. My sons thus taught me to take care of myself, so I could live, to witness their lives. There was now a reason, and a purpose to life that was sacred, and greater than just itself. It was beyond me and I was honor bound, by traditions, to respect my role in creation. I worried not only about my children, I worried for their children. Thus I began to see the role I played – however small my contribution may be – in creation and evolution – in the future of mankind, and of earth. I could see how this little drop of water helped shape the quality of the ocean. In harmony with the universe, I learnt to submit to that collective destiny and flow with life forces instead of rebelling against them. Jung would have been horrified, but what good is an individuated Self that lives for itself and only for itself ?!
Because of these experiences, and my constant brushes with the concept of mortality and transience of human life, I learnt to live in the immediacy of the present, to honor that gift on a day to day basis. I enjoyed every single moment, and made sure that every single moment of their was as precious and meaningful. We threw away our TVs and electronic gadgets that isolated us, and we spent time gardening. We sunned ourselves on hammocks during weekends, reading, talking, relating, strengthening. We spent our nights on the trampoline, watching stars twinkle in the galaxies far away. Together we fantasized about alien lifeforms, and our own role in the universe. For the first time I saw clouds through the eyes of a 5 year old, and yes, they were like pillows. There is an untainted clarity, honesty and possibility in children’s imagination. It encompasses guileless wisdom, which is inaccessible to adult perception. I was given the gift of access to that creative imagination thru my relationship with them. Later, lazing around on the shores Huntington Lake, we would argue about why mountains were or were not like fathers, and why rain was or was not like mother. We even we discussed the reasons behind the inability of the psyche to distinguish between the metaphors. We discussed the notions of time, and dreams. I learnt a lot through my interactions with them on these topics. The interactions constantly led to a new kind of a creative space where old and new came together, and led to something more profound for each one of us.
Thru the love of my children, I even found a way to ponder on the notion of gods, and grew to love them all. My role as a provider forced me to contemplate on the role of all providers and nurturers – human as well as divine. I developed a greater appreciation and connection with nature, and all animate and inanimate lifeforms.
My son’s infancy and childhood taught me to respect and value vulnerability. I became more conscientiously caring in my attitude about the wellbeing and the comfort of all those that depend on me, those that I love. I developed opinions about right and wrong where I had previously had a anything goes attitude towards life. The emotions, fears, and behaviors did not remain localized to the children, they forced me to reflect on my other relationships and belief systems that I had taken so for granted. My family delightfully watched me automatically transform from a “taker” into a “giver” – a maturing experiencing.
The most important change was characterological. The infants brought intense awareness and importance of ethics and morality. The absolute lack of barriers created by a false self/personna between us was refreshingly powerful. My son’s dependence on me, and mine on him, was based on absolute mutual trust. I once asked him a question “What do you think god is?” And his response was “God doesn’t interfere in our daily lives. He loves us deeply, and he always stands behind us and helps, and supports us in every way, but he expects us to make our own decisions, and to live our lives through our own efforts” With a fluttering of my heart I realised what I had read in the psychology books. My son was projecting his relationship with me onto the divine. My behaviors were shaping his imaginations about the benevolence of universe, and the of gods, and these psychological structures would enable his resiliance throughout his adult life. This developmental unfolding – presented to me in its starkest and rawest form – completely shook me, in many many ways. The responsibility made me rise above myself, as it became imperative to meet those developmental landmarks.
The word symbols trust, faith and god are constructed in the space that exists between a mother and child. Should such a space not exist, the child will not develop these meaningful constructs well. In their absence adult life is prone to become a series of disasters. As I became aware of the enormous responsibility that reposed in me, I also realized that failure was not an option at all. Hence my sense of responsibility was honed thru my relationship with them. I pushed myself to unprecedented levels to rise upto the challenge. Every smile, every bump on the head, every tearful encounter enabled their neural structures, and shaped their beliefs about me, and thru me about the world, the universe and the gods; my everyday responses to their situational crisis were effectively the foundational stones of their adult lives. Before reacting blindly to the stimulus offered by the crisis, I had to gauge the effect of my reactions would have. There’s been some recent research which has revealed that the mind is organized like a gigantic chessboard, but I experienced this long long ago, as my ability to calculate ahead, or regress to the causal factors had been sharpened through my relationship with my kids.
Something beautiful was created out of these efforts. And these efforts became part and parcel of my unconscious personality. I fell into using them outside of my relationships with the kids. Because I trusted my family so completely, I had the ability to trust the universe, the ability to see the universe – and god – as benevolent. I am thus able to hold onto hope even in the most disparate moments. The trust of my children in me, in my integrity, their faith in my motives, is a priceless gift. My ability to maintain that trust is a family heirloom. There is no question of jeopordizing that. I believe I have been able to hand over this heirloom to them and am confident that it will be preserved by them and carried forward to my grandchildren. So it is the children, and my love for them, that helped shape my character, my morality and my sense of ethics. They made me aware that when someone loves you, when someone depends on you, when someone trusts you, you must never, never betray them. Had I not loved them as deeply, I would have been more bindaas – fearless of consequences of my own behaviors, more compromising of my values in the pursuit of survival and material benefits. The depth of my emotions for them, and my desire to fulfil my responsibilities led to structures of ethics and morality, not vice versa. In me, the relationship created an experiential understanding about the origins of the constructs of ethics, morality, loyalty, commitment. I understood the world at a deeper level thru my relationship with the children.
As they edged towards adolescence, I heard horror stories about adolescent rebellion. I dreaded the thought of my sons turning 13 and more, and wondered what I would do. To prepare myself, to defend against the anticipated rebellion, I learnt to let go of my attachments, of ego driven behaviors. I accepted them as they were, and focussed on relationship rather than behavioral infractions. I minimized conflict, and stressed on harmonious interactions. Well, to date I have had one argument ever with my older son, and a few more with my younger one. The awkwardness from those encounters has not lasted for more than 15 minutes. So my sons actually forced me to change my attitude towards others, they taught me detachment, letting go, they enabled me to focus on relational component, and forgive infractions.
The notion of letting go is a very powerful one. It stretches from enmeshing love, to the aging process. I watch the dichotomy between my failing/aging body and their acquisition of strength and masculinity. I am forced to think of mortality, of life-cycles, and how the world is being constantly shaped and reshaped through death and rebirth. I noticed the grey in my heir along with the thickening of my son’s facial hair. I noticed his voice cracked around the same time that my back began to hurt. I noticed changes in his body, and it compelled me to notice the changes in mine, and slowly there dawned this experiential realization that the world belonged to them, that I was just trying to hold onto something that existed in the past, and that I must hand the world over to him gracefully, and willingly, that I must stop struggling to remain young, and attached. In so many ways, my son made me aware of my changing association with the world. I did not need to compete, I need not stake my claims of youthfulness, I was a part of the universe in my own way, I could let go, and embrace my age and the wisdom that such acceptance bestowed on me. Such acceptance freed up the libidinal energy that was otherwise tied up and arrested my development. True wisdom, I realised, only came with relinquishing my attachments.
The focus in our relationship too changed – from doing things together, to mentoring and witnessing. I no longer knew what was right and wrong for my sons in the new emerging world, and I welcomed their contribution and sought their counsel in many ways and allowed myself to be shaped. However, I had other things to offer – and we had endless discussions on quantum physics, on Jungian psychology, on the emergence of complexity, on the convergence and overlap of depth psychology with astrophysics, quantum chemistry and cellular biology. I explored spirituality with them. Rather than compete with them in establishing my hegemony, I was ok with saying “this is too difficult for me” I was then free to either ask for their help, or I could choose to say “I am too old to learn this.” They called me old, old fashioned, obsolete, ancient…and it was ok, it freed me from the burden of remaining all knowing and always young. I was old, so why deny? Our shadows turned positive.
From the egoistic, demanding, devouring mother, which I would have become had I continued in my deep attachment with them, and to my own beauty and youthfulness, I have been forced to move myself to the detached role of the aging matriarch. I am a mere witness to their unfolding. My deep love for them has enabled this transformation. I believe similar changes have occured in them as well. And these changes have filtered into our lives in general. I feel detached and balanced in life generally. No longer am I attached to material stuff, to any particular outcome in life, I no longer have the need to force the direction my life takes, no longer am I egotistically inflated – I realized that in letting go of my children, I had in fact learnt how to let go of all attachments. In forcing myself into becoming a mentor and a witness, my brain structures seemed to have undergone a massive alteration, I am now curious, and intrigued by knowledge, and wisdom rather than riches, and possessions. I have acquired the ability to observe dispassionately and allow things to unfold as they will. It is a stage appropriate transformation made possible thru and only thru children. And in a mutually enhancing ways, the children too, I realize, are not materialistic, greedy, narcissistic. Their innate spirituality and relationality is conserved, and they value love, and the bonds of love, over everything else. In redeeming myself, I had unknowingly and unwittingly helped preserve their innate spirituality and intrinsic relational Self.
Every single day, the children shape me, and mold me into a human being that I have grown to respect in the mirror. All children have the instrinsic ability to alter their environment to enable maximum survival benefits. My body, soul and Self is a part of that environment. Because I do not resist such change, because I embrace the molds they cast me in, and willingly subject myself to such change, and because I accept that my transformation is a requirement for their growth, I am in turn changed to something that nature intended for them to have, and it intended for me to be. I am. I simply am. By dying to myself and my ego, I am constantly reborn for them. In the process I acquire precious skills needed to make sense of this madness called life, to put the other ahead of me – I am forced to relinquish narcissism. My innate narcissism is thus dissipated and destroyed in the smithy of mothering experiences. The experience has proved to be infinitely useful professionally as well, and from these experiences I have gained the ability to relate and sacrifice self interest in the therapeutic relationship, and sacrifice my ego in the service of my clients.
I have been crafted to my true self in the furnace of motherhood. My values, shaped by my family, were tested by my children – the same way that my parents and grandparents were shaped by, and thru their relationship with me. To my children, I owe a my ability to understand life and to self reflect. I owe my self knowledge, my wisdom, patience, empathy and compassion, my religiousity, my understanding of love, gods, and relationships, and the acceptance of the aging process as well as the aging body – in fact I owe them my transformation from a child to a responsible, moral and ethical adult, and now to someone who is aging gracefully, easing into 50s and beyond and loving every moment of it. But for them, I would still be the bindaas, fearless, irreligious, inflated child that I was prior to their birth. I would have no motive, or reason to grow up. So children provided the reason to help me through the journey and enabled a particular developmental phase of my life that was a necessary part of my growth process. Thru them, I have learnt to confront my mortality, and learnt to remain unafraid in the face of death.
Children provide one of the avenues of transcendence of the opposites – the struggle between Self and ego is resolved thru sacrifice necessitated in childrearing. In that sence, children are like gods that are given to us, they are also like therapists that come free of cost and work with us long terms. If we serve them faithfully, and with selfless devotion, we are given a chance of healing our childhood wounds, and transcending the limitations of our humanity. The psyche and the Self effortlessly reaches its zenith thru childrearing and motherhood. It is for this reason that children are said to represent the face of god.
Undoubtedly there are other ways to achieve the same transcendence and establish the supremacy of Self, and then acquire the capability of selflessness. A lot of women these days choose to forgo motherhood due to biological, financial or social reasons. I find that for most of them, there is a compensatory activity that symbolises the mothering process and enables them to develop into mature responsible adults. I believe that love, commitment, and selfless sacrifice to a cause, any cause, symbolises motherhood, and is a step towards achieving such transcendence. It is a developmental necessity for graceful aging and growth. However, in the absence of such a stage appropriate cause that mirrors the process of mothering, one would tend towards arrested psyche, without acquiring the ability to rise to our highest spiritual potential. Attachments to materiality, narcissism, addictions, greed etc serve as numinous gods of a certain kind, very different to the benevolent gods, or children that are given to us for our psychological growth. By serving a cause, any cause, whether materialistic, or transcendental, one serves a god. It then becomes a choice which god one chooses to serve.
The ongoing joke in our home, that also serves as a reminder of their origins, and my mortality, is the fact that the children were created out of a single cell in my body. They represent not only the appropriate extension and expansion of my thoughts and belief system (which in turn has been crafted by culture and heritage), facilitated and mediated by the constantly altering nature of reality, rejuvinated and infused by the changing world, but they are also essentially the product of multiplication of a single cell of mine, that is now growing outside my body due to space constraints within. My essence is reincarnated thru my children. As such, essence has found a way to become immortalised, thru that one cell that has created these human beings. My mind continues to live thru them. My eyes see thru theirs, I hear thru their ears, their decisions are and will always remain influenced by my teachings (hence the power of mother imago). Since my biology as well as psychology is preserved, multiplied and continued into eternity, why would this body lament about the process of aging, death and dying? What is dying, really ? The new cells that the body brought forth for continuation, are doing really well. I am beginning to become more and more assured that it will take several forthcoming generations for me, and my influence – physical, biological, spiritual – to be removed from the universe. It will be held by more bodies than one. What else is long life and immortality?
This is where I question Jung’s concept of individuation. The process of individuation does not mean we discard our collective heritage. The proverbian Jungian acorn always unfolds into an oak, no matter how that process unfolds through free will. It is destined to remain an oak. A swan remains a swan, and cannot become a scorpion, nor vice versa. And so we too remain tethered to our destiny, our true collective nature, the nature of our species, and the variants within that species. In adhering to the collective, and fulfilling the responsibilities that nature endowed me with, I believe have left the world a better place. Sure I would have attained a lot for myself had I dumped the children with their father, or in foster care and pursued my own path of excellence, but such narcissism would hurry the world to its destruction. Perhaps I lean to being judgmental in this statement, but living in the present does not absolve us of our responsibilities towards the collective future, especially if we are somewhat capable of taking on those responsibilities. Perhaps that is what is wrong with the world today….? My relationship with the children has brought forth this realization in me, it has enabled me to widen my horizons and look at not just at my own destiny, but to look at the universe as a whole and recognize my part in the harmony.
I have major problems with radical feminism as it often associates motherhood with depressive oppression, and forced martyrdom. In their quest for freedom, the feminists have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, and the victims of that error are women themselves, who have now lost their claims of superiority through motherhood, and are now reduced to sex objects. They have also lost the tools that would enable a stage appropriate development, and so we see a lot of women refusing to embrace their psychic growth and development, choosing to remain tethered to the age, and developmental stage that they should be able to transcend. The popularity of plastic surgery is an example of this inability to move forward………I did not sacrifice my life for my children, but per feminist prescriptions, I did not sacrifice my children for my life either. Somehow I found ways of maintaining a tense balance of the opposites. Perhaps we have to find and enforce a middle path in our quest for individuation. And so, I end this post with infinite thanks to my children for making me who I am today, and for preserving and immortalizing my essence, even multiplying, enhancing and enriching it continuously through their own being. Because of them, I have no fear of aging, nor of death.