The other night I dreamed that my mother, dead for thirty years, returned. I hugged her as I might a long lost cousin. She said, “It’s my birthday. I’m 93.” Then she morphed into my half-sister who will be that age in a few months. This is a dream after all and the experience is often transformational. My sister carries my mother, her history, secrets and a dark side carefully hidden. And as the years pass, I reflect on the long shadow of my mother and her dominance in my psyche.
When I was younger I thought this a no brainer. I took my mother back to my birth home in London, England. I recall it as a dark place that hid our poverty, penury and frequent outbreaks of violence by my father. My mother had four children before she met my father, and their tales, fates and chronologies seemed to enter our house at the sharp end of my father’s tongue, especially after an evening at the local Queens pub. Even in the broad daylight, something seemed amiss.
When my mother and I stood at our old front door, I asked her how she was feeling. I wanted her to say something; to articulate my narrative that seemed so certain and unassailable. She simply smiled and suggested that we get a cup of tea. I had badly estimated the power of the mother. I also felt like a bit of an ass and from then on addressed her “shadow” in my poetry, fiction and essays. There would be no conversation. I came up with shorthand that I used on more than one occasion, including in psychology classes: “My mother survived three wars, two husbands and seven children.” That sentence has served as an abbreviated life narrative, a coda and a full stop.
My mother lost her first husband when she was thirty; my father when she was 57. The family loved, cared for and celebrated her as befitting her long and painful life. I built an addition our house for her to spend her last years, surrounded by grandchildren. On her final trip, she went alone at age 85 to see her family in Dublin. I became the lost son and the sentimentalist, moving my father’s remains so the two could be close.
After a serious reading of Carl Jung’s work, I began to understand that the complexes a mother gives rise to in sons and daughters cannot be understood solely through a rigid attention to biography, as if it’s a text to be analyzed. Psychology, religion and mythology all play a part. The lady has a large shadow and her children reside in different locations under that canopy. They are not actors in a silent movie.
Jung writes in “Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious” that effects produced by the mother must be divided into two groups; first, those dealing with traits that actually exist in the mother; second, those dealing with traits that a mother only seems to possess; the reality being composed of the fantastic or archetypal projections on the part of the child. Our psychological task is not to deny the archetype, Jung suggests, “but to dissolve the projections, in order to restore their contents to the individual who has involuntarily lost them by projecting them outside himself.”
The precise hold that the mother has on an individual, often referred to as a mother-complex, depends upon whether the recipient is a son or a daughter. In a son this complex might show up as Don Juanism, where the son unconsciously seeks his mother in every woman he meets. The son can have problems with his sexuality if his entire heterosexuality is tied to the mother in unconscious form. Jung notes that mythology is rich in the effects of a negative mother-complex, including self-castration, madness, and early death. Jung writes that the mother-complex can injure the masculine instinct in the son through an unnatural sexualization.
But this potentially negative attribute is not only associated with illness and injury; it can have a positive effect. Jung writes that a man with a mother- complex “may have a finely differentiated Eros” that gives him a great capacity for friendship that can create an astonishing tenderness between men “and may even rescue friendship between the sexes from an impossible limbo.”
For some reason Jung seems more confident and certain in discussing the mother-complex in daughters, apparently because the charged, unconscious sexual component is lacking. The mother/daughter relationship is “purer” in the psychological sense. Jung suggests that in the mother/daughter relationship there is either an overdevelopment of feminine instincts that is directly related to the mother or a weakening of them to the point of extinction. In the first case, a preponderance of instincts can make the daughter unconscious of her own personality. In the second case, the instincts are projected on the mother.
The mother-complex in the daughter plays out in a number of ways. The exaggeration of the feminine means an intensification of all things feminine, especially the maternal instinct. The negative aspect is that a woman’s only goal might be childbirth. Her husband is likely of secondary importance. In Jung’s words, he’s there to look after the dogs, poor relations and household furniture. And his wife treats her own personality as of secondary importance. She is largely unconscious of this process. After she gives birth she will cling to her children. Jung links this character type to the mythological tale of Demeter who compels the gods to give her possession of her daughter Persephone. While this woman might live for others in a sense, there is also an unconscious “will to power” present.
Another iteration of the negative mother-daughter complex is the overdevelopment of Eros, which Jung suggests “almost invariably leads to an unconscious incestuous relationship with the father.” Sometimes the daughter initiates; sometimes the father’s psychology is responsible. Usually, there is jealousy of the mother and inevitable competition. Jung notes that the daughter loves romantic episodes and is attracted to married men. There is an unconsciousness to this and lack of maternal instinct. He adds that men with a passive Eros provide an excellent hook for her anima projections.
If a mother-complexed woman does not have an overdeveloped Eros, she will likely become too closely identified with the mother. This can lead to a paralysis of the daughter’s feminine instinct. She is unconscious of her maternal instinct and her Eros. She completely projects her personality on the mother and lives in her shadow. Jung writes that such woman can be very desirable to men looking for a wife because she readily takes up all the masculine projections. He adds in a footnote that this type of woman has a disarming effect on her husband and only later does the man realize he married his mother-in-law.
Jung adds a short description of a negative mother-complex in which the daughter displays an overwhelming resistance to maternal supremacy. Marriage is often an escape from the mother but more often the daughter chooses a husband who shares the essential traits of the mother. This woman is often opposed to her own instincts; sex is difficult and married life is impossible. This has nothing to do with actual life, but speaks of a resistance to the mother in every form. The resistances to the mother as “uterus” can manifest itself in failure of conception, abhorrence of pregnancy, miscarriages and so on. Jung notes that this resistance to the mother can sometimes result in the spontaneous development of the intellect where the mother has no place.
Jung concludes with a necessary emphasis on the positive aspects of the mother complex, reminding us that mother-love “is one of the most moving and unforgettable memories of our lives, the mysterious root of all growth and change; the love that means homecoming, shelter, and the long silence from which everything begins and which everything ends.”
The psychologist asks rhetorically, “Why risk saying too much, too much that is false and inadequate and beside the point about that human being who was our mother, the accidental carrier of that great experience which includes herself and myself and all mankind, and indeed the whole of created nature, the experience of life whose children we are?”
Jung answers his own question, noting that the sensitive person “cannot load the enormous burden of meaning, responsibility, duty, heaven and hell, on to the shoulders of one frail and fallible human being—so deserving of love, indulgence, understanding, and forgiveness—who was our mother.”
Jung’s advice is to relieve the mother of this appalling burden, this massive weight of meaning. A mother-complex is not banished by reducing her to human proportions. To relieve her of this burden, we must become psychological and be conscious of the world of archetypes that holds the primordial images of life. If these images remain conscious in some form, “the energy that belongs to them can flow freely into the man or woman. But when it is no longer possible to maintain contact with them, then the tremendous sum of energy stored up in these images, which are also the source of the fascination underlying the infantile parental complex, falls back into the unconscious.” This is how we give birth to a complex. The unconscious becomes charged with an irresistible force that is dangled enticingly before our desiring eyes. We take a bite.
Jung reminds us that the mother “is the first world of the child and the last world of the adult. We are all wrapped as her children in this mantle of the great Isis.”
In my novel “Limey Down” the protagonist joins the Navy in a desperate attempt to get out from under his mother’s shadow. In my next novel, “USS Bunker Kills: A Sea Story,” the protagonist travels to the other side of the world but his dead mother’s ashes follow him and, after saying a prayer, he sprinkles the ashes in the South China Sea and watches them float towards India. Then he turns to the life and death business at hand.
Psychologically, I am still trying to catch up to my fiction.