I am excited to host Angie Mabry-Nauta, writer, blogger, speaker and ordained minister. Angie tackles the Mother Taboo, the damaging societal pretence that all moms necessarily love their children well by virtue of biological motherhood.
Wikipedia defines taboo:
A taboo (tə’buː, tæ’buː) is a vehement prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred or too accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake, under threat of supernatural punishment. Such prohibitions are present in virtually all societies. The word has been somewhat expanded in the social sciences to include strong prohibitions relating to any area of human activity or custom that is sacred or forbidden based on moral judgment and religious beliefs. ‘Breaking a taboo’ is usually considered objectionable by society in general, not merely a subset of a culture.
No one spoke to me about the Mama Taboo. I picked up on and named it by myself. It is a strong force, a ubiquitous, yet hushed understanding. I need…to…speak. And yet, I cannot. I’m unable to put a face on “society,” but I know “they” would frown upon, if not shun me, if I spoke honestly about my childhood experience with my mother.
As a physician, Mom worked a lot. A lot. A wee child of elementary school age, I figured that she didn’t love, like, or want to be around me. But I would never say that to her — so encompassing was my fear that she’d leave me.
Also, Mom’s personality is such that she is forthright, assertive, to-the-point, and efficient in her communication. I am the opposite. I need deep emotional connections with people essential in my life, particularly Mom. She never sought one with me because it didn’t cross her mind to do so. “I never knew,” she said years later, practically stunned into silence. “I…I never knew that you were so needy.” She was regularly not home, and we were not connected emotionally.
I grew up parched of her love. But, I would never, ever say that. What if she left me?
Within itself, the Mama Taboo is complex, but it has two aspects. The first is that for whatever reason, a mother doesn’t or can’t love her child. Specifically, this refers to nurturing, compassionate, empathetic, and present love. As adults who learn to speak tactfully, we might come to say that Mom loves us in “her own way.” Maybe she speaks harshly to us, lacks empathy, parents punitively, and pushes somewhat mercilessly for perfection; but, she works hard to ensure her children have everything they need and want. She shows her love by working so many hours, and buying us stuff. At best this is sugar-coating. Bluntly, this is denial, denial that we use to cope with the deep and confusing pain that we can sense even within the womb.
Why doesn’t my Mom love me?
The reasons are as numerous as the people who fill this earth, each of us born to a mother. Likely, however, the reasons can be summed up into one statement: Mom is so emotionally damaged herself from her own childhood that she is unable to love. And this can go back generations, with each mother wounding her child similarly, most likely inadvertently.
The second aspect of the Mama Taboo is that the child is unwilling or unable to say that her mother isn’t (wasn’t) loving. Weaved together, the cultural sacredness of motherhood and a child’s natural affinity (loyalty?) towards her mother create a suffocating muzzle. “Psychotherapists may disagree, even vehemently, about theory or practice,” writes Rachel Harris, Ph.D., “but we all agree on mother’s central importance in a [child's] life.” To feel, think, or speak ill of the most important person in our life is to threaten our own survival. And so, we don’t. A child’s natural response to an unloving mother is assuming that there is something wrong with her, that her low worth is the reason her mother isn’t attached to her.
“Even adults who were abused may feel that they were loved, although during the course of therapy they may come to reconsider their answer,” Harris says.
The term “unloving mother” is an oxymoron, a mythical combination that we’d like to believe doesn’t exist. The truth is, though, that there are more unloving mothers out there than we care to admit. Just ask any counselor or psychiatrist. “There’s a continuum from horribly abusive mothers to motherly saints, but there are plenty of mothers in the middle range who are unable to love or who say mean things to their [children],” Harris continues. “And many of these mothers see themselves as good mothers.”
And so three ingredients produce a toxic cocktail for the child
- Mom is less-than-loving, lacks empathy, and is uncompassionate
- Mom denies her inadequate mothering and its effects on her children
- Cultural sacredness of motherhood favors testimony of Mom over experience of the child
As for me, I entered adulthood feeling bound and gagged. I was drowning in that toxic cocktail. I felt wearied, akin to the prophet Jeremiah, except it was my own fury that I was holding in (Jeremiah 6:11). Like the word of the Lord within Jeremiah, the truth of my experience with my mother was a fire in my belly, a burning in my bones (20:9, The Message). And my superhuman efforts to contain the fire consumed me to the point of depression and anxiety.
And yet, I would not speak it. I could not. Imprisoned by the Mama Taboo, I fought to hush my thoughts, stuff my emotions, and seal my lips. Society’s rejection was too high of a price. The mere possibility that my mother might abandon me was powerful enough to stay my course.
Nothing short of implosion would catalyze change.
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Angie Mabry-Nauta is a writer, speaker, and ordained Minister in the Reformed Church in America. She is the creator of “Can A Mother Forget?” a Christian Workshop for churches and faith-based organizations that offers hope to mother/adult child relationships. Angie regularly contributes to Gifted for Leadership, Christianity Today’s blog for women called to church leadership, and blogs on her own site at www.angiemn.com. She lives in Plano, Texas, USA with her husband and two daughters. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @RevAngieMN.
(All Rachel Harris, Ph.D. quotes from the Foreword to Peg Streep’s book, Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt (New York: William Morrow, 2009)