On Mothering by Sil Reynolds
I have been mothering since I was a child. Truth be told, I doted on my dolls into adolescence, and early on embraced the mother archetype as both a personal and professional path for life. Happily, my teachers in nursing school encouraged the development of my intuition and empathy as crucial companions to my clinical knowledge. But it was in my later training, with the remarkable Jungian teacher and writer Marion Woodman, that I learned the essential mothering skills of mirroring and containing another soul, whether your own child or not. After years of teaching, including coteaching with my daughter, I have come to define good mothering in the simplest possible way: Mothering is raising your daughter (or son) to become herself (or himself).
What does this definition actually mean? For me, it has meant making mothering the daily practice of living my own life, so that my daughter Eliza is free to live hers. Jung once said, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of the parent,” and I have worked at separating out my version of who I think Eliza should be, from who in fact she is—and is becoming.
This piece of esoteric advice actually has lots of practical implications for mothers who are struggling with or fearing the clash of wills that they may be headed for with their teenage daughters. There are many books and workshops that help parents manage conflict with their teenage daughters more easily and effectively. Under this layer of practical skill-building, though, is a deeper capacity within every mother where she already knows how to parent her adolescent daughter well and how to raise her daughter to become herself. Let’s call this capacity a kind of mothering zone—one that she can enter at any time and that is as innate as giving birth—the zone of conscious mothering. Let me hasten to say that conscious mothering is not perfect mothering, but it does employ a highly attuned sensibility that we all have: mother’s intuition.
Our culture does not encourage us to develop this valuable sensibility, but as we cultivate our own innate abilities, the experience reveals two essential mothering realities:
1. An adolescent daughter needs and wants her mother to be central in her life. It is through maintaining a flexible and reliable dependence on her mother through adolescence that she will arrive at a healthy independence as a true adult, and forge a lasting connection with her mother that will feed both mother and daughter through the rest of their lives together.
2. A mother doesn’t need to worry overly much how to be a good mother. Once a mother has established herself in this central position, her own intuition will help her to stay close and connected to her daughter, and will guide her in setting limits and in knowing if, and when, she needs help. Even if a mother wasn’t well mothered herself, or has made some big mistakes, it’s built in.
These basic ideas challenge the conventional wisdom that teenagers need to reject their mother (and father) to become individuals, and that “the experts” know better than we do about how to raise our children. Obviously, I disagree. Through our own relationship, and now our work together, Eliza and I have learned that mothers and daughters can come through this critical passage from child to adult as friends. How did we do this? I have talked here about my mothering, but the surprising new part for both of us lies in Eliza, and her own ability to claim an active role in our relationship, something we call daughtering.
On Daughtering by Eliza Reynolds
When I was 16, I first started asking girls in my workshops to define daughtering. I’d hand out scraps of unlined paper and pens and ask the girls: “What if, just like mothering, daughtering was an act we could all do? Then, how would you define daughtering?”
The word daughtering was my brainchild—I believed (and still do!) that teen daughters are often trapped in the language of passivity. Though prolific when it comes to defining the many things that mothers should and shouldn’t be doing—no yelling, piano practice everyday after school, and no cell phone until they’re thirteen—popular culture and dictionaries alike assigned daughters no role except that of the utterly exasperated teen. But what do most daughters do? Well, not a whole lot, frankly—at least as current teen society would have it. We frequently get embarrassed, answer in monosyllables, and brick ourselves behind a defensive wall of attitude.
Most teen daughters are not actively involved in their relationship with their mothers. They view their role as solely that of the unfortunate recipient of their mom’s inept, infuriating, and embarrassing attentions (cue the eye roll). As a result, many girls withdraw from the relationship, effectively giving up on it. “I’ve lost her,” I hear moms say. “Last year, she was telling me everything, and now she just says her day was ‘fine’ and shuts herself in her room.”
How do the teen girls I’ve asked define daughtering? Here are some of my favorites:
- Daughtering is the act of showing your mom the world with fresh eyes
- Daughtering is realizing your mom is a person just like you
- Daughtering is honest love
- Daughtering is the job of blossoming, growing, like a flower
- Daughtering is the act of loving your mom and then having a daughter and loving her and then her having a daughter and loving her, and so on
After gathering hundreds of these testimonials, I have formed a working definition of this new word: Daughtering (daught-er-ing); noun. 1. Staying real with your mom and not giving up on her. 2. Creating a relationship where you feel trusted, understood, supported, and loved.
As a college student, daughtering has also come to mean taking a healthy step away from my mother when I need to and taking care of myself. It is trusting my own voice and learning to speak with that voice. Daughtering is growing, often with shaky steps. It’s about empowered action and taking the reins in my own life. It is a form of deepest love.
Though I work primarily with teen daughters, my definition of daughtering was first inspired by my mom’s daughtering—of her own mom. My mom worked hard at healing her relationship with her mother and she accepts and loves her mother as an imperfect human with her own history and limitations. Adult mothers never stop daughtering.
So what can I say to moms about daughtering? Remember the pangs of your adolescence and try to make peace with your mother if you haven’t, whether she is alive or not. This will help to heal your matriline and give you more insight into how to mother your daughter well. And, just as important, encourage your daughter to daughter. Don’t let her give up on you! Invite her input into your relationship. Examine your fears, note the ones that are irrational, and trust her when she deserves it. Love her whole-heartedly, blindly, and unconditionally. Help her to live her life and not your unlived life. Make eye contact with her when she walks in the door from school or when you pick her up after a long day. Smile. Say I love you—frequently—even if she rolls her eyes. Especially if she rolls her eyes. If you don’t give up on her, she will learn to not give up on you.
Sil Reynolds, RN, is a nurse practitioner, therapist, and workshop leader. For more than 30 years, she has worked with women and girls teaching about healthy body image, conscious communication, and the joys of motherhood.
Eliza Reynolds is a workshop leader, certified teen mediator, and SOS trained counselor with Planned Parenthood. She attends Brown University and is codirector of New Moon, a summer camp that celebrates the feminine and the masculine within all teenagers. Together, they coteach Mothers & Daughters workshops at Omega.
© 2012 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies