For me, the Mother Wound is at least two generations deep. Literally, it can be traced through the O negative blood I inherited from my maternal grandmother. Her daughter, my mother- was born in a time when medical science hadn’t yet fully developed an immunization for Rh factor incompatibility.
Her younger brother didn’t live to his second birthday.
But what is the Mother Wound?
Here’s how Rick Belden defined it in his article Men and the Mother Wound:
A Mother Wound may be thought of as injury to the psyche of a child resulting from significant dysfunction or disruption in relationship with the mother. In some cases, it is the result of a mother’s absence or unavailability due to death, illness, adoption, or other circumstances that dramatically separate the child from the mother. But more typically, a Mother Wound is a complex of injuries to the child’s psyche received over many years, often as a result of the mother acting, consciously or not, out of her own woundedness. One of the most severe kinds of psychic wounding occurs when the child’s primary function in the relationship is to be used by the mother to meet her own narcissistic needs.
How it played out for me
It really did start with my maternal grandmother, and my maternal grandfather, to a degree. My mother’s family was reasonably well-off, and her parents didn’t exactly approve of my father, who grew up in more humble circumstances. More particularly, my grandmother was withering in her disapproval, and it was something Dad and I would discuss at length in later years. This is much less true today; I think Dad won quite a bit of approval just through many years of diligence- helping them move into assisted living, archiving of family photos and histories, and so on. Still, the disapproval was a lingering cloud for the forty-odd years of my life, and it was present as I lived with my grandparents, alongside my parents for a handful of months, and then alone or with the first of my 3 younger sisters for many, many summers.
I wasn’t really a grandson– I was given the role of the lost son, a surrogate, if you will. Cimmorene saw this for herself when Grandma showed her a picture of me and younger sister #1. “This is J,” she said, rather plainly and matter-of-fact, “…and this is R!”, ending with squeaky, sing-song baby talk. I was given golden boy treatment, and most of the time, I could do no wrong… much to the resentment of my sisters. I was able to mend fences with the younger two, but R hasn’t spoken to me in 15 years. Actually, though, to my greater chagrin, she may be doing it because she doesn’t know what to make of Cimmorene and her slightly more extroverted personality. (Not to mention that Cimmy is not content to keep quiet about family wounds and secrets).
Although I was a golden boy, I was able to break through and see the ugly mother-to-daughter traditions of gossip, busy-body perfectionism and discontent, manipulation, and narcissism. But it really messed with my head. My grandmother constantly intervened in my upbringing, with a healthy dose of backbiting. Sometimes it was that my parents didn’t exercise enough, and therefore she and my grandfather were providing an active lifestyle for me. Or, it was meals at fancy restaurants, since my parents couldn’t afford such. Gifts were never truly free; there was always some sort of condition, whether it be forced gratitude in thank-you letters, certain behaviors, or what have you. But the attitude about food was the worst.
The makings of an eating disorder…
Supposedly, the traditional role of a grandparent is to spoil their grandchildren. That resulted in very mixed messages for me, most especially for food. At their house, it was like going to a candy store, almost. Cookies, chips, crackers– available anytime, and as much as I wanted. But I never had permission to say I was full. Oh yes, it was the old traditional Clean Plate Club, so I was generally trained to ignore any natural cues to satiety. I’m sure many of you dear readers are familiar with the notion, but, it went beyond that. Later in my childhood, my grandparents got perfectionistic about dieting and nutrition, and so most of the “goodies” vanished. Food was definitely used as a conditional reward, although food as punishment was rare: I never got set to my room without a meal that I can recall. (Cimmorene did, but, that’s her story to tell.)
Under my grandparents’ warped affection ran a deep undercurrent of what they taught my mother, and it wasn’t too long before she started repeating those mantras. Foremost among them was the following: “You’re eating too much!” Much like my grandmother, Mom obsessed over at least 5-10 lbs., and I learned what Slimfast was about, as liquid diets seemed to be her main weight loss solution of choice. Looking back, especially viewing old family photos, I still ask myself rhetorically why I started obsessing about dieting when I was 10 years old and in the fifth grade. At least one thing was clear: my grandmother would say some variation of ‘eat up, you’re a growing boy’, and my mother would say something to the effect of ‘stop eating so much, or you’ll get fat!’ I couldn’t see this at first, but, as I got older, my grandparents’ messages and behaviors started to match my mother’s more closely, and I slowly concluded that Mom had merely repeated what they taught her. Mom specifically said that Grandpa made weight loss a firm condition of permission to get contact lenses, so I came to understand his views on motivation, more especially when I was presented with weight loss as a condition of a certain reward (payment for school, I think it was). Dad put it a little more precisely in that he saw my grandfather as possessing a military mindset (by dint of Grandpa’s experience as a Marine) and viewed “carrot and stick” methods as necessary motivators.
I think I’ve said it before in Binge eating — one of the last of my dirty little secrets that a neighbor/classmate of mine conducted an anonymous survey on eating disorders, in middle school. As I reflected on my answers, I came to wonder if my binge eating episodes were actually a disorder, as she was suggesting. I was glad that it was anonymous. Who would I talk to? There was discussion about anorexia, thanks to Karen Carpenter‘s public struggle with it. There was emerging discussion about bulimia. But there was no discussion that I was aware of about binge eating disorder, and CERTAINLY not any discussion about any eating disorders among men, that I was aware of. As I got into college, there were a few articles that began to discuss men, but, they all seemed to imply that it was something for the effeminate, thin, boyish-looking gay man, obviously in response to what was currently the female ideal.
…but eating disorders can be different for men.
It’s only been recently that I’ve seen discussion about muscle dysmorphia as a feature of body dysmorphia among men. (Thank you, Brian Cuban.) My father dabbled in weight training when I was younger, but after I started studying it in middle school P.E., I got obsessed. I took the weight bench and weight sets into my room. I started aerobics by following along ESPN’s lineup of shows: Basic Fitness with Denise Austin, Basic Training, and Bodies in Motion with Gilad Janklowciz. For a time, I was doing at least 2 hours of exercise a day. Because Gilad filmed in Hawaii and my grandparents had a timeshare in Oahu (I say ‘had’ because they turned it over to my parents), it wasn’t long until they met up with him. I started collecting workout video tapes. More than likely, I’ve still got a few of them there.
No surprise… at least in middle school, my newfound interest in muscle building invited homophobic suspicion.
Learning about the Mother Wound came with learning about sexual orientation..
I realize that I make a very abrupt change of topic here, but I came to know about the Mother Wound from a seemingly unlikely source and path– through religious support groups that focused on reparative therapy and sexual reorientation. It wasn’t a very clean and straightforward path– moving first from Elizabeth Moberly’s concept of defensive detachment to Robert Bly’s discussions of the path of manhood by way of Joseph Campbell’s writing of the Hero’s Journey. It involved Alan Medinger’s “Growth Into Manhood”, and many other concepts of addressing orientation by way of healing and redeveloping healthy masculinity. Please understand, dear readers, that I no longer subscribe to reorientation ideology. Therein lies a very big, messy can of worms that I dare not reopen or revisit; I’ve already been raked over the coals, so to speak, by hurt and angry individuals. I already understand the ideological notion of hetereosexual privilege; I, as a bisexually oriented man, am in a committed relationship with a bisexually oriented woman. Those orientations remain as they are; and I admit that making choices of sexual conduct to align with religious conviction are a little more viable to us.
..in religious contexts that were not open discussions
As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I sadly admit there isn’t much concrete, extensive discussion. I point to The Family: A Proclamation to the World as our main document speaking to things of orientation, gender roles, and so forth. (Discussing that document alone would fill many more posts, so I will forebear.) There is not much discussion of abuse, especially sexual. At times, general leadership will speak out to condemn such abuse, but otherwise, much like the rest of contemporary Christianity, the focus on sexuality is largely centered on men and porn addiction, and maintaining a standard of sexual conduct. I would be so bold as to say our church is a bit more progressive on such issues, but discussion is not very open or well-discussed at this time, and there is not very much deviation from the larger discussion amongst Christians. There is discussion of “unrighteous dominion” from time to time, or rather, condemnation of oppressive patriarchial leadership, but there is NO discussion of maternal abuse, or any acknowledgment that women can initiate or be complicit in abuse. The myth abounds that “women are more spiritual”, which also irritates my first-wave feminist baby sister (living in Utah these days, no less!), who feels that it puts shame and pressure on women who perceive that they don’t meet the ideal. It’s a very pervasive myth, which has been repeated at general leadership levels as well as local.
The path is a lonely one
This again, will be an awkward ending, but I’m feeling the weight of the emotional pain, and I really do wish to publish this post before Mother’s Day is over. It feels like a lonely road– I’m grateful for individual voices of support– but the discussion at large is mostly a very polarized one. Rick Belden and I have discussed many frustrations that dialogues are plagued with dichotomies, especially feminism and Men’s Rights Activism (MRA)/Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW). There is a lot of confrontation and a lot of political power struggle. That said, this is my space. Dear readers, I warn you. I’m not up for contentious debate or argument. I find that very draining. I’m not saying don’t disagree, but, if you would walk, talk with me, I would rather build on common ground, than fight on differences. I will be moderating replies accordingly… if I get them. That’s the other thing… I get a lot more “Likes” than thoughtful replies here, but I will accept it all. Thank you, at least, for reading it all; I would be very grateful to see a sign that you have.