The Mother Complex
Every age and culture has found its own version of portraying the power of the mother in our lives. Whatever the language, whether myth, psychoanalysis, religion, or comedy, her central role is universally acknowledged. In myth the mother has been linked to the archetypal power of the elements, of the seasons, of the cycles of birth and death, of the life-instinct, and finally, of the principle of manifestation itself as Prakriti - or the energy of evolution.
In psychology Freud famously adapted the Oedipus story to show the fateful entanglement that results from the son’s sexual fixation on the mother. The castrating, destructive effects of the mother complex is so much a part of our zeitgeist that it has become an entertainment trope.
In the world of film and TV, we have Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do A’ve ‘Em, the classic Mummy’s boy: inept, foolish, stumbling from one scrape to another, and never getting anywhere in spite of his desperate attempts to prove himself capable and manly. We also have less endearing characters like Norman Bates, immortalized in Hitchcock’s Psycho and now in the Netflix series Bates Motel, where we see the destructive consequences of the son caught in the web of the complex through seduction, guilt and complete denial of his own identity.
We all have a mother complex. This is hardly surprising given that our mothers are literally the matrix, knitting us together into bodily and psychic being. On the bodily level, our mother gestates us from the moment of conception, bathing us in her chemical signals, carrying us as her oxygen and nutrient-rich blood pulsates through us, her hormonal cascades keeping us in sync with the stages of intrauterine development, and finally tuning us exquisitely to the momentous event of our birth. After birth, her oxytocin bonds us to her in a state of blissful union. Slowly she awakens us to the world around us, infusing it with magic and wonder, so that everything around us is lit up by her love and pleasure, the flowers that she points out to us, the moon, all become aspects of her. For the rest of our lives, we will long to recapture that first romance, the lost paradise of her love.
Sadly, much can also go wrong in this miraculous and thrilling journey. Because the human infant is so helpless, and has such an extended period of dependency, our mothers have the power of life and death over us for a very long time. One can only imagine the terror, superstition, awe and resentment hat this must set up in our psyches, the conflict between the adoration we rightly feel for our mothers, and the hatred caused by our fear of abandonment which would quite literally be the end of us.
Collectively, we have tried to understand the power of the maternal, celebrating it as Nature’s abundance, worshipping it as the sacred cow, re-enacting its inexpressible meaning in the Eleusinian mysteries, its significance leading us to the thrilling discovery of the sacred and its embodiment as Deity.
The power of life and death that our mother wields makes her the carrier of the archetypal principle of motherhood, the Great Mother in all her life-giving, fertile, nourishing and protective aspects. She is the cornucopia of Nature providing us with fertile land and abundant harvests. Grain-goddesses such as Ceres were symbolic expressions of this maternal aspect of Nature, while the myth of Demeter and Persephone symbolized the creation of the seasons. The life-giving power of the mother naturally found its counterpart in the creative energy which gave birth to galaxies and universes, and in this aspect of cosmic manifestation is the hiranyagharba or the golden womb, as well as the sacred vessel, in which gods and deities gestate.
At birth, we are hardwired to seek in our personal mother the cornucopia of the Universal Great Mother. Our mother’s love acts as a conduit for this archetype, giving us the feeling that the cosmos itself is our cradle and Life’s every blessing our birth-right. It was Winnicott who deconstructed this process, identifying the profound yet ordinary love which the ‘good enough mother’ gives the infant along with an enduring sense of its own reality and personhood.
Through her handling and holding, the mother gives to her baby a sense of being a whole person, rather than a collection of parts. The mother also protects her infant against impingement from the environment such as loud noises, sudden changes in routine, rough handling, and scary strangers. She acts as a second skin till such time as her child is able to develop its own ‘psychic envelope’.
Even more vitally, the mother provides a container for the infant’s inner world, absorbing not just the external shocks and insults, but also protecting it against the intensity of its violent and intense emotions – the hatred, rage and greed of its instinctual life – without rejection or reprisal. In one of the most poetic passages in psychoanalytic literature, the great analyst, Wilfred Bion describes this mother-love as the Good Breast or the Alpha Container:
‘The infant suffers pangs of hunger and feels it’s dying; racked by guilt and anxiety and impelled by greed, it messes itself and cries. The mother picks it up, feeds it and comforts it and eventually the infant sleeps. Reforming the model to represent the feelings of the infant, we have the following version: the infant, filled with painful lumps of faeces, guilt, fears of impending death, chunks of greed, meanness and urine, evacuates these bad objects into the breast that is not there. As it does so, the good object turns the no-breast (mouth) into a breast, the faeces and urine into milk, the fears of impending death and anxiety into validity and confidence, the greed and meanness into feelings of love and generosity and the infant sucks its bad property, now translated into goodness, back again’.
With repeated experiences, the baby absorbs the Alpha Container and makes it their own. It becomes the basis of the symbol-making capacity which gives us the ability to transform the raw material of our sensations into imaginative reality. This becomes the foundation for thinking, memory, insight, and also creativity, aesthetic sense, an appreciation of music, art and literature and finally of spirituality. It provides that transitional play space where inner and outer reality meet with mutual enrichment.
However, the symbol-making capacity is also dependent on two other factors. When the time comes, the infant has to learn to bear the pain of separation from the mother. For short periods, when the mother goes out of the room, the infant begins to realize that the mother is a separate person, and so are they! Then, in order to bear this loss, the infant begins to hallucinate the good breast. Bion has a wonderful formula that perfectly expresses this equation: No Breast, Therefore a Thought.
Instead of the actual breast, the infant now possesses an inestimable treasure, its very own good breast that will neutralize the poison of abandonment, betrayal, setbacks and losses in adult life, giving meaning to the most complex of experiences and solace in the most difficult of times, and, in the case of that extra creative abundance, even turning the poison of suffering into the nectar of enlightenment.
The positive mother also gives us in later life the resources for nurturance and self-love, giving us a wholesome connection to our bodies and its needs, and to the life-instinct, making us feel lucky in life and in love.
The other factor in this ability to separate from the mother and gain her symbolically is the role of the father whose presence creates the mental space for the baby, which becomes the origin of thinking. In societies where the masculine is absent, there remains a suspicion of the intellect, which is seen as something cold and ‘heady’. The rejection of the intellect wounds the will, and also logos, the principle of creative intelligence.
The father’s role is to mediate the world for the infant, and nudge it towards an independent identity. He makes the child feel safe as an individual by mediating the world of authority, ethics, principles, structures and boundaries for his child. With this foundation the child can launch itself into the world, having been given the means to conquer both inner and outer nature, getting control over its instincts and excesses through ethical structures, and developing the confidence to establish itself in the external world too.
The absence of the father therefore is a huge wound to the child’s psyche, leaving it open to an infantile fixation on the mother, forever longing in adult life to recapture the fantasy of the original merged state, as well as the fantasy of having all its needs magically met without the intervention of hard graft. This aspect of the mother complex is very seductive, getting worked out through addictions in later life, and even, at the soft end of the spectrum, in the seduction of the sofa and the general comfort zone. Like Attis under the pine tree, we castrate ourselves in honour of the mother, handing over our will, initiative and autonomy.
In Ireland, this longing for melting into the arms of the Great Mother is seen in the high rate of drug and alcohol addiction, and also in nostalgia and yearning for the past. The mother-complex makes one very averse to change, as that implies separation and death. It also keeps one in a state of infantile dependency, whether on religion or the state, and also is the cause of one of the major aspects of the Irish shadow which is compliancy and the lack of courage in the face of authority. This is the archetype of the puer or puella, the eternal youth. People caught in this archetype have all the charm of youthful openness, the free spirits that promise a life of adventure and untold possibilities, but with the shadow of fecklessness, lack of commitment, and inability to grow up, and, for the son, the inability to love any other woman because his mother owns his anima.
In the case of the daughter, the mother complex keeps her also trapped in an unconscious identification, so that she simply lives out her mother’s life. Very often the identification is so strong that the daughter carries the mother’s buried hurts and traumas. For women who are depressed, it is often the case that the depression is actually their mother’s, and this realization brings a tremendous healing for both mother and daughter.
On the other hand, rejection by the mother can leave the son with a tremendous rage and a life-long desire for revenge, which in adulthood can lead to passive-aggressive behavior, a Don Juan complex where the conflict between the desire to control and possess and to punish through abandonment gets acted out in a series of affairs – and, at the dark end of the spectrum, in sadistic violence, the mutilation, rape and complete annihilation of the victim.
The rejected daughter becomes split off from her femininity, unable to express herself in a natural way as a woman and as a mother. On the plus side, Jung believed that the person with the best chance of individuating was a woman with a negative mother-complex, as she has to learn anew the art of being herself, because there is no ready-made construct or identity for her to step into.
The dark side of the archetype of the Great Mother is the Devouring mother. Even the best of mothers cannot live up to the ideal of the all-nourishing and all-giving mother archetype. The seduction of our own longing for emotional and physical gratification can lead us to experience the mother as suffocating, witchy and manipulative. Here she becomes the spider, spinning her web of love, entanglement and guilt which will keep us forever trapped in a frozen state of half-aliveness. In fairy-tales this state is often symbolized as a state of enchantment into which one falls due to the curse of an evil fairy god-mother or stepmother. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are then awakened from their frozen state by the kiss of the young prince, Rapunzel is rescued from the tower, and Cinderella from the cohort of her evil step-mother and ugly sisters by their Prince Charming too. Through fairy-tales children can safely experience and symbolize the negative side of their mothers, without the trauma of losing her love.
The dark side of the mother archetype can also be experienced as persecutory and destructive. This aspect is symbolized in myths as the Gorgon or Medusa, whose visage is so fearful that anyone who looks at her is turned to stone. This is the paralyzing effect of the mother-complex, which turns us to stone emotionally, destroying all initiative and will. On the extreme end of the spectrum we have Kali, the black goddess who represents the dark side of life, of disease, decay, death and time, the dissolution of the universe and the devouring side of Nature on a cosmic level. Kali is depicted in Indian myths with a blood-covered tongue, wearing a necklace of skulls, holding a severed head in one hand and dancing on a pile of corpses. Enough to strike terror into the stoutest heart, Kali is paradoxically also used apotropaically to ward off evil by many superstitious households in India.
In her role as bringer of death and destruction, Kali becomes the goddess of transformation, symbolizing the cycles of creation and destruction, and the necessity to sweep away old structures for the new to be born.
Extreme persecution from our personal mother, her jealousy, rage or willful abandonment can leave us feeling at the mercy of the Kali archetype, an open channel for adversity, misfortune or evil to flow into our lives. However, it is these very sufferings that impel us to develop and outgrow stagnant situations.
The maternal instinct is the most powerful instinct of all, and has been both feared and celebrated throughout the ages. It lends superhuman strength and determination to protect and nourish, it is completely self-sacrificing, the most moving symbol of which is the pelican which plucks flesh and blood from its own chest to feed its young, and has become an enduring symbol of spiritual self-sacrifice. It is no wonder that this all-consuming love also fills us with the dread of losing it or of being consumed by its intensity. What we can do is to draw upon its example and ideal, and to extend it to all of creation, as did Krishna, Christ and Buddha, whose mothers gave them the love which became the Big Love.
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