The mother wound is the core wound at the heart of each and every human being on this planet.
No matter how good our relationship with our mothers—or how good a mother we feel we are—we all carry this wound to some extent. This is because of the simple fact that ours is a patriarchal society—and the mother wound is what gave rise to patriarchy in the first place.
The mother wound is multi-dimensional, spanning time and space, the macro and the micro. I’m going to start with the simplest aspect of the mother wound—the wound relative to our mothers—then expand to bring in its wider dimensions.
The mother-child bond
Deep in the core of our psyche, we all have a connection to our mothers—or not. Our mothers are the vehicles that gave us life: body, blood, breath, food. Without them we wouldn’t exist.
They are also our primary source of emotional connection to the world. The strength, depth and breadth of that connection—the mother-child bond—have a huge bearing on our wellbeing:
- A mother’s love makes a child feel wanted and, free of anxiety, liberates them to fulfil their potential.
- A mother’s consistent emotional presence creates a role model for commitment and responsibility in future relationships.
- A mother’s touch (including breastfeeding) nurtures a child and creates a pattern for healthy adult touch and sexual expression…
…in an ideal world.
We do not live in such a world. As I wrote in A brief history of shame, about 6,000 years ago humanity underwent a huge psychological shift from famine due to climate change. This shift gave rise to patriarchy.
It damaged all things feminine—including the mother-child bond:
“A passive indifference to the needs or pain of others manifested itself, and hunger, feeding of the self, became their all consuming passion… The very old and young were abandoned to die. Brothers stole food from sisters, and husbands left wives and babies to fend for themselves. While the maternal-infant bond endured the longest, eventually mothers abandoned their weakened infants and children.”—James DeMeo, Saharasia
The psychological programming humanity acquired at this time has weakened but has not—as yet—been healed. Six millennia of violent, masculine-dominant ‘civilization’ later, the breakdown of the mother child bond still haunts us.
Hannah More, a popular religious writer, asked in 1835: “Is it not a fundamental error to consider children as innocent beings… rather than as beings who bring into the world a corrupt nature and evil dispositions?” (The History of Childhood, ed. Lloyd DeMause)
With attitudes like More’s it’s no wonder that beating children to correct their “evil dispositions” was standard child-rearing practice until quite recently.
Most men of my generation were beaten as children; most of them did not beat their own children. Breaking the cycle of child beating has been a huge step towards healing the mother-child bond, and the wider mother wound of which it is but a part.
Genetic damage on this scale takes generations to repair. Even today, many mothers, struggling with their own issues, remain emotionally unavailable to their children.
“We are born into a world where alienation awaits us.”
— R.D. Laing
My own mother was a case in point. Emotionally crippled when her own mother was ejected from the family for having an affair in 1932, she was a physically and emotionally distant figure my whole life. This contributed to:
- A lack of self-belief or internal support
- A lack of self-love or capacity to love others
- Emotional immaturity and inappropriate behaviour
- Fear and shame around physical touch and sexuality
- A sense of neediness, trying to ‘fill the hole’
The ‘hole’ is like an anchor, or living with the brake on.
It manifests as a deep, unshakeable belief in not being enough. It even manifests physically as an indentation in the heart area. A number of bodywork healers have associated this dip with a lack of nurturing.
The ‘hole’ also manifests as emotional unavailability in relationships.
Filling the hole is a long and painful journey of dredging up, healing and releasing wounds one by one, all the layers of disempowerment and dysfunction that accumulated on top of, or tried to compensate for, the original mother wound.
“All that I am, or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel mother.”
— Abraham Lincoln
This quote from Abraham Lincoln highlights the importance of the mother-child bond. Note the phrase “ever hope to be”—nurturing by our mothers provides a framework for us to nurture our own lives.
We nurture friendships, relationships and professional networks. We nurture ourselves physically and mentally. Our creativity and our sexuality. We nurture our own creations—from children to businesses to films, music and other endeavours.
When this nurturing is absent, we abandon all our creations just as we were abandoned, physically and/or emotionally, in childhood.
First In, Last Out
In the world of warehousing in which I once worked, there are various stock rotation policies. One is called FIFO—First In, First Out. The oldest stock is sold first. Another is called LIFO—Last In, First Out. Our mother wound is FILO—First In, Last Out.
The mother wound is the first wound as it develops from the point of conception, even before physical birth. It includes inherited traumas from recent and distant ancestors, as I mentioned earlier, as well as any traumas we incur during our own adolescence.
During the journey to wholeness it can take a long time to become aware of this wound, because it feels so normal. Yet as we go deeper into healing we have a growing realisation of its enormity.
It’s the first wound we incur but one of the last—if not the last—we heal. To heal the mother wound we have to strip away everything.
The mother wound is both current and ancestral
In A brief history of shame, I wrote how desertification—the onset or increase in desert—in the Sahara, Arabia and Central Asia some 6,000 years ago triggered a profound psychological change in humanity. Out went goddess-worshipping egalitarian cultures and in came patriarchal societies, seizing shrinking food sources through violence.
Part of this psychological change was a sense of betrayal by nature, which had previously provided ample bounty. Another part was the rejection of all things feminine, which significantly damaged the mother-child bond as children—particularly boys—were weaned early to encourage aggression. This provided a competitive advantage in the fight for survival.
I wrote above how we carry wounds from our relationship with our mothers. This wound varies from person to person, yet seems to exist to some extent in all of us. It’s the first wound we incur as it begins in the womb with emotional damage inherited through our mother. It’s also the last wound we heal on the journey to wholeness as it’s so deeply embedded in our psyche.
Here I’d like to connect the two: the mother wound is both current and ancestral. It is the wound between us and our mothers—and the genetic memory of the mother-child wound of every one of our ancestors right back to the point in time where patriarchy first impacted our family line.
The mother wound is the wound between us and our mothers—and the genetic memory of the mother-child wound of every one of our ancestors right back to the point in time where patriarchy first impacted our family line.
Until recently, very little had been written about the history of childhood. Sociologist James Bossard questioned whether such a history could be written because of “the dearth of historical data bearing on childhood.”
In 1968, Lloyd DeMause proposed “an evolutionary theory of historical change in parent-child relations” to the Association for Applied Psychoanalysis. One of the hypotheses of this theory was:
“That the history of childhood is a series of closer approaches between adult and child, with each closing of psychic distance producing fresh anxiety. The reduction of this adult anxiety is the main source of the child-rearing practices of each age.”
The mother-child wound is the ever-decreasing residue of this adult anxiety, as well as genetically inherited trauma from the mother’s life (generational trauma).
Adult anxiety around childrearing can be traced to the traumatization of the feminine that occurred during the rise of patriarchy. Children were so little valued they could be sold as chattels. DeMause writes that, “Child sale was legal in Babylonian times, and may have been quite common among many nations in antiquity”. It was legal in Russia until the 19th century.
Childrearing anxiety stemmed from the fact that engaging with the child’s emotional needs engaged the parent’s—particularly the mother’s—emotions. Warrior societies valued the capacity for violence towards one’s enemies above all else. Consequently, all displays of emotion were verboten—forbidden.
We have been dealing with this anxiety, in the form of our mother wound, ever since. Go down to any playground today and you will see mothers shrieking at their children at the slightest provocation.
What you’re seeing is the watered-down remains of ancestral, anxiety-ridden parenting responses from the dawn of patriarchy. The closer we get to anxiety-free child-rearing, the closer we get to healing our own mother wounds—and vice-versa.
The mother wound has four dimensions
In The Fall, Steve Taylor writes: “The main event in human history is a sudden, massive regression—a dramatic shift from harmony to chaos, from peace to war, from life-affirmation to gloom, or from sanity to madness” that occurred around 6,000 years ago.
As I’ve written in A brief history of shame, this was caused by long-term drought that led to desertification, famine and competition for resources.
The impact of this shift—what we call environmental stress (or eco-anxiety)—was immense. People who once lived in close connection with nature felt shocked and betrayed as once-fertile land dried up, and food and water sources vanished.
Environmental stress impacts humans in very specific ways. In Saharasia,geographer James DeMeo describes the impact of the East African droughts of the 1970s and 80s: “[Famine produces] a general intolerance and anxious aggressivity [sic] towards the basic biological expressions of… touching and body contact…”
This intolerance for basic biological processes extended to breastfeeding. Archaeology lecturer Timothy Taylor writes:
“Warrior societies… often withheld colostrum from a newborn infant and give him or her water instead. The infant is understandably angry about the fact, except that it lacks the cognitive abilities to understand anger, so the event becomes an unconscious focus for aggression in later life.”
The impact of the deprivation of the breast cannot be overstated. Psychologist R.D. Laing identifies this as potentially the beginning of all emotional dysfunction, what he terms ‘nonbeing’:
“The first intimations of nonbeing may have been the breast or mother as absent.”
— R.D. Laing
In What is ancestral trauma? I wrote:
“From being something that was revered, nature became distrusted. The same separation that occurred at the macro level between nature and man repeated at the micro level between mothers and infants—to an infant, its mother is nature.”
These macro and micro separations—nature-human and mother-child—fractured at both the physical and metaphysical levels, giving rise to four dimensions or, perhaps more accurately, four fragments:
|Physical||Loss of respect for nature||Loss of the breast|
|Metaphysical||Loss of sense of nature as divine||Loss of mother love|
This four-way fragmentation of being is the mother wound. It is the origin of all personal and planetary dis-ease.
This four-way fragmentation of being is the mother wound. It is the origin of all personal and planetary dis-ease.
On the physical level, the need to fight for food sources broke humanity’s respect for nature—plant, animal and human alike—and the need to steward the planet. Anything and anyone could be killed, destroyed or consumed in the pursuit of survival—later, the pursuit of wealth—regardless of long-term consequences.
This is the basis of the environmental destruction we’re dealing with today.
On the metaphysical level, this manifested in the overthrow of peaceful fertility cults by male war gods who legitimised slaughter and conquest for survival and accumulation. Nature itself was no longer revered as sacred; divinity became an entirely abstract concept. This later gave rise to monotheistic religion.
In the last few centuries, this lack of reverence for nature migrated into materialist science. Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves writes:
“Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature, unaware that this Nature he’s destroying is this God he’s worshipping.”
— Hubert Reeves
This is the basis of today’s scientific materialist worldview that places no inherent value on nature or on wellbeing.
On the physical level, the mother wound manifested in early weaning practices that created angry male children who grew into men with an insatiable appetite for violence and sexual violence. It manifested in masculine control, suppression and persecution of everything feminine, emotional or sexual.
This is the basis of society’s rules to suppress basic biological functions (no breastfeeding, nudity or sex in public).
On the metaphysical level, this manifested in the weakening or breaking of the mother-child bond, which causes:
- Rage against the mother for her emotional unavailability—which the child in turn replicates by becoming emotionally detached and unavailable
- A lack of nurturing that diminishes the ability to nurture others
- A lack of community that diminishes the ability to connect to others in healthy, respectful, heart-centric ways
- A lack of responsibility for self, others and the planet
- A sense of shame around everything emotional or sexual
- A sense of being alone, anxious and unable to cope
- Inappropriate, co-dependent, clingy or toxic relationships
- Toxic masculinity
This is the basis of society’s awkwardness, difficulty and shame with basic biological functions (breastfeeding, elimination, sex, death) as well as all emotional dysfunctions.
We each carry these wounds to the extent we’ve been impacted by ancestral, generational, and current-life traumas.
The four dimensions of the mother wound created the psychological basis for patriarchy and for the heedless exploitation of nature for profit. What we call ‘civilization’ is based on these four, deeply traumatised aspects of our collective psyche:
- A civilization of rampant, heedless environmental destruction for the senseless accumulation of profit
- A civilization that does not revere the environment it depends on for its survival
- A civilization disconnected from the feminine values of community, co-operation, wellbeing and wisdom
- An emotionally immature civilization reluctant to take responsibility for healing itself and its planet
In 1899, social theorist Edward Carpenter wrote a book called Civilization: its cause and cure, in which he argued that civilization was a disease that no society had ever survived.
Our society is the last in line. We will either prove Carpenter wrong, or there will be no further societies to make the attempt.
To prove Carpenter wrong, we must reunite the four fragments of the mother wound. That can only be done by each one of us coming to terms with the fact that this wound is inside us—and we are each responsible for healing it.
For more information please see the Mother Wound Toolkit.