“Few experiences in life are as deep as the feelings we carry about our mothers.”
(Jasmin Lee Cori, The Emotionally Absent Mother)
We tumble into this world, itty bundles with awfully high expectations. Every last one of us.
And for many years, most of those expectations are aimed at one well-intentioned, yet blessedly fallible, person—the woman we call Mom. From the moment we first peer out at her face and warm to her smile, she is our everything. Our caregiver, our cheerleader, our confidant, our teacher, and our safe place.
With the magnitude of our expectations, it’s no wonder that so many Moms feel overwhelmed at times. And it’s no wonder that so many of us feel some sense of disappointment, loss, or even anger when mulling over our own memories of being mothered. It’s no wonder that so many of us have “Mommy Issues”—as cliché as it may be.
Being a Mommy now myself, this is all a matter of some concern.
Child development experts tell us that the “essential foundation” of good mothering is secure attachment, the bond between mother and child that is built through attunement and caring. The infant expresses a need and the mother responds. The consistency and quality of her responses are the key.
“Research indicates that attachment is created not just from meeting the immediate physical needs of the infant but also from the quality of these interactions. The baby looks at Mother, who is, in turn, looking at baby, and something passes between them: a smile, a mirroring movement, a synchronized dance way below the level of consciousness” (Cori).
Clearly, my Mom cared for me. I survived infanthood, childhood, and even adolescence. Mom fed me. Clothed me. Kept me clean and safe enough. Though sometimes when my two-year-old is squirming like a greased pig, I do wonder how my delicate disabled Mom did not drop me every day. Or maybe she did. Maybe that explains some things.
When I poke around in my memory, I do uncover lovely images of Mom teaching me to ice skate on the local pond. Of Mom and me picking out the Holly Hobby wallpaper for my bedroom—my home decorating premier. Of Mom laughing until she cried at my ridiculous impressions of Carol Burnett characters.
But I also have memories, hard memories that expand and push the others into the corners. Of Mom collapsed on the sofa in tears because, perhaps, the extended family is coming for Christmas and this is all too much. Of Mom glaring at me, the look of the betrayed, when I asked to go to a friend’s house yet again. “Why do want to be gone so much of the time?” Of me staring out the window, waiting for her to come home, time after time, crying, afraid that she wouldn’t come, afraid that she would, afraid of who she might be when she did.
Yes, my Mom met my physical needs, and I truly am grateful. But emotionally, more often than not, she looked to me to meet hers. According to the experts, then, Mom and I were not “securely attached.”
Apparently, one third of you are in the same boat.
Jasmin Lee Cori describes a Mother as a boat actually. The belly of a ship, a solid vessel adeptly navigating the waves of life. The securely attached child is like a barnacle, she says, clinging firmly to the underside of the boat. Come what may.
I read this and I imagine myself as a scrappy little barnacle. I am sticking loosely to the ship, flopping around, watching as the boat regularly takes on water, praying that it won’t sink. With my feathery appendages, I beat futilely at the waves, trying prematurely to swim.
According to the experts, I responded to my “insecure attachment” in the most common of ways. I became Compulsively Self-Sufficient. A Perfectionist. Straight-A student. Valedictorian. Captain of a softball team. The lead in several plays. Winner of a national writing competition. Pianist. Cheerleader. And so on. And so forth. A textbook case.
I was driven to master everything I tried. And I thought I could do it. On my own. I would rarely go to my parents for help. Truthfully, I would rarely go to them even for love. Though they gave it as best they could, I learned not to depend on it or want it. I sought value and security, instead, from praise—which is short-lived and unreliable and a very poor substitute.
Little by little, I have also come to understand the implications of “insecure attachment” on my spiritual life. Just as I believed that I was Self-Sufficient in regard to my parents, I also believed that I was Self-Sufficient in regard to God. Over and over, I haven’t trusted him to care for me. And I haven’t been utterly dependent on his grace and love. Instead, I have worked hard to please Him and garner His praise.
One night, not long ago, I was reading Dr. Karl Lehman’s book (the one I mentioned last time—Outsmarting Yourself). I was thinking again about the little girl that I was. In particular, the frightened and lonely little girl, looking out the window, waiting for the headlights to turn into the drive. The little girl who grew up too fast, who took on too much too soon, and who still struggles with fear and attachment.
Peter had read Dr. Lehman’s book before me, so he knew what Dr. Lehman would instruct him to ask in that moment.
“Where was Jesus, Kelli? What would He have said to you then?”
I wanted to come up with something meaningful. Something healing. But I was drained. I couldn’t think. And I just sighed. “I don’t know.”
Then last Saturday Peter gave me the gift of solitude. The better part of a day to spend alone with God. So I packed my Bible and my journal and a bottle of water, and I hiked to the backside of Glacial Park near our home.
Sitting on a bench overlooking the valley, I read much of the book of Mark and begged Jesus to make Himself known.
In chapter five, He leapt off the page. In verse 23, the synagogue official Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs Him on behalf of his daughter. “She is going to die! Please come.” I love his passion for her. It awakened something in me. A longing. A need.
Jesus agrees to help him, but He allows Himself to be delayed. Then someone brings the fateful news, “Your daughter has died.”
What does Jesus say to Jairus? “Do not be afraid any longer, only believe.”
What does Jesus say to the daughter? “Little girl, arise!” And He takes her by the hand.
And then I see Him. With me. By the window. And I know that He was always there. As passionate about me as Jairus was for his daughter. No, way more so. “Little girl, do not be afraid any longer.” And, “Arise.”
I just wish someone had helped me see Him more clearly back then.
Last night our son Daryl (almost 5) had trouble sleeping again. At 3 a.m. he crawled into our bed. He thrashed and kicked for an hour. He flipped himself upside down. Big ol’ feet in my face. That was it. In my groggy irritation, I was ready to issue a stern pronouncement of banishment to his own bed.
Then I thought of myself by the window.
Daryl had a tough start in life. Much tougher than mine in many ways. He can be an anxious child. And I know that I desperately want to help him see what I could not. I pulled his lanky body right-side-up and drew him close. My own little barnacle.
“Do you know why you can’t sleep, Daryl?” I whispered. “Are you thinking about anything in particular?” I tried to ask the questions I wish someone had asked me.
“Daryl?” I kissed his temple.
“I don’t know, Mama,” he whispered back. And I squeezed him tight.
“It’s okay. I love you,” I told him. “But Jesus loves you even more. Let’s ask Him to help you rest.” So we did.
I wish I could report that he fell right asleep. He actually never did. He was awake for the whole rest of the blessed day.
But I sure pray that in seeking to connect—myself to him, him to Jesus—that I slathered just a bit more mortar in some important places.