I just finished reading an incredible book called Mother Hunger. This book answered so many questions I had as a child and as an adult daughter. As the title suggests, the book Mother Hunger is the yearning for a certain maternal love that is safe, nurturing and inspiring- this is what I have been missing from my mother.
I grew up in a middle-class Chinese family in Singapore. My parents were rigorous and protective. Even though my mother had good intentions, like she made sure we ate healthily, took our supplements, went to good schools, and received help for our studies, she was the stricter one and had very high expectations of us. She wanted us to be a doctor or lawyers- the classic aspiration of Asian parents.
I remember my mother being very reactive and getting angry at every little thing. It was so difficult to predict her mood. We were constantly walking on eggshells every time we were around her. One moment she would be friendly and loving, and the next, she would be shouting at you, pulling your ears, slapping the back of your head. It was confusing to me.
How can someone suppose to love, nurture and protect you also hurt you physically and emotionally? Because of her erratic behaviour, I always tried to be the best daughter to appease her and not make her angry. I was constantly trying to please her to make her feel happy and proud of me.
So growing up with a mother who is not capable of loving and nurturing her children has been challenging. My heart aches whenever I see my girlfriends and their close relationship with their mothers. My heart aches when I see daughters bonding with their mothers. I try to recall the last time I felt close to my mother. But, unfortunately, I can't honestly remember.
Despite the lack of motherly love and support, I always knew that I would become a mother in my heart. When I was giving birth to my son, I remember feeling afraid not of the pain but the huge responsibility of becoming a mother. I wasn't sure if I had it in me to be the best mother. What if I turned out like my mother? Angry, unhappy and victimizing herself.
The birth of my first child was long and exhausting. It was honestly pretty traumatic. But it made me realize just how fucking strong we, women, are. We have the strength to carry a baby for nine months and then have to give birth. At one point during the delivery, I felt like generations of women living in me, telling me that I could do this. This ancient wisdom lies here in my body. I wished my mother had been there to support me during the birth of my child. To stroke my hair and tell me that everything will be okay, that I can birth my baby.
In the book, it states mothering requires three essential elements- nurturance, protection and guidance. When we are babies, what we need most is to receive nurturance and protection. Guidance comes later. Kelly describes what the symptoms of Mother Hunger are- "When we grow up without early maternal nurturance, we grow up hungry for touch and belonging. Without early maternal protection, we are constantly anxious and afraid. Without motherly guidance, we lack an internal compass directing our choices."
The truth is we need our mothers.
"Over time, without maternal comfort, we do learn to bury the need of our mothers, but the need doesn't go away. Unmet needs for maternal nurturance and protection fester like an angry infection." We never outgrow our need for a mother to comfort us, celebrate our accomplishments, or make our comforting food when we are sick.
"There was, is, in most of us, a girl-child still longing for a woman's nurturance, tenderness, and approval." - Adrienne Rich.
This sentence reminded me of when I visited my mother in Singapore two years ago with my two children. My daughter was then four months old, and my son was almost three years old. Even though I didn't expect my mother to say that she was proud of me, I was disappointed that she only noticed my post-baby weight and made me aware that I was eating a lot at lunch. (Thought: Was I eating to fill my Mother Hunger?) Even as an adult daughter, I was still hoping and pinning for my mother's approval.
I realized now looking back at the incident that hurt people, hurt people. Hurt mothers hurt their kids physically, emotionally and mentally. The book talks about how a mother's unhealed pain can impair her capacity for attention and attunement, removing her from the present moment.
"Many well-meaning mothers didn't provide adequate nurturance, protection, or guidance for their daughters because they simply couldn't share what they didn't have. Mothers are first daughters, and they may be living with their own unidentified and untreated Mother Hunger."
Bingo! There it was in the book. The above sentence made so much sense. The realization that my mother could not show me motherly love and support when she probably had not received it from my grandmother. And who knows how many generations of mothers in my mother's family felt that?
So the question is, what can I do?
I can take personal responsibility to heal and break the cycle of ancestry wounds and create a new dimension of motherly love for my lineage's future mothers. A warm, cuddly love that feels like a bowl of nourishing soup warming your body up from the inside out. Being on a healing path has been a rollercoaster ride- the buildup and the thrill is both exhilarating and scary at the same time. So many past wounds opened up, and I had to re-look at them straight in the face. No more trying to suppress and numb the pain. To feel the pain for what it is.
The question lies:
Can I feel compassion for my hurt mother?
After becoming a mother, I look at my mother with different eyes. I understand her mum anxiety, her mum rage, her exhaustion. I can see why she was angry and explosive then. For I had to battle those demons myself, the part of me that wants to do her own thing and part of me that wants to look after the development of her children. She gave up her dreams and career to look after us. She gave up on herself. I see her as a hurt woman who has no one around her. Now I have a more profound sense of empathy for my mother. She was simply doing her best, given her experience in life. She could not have done more.
Can we mother ourselves and mother our mothers?
I feel like I have been given a chance to mother and reparent myself through being a mother—this opportunity to share with my children what I didn't receive as a child. By learning to take care of myself, I can create the space in my heart to love and care for my children. It is an everyday process that requires a lot of awareness that I first need to show love to myself- to speak to me with tenderness, kindness, to feel radical compassion for my being. Then I can be in a position where I can offer my mother love and compassion.
To all adult daughters who suffer from Mother Hunger, there is hope. Healing from this is a process, and we can support each other. Be kinder towards one another and listen without judgement. May we find the strength and awareness to heal from our generational wounds.
If you need someone to listen to you or hold space for you, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can arrange a time to chat.
To read the book, click here.