Before I became a mother, I asked an older woman who was a mentor to me what she would have done differently if she could live her life over. “I would have had more children,” she said. “Being a mother was my refiner’s fire. Who would I have become if I had had more?”
This story was related to me by a young mother in one of my workshops. The reflections of her wise friend have stayed with me through the years as I have been on my own parenting journey, and have helped others on theirs. Parenting certainly can be a fiery endeavor. We get angry, even enraged. We feel terror, rapture, pride, and heartbreak. With its extremes of emotion, parenthood is a little like a crucible in which we are cooked. The superfluous gets burnt away, the soul becomes tempered.
Parenthood and Personal Growth
Before becoming a mother, I imagined that the work of raising children would be a sort of pause in the self-development process. Parenthood might bring many joys and satisfactions, but it would likely make personal and professional growth more difficult. Instead, I was surprised to find that motherhood has been an invitation to greet parts of myself previously unknown. It has helped me to claim what really matters, and aided me in finding my firm ground. Where I expected to be impoverished, instead I was enriched.
According to Carl Jung, the goal of psychological growth is individuation, Jung’s term for wholeness. Individuation is a life-long process of unfolding, a gradual development of the particular individual we came into the world to become. It is characterized by an awareness of an abiding sense of self, steady presence in the world, and aliveness even in the face of difficulties. Being a mother is not a distraction from the process of individuation. Parenting children can be an opportunity for deepening into our stories, claiming our truths, and becoming who we were meant to be.
The Stolen Baby
Fairy tales have a way of communicating ineffable truths in beautiful, timeless imagery. The Scottish tale “The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh” helps express how parenthood allows us to grow into the fullest version of ourselves.
A young mother sets her baby down for a minute to fetch some water for him. While she is gone, two members of the fairy tribe known as the Sidh come and steal him away. The young mother is bereft when she finds her baby gone, and seeks far and wide for her child. A wise woman helps her to find her way to the secret land of the Sidh, and advises her to bring a rare gift with her that she can use to exchange for her child. But the young mother is poor, and has nothing to bring. She makes a harp from green wood, and strings it with her own golden hair. The king of the Sidh is so taken by the beautiful harp and its enchanting tones that he gladly gives her the baby in return. The mother is overjoyed to have her child back in her arms, and she never again leaves him alone.
Becoming Who We Truly Are
In spite of being poor, the mother in the story came to realize that she had within her everything she needed to take care of her baby – and herself. This is the lesson that awaits all of us when we parent with a curiosity about our inner life.
Raising our children will likely be our life’s great adventure, regardless of what else we may do or achieve. Being a parent will disabuse us of our beliefs about what we can control. It will force us to come to terms with the dark, unswept corners of our soul, and demand that we take a stand for what really matters to us. Motherhood will invite us to undergo our own heroine’s journey – a journey that will ask us to become who we truly are.