When my client Rose was around nine or ten years old, she and her family were camping. With her parents’ permission, Rose set off on a walk through to woods to join up with friends at the lake. Rose remembers being suddenly startled by a large black bear rearing up in front of her. Frozen in fear, she didn’t know what to do. Then she heard her mother from behind shouting at the bear. Her mother pelted it with stones, and rushed at it brandishing a stick. The bear soon retreated.
Rose’s mother told her later that she had had a sixth sense that Rose might meet with danger, and had decided to follow her daughter to the lake. Rose admitted to me that she is not sure what would have happened if her mother had not been there when she met that bear.
Now Rose is an adult with a teenage son who is struggling with a debilitating and mysterious medical condition. Over the last few years, Rose has spent many hours at the local children’s hospital advocating on his behalf. She says that the memory of her mother shouting and hurling stones at the bear often comes to her when she finds herself needing to stand up to doctors or insurance companies as she oversees his care.
The Gifts of “Good Enough” Mothering
If we were lucky enough to have “good enough” mothering, we will likely find that that experience left behind a deep well of strength and courage that we can draw upon when we face parenting challenges. (Sometimes, good enough mothering doesn’t come from our own mother, but we may have gotten it from somewhere just the same.) We might not even realize that these resources are there until we need them.
The gifts given to us by our mothers often come to us in surprising ways. I read one story about a mother who had just given birth to her first child. As she held her newborn daughter in her arms, she was surprised to notice that she was singing to her in French, her own mother’s native tongue, which she had not realized she even remembered.
Vasilissa the Beautiful
The Russian fairy tale “Vasilissa the Beautiful” contains a poignant image of the way a mother’s gifts can serve as inner resources.
Once upon a time, a merchant lived with his wife and daughter in a forest. One day, when the little girl was eight years old, her mother fell ill, and it was clear that she would soon die. She drew her daughter to her, placed a small wooden doll in her hands, and said:
“Listen carefully and don’t forget what I am about to say. With my blessing, I leave to you this doll. Whenever you are sorrowful or distressed, give the doll something to eat and drink, and then tell it your troubles, and ask for its advice.”
So saying, the mother kissed the little girl and died.
Little Vasilissa grieved greatly for her mother, and her sorrow was so deep that when the dark night came, she lay in her bed and wept and did not sleep. At length she be thought herself of the tiny doll, so she rose and took it from the pocket of her gown and finding a piece of wheat bread and a cup of kvass, she set them before it, and said: “There, my little doll, take it. Eat a little, and drink a little, and listen to my grief. My dear mother is dead and I am lonely for her.”
Then the doll’s eyes began to shine like fireflies, and suddenly it became alive. It ate a morsel of the bread and took a sip of the kvass, and when it had eaten and drunk, it said:
“Don’t weep, little Vasilissa. Grief is worst at night. Lie down, shut thine eyes, comfort thyself and go to sleep. The morning is wiser than the evening.” So Vasilissa the Beautiful lay down, comforted herself and went to sleep, and the next day her grieving was not so deep and her tears were less bitter.
Here and throughout the rest of the tale, Vasilissa’s magical doll functions very much like a “good enough” mother’s psychological inheritance. “Good enough” mothering leaves us with a comforting inner voice that we can turn to in times of distress. Such inner resources help us find compassion for ourselves, and allows us to keep our problems in perspective so that we don’t become overwhelmed. They can be surprising sources of strength, resilience and courage.
As Rose struggles with her son’s illness, she has the gifts her mother passed on to her. These have allowed her to face adversity fearlessly and tenaciously. And she sees that she is passing such gifts on to her own children.