“Bless the daughters who sat carrying the trauma of mothers. Who sat asking for more love and not getting any, carried themselves to light. Bless the daughters who raised themselves.” ~Questions for Ada by Ijeoma Umebinyuo
“I failed you…”
My mother said this to me after I confronted her about my childhood.
That day, I had a clear image of the young girl I was, the girl I had tried to ignore in the hopes of moving forward. But pain shouts when it demands attention, and the suffering was palpable.
A memory flashed within my mind. I had tried telling my mother I was hurting somehow. All children have hurt they can’t quite explain, even if turns out that it’s just an itch or a bruised feeling, but the need to have the boo boo kissed means everything to the child.
That day I had found my mother occupied with something more pressing. And I, being the sensitive girl I was, figured that she hadn’t heard me, or that I had disturbed her.
It seemed that I only existed to be cautious of the adults in my life who at best were preoccupied with a mysterious something and at worst cruel without reason. I existed in a world where children were things you spoke to. Tell them what to do and they’ll simply do it, because what else are they there for?
The idea that children had inner lives, breakable hearts, and ideas of their own making was quite dangerous in my childhood. I’d soon learn that it was better to take a vow of silence and say very little. I was starved for the hunger all children have—the hunger to be seen.
Love requires attention.
It seems like the older we get, the more we have to reflect on those days when we were at our most vulnerable. We have to look back at the beliefs, habits, and people that shape us if we want to grow.
When I finally talked to my mother, I was attempting to grow out of a destructive habit I had learned in childhood: denial. If you don’t talk about a thing, or name a thing, then maybe the thing never happened. Perhaps it wasn’t that bad, or maybe yet it was just a dream.
I was no longer talking as a child in need of her mother’s attention, I was talking as a woman in need of the truth. I was now an adult who hoped to be a mother someday, and a healer committed to breaking the generational curse of mothers failing daughters, women failing women, and humans failing themselves.
I poured out the heart of that little girl over the phone. She had needed protection when she was called names, or when someone hit her, or when she was touched inappropriately. She needed to know that whether she was a child or a girl becoming a young woman, she had a right to her body, mind, and spirit.
My voice cracked through the phone, but I told her anyway. To me, you have never been trustworthy.
She took a long breath and then spoke almost rapidly, like her life and our fragile bond depended on it. “I’m human, I falter. I never said I was a great mother. I know I failed. It looks like I’ve failed you many times. Forgive me.”
The puss ball that had always festered in my soul—that sore that kept reddening with anguish—burst.
My mother revealed something that I think all parents fear showing their children, humanity. At least I know for her generation, showing children a semblance of an emotional life was secondary to putting food on the table, and when you’re not raised on showing your feelings, you forget you have them.
It’s scary to admit you’re full of contradictions, possibly wounded, and that raising a child, no matter what circumstance, is difficult.
In that moment, I understood what the word “grace” meant. It’s such an elusive word that is better to experience than explain, but I know that my heart broke, love flooded in, and a burden was lifted.
Her honesty freed me from having to second guess my existence, and it helped me understand the hardship of hers. The mirror I was looking through was no longer foggy. I could see my life clearly; it had texture, color, and clearly defined lines and a bursted pus ball that needed cleaning.
I saw a clear picture of the precariousness in my childhood. It was like my spirit whispered in my ear and confirmed, Yes. It was terrifying.
So what do we do in the wake of failure?
My mother’s admission gave me a little taste of what it means to become a mother. You can love a thing and hurt a thing at the same time. I deeply love and adore my mother. I can only imagine the people and circumstances that failed her. I have a softness toward her, and a softness for myself that has made my heart grow more space to hold the things I’ll never fully understand. Sometimes, it is what it is.
After ten years of doing what survivors of any trauma must do to clean their wounds—meditating, numbing, praying, therapy, journalling, blaming, finding community, practicing yoga, raging, and crying—I have come to accept the unacceptable.
We don’t tell our parents the truth about our experiences to condemn them, we tell them our experiences because we must contend with it. No matter how painful the purge, this raw material from living is the grist that reminds us to do better the next time around. And there’s always a next time around.
“I am a reflection of my mother’s secret poetry as well as of her hidden angers.” ~Audre Lorde
This is what I’ve learned.
Sometimes you must mother yourself. In the wreckage you learn how to give yourself the love and affection you hungered for in your most powerless moments.
I adore the little girl I once was. She found worthwhile things to enjoy about life as the ground beneath her eroded. She sang, had her own dance parties, liked to play with balloons, and loved listening to Motown music.
She saved me, and now I get to take care of her.
This is my greatest lesson: I can accept complexity as a requisite for living. I can love the mother that gave me birth, be my own mother, and also know that there’s a higher power that loves and watches over both of us.
I can forgive while remaining protective of the little girl who was hurt too often, and too often ignored.
Redemption in the wake of failure is possible, though difficult, and yet, it beats continuing a wretched cycle of negation.
The more I reflect, the more I see that my mother and I, in many ways, are quite alike. It’s now my duty to be fiercely aware of my own demons and angels. If I am a reflection of my mother what questions do I have to ask myself about who I have become? And what do I hope to pass on, to myself and others?
I believe my story speaks to generations of children, particularly women, who grew into adult bodies and are still searching for their mothers. The reality is that we are the caretakers and mothers we’ve been searching for.
The yearning I had as an adult for nurturing and recognition was my soul nudging me to show up for myself. Now you get to take care of you, and you must.
Mothering yourself is the sacred call to practice love. Here are a few things I did in my own self-mothering journey. I hope you find them useful for your own toolkit.
Get to know your inner child.
I started doing inner child work in therapy. My therapist gave me some great activities to get to know what that part of myself was thinking, and I still do the exercises till this day. My tried and true activity is writing in the voice of my inner child with my left hand, and responding as an adult with my right. I’ve found this exercise revelatory, and recommend it for anyone attempting to rekindle a relationship with their younger self.
Your inner child never leaves you, and I learned that mine had a lot to say. This helped me learn how to show up for myself emotionally and mother that part of myself that needed validation.
Meditation has helped me sharpen my awareness, and it keeps me present to what I’m feeling in my body. The health benefits are great too. Do whatever activity brings you a sense of stillness and focus (walking in nature, cooking, mindful exercise).
Practice unconditional love, starting with yourself.
Love is a practice, and in this world we’re taught to see love as transactional. You get love if you can prove that you’re lovable. Choose a different kind of love for yourself.
Start simply, perhaps listing what you’ve come to appreciate about yourself and treating yourself with grace when you make mistakes. Find alignment with your values and get to know yourself. Become your own best friend.
Distance yourself if you need to save yourself.
Sometimes distance and time help heal and give perspective.
I’ve had to take myself out of situations where I knew I had to protect myself. At times this meant limited communication, geographic distance, or emotional distance. This can be tough, but trust that when it’s time to save yourself you’ll know what to do for your highest good.
No one is a saint, and the truth is that we’ve all hurt people and will hurt people. And it’s true that if we do a personal inventory we’ll see that we have unsavory habits and patterns that need to go. Reflecting helped me see where I would like to grow. I’m acknowledging my own tendencies to shut down, ice people out, and feed into negative stories when I’m feeling defensive or frightened. I see that these habits stem from fear. Reflection provides information. Now, I am choosing to practice more loving habits towards myself and others while honoring my need for comfort.
Finding a way to reflect is critical. I journal and make music to do this. It’s really helped me see how far I’ve come and where I still have gaps.
Condition your hair on Sundays, or soak your feet in Epsom salts when you get back from work, or go for a swim, or draw before you go to bed, or cook yourself your favorite dinner on Saturdays. Go dance at Ecstatic Dance with your girls on a Saturday.
Finding rituals for yourself helps reestablish intimacy that you might not have had growing up. It also helps you get to know what you like and brings you peace. Find that for yourself.
Take care of yourself.
Did you eat? Shower? Brush your teeth? Did you take a jacket with you because it’s cold outside? Do you like your eggs scrambled or fried? Are eggs even good for your unique body type? Become your parent and look after yourself.
Don’t force forgiveness.
Forgiveness will come when it needs to, if it even needs too, and if it doesn’t then it doesn’t make you any more or less enlightened than the rest of us. It just means this is your path and that you’re working on some intense stuff. Be easy.
I’ve found forgiveness to be a complicated process that takes time and a lot of honesty. Try to let yourself be where you are, and trust that it’s okay. Bypassing your emotions can feed into denial and numbing to your lived experience.
The point is not to rush to enlightenment, the hope is that feeling your emotions can help you become whole. Working with a professional and/or support group can help you in your process.
Learning how to become the caregiver you’ve always needed is not only a gift to yourself, it’s a gift to everyone you meet. I vowed to nurture myself because I wanted to send a message that redemption of the human spirit is always possible, no matter the trauma. My life is a testament to that.
Take what I say as an offering because you know yourself best, and the medicine that restores me might not be the ideal prescription for you. Feel free to add your own ideas of what makes you come alive to this list. At the end of the day, your experience is your teacher.
About Itoro Bassey
Itoro Bassey is a Nigerian-American writer, mindfulness practitioner and educator. She is the founder of the digital course, From Surviving to Thriving: Becoming Your Own Inner Author. This course uses writing and energy work to bring students into the present moment. She has been publishing on culture, identity, and healing for over ten years and now offers intuitive counseling sessions for those in need of support. Follow her on Instagram or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.