© 2020 Stephi Wagner, MSW

  • Stephi Wagner

What is the Mother Wound?

In the briefest of terms, the mother wound is the pain of patriarchy.

"Wait. Patriarchy? What does hating all men have to do with the pain my mother caused me?"

Everything except the "hating all men part."

For those who may be unfamiliar, patriarchy is not about hating men. Instead, patriarchy refers to a social system that regards men as superior to women.

Within a patriarchal system, men are granted unearned privilege (i.e. power) by default, and women are deprived of equality (i.e. oppressed) by default.

If you are reading my words right now, you are living in a patriarchy.

"So we all live in a patriarchal society. Where does the mother wound come in?"

Anytime one group of people is granted unearned power over another group of people, pain is always the result. It is not possible to live in a patriarchal society that privileges men at the direct expense of women and not encounter the pain that results from this.

This pain of patriarchy is the mother wound. And it comes into play for each of us the moment we are born into this society.

Key point: Every single person living in our patriarchal society is mother wounded, and every single person born into our patriarchal society first encounters the mother wound from the very first person they know - the person who carries them within their body and births them.

"Why call it the mother wound though when not everyone who gives birth is a mother?"

While the people who give birth may or may not identify themselves as mothers, *according to patriarchy these people are assumed to be both women and mothers.

This is most certainly not because patriarchy gives a damn about people who give birth (or about women and mothers), but because patriarchy gives a great many damns about privileging cisgender heterosexual men who cannot give birth but benefit from using/oppressing the *women and mothers who can (again, this is according to patriarchy).

*The truth denied within patriarchy: People who give birth may identify as women and mothers, or they may not, and people who do not give birth may identify as men and fathers, or they may not.

Special note: There is no such thing as the father wound in a patriarchal society. While people do definitely experience pain from their fathers under patriarchy, this pain is also the mother wound as it is ultimately rooted in the systemic privileging of men (i.e. fathers) and subsequent oppression of women (i.e. mothers).

Becoming Mother Wounded: The Process

Before we were born, we were in complete connection with the person carrying us in their body. According to patriarchy (as mentioned above), this person MUST identify both as a woman AND as our mother. This complete connection with the person who carried us - regardless of how they identify - made it possible for us to be born at all.

Over the course of our lives we go on to experience other relationships - with other parents, with adoptive parents, with siblings, with grandparents, with friends, etc. - but none of these relationships began with connection. Instead, these relationships started from disconnection (i.e. not knowing) and moved towards connection (i.e. knowing). 

Our relationship with the person who carries and then gives birth to us is entirely unique. With this person, we each begin our lives with being known.

When we are born, this total connection that we shared with the person who carried us in their body is severed. Even when a birthing person makes efforts to foster a gentle birthing experience, the act of birth cannot be wholly free of disconnection. In brief summary, the act of birth itself is inherently disconnecting.

When I speak about this, a common question people have is this: "If birth is automatically disconnecting, is the mother wound inevitable?” The answer to this is two-fold. 

The mother wound *is* inevitable because of the patriarchal society we have collectively allowed, and NOT because of our true nature as human beings.

I first began studying infant mental health while in graduate school at the University of Michigan. During the course of my studies, I learned about how newborn babies come hardwired and equipped to navigate and repair the disconnection of birth WHEN they are supported by an emotionally safe, authentically loving, and physically available people who give birth to them.

From their cries, to their need to feed frequently, to their scent, and so much more, newborn babies arrive on the other side of birth equipped to play active roles in restoring connection with their parents who give birth to them.

[insert patriarchy here]

What newborn babies do NOT come designed to play active roles in restoring is the disconnection that exists (hello, patriarchy) between their parents and their parents' true selves. In other words, newborn babies do not come designed to heal the mother wounds of those who bring them into the world.

And so, at no fault of our own, each of us born into this patriarchal society found ourselves with parents/caregivers who could not meet us in our efforts to reconnect with them, their own roles in reconnecting with us a direct result of their own mother wounded pain. 

No child enters this world to heal their parent's connection with their own authentic self so they can then connect authentically and adequately with the child themselves. 

And here is the really critical piece:

WE WERE NEVER TO BLAME for the failures of our parents to meet our needs.

Blameless babies wired for love and belonging, we cried, hungered, and otherwise sought out connection with those who gave birth to us exactly as we were meant to do. We did not need "too much." We did not need "in the wrong ways.” We did not do ANYTHING to cause our parents to struggle to care for us as we needed and deserved for them to care for us. We quite simply and quite painfully were born into the center of their own mother wounded trauma.

As newborn babies and later as children, our parents were fully responsible for caring for us. We did not ask to come into their lives. Their failure to meet our entirely valid needs as vulnerable babies and then as children rests entirely on them. Just as it was their responsibility to feed us, so too was it their responsibility to seek the support of other adults to address, process, and heal their own mother wounded pain that was limiting their ability to meet all of our needs and be the parents we came hardwired to need them to be. 

But There's More (Of Course There's More)

Patriarchy does not deal out the mother wound from parent to child and just walk away quietly. If this were the case, we would have dismantled patriarchy and healed our collective mother wound a long time ago. Instead, patriarchy intentionally works to keep the mother wounded pain it causes completely out of sight and entirely out of mind.

In terms of parent-child relationships, patriarchy has a very effective cover that it conditions each and every one of us to maintain. This cover is the mother myth, and it is incredibly effective for patriarchy, and yes, you guessed it, incredibly toxic for the rest of us.

Mother Myth States:

  1. It is practically impossible for mothers to struggle to love and care for their children.

  2. Children of all ages owe their mothers for loving and caring for them.

  3. The only exceptions to #1 and #2 are the *rare* instances when a mother treats her child (or is suspected of treating her child) in a way that society has decided is really abusive dismantling patriarchy.

We owe it to ourselves, to each other, and to future generations to work to crush this destructive mother myth and the silence and complacency it perpetuates in regards to the mother wounded pain that results from patriarchy.

For as long as we uphold the mother myth (i.e. do patriarchy's bidding), we keep the mother wound hidden in secrecy and relegated as taboo. For as long as we uphold the mother myth, we chose more pain rather than transformational healing.

Thankfully, there is a growing community of people around the world who are leaving the mother myth behind and committing ourselves to healing the mother wound.

Together we proclaim the following truths:

  1. It is THE NORM for mothers to struggle to love and care for their children.

  2. Children of all ages DO NOT owe their mothers anything. Period.

  3. The child is the only expert on how their mother treats/treated them.

Mother Wound: all of the pain - relational, societal, and spiritual - that has resulted from living in a patriarchal society that privileges cishetero men and oppresses everyone else. It is the pain that exists between you and your parent(s), between you and society, and between who you feel you should be and who you truly are. 

How the Mother Wound Shows Up in Our Lives

While everyone is mother wounded to one degree or another, no two people experience the impacts of the mother wound in exactly the same way. As little children we developed coping mechanisms that helped us to navigate the mother wounded pain we experienced within our relationships with our parents, broader families, schools, communities, and society at large.

These coping mechanisms continue to show up in our adult lives until we commit to healing our mother wound. Only then can we begin the messy but life-changing process of unstucking ourselves from the intergenerational pain knot that is the mother wound.

Ways we might experience the mother wound:

  • Feeling like we are "not enough"

  • Feeling like we are “too much”

  • Being tone policed by others for our authentic feelings

  • Feeling shame about our authentic feelings

  • Struggling to make and maintain boundaries

  • Shame storms: "I AM a bad mistake" (shame) rather than "I made a bad mistake" (guilt)

  • Feeling responsible for other people's feelings

  • Accepting poor treatment from other people

  • Self-sabotaging by backing away on the brink of a success

  • Attenuation: trying to stay small in body, mind, impact,

  • And many, many more

Who is Mother Wounded?

The simple answer is that everyone living in our patriarchal society is mother wounded to one degree or another. As mentioned above, it is not possible to live in a patriarchal society and not experience any of the mother wounded pain that results. 

This includes people of all genders, all sexualities, all races, all classes, all ages, all creeds, all abilities, all body sizes, etc. When it comes to handing out pain, patriarchy does not discriminate. It just diversifies.

Every time we make the courageous choice to see our mother wounded pain as valid, we take a crucial step. This step moves us away from toxic patriarchy and the destructive mother myth and moves us directly towards healing - both our own and that of the collective.