Captured by the Mother Archetype

Elaine and David (one week old, 1970)

Elaine and David (one week old, 1970)

Anthony Damiani soon realized that the students who had gathered around him to learn meditation and philosophy needed psychological understanding. It was the late 1960s. We sat on lumpy cushions on the floor in the American Brahman Bookstore in Ithaca while Anthony shared passages from Carl Jung, gave examples, and led discussions about shadow, anima, animus, and Self.

I longed to understand these enticing words. Jung called them archetypes or unconscious structuring principles in the psyche.  I didn’t quite get it no matter how hard I tried. Instead, I was consumed by Lamaze classes and my first pregnancy.

Anthony Damiani

Anthony Damiani

In late September 1970, hours into labor, I visualized climbing a mountain as I’d done when I was pregnant. Rest. Climb. Relax. Climb. Climb. Climb. Push. Breathe. Climb.

Backpacking in Colorado Mountains, 6 months pregnant

Backpacking in Colorado Mountains, 6 months pregnant

I panted and puffed while Vic timed contractions. He rubbed my back and slipped ice cubes in my mouth. I wanted it to be over. It was taking too long.

“Don’t tell me how many minutes,” I growled. “It doesn’t help. I want it to stop.”

“I wish I could do this for you,” Vic said as he wiped my forehead with a wet towel. I loved him for saying it, but this was my job. I was determined to see it through without drugs.

In the middle of the night, lines from Joni Mitchell’s song “Willy” circled through my head:

…I feel like I’m just being born 
Like a shiny light breaking in a storm
There are so many reasons why I love him.

The words pulled me through the pain and magic of the next  hours. They were in my mind when I heard the baby’s first cry.

…I feel like I’m just being born 
Like a shiny light breaking in a storm…

David at two months

David at two months

When we took our baby home, I was blissed out with Mother Love. Unfortunately, angel baby slept all day and stayed awake all night. He suckled and snoozed. Ah… A moment of sweet peace before his little fists clenched, his body stiffened, and his chin wrinkled. Wailing came next. It went on for hours. A frantic colicky baby couldn’t be right. There had to be a solution. I changed him. I walked back and forth. I jiggled and bounced and sang. I cradled and rocked. I nursed him again. I begged him to fall asleep.

Vic had to go to work every morning so I wanted to let him sleep. More important, he didn’t have breasts filled with the magic elixir that soothed until it didn’t. In the middle of one exhausting night when Baby David was two weeks old, I imagined tossing him out a window like a football. My fantasy scared me so I woke Vic up. Vic rocked, sang, and swayed while I slept a few hours. After that, we took shifts at night.

Vic and David, both exhausted

Vic and David, both exhausted

I thought I knew how to put my needs aside for someone I loved, but I had never been tested. Not like this. I loved little David with a fierceness I hardly recognize. I also felt invaded and devoured. My breasts leaked sweet sticky milk in response to his screams even after he nursed them dry. My shirts were soaked with milk and tears. Why would my baby cry like this? Why couldn’t I help him? Why did his cries affect me this way?

Then I remembered Anthony’s Jung classes. Archetype!

Elaine and David (3 weeks old)

Elaine and David (3 weeks old)

This is what Anthony meant when he described being consumed by an archetype. This was Mother Archetype, the one that protected life in every species. It was bigger, stronger, and more complicated than my idealized fantasies. It included kind loving mother and also terrible enraged mother. I was being taught to protect life with fierce love.

Like so many other women, I had become a handmaiden to an archetype. Divine Mother was in charge.

***

For a story about David at three years old, see Talking Back: Essential Marriage Skills 101. We made it through those first months in fine shape. For more stories about Vic as husband, father, and rescue expert, see My Lover’s Hands. if you’re interested in the world of archetype and Jungian mythology, Jean Raffa and I will co-lead a lecture and workshop on March 11-12 at the C.G. Jung Society of Sarasota (FL) on the ancient myth of Inanna and dreams as guides when facing mortality and grief. I hope you’ll join us.

28 Comments
  1. Elaine, in all truth, I didn’t want your beautiful writing to stop. I found myself completely ‘captured’ by such lyrical story-telling. I love the wonderful images that you’ve included in this post, especially that photo of you, six months pregnant and backpacking! Oh my goddess, how deeply I resonated with these words … ‘I was being taught to protect life with fierce love.’ So very true, and am always feel relieved to read that other mothers imagined dropping their baby out the window too during those long, colicky, sleepless nights. Ah! ‘Handmaiden to an archetype’ … I couldn’t have said any better for the Mother Archetype.

    I’m so pleased to read about your forth-coming, co-lead workshop with Jean Raffa. How incredible is that going to be! Two of my favourite bloggers in the one place, at the same time. Woo hoo! Is anyone going to film the lecture/workshop? Ha-ha! I’m secretly hoping!
    Will definitely have a read of those other articles too. Warm winter wishes, Deborah.

    • Deborah, thank you for your supportive and encouraging words. I just added a link in this post to Joni Mitchell singing “Willy.” It’s written for a lover, but for me that long laboring night, those lines were about the birth of a child and the mother in me. I look back and roll my eyes at the 6 1/2 month pregnant woman backpacking at the Continental Divide in Colorado. I felt fully confident with my Midwife’s Manuel in my pack and Vic carried everything heavy. Talk about inflation! I’m grateful I didn’t go into labor on those peaks. I had no idea giving birth was such hard work or that it would be a challenge to hand my will over to the needs of another. Within a few months, all was calm in our little family of three. My second child was a breeze in the birthing and in bringing him home. I didn’t have to learn how to submit to an archetype.

      I will ask about making a video of the lecture. At the very least, we might be able to arrange an audio recording. Jean and I are having a planning session on Skype soon, so that’s on my list of questions for us to ask the Jung Society. When Jean and I first planned this almost a year ago (we had to write our proposal in advance), we were overflowing with enthusiasm and exciting ideas. I expect this workshop to be wonderful. I wish you could be there.

  2. What an honest story! I know when i had my first baby, he was crying night and day. i loved him so much but I asked my sisters: “Is having a baby ever going to be fun?” This “dark” mother archetype was balanced by an infatuation: both me and my hisband confessed to each other that we had fallen in love with someone else: our newborn son.
    How I wish I could join the workshop next March! But i am sure I will read about it on both of your blogs, yours as well as Jean Raffa.

    • I get it, Susanne. When baby David slept (during the day), Vic and I took turns holding him and admiring him. We were completely smitten with deep love for this little being who would have so much to teach us. David is 45 now. He’s a remarkably helpful, sensitive, and loving man. Plus I am in love with his wife Liz. Yes, we will be in touch. Thank you for publishing my article at Mindfunda.

  3. My title as Mother Archetype slipped off one night when I announced to my hard-working husband that “I can’t take care of Crista anymore. You’ll have to do it” as I deposited our little doll at the foot of our bed. Daddy indeed took over. The funk lasted a short while. Then I screwed on some courage and resumed my motherly duties. In retrospect, I realize I must have been suffering from postpartum depression brought on by a hormone imbalance no doubt.

    Your photos are absolutely priceless, the story superb. Like Deborah, I didn’t want the storytelling to end. Did you notice she slipped in the word goddess – ha!

    • I’m laughing as I imagine your crown sliding down and hitting the floor. I often wondered what women did without a kind backup man to soothe mother and child. I felt very lucky. I didn’t give up mothering so much as dissolve into helpless tears. Tears washed away the grumpiness and I was left with love, fatigue, and my sense of duty. In about 3 months, we all settled down. Much of the problem was my lack of experience. Postpartum depression is a real thing and a terrible challenge. And it’s depressing to move from the fantasy of baby to real baby, especially if the baby is unhappy with being incarnated.

      Deborah is a Jungian friend, so we use the term goddess because we know similar mythologies. Jung (and Plato and many ancient scholars–as I’m sure you know) used goddess and gods to explain ideas and behavior. Plato uses the Eros and Psyche myth to talk about Love. Mother Goddesses were primary in every tradition I know (and I don’t know them all). In Christianity, the only goddess who strongly remains is the Mother Virgin Mary, but unlike goddesses who preceded her and are linked to her in other mythologies, she lost the fierce shadow side in the stories we/I know. I know a Jewish scholar who enjoys writing about strong women in the Bible. I did not hear about these women in the Presbyterian Church, but love the strong complex feminine in other traditions.

      • You are so kind to follow up with all this explanation. So Deborah’s “Oh my goddess!” was intentional after all. As you know, though I’m a devout Christian I have always been fascinated with Jungian psychology and archetypes. Not long ago, I bought a book entitled “Legendary Women of the Bible and the Lessons They Still Teach Us” exploring the names of women like Jehosheba, Michal, Salome, Zipporah. You prompted me to dig out a book at the bottom of the pile. 🙂

        • Yes, intentional. Deborah is a Twitter friend from England and a beautiful writer. Here’s her twitter name: @LiberatedSheep
          I don’t find conflict between Jungian psychology and Christianity or any religion. One of my favorite essays by Jung was ‘Answer to Job.” We can learn from the archetypal patterns found in any culture. In your case, I feel some blogs stirring about Jehosheba, Michal, and Zipporah. In my protestant upbringing, Mary was barely mentioned other than in the Divine Birth. This was a decision made the church, not by the blessed Jesus. We humans have done some terrible things in his name.

  4. Thanks for sharing, A Mother’s Love, Elaine. It doesn’t seem to matter how many years have passed, you remember the joy and love, and questions you felt at the birth of your child. Looking back at it is possibly a feeling of greater miracle, after so much of live has passed. 🙂

    • It’s a miracle we make it through, Debby. Like many of us, I didn’t have the best model for mothering. I had to learn from books, instincts, and common sense. And tears. Lots of tears. I told my son David I was writing this about him–but mostly about me because he was an infant at the time. He sent a simple message: “I love you, Mom.” My family is tolerant of my stories and photos.

  5. Thank you for your honesty, Elaine. It would have helped me so much if I’d known I’d been captured by an archetype in those early days of mothering. I’ll never forget a dream I had shortly before my first was born. The baby-to-come was sleeping in a little basket on the other side of my family room by the sliding glass doors, which were open. On the other side of the glass was a huge, fierce tiger which was trying to get in. I knew it wanted to eat my baby. I was terrified, and rushed to get to the baby before the tiger did.

    I knew nothing about Jungian psychology or archetypes in those days, and woke up worrying about that fierce threat to the new life in me. I did however, have the awareness to wonder if that threat could possibly stand for something terrifying in me. I suspected it might. Taking the dream literally, I thought it might be a warning that I might be careless and neglect the baby. Perhaps the tiger represented a real threat to my child. I felt terrible guilt for leaving it alone in the room and the door open, so guilty that I never told anyone about the dream. Now I can smile at my fear, ignorance and innocence.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every prenatal class had a lesson on the archetypal Mother?

    • Yes to Mother Archetype information in prenatal classes. It isn’t subtle since we’ve watched pets be good mothers and alarming mothers. (There was our first cat who slept on one of her kittens and suffocated it.) I was filled to the brim with an ideal sense of mother–the perfect family and perfect baby that never cried. That tiger was a fearsome image of the Archetype about to break down your door and eat the baby in you. When our second son was born, Vic and I laughed that it had taken two adults to take care of the first one. It was lots easier the second time around. Those poor first children have big teaching assignments.

      • I had a female swan friend who believed the girl babies were a group liability, and would drown them. She was a beautiful, loving, friendly swan, and I was horrified and unbelieving, but she surely thought she was doing the right thing for the good of the whole. (not on my watch, however). What an eye opener that was! Yes, I too, wish that prenatal classes were more heart and less head centered. It *is* a miracle we sort it all out and the love holds (my grandmother saved my life, am pretty sure. My mother couldn’t cope)

        • Wow, Lori. That’s fierce mothering gone awry–at least from our human perspective. Did anyone ever give you a clue about why a swan mama would do that? (Or why a human mama would do that?) I don’t know what prenatal classes are like now, but in 1970, they made giving birth sound like a piece of cake and didn’t give us any warnings about psychological challenges we would face. I’m still grateful for my husband who saved his crying baby and wife in the middle of the night. Many times. Grateful for your grandmother, too. Thanks for taking time to read and comment.

  6. I love the photos of you as a young mother and David as a cranky baby. And being reminded of Joni Mitchell’s “Willy” – well that made reading this post a perfect event. Cheers!

    • Thanks Robin. Willy was a love song, but those lines caught me during labor and I never forgot. Wishing you a Peaceful and Productive New Year.

  7. Thank you for this Elaine! I agree about post partum/post natal depression – not that I suffered it, but one of my closest friends did. I was seriously ill a few days after returning from the nursing home after a long labour (two weeks late). Others thought I was just tired etc … but I had an infection from the stitches (natural delivery) and I was hastily taken to hospital where I was with my infant for several days. I was fierce about having my baby with me, right next to me so that I could take care of him. The nurses said they had never met such a fierce person who refused to let him out of sight with a sign on his crib ‘do not remove or feed’. I remember thinking this is a fierce and protective love, something I never thought I had … thank you for your post in reminding me of this.

    I loved the comments too and your responses to them, thank you again.

    • Thanks for your reassuring comment, Susan. I don’t think I would have been diagnosed with postpartum depression. Instead my ideals of perfect motherhood were clashing with the reality of being young, sleepless, overcome with a new role, and wanting things to go according to plan. I know others who’ve had full out depression. Thankfully, my situation wasn’t that dark or prolonged. I was simply learning to be a fierce loving mom. The medical model in 1970 was to keep fathers away from deliveries (we had to travel to another city where they’d allow Vic to be in the delivery room), give the mom strong drugs, and swoop the baby off to the nursery. I wouldn’t allow any of that–and neither would you. And we survived…

  8. A beautiful personal story with a Jungian twist, dear Elaine…
    There is evidently a biological bond here and also a cultural archetype here…
    The mother archetype, which Greek Mythology counterpart would probably be Demeter, the Goddess of Harvest…
    The story of her daughter Persephone having to spend most of the year in the underworld with her husband, had Demeter missing her daughter so much, she created winter.
    However, she was so happy at her return, she made everything bloom again…
    I am sure that when David stopped crying you felt not only relieved … but joyful…
    It is interesting and worth highling how the mother archetype is present in such unconscious ways…thanks for sharing… I hope that you have an excellent 2016. Aquileana ☺️

    • I love the Persephone/Demeter story, Aquileana. I could have written about this experience using that myth and perhaps I will sometime. Persephone is one of the goddesses I’ve studied at length. The astrologer Liz Greene talks about a Venus-Pluto conjunction as the Persephone/Demeter archetype, and I have this conjunction in my natal chart. I’ve always had a love affair with the Underworld, sometimes feeling pulled down under and eventually learning my way around in unknown worlds and helping others find their way.

      Yes, Baby David stopped crying and became a happy baby, but he was always an emotional child. Vic and I became devoted and calm parents. David still makes my world bloom, as does his younger brother Anthony. To fill out the image, they are both gardeners. As you know, every Archetype has a huge unconscious aspect and that’s the part that challenges us, troubles us, and forces growth. Wishing you and the world a peaceful 2016 and thanks for taking time to comment.

  9. Oh, Elaine, this is gorgeous, and searingly true. I know you’ve been worried about that second book, but if it contains insights like this…well, you can be sure you’re on the right track.

    • Thanks, Paula. That’s reassuring. I’m trying to relax about all of it, including my inner deadline creator. Who gave her that authority anyway? I’ll keep working as the ideas emerge. And I won’t fret as I read new material about mythology and dig around in my descent experiences.

  10. Once again, I’m touched by your honesty and amazed by the way you are able to paint such a vivid picture with your words. It’s as if those words take on a life of their own – you are truly one of the most gifted writers I’ve had the pleasure of reading, Elaine. I’m so grateful that our paths crossed and that you so freely give of yourself through your beautiful writing. Thank you for that….

    • Thank you, Ann. Wow. That’s a big fat complement and I’m lapping it up. You know about being a mother and being mothered. Motherhood changes everything. I love seeing photos of you and your daughter.

  11. At two months I can tell it is David!

    • Yes. His poor parents were beside themselves trying to soothe with his volcanic emotions. It’s not easy being a first kid.

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