The Power of Naming: How Our Mothers Coped and How We Can

The Knitting Lesson (1869) by Jean-François Millet for Naming blog post


March is my mother’s birthday month. This year she would have turned a hundred and ten. She lived through two world wars and the Great Depression, which she spoke of with bitterness, sorrow, and resignation. The image that stays with me is her description of cutting up cardboard to cover the holes in the bottoms of her shoes.

Like so many, her family lost all their money when the economy collapsed.  Soon after, whether from despair, alcohol, or a combination of both, her father died. My mother, then in her first year of college, had to forgo the education she so desperately wanted to help support her mother, an immigrant with few survival skills. A smart and intrepid woman, my mother eventually enrolled in secretarial school and became the private secretary to a bank president. Later, she got a job as a lab technician at a local hospital, where she met my father and became a housewife in the booming fifties.

Knitting sweaters for the Red Cross. (1942) for Naming blog postOn my mother’s birthday this year, I thought about how much changed over her lifetime, how the world she was born into had been transformed into a very different society by the time she died in the late 1990s. I never asked her, but now I wonder what sustained her through all the upheavals. I wonder where she turned for support and comfort, and what notions she had to let go of and move beyond.

These questions poke at me as our own world is in the throes of changes so monumental we don’t have language for them. We say, “climate change,” but each of us has a different reference point for what that means. We say, “social justice” and “world hunger” and a variety of images and situations arise in our minds. Even “pandemic” means different things to different people, though the common threat of mortality and contagion abides with us all.

To name a problem is to make it objective, to make it into some “thing,” an entity we can walk around, examine and relate to. Naming a problem confers meaning on what might feel abstract and vague. Naming gives the feeling an existence, makes it real. Naming feelings that arise during meditation is one aspect of mindful awareness, a technique used to observe thoughts and feelings that capture our attention and derail our state of meditation. In mindfulness meditation, we are instructed to name thoughts and feeling for what they are—anger, restlessness, frustration, thinking, solving, etc.—then let them go and return to our breath.

My favorite tree, a White Oak I call “The Mother Lode.” for Naming blog postMy mother did not have the benefit of modern psychology or meditation practices. If she was alive now, and I asked her what were her anchors when she felt awash in difficult emotions, I doubt she would have said, “I named what was bothering me and that helped.” More likely, she would have said, “I just got on with things,” or “I focused on my job.” Or she went to the movies. Or she learned how to knit. These would have been her anchors, and they are surely tried and true methods—denial, distraction, refocusing—many of us use to cope when we feel overwhelmed.

It strikes me that this may be a very good time to take a minute to sit down and take inventory. What are the anchors in your life?

You might start the list with the things in your life that bring you a sense of well-being. Pets, prayer, meditation, exercise, chocolate, a favorite playlist, a favorite tree. The list may take up pages or not. Sometimes, we don’t see the flow of the positive into our lives until we begin to acknowledge and name it. If your mind wanders, wander with it. As you scrutinize your daily world, you’ll discover abundance where you may have assumed lack.

To add to the list of anchors, you might start another list naming the qualities in yourself that have helped you navigate through difficult waters. What qualities are familiar and what qualities have surprised you? When you feel frightened, anxious, or depressed, what gives you courage? Write it down. What has the pandemic taught you about yourself? Let yourself be surprised.

Greek motto gnōthi sauton (know thyself). Mosaic from the convent of San Gregorio, Via Appia, Rome.My mother survived many hardships, but I don’t believe she ever absorbed the lessons they might have taught her. Her experience of the Great Depression soured whatever native optimism she possessed. For the rest of her life, she guarded against hope, lest she be disappointed, a strategy that might work in the short run, but which dulls one’s capacity for pleasure and joy.

Her lessons are my lessons. As her offspring, she bequeathed me an emotional legacy that isn’t entirely mine. This returns me to a one-sentence summary of this blog, straight from the mouths of the ancient Greek sages: know thyself.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

Daughters Discovering Mothers: the Yearning for Identity


One of the ways we learn to know ourselves is through language. Philosophy, psychiatry and psychology, linguistics and neuroscience – each investigates the relationship between language, thought, and self-identity. Some experts argue we can’t have language without first having a thought (I think, therefore I speak or write); other experts espouse the opposite: our language constrains what we’re able to think (the Hopis, for instance, were said to not have a way to express “the day after tomorrow”).

Forgetting the scholarly debates, common sense and experience tell us that thought, language, and knowing ourselves are intricately bound.

The Sick Child by Edvard Munch for Daughters blog postIn my earlier blogs, I’ve written about the relationship between empathy and literature (See, for instance, “How Facing Our “Shadow” Can Release Us from Scapegoating”), how literature offers a portal into lives like or unlike our own. When we read or listen to fiction or poetry, we are essentially opening our hearts and minds to universal human experiences, stories told in the voice of others that expand our capacity to better know ourselves more fully. Alaa Al Aswany, the celebrated Egyptian author and activist involved in the 2011 Tahrir Square demonstrations, writes: “Literature is not a tool of judgment – it’s a tool for human understanding.”

While language is a key element to self-identity, the paths to self-knowledge are various.

The spiritual route directs us to prayer, meditation, fasting, chanting, retreat or working among the destitute. Psychology offers an extensive menu of options: dreamwork; cognitive behavior therapy; mindfulness-based therapy; psychodynamic therapy; and the vast world of psychopharmacology.

To the Highest Bidder by Harry Roseland for Daughters blog postVia Creativa is another more rarely considered route to self-knowledge. It is the inspired creation of theologian Matthew Fox, a former Dominican priest in the Roman Catholic Church and an admirer of medieval mystics and visionaries such as Hildegard of Bingen, Saint Francis of Assisi, and Meister Eckhart.

Via Creativa, the path of creativity, is part of Fox’s Creation Spirituality, a four-fold path to awareness of self through awareness of the divine.

Via Positiva is the path of awe, beauty and joy, Via Negativa, the path of darkness, pain and suffering that are inherent in a spiritual journey, and Via Creativa, according to Fox, is the path of generativity and creativity, the path of poetry, art, and creative work.

The fourth path, Via Transformativa, is the way of transformation made possible through practice and awareness of the first three paths.

We gain self-knowledge through the words and sentences we choose to describe ourselves, but it’s also true that we can learn about ourselves through the words of others. Poems, like stories, offer an avenue into self-discovery.

In the spirit of Via Creativa, and with attention to language as a way of knowing, and to continue my own exploration of the relationship between mothers and daughters (See “Mothers, Witches, and the Power of Archetypes” and “Our Mothers, Ourselves: the Search for the Whole Story”), I offer several poems by women about their mothers. Here we find ourselves in their hidden moments of praise or sorrow, anger or joy.

Leslie Ullman for Daughters blog postThe first poem is by Leslie Ullman, the author of four poetry collections, most recently Progress on the Subject of Immensity, and of a hybrid collection of craft essays, poems, and writing exercises titled Library of Small Happiness. She teaches in the low-residency MFA Program at Vermont College of the Fine Arts and lives in Taos, New Mexico.

Being Not Her

I did not know how to flirt
or sew or navigate my days without
a trace of self-doubt. My demeanor
was serious (You need to have
a light touch with boys. And remember
to make them feel important). She
stayed married until death did them part
after 69 years. I married twice and did not
change my name. She adored men. I
was afraid men would distract me. Men
adored her. I wanted them to adore me
and also to leave me alone. I wrote poems
she didn’t understand and stopped reading
as our lives deepened into their separate modes.
I resented my native suburb, her comfort zone—
but oh, the lilacs and lily-of-the-valley every
spring, their perfumes thrilling, filling me
with the promise of being grown up, even after
I knew better. Every year I miss them
as I add annuals to my own high-desert square
of decent soil, guided by her words: don’t be afraid
to experiment. You’ll remember what thrives.

When I asked Leslie to tell me a little about the origin of this poem she wrote me the following, in which she stresses how time and maturity mellowed her relationship to her mother. She speaks for many women who awaken later in life to a new understanding of their mothers.

“I had been thinking about what it’s like to be an elder myself, with a mother still in the world. I also had been marveling at how lucky I was to have outgrown my resentment of feeling controlled by a well-intentioned but willful, self-confident, and often tactless mother, to emerge into a friendship with her. It occurred to me that many daughters don’t have enough time with their mothers for this to happen – they’re stuck with old business, which may be as much a matter of perception as of anything else, and never have time to feel liked and appreciated by their mothers, or to like their mothers back. I also think this has to do with outgrowing one’s need for a mother’s approval, which can take a long time!”

Audre Lord for Daughters blog postAudre Lorde described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” who dedicated her life and her work to fighting injustice. In the following poem, she speaks of a painful childhood, her need for motherly love from a light-skinned mother who disdained her dark-skinned daughter. The poet calls on the spirit of her personal mother and the Great Mother to hear her need and to heal her.

From the House of Yemanjá

My mother had two faces and a frying pot
where she cooked up her daughters
into girls
before she fixed our dinner.
My mother had two faces
and a broken pot
where she hid out a perfect daughter
who was not me
I am the sun and moon and forever hungry
for her eyes.

I bear two women upon my back
one dark and rich and hidden
in the ivory hungers of the other
pale as a witch
yet steady and familiar
brings me bread and terror
in my sleep
her breasts are huge exciting anchors
in the midnight storm.

All this has been
in my mother’s bed
time has no sense
I have no brothers
and my sisters are cruel.

Mother I need
mother I need
mother I need your blackness now
as the august earth needs rain.
I am

the sun and moon and forever hungry
the sharpened edge
where day and night shall meet
and not be

Alice Friman for Daughters blog postAlice Friman’s poem “Snake Hill” also speaks with urgency to a mother who is frail and dying. It recounts a childhood experience but now the roles are reversed: the child is mother to the feeble mother. Remorse and longing underpin the words that speak of how difficult it is to let go of a beloved no matter what our age.

Snake Hill

to my mother

We are on the final avenue.
Hush now.  What’s to speak?
Soon we’ll go down Snake Hill,
cobblestones and weedy lots.

Will you sing to me as we go?
In the toy store window, the guitar
I wept my heart out for,
the rubber bands still stretched with song.
We can buy it now.  There’s no end
to what we can afford.

I’m lying.
It’s gone.  The window.
The store.  The whole corner where
Frank’s Market spilled crates out to the curb.
But I’m still there, wailing,
and you pleading reason to I want
I want.  (What early prick of glass
keeps that vein open still?)

Snake Hill is steep.
The lyrics overflow the hour.  After,
it will take me years to turn
and face that climb alone,
each paving stone weed-wet with song
catching at my throat, my throat
filled with you.

Only the child
at the top of the hill
can yank me up again—by the heart’s cord
running down the roof of her mouth
to the cut bands of the throat—the child
who has no other choice, having nothing left
from that corner to retrieve.

Alice offered some background about her poem, which appears in her book Inverted Fire:

“About why I wrote the piece, well I was very close to my mother, and the thought of what was to come haunted me. What I’m remembering – Snake hill, Frank’s market, the toy store window where being three, I wailed for what I could not have, it being the heart of the depression and she surely didn’t have the necessary twenty-three cents – are scenes from my childhood in Washington Heights, New York City.”

Alice Friman’s seventh collection of poetry, Blood Weather, will be published by LSU Press in 2019. She’s the winner of a Pushcart Prize and is included in Best American Poetry. She lives in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she was poet-in-residence at Georgia College.

Naomi Shihab Nye for Daughters blog postNaomi Shihab Nye is a child of shared cultures, the daughter of an American mother and a father who was a Palestinian refugee. The American Poetry Foundation says of her poetry: “Nye’s experience of both cultural difference and different cultures has influenced much of her work. Known for poetry that lends a fresh perspective to ordinary events, people, and objects, Nye has said that, for her, “the primary source of poetry has always been local life, random characters met on the streets, our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks.” “Voices” appears in Tender Spots: Selected Poems.


I will never taste cantaloupe
without tasting the summers
you peeled for me and placed
face-up on my china breakfast plate.

You wore tightly laced shoes
and smelled like the roses in your yard.
I buried my face in your
soft petaled cheek.

How could I know you carried
a deep well of tears?
I thought grandmas were as calm
as their stoves.
How could I know your voice
had been pushed down hard inside you
like a plug?

You stood back in a crowd
but your garden flourished and answered
your hands. Sometimes I think of the land
you loved, gone to seed now,
gone to someone else’s name,
and I want to walk among silent women
scattering light. Like a debt I owe
my grandma. To lift whatever cloud it is
made them believe speaking is for others.
As once we removed treasures from your
sock drawer and held them one-by-one,
ocean shell, Chinese button, against the sky.

Memory, longing, and a deep recognition of what is carried from one generation to the next informs how each of these poets explores motherhood. And these I’ve shared are just a sliver of the rich trove of discoveries poets are engaged in. You may enjoy “Daughters in Poetry,” an essay and tour by Eavan Boland at The Academy of American Poets or you may prefer to explore the exemplary work of the many individual poets available at the Poetry Foundation.

In her book, Of Woman Born, poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, wrote: “Probably there is nothing in human nature more resonant with charges then the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies, one of which has lain in amniotic bliss inside the other, one which has labored to give birth to the other. The material here is for the deepest intimacy and the most powerful estrangement.”

As you sit with these poems, consider what one event crystalizes your relationship to your mother. What emotions does it bring up? What have you never said to her that you now wish to say? There. That’s your material!

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

Top image, “Mother and Daughter,” courtesy of Colorado mixed media artist, Saundra Lane Galloway.

Our Mothers, Ourselves: the Search for the Whole Story

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe for Mothers blog post

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.

She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.

She gave them some broth without any bread;

And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

How entrancing those nonsensical rhymes were to us as children, the chant more compelling than the meaning. As adults, however, we hear the verses with more mature ears and try to divine their symbolic meaning.

What about the mother portrayed in the Mother Goose rhyme? Her origins may be traced to Queen Caroline, wife of King George II, and her large brood, or the rhyme may refer to an ancient superstition linking fertility to shoes. But even if the poor, old, overburdened woman is a stand-in for a real person, she also represents the archetype of a harried worn-out mother, her children starving for attention and love. As an archetypal image of an unfit mother, she reflects a set of conditions that exist across time and continents, as does the depiction of her childrens’ desperate situation.

Cultural images of a range of mothers and mothering abound. Consider the haranguing critical mother-in-the-sky in “Oedipus Wrecks,” Woody Allen’s segment of the film New York Stories. A female deity with tight curls and a kvetching voice, Sadie Millstein is the intrusive and unescapable mother from Hell, a Medea in her own right. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the all-good mothers, Margaret March, “Marmee,” in Little Women, or the self-sacrificing mother in Fanny Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life. Dickens gives us the negligent Mrs. Copperfield, and Mrs. Jellby in Bleak House. Jane Austen’s Mrs. Bennet is a loving mother but a social climbing fool. As we age, witches and hags, fairy godmothers and cuddling mamas tramp through our dreams.

We tell stories about our own mothers—to ourselves, to friends, to our partners and our therapists, but are the stories we repeat the whole picture? Whether our mothers were vicious or supportive, praising or blaming; whether we consider them a benevolent or malicious force, our mothers were our first love. As our earliest and most primary relationship, the way we attach to our mothers in infancy will shape how we respond to love the rest of our lives.

Understanding our mothers as complex figures free daughters to accept their undiscovered or disowned parts. The often painful quest to sort through the past and to explore who our mothers were beyond the stories we’ve told ourselves can satisfy an unconscious yearning for wholeness within ourselves.

Fountain of Goddess of Ephesus for Mothers blog postIn her book, In Her Image: The Unhealed Daughter’s Search for Her Mother, Jungian analyst Kathie Carlson invites the reader to dive deeper into the complex relationship between mothers and daughters and to consider that relationship in a fuller context that goes beyond personal experience. Carlson differentiates three points of view from which we can understand our mothers: the child’s, the feminist, the archetypal.

Carlson begins with the woman who raised us, our personal mother: “The primary relationship between women is the relationship of mother and daughter. This relationship is the birthplace of a woman’s ego identity, her sense of security in the world, her feeling about herself, her body, and other women.” Mother is The Source. She is our container, our protectress, the vital entity in which we grow, through which we are born, and upon which our survival depends. (I am speaking here, too, of transgendered women, of men who take on the primary caretaker role of “mother”). As mother, she holds our life and death in her hands. A problem arises, however, when an adult daughter continues to view her mother from the child’s perspective, when she evaluates the mother in terms of how she affects her (the child), expecting the mother to be all things “supportive, nurturing, unselfish, and infinitely caring,” qualities that suppose a super-human flawless being.

Carlson suggests the child’s point of view is egocentric and limited, but necessarily so when we are infants and children. As infants, we need to establish a bond with an all-powerful presence who will appear when we wail in hunger and who can fulfill our basic needs. The degree to which we have missed out on quality mothering is mirrored in the physical and emotional distress that may emerge as we develop. In extreme cases of negligence or abuse, children are vulnerable to a condition called failure to thrive (FTT).

Kali trampling Shiva for Mothers blog postA problem arises when we carry the developmental needs and expectations of childhood into adulthood and continue to suffer the rage or depression engendered by early deprivation. “Many of us,” Carlson writes, “have not had even adequate mothering, much less the ideal; many of our mothers have been too depleted themselves. We end up disappointed in our mothers, hurt, angry, blaming, needy, raging, yet unable to let go of our need for them. We feel starved emotionally…We feel terrified of becoming like our mothers…”

As Carlson notes, many carry within us this unhealed child and an attendant sense of unworthiness, which affects our other relationships. Healing the core woundedness, she explains, involves a deeper and more comprehensive view of our mothers, one that does not negate the child’s view but includes looking at our mothers as women with their own histories, needs, and temperaments as well as expanding our understanding of our mother as part of a transpersonal order.

If the first perspective from which we see our mothers is the child’s egocentric view, the second perspective is what Carlson calls a feminist perspective, and what I call a woman-to-woman perspective. From this viewpoint, our mothers are products of their histories, their biology, their culture, their temperament and genes. Seeing our mothers through this lens allows us to replace the ideal projected image with a more realistic and empathetic knowledge of who our mother really is. This is not to say an abused, neglected, or mistreated daughter denies or excuses wrongful mothering, only that by seeing her mother as a full human being for whom she can feel sympathy, the daughter is more able to separate from her mother and to feel compassion for her own deeply held pain.

The third perspective Carlson introduces in her book is the experience of the archetypal or transpersonal mother who “comes through” to us in dreams and religious symbols, in Mother Nature, and in experiences that help us reframe our emotional connection to our personal mothers. A way to understand how archetypes work in our lives is to imagine that all aspects of all mothers are contained in the collective archetype of Mother. She who is named the Shekhinah, the feminine complement to God; the Great Huntress; the Queen of Heaven; Hera; Astarte; Sophia; the Madonna; Kali; Lilith.

If, for instance, we have felt abandoned by our personal mothers or have felt her meanness and betrayal, we can look to the ancient stories and symbols that depict both the light and dark sides of the Mother. Knowing this, we are more able to relativize our personal experience. We do not deny or excuse the pain or the perpetrators of that pain, but we can feel less isolated, less bitter and resentful knowing our pain is part of the continuum of the human condition.

The Return of Persephone for Mothers blog postAs an interesting experiment, we can gather tales that speak to us of our experiences as the daughter of our mother. Do we identify with the abandoned and orphaned Little Match Girl, or the under-appreciated object of jealousy, Cinderella? Perhaps we feel closer to Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, who is separated from her mother by Hades, and dragged into the underworld. Perhaps there are more contemporary stories that resonate with ours. In any case, find stories that reflect your own experience and think how the story might be told first from the daughter’s point of view, and then differently, from the mother’s point of view. Imagine hearing Mrs. Portnoy’s worried voice narrating the trouble she sees ahead for little Alexander! What might you learn about yourself if you heard your own mother’s whole story?

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at