YOUR FAMILY OF ORIGIN — the family you grew up with and not necessarily the family into which you were born — is where you learn to become the person you are. Certainly, you were born with a genetic set of predispositions, but humans, like other primates, learn primarily by observing others. And as babies and young children, we are like sponges, soaking in the attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviors of everyone around us. Especially our parents or caregivers.
If you were kept safe, had your physical and emotional needs met, and were shown love, you likely developed a strong sense of self. But if you didn’t feel safe or loved, you may have struggled to figure out who you were and where you belonged. And if you faced problems such as abusive parents, poverty, illness, or other dysfunctions, you probably developed coping mechanisms that, while they served you when you were young, became patterns of behavior that didn’t always support healthy relationships as you grew older.
Consciously or unconsciously, we carry the problems of our families of origin with us throughout our lives, like so much baggage in tow.
And if you had the “perfect” family with loving and emotionally mature parents who supported your emotional, intellectual and creative development (they DO exist), you may have difficulty understanding the wounded people around you. Their coping mechanisms, including lack of ability to trust others or an overwhelming desire to please others, may puzzle you. May even hurt you.
So it makes sense to start our journaling exploration of relationships with our family of origin.
Everyone is born. Everyone has a mother, known or not known.
We emerge into the world from our mother’s womb through the dark tunnel of her vagina or perhaps via a C-section. And before that, we spend months floating, submerged deep in the center of her body, the rush of her blood and the beat of her heart surrounding us. We hear the muffled sounds of her voice, feel her emotions, sway with her movements as she goes through her day. Her thoughts and emotions are transmitted to us through her hormones, forming our sense of being in the world even before we are born.
Then, when we come into the world, our connection with our mother is the first of all our relationships. Everything about that relationship — whether we bond or don’t bond, whether we are loved or not loved, whether we are warm and fed or cold and hungry, and all states between — creates the foundation for every other relationship in our lives. No wonder we and society and psychology have a tendency to blame our mothers (fairly or not) for how we turn out. Alternately, we romanticize mothers, expect perfection of them.
And our relationships with our mothers, can be incredibly complicated.
The following prompts will help you write about that complicated relationship. Not all prompts may apply to your situation, so select four or five of the prompts that most resonate or intrigue you.
If you were not raised by your biological mother, write about your adoptive mother or the primary woman in your life as you were growing up.
Note: Writing about our parents can be difficult and emotionally charged, particularly if we had a challenging childhood or strained relationships with them. Acknowledge your emotions, be gentle with yourself, and give yourself permission to write or not write, to stop and return to these prompts when you are ready.
- When you were born, how old was your mother? Where was she in her own development as a woman?
- Describe your mother’s attitude toward being a mother.
- How did your mother express love or lack of love toward you? What behaviors and words did she use?
- Complete the following sentence. “My mother was the kind of woman who…”
- Imagine you are your mother. Write a monologue in which she talks about her life. What does she say?
- What kind of childhood did your mother have, and how do you think that factored into the kind of parent she was or is?
- What object could be a metaphor or symbol of your current feelings toward your mother?
- When you were little, how did you view your mother?
- What were the biggest failings of your mother as a parent?
- What were her biggest successes as a parent?
- What was the best or most useful thing your mother taught you?
- Make a creative cluster with the word “Mother” or a photo of your mother as the nucleus of the cluster. Use the words and phrases from your cluster in a poem about your mother or childhood.
- Describe your mother as if she were your best friend or sister.
- If you could say anything you wanted to your mother and know that she would really hear and understand you, what would you say? Write those words in a letter to her.
- In what ways you are most like your mother, and in what ways are you most unlike her?
- In what ways has your relationship with your mother affected other relationships in your life?
Take it a Step Further
Take time to consider and write your way through your selected prompts. When you have worked your way through all prompts you want to use, review your writing and ask yourself the following questions:
- What are the recurring images and themes in what I’ve written?
- What did I gain from writing about my mother from different perspectives?
- What have I learned about myself in this process?
- What behaviors and ways of interacting began with my relationship to my mother?
- In what ways do those behaviors still serve me today?
- In what ways do those behaviors not serve me today or hinder me from having healthy relationships?
- What of my own attitudes and behaviors toward my mother would I like to change?
- If my mother is still living, what actions can I take to find compassion, heal, and improve my current relationship with my mother? And what would “improvement” mean for me?
- If my mother is not still living, what actions do I need to take to find compassion, heal, and improve my relationship to the remembered mother within me? And what would that improved relationship-of-memory look like?