Over the last six months, I’ve extensively journaled about what “mothering myself” could look like. It’s been difficult to put a self-care practice into my routine, into being able to mother myself. To me, it’s meant having an intimate relationship with the little girl I once was. The little girl who felt cast aside by both of her parents, the one who had to be strong, and because she had no other choice, the one who had to take care of herself when no one came knocking on the door to ask if she was okay.
It all started during the second session with my therapist when she talked to me about the power of being able to mother yourself.
“Our culture views the term ‘mother’ only as a noun, when in fact it is also a verb. I am a mother to someone, but I can also mother myself,” she explained.
I’d come to her office with sweaty palms and a racing heart, scared to go to therapy because it was something I had convinced myself wasn’t for me. I don’t need anyone to fix me — I can do it on my own, I thought. But after months of miserably failing to fix the way I was feeling, I decided to listen to a friend and seek help.
Our first session identified my current emotional state. I told her that my inner and outer self embodied the word “meh.” When she pressed further, I had a hard time finding words to describe what I felt like for the last six months. She pulled up an emotions chart and asked me to find, and speak, the words that resonated. At first I felt overwhelmed by the countless words, but as I read the circular chart, words instantly popped out of the page.
Abandoned. Critical. Judgmental. Guilty. Tired. Powerless. Worthless.
The taste of the words on my tongue felt liberating and terrifying. I felt understood for a moment, only to be paralyzed by the intensity of the words. Finding my emotional verbiage now meant my emotions were real.
My therapist continued, “Mothering yourself means meeting your emotional, physical, and spiritual needs as an adult, the way your mom might have done when you were younger.” Her suggestion wasn’t so easy for me.
As she continued describing the difference between being a mother and mothering yourself, she startled me with another question.
“Do you think you’ve been a good mother to yourself?” she asked.
I paused, knowing the answer was a hard no. If anyone ever heard my thoughts about myself, I’d be categorized as unfit to walk around in society, I thought. “I’m not very nice to myself,” I reluctantly shared.
Her silence made me uncomfortable. She did that thing I had seen in countless movies, where the therapist silently stares at the client until they provide a deeper, more thoughtful answer. The silent pause was long.
“I guess I never really had examples of good mothers around me,” I finally shared. It was the first time we talked about my parents and my upbringing.
I told her that when I was 15, my mom and I hadn’t been getting along for two years, and after she caught me sneaking out again, she sent me to live with my dad in the middle of the school year. My dad, in turn, sent me to boarding school, and since then, I’ve been taking pride in taking care of myself. For the last 15 years, I have proudly not needed my parents. I didn’t need them when my 7 year relationship ended, I didn’t need them when I was raped, I didn’t need them when I got married, and I didn’t need them when I had a miscarriage.
That was until depression hit me. Pretending to be strong and independent was no longer an option, and I could no longer ignore that I couldn’t do this on my own.
“I have been flooded with memories of my childhood lately,” I told her. “I’ve been feeling angry, and devastated by the fact that my relationship with my parents is still categorized under ‘complicated.’ Lately, I’ve been wishing I could turn to a parent,” I admitted quietly.
I felt like I needed a mother. I felt like I needed my mother.
To this day, we still haven’t found our way back to each other. Instead of us against the world, it feels like her versus me.
Describing my relationship and history with my mother is complex. As a young child, I couldn’t have asked for a better mom. Of course there were plenty of decisions I wish she hadn’t made, like how often she’d put me in the middle of epic screaming matches or court battles with my father. But even with all of that, I remember my mother being an incredible nurturer. She gently tucked me in every night, made me soup when I was sick, and killed house spiders because I was scared, even though they scared her just as much as me. She was a single mom and, for a long time, it felt like it was just us two against the world. But as I entered my pre-teen years, our dynamics shifted. She became controlling and, at times, manic. I haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly what the catalyst was, but looking back, I think a lot of her unresolved trauma from her childhood bled into our relationship. We eventually ended up mirroring her broken relationship with her own mother. To this day, we still haven’t found our way back to each other. Instead of us against the world, it feels like her versus me.
My therapist continued, “Mothering yourself means meeting your emotional, physical, and spiritual needs as an adult, the way your mom might have done when you were younger.”
Her suggestion wasn’t so easy for me.
Journaling about needing a mother and about mothering myself made me realize that the feelings I felt because of my depression, the feelings that brought me into my therapist’s office — feeling abandoned, worthless, and powerless — were the same feelings I experienced many times over in my childhood. As a little girl, I often felt trapped and stranded. I was surrounded by people (parents and step parents) who prioritized their ego-based needs over the emotional and spiritual well-being of a child. I never felt seen or heard, constantly stuck in their chaos. When I turned 17, I moved out on my own, finally able to embrace what I always wanted: freedom. I would spend the next few years knowing exactly who I didn’t want to be in this world: my parents. But what I realize now, though I was completely oblivious to it then, is that the things I blamed them for, I was doing to myself. I became my own worst critic, I became fearfully controlling over my every move and thought, and I didn’t listen to myself by often betraying my intuition.
I learned to listen to the little girl inside of me and find comfort in the discomfort of her stories.
Learning to mother myself started with these realizations, and with self-forgiveness. I wrote my younger self letters, forgiving myself for being so hard on myself— for ever thinking I wasn’t good enough, or worthy of living a life without pain, or receiving love without betrayal.
In doing so, I started to learn to embrace my past — the good, the bad, and all of the invisible scars and wounds — releasing myself from my self-inflicted, debilitating shame. The letters I wrote taught me self-compassion for the little girl I once was and the woman I had become. I learned to listen to the little girl inside of me and find comfort in the discomfort of her stories, learning to be patient and honor where I was in every single moment. I allowed myself to need a mother, knowing that the little girl that’s still inside of me needed one just as much as I needed one now. I learned to hold myself when I felt scared or sad, reminding myself that I don’t always need to be so strong. That it’s okay to ask for help.
Mothering myself isn’t always perfect. Some days I feel like I’m failing, other days feel triumphant. I’m still learning. I’m working to love myself unconditionally, to be the mother I wanted when I was a teenager and the mother I needed when I was depressed, and to celebrate every single part of me. I’m learning that I’m not broken and I am, and have always been, worthy of love.
photography by Britney Gill