(Re)Learning to Mother Ourselves

1024px-Mother-Child_face_to_faceRecently I have been taking psychosynthesis lessons from my 3-1/2 year old neighbor Martina (not her real name). She is an only child without many friends who has been wandering over to my garden whenever I happen to be planting or hoeing in the late afternoon. At first she showed up in her electrical jeep, zig-zagging down the country road from her grandparents’ house, alternatively jerking to a halt and zooming full speed ahead, her three dogs chasing after her.

Martina is highly intelligent, strong-willed and precocious. She is an organizer and often explains to me where plants should be placed and what vases and flowers I need to buy and where they belong in the garden. She is also a great storyteller. In true Italian style, her entire body moves while she talks, her hands fly around with precision, and her facial gestures rise and fall with the tone of her voice.

She is also has a sense of humor. When I tell her I must go because I need to make supper for my husband, she responds, “Yes, because otherwise what would he eat? Grass like the cows?” and then laughs heartedly at her own cleverness.

A Triad of Love

Lately Martina has been leaving her jeep behind to arrive on foot as she pushes her doll “Alice” in a stroller. Once they are within shouting distance, I instantly become la Nonna (the grandmother), Martina becomes the mother and Alice the child.

Within a short time, my “granddaughter” Alice is besieged with traumatic events. It seems like every other minute I must stop hoeing to witness the next catastrophe. Alice is crying and wants her Nonna. Alice is vomiting and la Nonna must hold her over the imaginary toilet. Alice is thirsty, hungry, and crying again. Alice has booped and I must see the mess that she made and direct her mother to where she might toss the dirty diaper.

girl pushing strollerAfter a few days of this, I was beginning to dread Alice’s appearance. I inwardly groaned whenever I saw Martina running behind the pink plastic stroller towards the garden and heard her shouting “Nonna!” Oh no! Not that stupid doll again! Alice and her continual crises were not my only distractions. Both Martina and Alice have their own (toy) cellphones that seemed to ring off the hook. Sometimes it’s the doctor calling, other times it’s simply a wrong number. Often we need to check in with Alessio (Martina’s “husband”) to see if he wants prosciutto crudo or cotto (raw or cooked ham) on his pizza.

But my dread and ignorance was soon awakened. One day when passing the neighbor’s house, I met Martina outside, who immediately exclaimed with bubbly excitement, “I will get Alice!” To my wonder, so much light and joy were shining in Martina’s eyes that I instantly understood that Alice was really a symbol of her own little soul. Reappearing with Alice, Martina only confirmed this fact by saying, “Here is l’amore di Mama (Here’s Mother’s Love). Isn’t Alice l’amore di Nonna too? (Isn’t Alice Grandmother’s Love too?)”

External Unifying Center

1. Conscious self or “I” (Alice) 2. External Unifying Center (Nonna) 3. Higher Self. (derived from Assagioli, 2000, pp. 23-27)

After this revelation, I also understood that through Alice, Martina was learning how to mother herself. In psychosynthesis terms, she was using the doll and my presence to help form her authentic personality. The doll represented her true self (her “I”). This was clear by the shining light in Martina’s eyes when she thought about Alice. And I, as la Nonna, was acting as what is called the external unifying center. My relationship with Alice (as la Nonna) was a mirror for Martina to learn how she, as an authentic being (“I”) could be in relationship with the Higher Self. By learning how to connect to her Higher Self, Martina was also learning how to connect to others in Love.

Let’s look at an example. Once I caught Martina hitting Alice and calling her a bad girl. “Are you crazy? Are you?” she kept berating the forever-smiling doll. I explained quietly that I didn’t like how she was treating Alice, that Alice was too little to know better, and besides we should never hit anyone smaller than ourselves. When my back was turned, Martina surreptitiously berated Alice again. But (thank God!) I am still smarter than most 3-1/2 year-olds and repeated my earlier statements. To date, Martina has not hit Alice. I can only hope that that my outer voice has become her inner one and Martina has learned not to berate herself.

How Children are Wounded

Ideally, during our childhood, we will have “ideal models” who are empathetic enough to mirror our I-Self connection, helping us to learn to connect and experience our own inner unifying center. This mirroring, for the most part, is done by our mothers (or primary caregivers). But unfortunately, most of us as children have never learned from our parents how to connect to the Higher Self. How to nurture the imagination or creativity in our souls.

During my lifetime, I have painfully watched children being pushed, emotionally harassed, and sometimes beaten into being good girls and boys, accepted only on condition that they behave well. Like Alice, they are told they are bad or crazy, and then physically struck by parents who are much bigger, as big as giants in the eyes of the child.

This was indeed Martina’s case. On a number of occasions, I had heard her own grandmother ask if she wasn’t crazy. While sipping coffee in their kitchen, I despondently witnessed the giant adults tell Martina that she was stupid and bad, unable to do anything right. “If you don’t listen and behave,” her grandmother threatened her to my dismay, “Catherine won’t love you anymore.”

“Oh no,” I insisted. “I will always love Martina, no matter what.”


Jane Goodall (2015)

Jane Goodall (age 83), the famous British primatologist and UN Messenger of Peace, was asked by by Bill Moyers in an interview:

“Where in the long journey [of evolution]  do you think empathy comes from?”

She replied:

“It’s the bond between mother and child … for us and for chimps and other primates.  The root of empathy is in all the expressions of social behavior that you can see mirrored in the mother-child relationship.”

How Adults Can Heal the Inner Child

stanne maria jesus

Not unlike Martina’s doll and nonna, an icon of St. Anne, Mary and Jesus can also be used as a symbol for our inner healing.

Our mothers and fathers perhaps did their best to clothe and feed and care for our physical needs. But they still remained unable to cope with or understand the deeper spiritual longings of their children, the need to feel protected and initiated by someone soulful and wise. Someone like a grandmother who might teach us how to nurture our creativity and cherish our souls.

But we, as broken adults, can be redeemed and synthesized whole. The road is not an easy one. It requires humility, desire, devotion, and grace. As adults it is our responsibility to probe our own lives to discover the truth that lies behind the choices we are making. Nearly all our present day anxieties, problems, and confusion are a direct result of childhood trauma that we have yet to mourn.

Once we understand the fear, loneliness, anger, feelings of inadequacy, or other negative images that we inherited from our parents, only then can we move forward and become free to be who we really are. But insight is only the first step in this most difficult journey. Next we must surrender ourselves to all the old emotions that we have carried for so long, finally allowing ourselves to feel and release them. And then, we must be prepared to receive renewed life, positive change, and all the opportunities full of grace that suddenly present themselves for us to simply accept with gratitude.

This is not a path one can take alone. One cannot understand his or her true essence without first looking within and then finding a mirror, another soul who can listen with compassion and without judgment and then reflect the knowledge back to its source.

In her small wise way, Martina instinctively knows all this. That’s why her eyes light up when she runs to retrieve Alice. That’s why she runs over to la Nonna in the garden, pushing Alice in the stroller in front of her. That’s why Alice is l’amore di Mama, l’amore di Nonna.

References and Further Reading

Assagioli, Roberto (2000), Psychosynthesis, A Collection of Basic Writings, The Synthesis Center, Inc., Amherst, Massachusetts

Firman, John and Ann Gila (1997). The Primal Wound. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Firman, John and Ann Gila (2002). Psychosynthesis: A Psychology of the Spirit. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Miller, Alice (1987). The Drama of Being a Child. London: Virago Press.


3 thoughts on “(Re)Learning to Mother Ourselves

  1. Isabelle Kūng (Bagdasarianz, Faillettaz)

    You approach this delicate issue in a both poetical and matter of fact manner… It certainly helps get over the feeling this little girl is going through a tough time…. Is Alessio the grand father? The icon you chose, beautifully represents the harmonious relation between the inner symbols of self at various degrees of authority: the Self as the Nonna Anna, the intermediate self as mother Mary and the “newborn” herself as represented by Jesus. A picture that may indeed promote keeping the inner connection active.
    However the real nonna’s perverse words to discredit you in the eyes of the child while at the same time instilling doubt as to your “Nonna’s symbol of Alice/Martina’s Soul’s unconditional love” (Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said that it suffices that a child experiences this unconditional love once, for it to somehow, somwhere feel it exists and is stronger than the vissicitudes of some lifes) is an evidence of her jealousy (to say the least).
    Be what may, life teaches us to do what we are best able to do: give this child a trustworthy image of an adult that won’t abuse her, and in some cases we cannot do more, no matter how much pain it may cause us to feel not to do more. It means that instead of pity, we must/can develop pure compassion…. That is pray that the soul of those whose pain we feel will indeed manage the situation adequately…. Trust the soul enough to be certain of “the ultimate triumph of good”. This active trust exercise is also good to heal our own pain.
    You are such a good writer! Thank you for this article.


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