Looking for the Mother and Finding Myself


For many years afterward I made light of it, in a tale that would always trump everyone else’s horror story from adolescence. “You think that’s bad? My mother!”—and I would pause here for drama—“tried to have me committed to a mental institution.” Then I would laugh.

And it was true. Only it wasn’t funny. It was the mother-daughter struggle taken to the nth degree; two Taureans with their horns locked, me at seventeen and my mother ossified at an emotional age not much beyond, in psychological hand-to-hand combat. Until my mother, administrative and cool and at her most professionally poised, pulled the ace out of the sleeve of her school nurse’s uniform and arranged to have me spend a large part of my senior year of high school on a psychiatric ward.

It was the mother-daughter struggle taken to the nth degree; two Taureans with their horns locked, me at seventeen and my mother ossified at an emotional age not much beyond.

Sullen and chain smoking, I watched the gloomy gray northern Indiana winter turn to spring through windows embedded with chicken wire. As my peers planned Skip Day and the senior prom, I was locked up and watched. I filled in thousands of ovals, examined ink blots, and was awakened from REM sleep to have strobe lights flashed in my face, test after test. By the time they were through with me, the medical record was enormous. The single sheet that summed up my sanity was diminutive: “. . . tested normal . . . no reason for her to remain here” it said, and I was released. I had—I guessed—won.

At the court hearing that followed, a hint of alarm seeped from behind my mother’s normal icy composure, like a frozen creek in which you can still see some plants and sleeping fish moving in the deepest part, far beneath the ice; part of her knew she had gone too far. “We just wanted to help you,” she said nervously in the royal singular. That kind of help, I determined grimly, and with youthful melodrama, could be lethal. That kind of help almost ruined my life before it even had a chance to begin!

I spent the next twelve years putting as much space between myself and my mother as possible. A state—Wisconsin—to start with. Then oceans. Then continents, hemispheres, the international date line. When my mother was scraping ice off her windshield, I was wilting in a sundress. When my mother was eating lunch, I was fast asleep. I lived in places without mail service or telephones; some of them didn’t even show up on maps. My friends spoke languages that my mother didn’t understand. For an entire year, I lived in a garrisoned fort on the edge of Afghanistan. She would never reach me there.

But I wanted to be reached. I never stopped needing a mother. I turned to men, deifying them. I would look to them to represent both the masculine principle of wisdom and reason and the Yin, the all-encompassing compassion and love of the mother, as well.

They never failed to fail at this, and it never failed to affect me like a replay of my mother’s rejection, devastating me, making me feel as if from dust I came and to dust I had returned, except without the reprieve of dying a physical death.

Although my mother and I were separate for years, nothing healed.

Supposedly, good writers spell out their theses right away. The reason it is taking me so long to reach my main point is that in real life it took me a long time to reach the main point. I was saving this story for the day when it had some tidy resolution, which I would then publish as a short story in a glossy women’s magazine. Although my mother and I were separate for years, nothing healed. I thought people wanted to rip away the facades, the veils of illusion. I thought after a period of time, after some years had elapsed and the turbulent emotions of our mother/adolescent daughter relationship had calmed, after we hadn’t lived in the same house together for awhile and we had had some time to get some distance and detachment on things, my mother and I would talk things over. We would explain our true feelings, who we were and why we did what we did at the time. We would try to understand each other and accept each other. Maybe we would see a counselor together and do some deep therapeutic work. We would both be healed, the karmic see-saw balanced, and our mother/daughter relationship would be stronger as a result. But, to my surprise, this did not happen.

My mother met such attempts with blizzards of vitriol and a glacial wall of denial. I felt I had done more harm than good, that I had set things back 12 years. I retreated back across a continent, bewildered and despairing. What was the point of hurt and confusion, if it wasn’t reconciliation?

In great anguish I finally turned inward for the answers. I began to meditate. Instead of jabbering off prayers, I began to understand prayer as a dialogue in which I needed to give the Listener a chance to answer. A Master soon found me, and I found Paramahansa Yogananda far better equipped than any human parent to serve as both Mother and Father. The lesson was a simple and profound version of what all earthly maya eventually teaches: humans, even parents, are not God. It is not fair to expect them to be, and as long as we do they will fail to measure up to that which we are really seeking, the Divine.

“So where is the Mother?” began a whisper in my consciousness, threading its way softly, persistently, like one of those subliminal suggestion tapes, taking the place of japa, as I came to grips with the fact that my mother and I were never going to have some cozy, Norman-Rockwell-painting relationship.

If it wasn’t her, then who was it? Or what was it? “Where is the Mother?” I wondered, looking everywhere—searching among the blouses at a department store, peering into the soup as I stirred it. “Where is the Mother?” I beseeched with longing in my prayers. “Where is the Mother?” I asked at the end of meditation instead of reciting healing affirmations. “WHERE IS THE MOTHER?!” I demanded of Yogananda’s photograph. “Where is the Mother?” I asked the flowers in a neighbor’s garden. And they began to answer. The Mother began to show herself.

“Where is the Mother?” I asked at the end of meditation instead of reciting healing affirmations.

The Mother reaches out to encompass me in the broad, sweeping arms of the cherry tree at the Japanese Garden. She towers in the strong, solid and loving Denali, whose ramparts spread to form a lap. She sings to me in chants that slip through a crack in my heart. She is dressed in the finery of roses, and She is the sustenance in the soup I am stirring. I see Her in the photographs of Yogananda in which he looks more like a woman than a man. She is easy to recognize in Mary and Mother Meera and Anandamayi Ma, and all the female avatars and saints. I meet her in relationships with humans—male and female—who show me tenderness and compassion, who allow me to be a daughter and to love and trust them. She is even appearing in me, as I drop the armored veil of anger and hurt and allow all that is feminine and maternal, infinitely loving and caring, to rise up and embrace the entire world—including my own mother.

About the Teacher

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Jean Wenzel
Jean Wenzel lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. Read more