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Note: This guide is meant for an adult audience.
Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all storytellers. Our stories can be as simple as "the time I locked my keys in the car," or "the fish that got away." Or they can be complex and difficult to relate stories less for relating an experience than for preserving that experience in a manageable form. The storytellers in Kim Chernin's The Woman Who Gave Birth to Her Mother are preserving the experiences of growing up with their mothers. Some tell their stories reluctantly; some in what seems like a single breath. One woman's story changes each time she tells it; another's offers a startling, hidden revelation. For each of these women, the process of telling a story is an opportunity to work through paralyzing pain, fear, loss or anger so that she can move on with her life. It is this transformation, and the ability to achieve it, that Chernin brings to light in this moving book.
Chernin's book offers two primary messages. One is the idea that through telling stories or by objectifying certain events in our lives, we can create an emotional distance between ourselves and those events. This distance allows us the freedom to explore those events less painfully and even to be healed through the telling of them. As a writer, Chernin reaches for the same technique she employs in her clinical practice, in which she is ethically (and legally) required to maintain confidentiality between herself and her client. By disguising the women in her stories Chernin is able not only to protect their identities, but also, perhaps, to more effectively explore the importance of the stories themselves.
The other message is illustrated by a metaphor the act of giving birth that offers images of renewal and possibility, of creation and survival. By giving birth to her mother, a woman can re-create her own experience of childhood and provide herself with the kind of mothering she needs but perhaps never had. In this book, Chernin identifies a series of stages women go through in telling their "mother stories." Like most natural things, these stages do not occur linearly but cyclically. They are part of a transformative process that may take months or years to complete or it may never be completed. What Chernin shows us is that learning to identify any given stage is more important than getting through it as it is through self-awareness that we grow. As a psychoanalyst, Chernin understands that progress is more often than not the result of breaking down an idea to examine its parts, of slowing down a process to fully experience it. This takes time, patience and courage. The mother-daughter relationship is both complicated and fragile. It is also strong, and not easily changed. For women who want to start the process of that change, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Her Mother offers understanding and guidance as well as women with compelling stories of their own.
Kim Chernin is a psychoanalyst in private practice and the author of the classic volumes The Hungry Self, The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness, and In My Mother's House and My Life as a Boy, a memoir. Chernin lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
A Conversation with Kim Chernin
How did you come to start collecting the stories that make up this book?
In my experience, stories are always already there, long before the idea of a book. For instance, in this book a number of stories are from my clinical practice, but I had never recognized them. They were just the events of life and didn't present themselves as stories until I started to look for ways to illustrate a fairly abstract concept like a woman giving birth to her mother. Once I had the concept and was puzzled about how to clarify it for other people, these old clinical events, many of which I hadn't thought about in years, just started popping up in my memory, as if they'd been waiting and waiting for the opportunity to hatch themselves. Other stories came to me while I was thinking about the book. These were the most fun because, for a time there, everywhere I went women seemed to tell me stories about their mothers. And I couldn't figure out if this had always happened but I hadn't paid attention before, or whether I was marked in some mysterious way as a collector of mother stories. I do take this quite seriously that when you are working on a project materials relevant to the project start showing up, as if your concentration and interest were a magnetic force field, drawing in what they require.
What did you learn from your experiences writing this book and telling the stories of these women?
Above all, I learned that stories are, in and of themselves, a healing vessel. I think the telling of stories must be the oldest and most basic form of self-healing known to humanity. Stories are never absent from the human experience, but I think there is something very special, very powerful, about the mother story, because it dates back to the first moments of life and remains, in that sense, the original story, the oldest story ever told. I just love to watch women's faces when they are talking about their mothers. Sometimes you can see them pass through all the ages of their life as they are talking, all the traumas and struggles and reconciliations.
You state that not every mother can be taught how to mother. For those women who have had no success in improving their relationships with their mothers or whose mothers have died, what steps can they take to learn to mother themselves?
This is always an interesting enterprise and can definitely be done. It requires one to be able to view the self as multifaceted and to identify different parts of the self by name. Almost everyone knows by now that there are aspects of the self that are childlike, or rebellious, or angry, or full of need, but we rarely understand how to sit down and listen to these parts of the self without judging them, or trying to drive them away, or control and suppress them. A woman learns to mother herself by developing compassion for everything she needs and feels, including some very difficult and somber feelings. She learns to mother herself by being able to take in all this information and make decisions and choices that reflect the larger interest of the self. If you were a mother in a large family of children of different ages, the task would be the same: to know each child by name and temperament, to figure out what each needs and how these various needs are to be balanced within the family as a whole. It's just like that in working with the self, learning to mother and balance its diverse requirements. One good way to begin this work is to watch women who are good at mothering. Another way is to adopt a kitten. A woman I know was absolutely terrified that she would not know what to do when the kitten meowed or was awake or seemed to need something. She talked to friends and found that, in fact, she had a good instinct for meeting the kitten's needs and that doing so helped her to take a kinder, more compassionate view of her own. And finally, there are always books. Books on mothering, intended for mothers with children, have a lot to teach women who are learning to be mothers to themselves. They only have to appreciate that they are both parties to the dyad, at once mother and child.