There I was in chapel, with Sisters from a Religious Order, praying the Offices and as we were in Advent, we used the Memorial of the Incarnation which included the phrase: Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. It was not a prayer I learned at Bible College, nor one I’ve heard used often in Protestant circles but I was quite inspired by the thought of praying to and bestowing honour upon Mary, the mother of Jesus. What it did do for me however was to trigger a whole series of reflections that I penned in my journal and from which some thoughts are shared here in this blog.
My mother died five years ago, her death coming after a difficult last few years of her life and a fairly agonising, but thankfully relatively short period, in hospital. Couple that with the loss of my father a year later and Christmas and New Year will always now be associated not only with happy memories but also with reminders, sadly, of their deaths.
I am blessed because I had great parents. They were not perfect but they were good. True, they did go through a difficult patch during my teenage years but they grew out of that by the time I was married!, (which truth be told, was still in my teens). I look back with great affection and much thankfulness for their loving, nurturing, caring, supportive, encouraging and affirming parenting. I miss them and find tears still well up at the thought of them and now as I write. But they are tears of joy and gratitude, without trace of regret or bitterness, which I know, is a blessing that for many is rare. I miss them being there with us or at the end of the phone. I still have to check myself from buying a postcard, which was something I often did, sending them news from many of the places to which my travels took me. Their losses are still felt deeply but it was because of their good parenting that I am who I am today and able to not only cope with their absence but enjoy life as they did.
It was whilst praying one of the Hail Mary’s that I thought about my mum. One of my soul friends introduced me last year to the psychological insights of Attachment Theory, which I have found to be incredibly insightful, helpful, fascinating and disturbing all at the same time. The purpose of this blog is not to describe it in any detail, nor analyse its effectiveness, but drawing on its insights I can look back on my own relationship with my mother with a profound sense of gratitude.
I have no doubt that from the moment I was conceived there was formed an intimate bond with my mother and as a baby and infant child she constantly loved me and provided for me the care and protection I needed which nurtured within me a strong sense of emotional security. Both she and my father provided a ‘secure attachment’, in that they were always available and responsive to me, which didn’t mean that they pandered to my every need but their constant loving attentiveness enabled me to flourish as a human being. They created and consistently maintained appropriate boundaries and were clear about their power and responsibilities as parents. There is a kind of democratisation that seems to me to be going on in modern parenting. The inconsistency of rules and boundaries confuses roles and can lead to very selfish behaviour in both children and parents, creating damage, unstable power dynamics and confused identities for children.
My childhood memories are incredibly happy ones, even if they did contain those experiences of sitting in the company of adults, when I would rather have been out playing and doing my own thing. It didn’t however do me any harm when we visited my parents’ friends. On the contrary, it taught me some valuable life skills, not least that the world did not revolve around me. Something I fear some parents do, albeit well-intentioned, with their children. I fear they will reap what they have sown, i.e. spoilt kids often leading to selfish adults and when they can’t get what they want, problems occur. Or when parents, at Christmas time especially, think that loving your children is about spoiling them with presents, we have not only forgotten what the Christmas story is all about, i.e. giving not getting but we can raise expectations and contribute to the consumer culture’s obsession with the accumulation of goods. The best things in life are usually free and every parent has the potential to give them; love, security, encouragement, protection and care.
It is said people with ‘secure attachments’ and good child / parent relationships invariably have higher self-esteem, sense of identity, enjoy better relationships with their parents, peers, partner and other adults. They are less aggressive, less prone to depression and more likely to succeed and achieve things. Gosh, and I thought all these things were down to my own making, Myers Briggs type indicator, Motivations personality type, my faith even, but Attachment Theory suggests it was more to do with my mum! You see what I mean about it being both fascinating and disturbing at the same time? Its analysis is perceptive, challenging and if understood, whatever our experience has been, can lead to some measure of healing and a coping or overcoming of those things that undermine our self-esteem.
One thing it has done for me is to heighten my appreciation to God for the mother I was privileged to have.
So when I am next praying the Hail Mary, I will thank God for the mother of our Lord, the God-bearer, who literally in carrying Jesus in her womb, was full of grace. I will also give thanks to God for my own mother, who bore me, nurtured me and with whom I formed an attachment, the good legacy of which, I enjoy to this day, even though she has died.
I remember, with some excitement and trepidation the day I started school. Sitting in the child seat on her bike, it felt like any other day but this was to be different. In the playground of Park Infant School, Whitley Bay, my mum walked me towards a line of children and another adult, whom I later discovered was to be my form teacher. Mum had held my hand many times in those formative years and here she let go and I took the hand of Mrs Chatterley, (she was pleasant but she was no Lady and you certainly wouldn’t have taken her as your lover!). Looking back on the incident in the playground on my first day at school, I now realise that whilst mum let go of my hand she never let go of me in her heart and that is what enabled me to flourish and grow from the cradle to the grave. Of course it’s another example of Attachment Theory; if we are insecurely attached as children we either go too easily with other adults or we will be fearful of going with them.. Good secure attachment helps us in the whole realm of relationships with ourselves, others and God.
As the writer to Proverbs says of a good mother; … her children rise up and call her blessed. Proverbs 31:28.
Thank you Roy – I too give thanks for good parents. I’m particularly encouraged by your comment about the ‘democratisation’ of parenting these days as I wondered if I was just being grumpy about it. It seems to me that not only do parents run themselves ragged but children are being asked to make too many decisions for themselves at too young an age, when we’re told that one of the greatest stresses these days is too much choice. I’ve been thinking about my parents a lot in recent weeks and looking forward to seeing my brother and sister after Christmas, when we will no doubt recall their good qualities and some of their amusing quirks!
Thank you Roy. It is always a delight to see people recognise the insights of those who guide the psychotherapeutic world, and integrate them within the theological framework. I am delighted you will be speaking at Continuing the Journey next year – a place where this exploration and integration is welcomed and shared. As a psychotherapist often working with church leaders I see how attachment patterns show themselves in leadership and in church life – and are sometimes one of the unconscious motivators behind a desire to lead within church life…… just as much as it can be a motivator for those who want to be therapists too.! There is much I would love to engage in conversation with you about this, but most of the content cannot be expressed in a public internet forum. I read with delight of your relationship with your parents – with a huge hint of personal longing. I thank God for the security they gave you – and the healing made available to me through prayer and psychotherapy, and some wonderful soul friends!
I have really enjoyed reading your blogs and Christmas update.
Thanks for sharing,