Nikki Gemmell started writing After, the day she found out that her mother had ended her own life.
Many of the reviews focus on the obvious topics of death and dying – but for me, this book was more about the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship , early childhood emotional neglect, emotional abuse and trauma, and the struggle to separate and individuate from early childhood wounding.
Working with women in therapy, and with a wide range of concerns, exploring and healing the mother-daughter relationship is always part of our work together. Narcissistic wounding is often at the core. By this I mean, the daughter is not seen in her own light and her emotional, psychological and spiritual needs were not met, often because the mother’s needs were also not met.
Nikki Gemmell does a wonderful job of writing about these issues and I love that she has found a creative space to ‘see’ herself. It takes guts, authenticity, vulnerability and courage to write a book like this!
This memoir is a must for anyone interested in delving deeper into the psyche of the mother-daughter relationship.
If you would like to know more, grab a copy of After and watch Nikki on Australian Story.
Sydney Soul-Centred Psychotherapist + Eating Psychology Specialist, Jodie Gale, is a leading specialist in women’s emotional, psychological and spiritual health and well-being.
I was recently interviewed by the Chief Sub-Editor of CLEO & DOLLY, Ellie McDonald, for her article Family Feud in the March issue of CLEO Australia (on sale now). Here you can find an edited and updated version of our discussion:
About the importance of a strong mother-daughter relationship and why the daughter needs this as she reaches adulthood…
To achieve and maintain healthy relationships with self and others, we need to have internalised an accepting, unconditionally loving, nurturing and nourishing mother so that we can relate from, and care for ourselves in this way. If we haven’t for whatever reason internalised a nurturing mother, we can get caught in a cycle of searching outside ourselves for others to meet our needs and to affirm our worth in the world.
For most, our relationship with mother is often our first and primary attachment relationship – it is the barometer for all of our future relationships with self, family, friends, colleagues, partners and our children. We are born into her world and this helps shape:
If mother has awareness and has worked at resolving her own identity issues, it is far easier for her to foster the daughter’s separation, autonomy and sense of self. A strong sense of self-identity is essential as we move into young adulthood.
About the negative effects of a strained mother-daughter relationship for a young woman in her twenties…
We know that strains in the relationship with mother throughout childhood and beyond are major contributing factors to our physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual health and wellbeing. Symptoms may include addiction, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, poor relationships, a lack of self-worth as well as numerous other concerns (Reference: Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes the Baby’s Brain)
Some of the negative effects that we may experience are:
As a psychotherapist for the last 15 years and a leading specialist in women’s emotional, psychological and spiritual health and well-being, I have witnessed the journey of many young women who enter therapy because of symptoms such as eating disorders or relationship problems. Of course we work on symptom relief but a huge chunk of the therapy is actually spent separating psychologically from mother (and father as well as other internalized imagoes). This can be long-term and painful work as the daughter begins to wonder, ‘who am I, if I am not my mother?’, ‘who am I if I am not who my mother told me I am?’
It is grief work because it means letting go of the false identities we have been living out of as well as coming to the realisation that we cannot change mother into the mother we long for. It means accepting mother as she is. It means growing up and (re) mothering ourselves in a loving and nurturing way. In Jungian psychology, it means getting in touch with – and owning – our feminine aspects of the soul/psyche.
About how common the breakdown of a mother-daughter relationship is…
Many women have an extremely complex relationship with mother. It is not uncommon however, for the relationship to breakdown, heal and transform overtime.
About some of the reasons why this may have happened…
The most problematic mother-daughter relationships are for those who grow up with a mother who suffers with narcissistic wounding and who therefore parents with narcissistic tendencies.
If the mother has herself not been seen or heard and her own dependency, safety, love, worth, self-actualisation/realisation needs have not been met, she might:
In the few examples given above, it is more about the mother’s needs than the daughter’s – this can be highly toxic to the daughter’s sense of self. Child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott writes,
“The mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazes at her mother’s face and finds herself therein…provided that the mother is really looking at the unique, small, helpless being and not projecting her own expectations, fears, and plans for the child. In that case, the child would find not herself in her mother’s face, but rather the mother’s own projections. This child would remain without a mirror, and for the rest of her life would be seeking this mirror in vain.”
We all long for our mother to meet us emotionally, but the mother who suffers with narcissism is incapable of doing so. We learn at an early age, adaptive and creative ways of getting our needs met; though pleasing, rebelling, academic achievements, becoming the sick child and so on. These patterns of being and behaviour often follow through into adulthood.
About how to heal from a difficult mother-daughter relationship…
The Mother/Daughter Relationship:
For Daughter (and therefore Mother!):
NB: it is important that we don’t get caught in blaming or demonizing mothers; there are just as many complexities within father/daughter relationships. Notice that I don’t use the term ‘narcissistic mother’ – the reason for this is because at the core, mother is a human being, whole and unbroken – she herself has more than likely suffered with narcissistic wounding. The ‘narcissistic mother’ is only part of who she is. In saying all this, as mothers, we do need to recognise the profound impact that our wounding and parenting style have on our daughter’s sense of self and her ongoing relational, emotional, psychological, social, and spiritual health and well-being.
Sydney Soul-Centred Psychotherapist + Eating Psychology Coach, Jodie Gale, is a leading specialist in women’s emotional, psychological and spiritual health and well-being. She spent time in the South of France training in mother-daughter relationships from an Indigenous, Jungian and Psycho-Spiritual perspective. Over the last 15 years, Jodie has helped 100s of women to transform their lives. She has a private counselling, life-coaching and psychotherapy practice in Manly and Allambie Heights on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. Jodie is passionate about putting the soul back into therapy!
The transition from daughter through maiden, lover to mother can be overwhelming for many new mothers – myself included!
Regardless of how well we know ourselves and how much of our own ‘stuff’ we have worked through, entering motherhood can stir up a whole lot more: sleep deprivation and exhaustion, post-infertility, post-natal or post-adoption depression and anxiety, fear of not being a good enough mother, parenting like our own parents even though we swore we never would, comparison with other mums, fears about our children’s development, getting caught in keeping up with the Jones’, lack of ‘me’ time and a complete change of lifestyle. These are just a handful of the concerns that come to mind.
Here are some books that I use with clients in therapy and that I have personally found useful as I journeyed towards motherhood, as a new mum and adoptive mother of two toddlers.
By Nancy Friday
‘The greatest gift a mother can give remains unquestioning love planted deep in the first year of life, so deep that the tiny child grown to womanhood is never held back by the fear of losing that love, no matter what her own choice in love, sexuality, or work may be (Goodreads).’
My Mother My Self, is an oldie but a goodie. This classic women’s psychology book is a great read for any woman who has had a difficult relationship with her own mother or for those struggling to separate and individuate from mother. It provides a deeper understanding of mother-daughter relationships, acceptance of mother, how to let go of searching for the perfect mother and why we so often become our own mother. Ultimately, this book teaches us how to heal and love who we are.
By John Bradshaw
‘We first see the world through the eyes of a little child, and that “inner child” remains with us throughout our lives, no matter how outwardly “grown-up” and powerful we become. If our vulnerable child was hurt, abandoned, shamed, or neglected, that child’s pain, grief, and anger live on within us. Bradshaw believes that ‘this neglected, wounded inner child of the past is the major source of human misery (John Bradshaw).’
Homecoming is a valuable tool for healing the child within and revealing the true self; the part of us that may have had to go into hiding due to growing up in an addicted or physically, emotionally, psychologically or spiritually absent, abusive or neglectful home environment. Growing up in such circumstances can often result in a sense of low self-worth and feeling ‘not good enough’. When it comes to parenting our own children, regardless of good intentions to do it differently, unless made conscious, these dynamics can result in unfavourable consequences for our own children. This book helps us to build a strong sense of self, a deeper level of intimacy and connection and tools for dealing with concerns such as relationships, parenting issues, addiction, anxiety and depression. John Bradshaw’s work, like many others within the psychotherapy field, is now being validated through extensive attachment research and neuroscience.
By Helena Lovendal and Nick Duffell
Everyday issues related to parenting can take the spark out of even the healthiest of relationships. In Sex, Love & the Dangers of Intimacy, Psychosynthesis couples’ psychotherapists Helena Lovendal and Nick Duffell, write about relationships as a spiritual path (me, you and the spirit of the relationship). They suggest that many couples feel that conflict is the sign of a problem arising in a relationship. However, they teach us a way of appreciating conflict as a means for reaching a deeper level of intimacy, how to transform potentially difficult situations into opportunities, self-knowledge and a more authentic partnership.
By Stephanie Sorrell
Depression as a Spiritual Journey offers a holistic model, as opposed to the medical approach which currently dominates the field of depression. Sorrell, a sufferer herself, takes a well balanced view and writes poetically about suffering and depression as a ‘Dark Night of the Soul’. She shows us that it is possible to find value, meaning and purpose out of our depressive symptoms and suffering. This book is great for anyone who has suffered with depression, including depression brought about through infertility, post natal or post adoption depression.
By Daniel Hughes
‘Attachment security and affect regulation have long been buzzwords in therapy circles but many of these ideas—so integral to successful therapeutic work with kids and adolescents—have yet to be effectively translated to parenting practice itself. Moreover, as neuroscience reveals how the human brain is designed to work in good relationships, and how such relationships are central to healthy human development, the practical implications for the parent-child attachment relationship become even more apparent (Google Books).’
At the heart of our relational, emotional, psychological and spiritual health and well-being, is our ability to form secure, healthy and balanced attachment relationships. Attachment Focused Parenting is a must for any parent. By focusing on the attachment relationship first and foremost, it will help to deepen the parent-child bond, which in turn, helps to alleviate and manage behavioural issues in a healthier way. This book is essential reading for foster and adoptive parents.
By Caroline Archer
First Steps in Parenting the Child Who Hurts is a valuable resource for foster and adoptive mothers. It offers sensitive and practical guidance through the process of separation, loss and trauma in early childhood. Caroline Archer is an adoptive parent so she speaks from experience. This book provides good, practical advice and encouragement for foster or adoptive parents. It explores issues such as bringing the child home, childhood development, what to do when things don’t appear right, the effects of trauma on the child and how to handle these difficulties.
By Sue Gerhardt
‘Gerhardt, has bravely gone where most in recent years have feared to tread. She takes the hard language of neuroscience and uses it to prove the soft stuff of attachment theory. Picking up your crying baby or ignoring it may be a matter of parental choice, but the effects will be etched on your baby’s brain for years to come. Putting your one-year-old in a nursery or leaving them with a child minder may turn out to be a more momentous decision than you thought (Rebecca Adams, Guardian Book Review).’
Sue Gerhardt is a psychotherapist in private practice; she is a leading specialist in mothers and babies. Why Love Matters is evidence based and provides an eye opening view of the baby’s brain, psyche and how these develop in relation to separation, bonding and attachment. Gerhardt links early childhood attachment and development with childhood and adult issues such as anxiety, depression, addictions and so forth. This book is a valuable resource for making conscious choices regarding the care and well-being of our children.
Read more about Why Love Matters.
By Sarah Napthali
Buddhism for Mothers: A Calm Approach to Caring for Yourself and Your Children is the perfect read for practising self-care and learning to parent in a calm and peaceful way. Napthali applies Buddhist teachings such as mindfulness, presence, acceptance and compassion to the everyday challenges and stresses of raising children. Rather than focusing on the child’s behaviour, this book focuses on the inner self of the mother.
What to Expect: The Toddler Years is a valuable, practical, lifesaving resource. The format is easy for dipping in and out of the content list. What To Expect covers hundreds of pointers on self-esteem, emotional, physical, psychological and social development, discipline, eccentric behaviours and making time for self-care.
By Margery Williams & By Toni Raiten-D’Antonio
This delightful gift box is a wonderful resource for mother and child, a great baby shower or Mother’s Day gift and a valuable tool for inner work.
‘Margery Williams’ classic The Velveteen Rabbit tells the story of a stuffed rabbit who finds himself looked down on by the other toys. With the help of the Skin Horse, he learns that real is not about how you are made, but your relationship with others. The Velveteen Rabbit’s journey from loneliness to love has inspired generations of children and adults.’ (Amazon).
‘The Velveteen Principles is fast becoming a classic of its own. This comforting, inspiring book draws twelve lessons from Margery Williams’s story to show how each of us can become more Real about our values, our goals, our loves and our lives. And most importantly in a world that is often superficial and stressful, its simple wisdom points the way to rediscovering our own true selves.’ (Amazon).
Abrams, Rebecca, 2004, Minding the baby, Retrieved from The Guardian Online
Jodie Gale is a leading specialist in women’s emotional, psychological and spiritual health and well-being. She is a therapeutic counsellor, life-coach and psychotherapist practising in Manly and Allambie Heights on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, Australia. Jodie is also the adoptive mother of two toddlers.