Magic! Mystery! Enchantment! Fairytales liberally provided these delights when I was a young girl, the stories cozy and enveloping like the fluffy towels my mother wrapped around me following a warm bath. As time passed and I began reading the tales to my younger cousin, they took on deeper meaning. I celebrated Cinderella’s come-from-behind underdog victory. I was intrigued by the antics of Anansi, the spider and trickster from West Africa who reminded me to employ wit and maintain a spirit of creativity. My porcine friends—with homes constructed from a variety of dubious materials—served as a cautionary tale about the importance of a strong foundation, for friendship, for life. And I was utterly haunted by the troll under the bridge and what he symbolized. Greed? An inner voice who tells us to stay in our lane and keeps us from reaching for the stars?
In Motherhood: Facing & Finding Yourself, Lisa Marchiano, a clinical social worker and psychoanalyst, offers readers the chance to revisit the realm of otherworldly beings, spells and curses, defeats, triumphs, and the unexplained. Applying the theories of seminal psychologist Carl Jung, she explores prevalent, universal themes and patterns of motherhood. By unpacking tales under this lens, she extends the meaning and mores of these stories to the journey of motherhood. Through her analysis, Marchiano effectively recasts and reclaims Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey into that of the heroine, placing mothers and the unique interiority of their experience at the center. As the title suggests, this perspective sets Motherhood apart from other parenting books by focusing specifically on the inner struggles and yearnings of mothers.
In her exploration of motherhood as an inner voyage, Marchiano relies heavily on the metaphor of the well, likening the maternal role to a deep journey offering a rich foundation for the wisdom that can spring forth. Being “thrown down the well,” she writes, “…involve[s] multiple losses, including the loss of freedoms, the loss of control, and even the loss of yourself.” As we find our way back, we “allow ourselves to become life’s fertile field, nourishing whatever seeks to be born through us in the world.” The experience is characterized as one with three parts: the descent, the sojourn, and the return. Motherhood, Marchiano asserts, has the potential to take us down into the depths and return us to the surface, armed with insight. If we boldly face our apprehension and self-doubt with self-compassion, what we will gain is the wherewithal to rise to the occasion and reap the riches of individuation, fully becoming who we are meant to be. Failing to do this risks a missed opportunity, resulting in the misfortune of being closed off from our authentic selves.
Motherhood is rife with ancient tales hailing from around the globe, some of which are lesser known yet rich with symbolism. Through the Algonquin legend “Glooscap and the Baby,” Marchiano explores the shift in values, priorities, and skill sets often prompted by parenting. “Princess Moonbeam,” a story with Japanese origins, majestically illustrates the truths stated in Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Children”: “Your children are not your children… / They come through you but not from you / And though they are with you…they belong not to you.” And the Norwegian tale “Tatterhood,” with its queen, her twins, and an assorted cast of characters, shows how we can develop our own authenticity in the context of motherhood, eschewing oppressive societal conditioning that may have suppressed our true nature.
With nimble, adroit storytelling, Marchiano ultimately returns readers to a sense of childlike wonder—”beginner’s mind”—as she dissects these timeless stories and offers them for review. For example, she takes “Little Brier Rose,” more widely known as “Sleeping Beauty,” and examines the symbolism existent in the images of the fairy who issues the curse, the spindle, the resulting deep sleep, and the arrival of the prince. Marchiano often references universal archetypes such as the witch and the sage elder or ancient feminine, whose wisdom mothers can excavate from within themselves as they navigate the joys and challenges of parenting. The old woman encountered by the title character in “The Handless Maiden,” for instance, represents the instinctive knowledge that allows us to stand in our own authority.
Viewing mythic tales under this lens inevitably reminds us of the tremendous power of story. Motherhood throws open that window, allowing readers to see parallels between the characters in fairy tales and the contemporary situations we all face, whether they be childhood wounds, insecurities, or an inability to stand up for oneself. Marchiano’s inspection of the classic “Rumpelstiltskin” and the quest to learn his name reveals lessons regarding the drive to pursue creative passions within the demands of motherhood, despite the lingering wounds of childhood. “Naming a problem has the effect of pinning it down and defining it, thereby rendering it easier to address.”
Marchiano rounds out this deep dive into story with pertinent references to literature and film. In her discussion of the unpleasant, off-putting aspects of ourselves that often go unacknowledged, she mentions the character Beth Jarrett—played by Mary Tyler Moore—in Ordinary People. “Beth’s depression and despair are in the shadow because they are not socially acceptable. . . [and] she can barely stand to be around her son because he is everything she doesn’t want to be.” Beth’s over-identification with her outward persona forms the basis for an unwillingness to bare her emotions in a healthy way, thus limiting intimacy. “When we project our shadow material onto our children without becoming conscious that we are doing so, it can poison their lives.” Accepting those undesirable parts of ourselves with compassion and understanding, however, affords a chance for growth. As we “accept our flawed self. . . we are more likely to be caring and accepting of those we love as well.”
Motherhood additionally includes insightful anecdotes—used with permission or rendered in composite form—about the struggles of Marchiano’s clients. She discusses Monica, a mother whose attempts to protect her daughter Lily from challenges and difficulty at every turn backfired and resulted in a distanced relationship between the two. Although the desire to shield children from what we perceive as a dangerous world is understandable, Marchiano maintains that “when we cling too tightly to our children, we hinder our growth as well as theirs. Our fear for the future, our grasping at the present even as it quickly fades. . . keeps us stuck.” By gradually embracing change and letting go of a need to control our own lives and those of our children, she writes, “we can awaken to the new possibilities and pleasures offered by the next stage of our lives.”
Dreams are also highly relevant to this inquiry, and Marchiano recounts dreams of her own as well as those of others, again illuminating patterns and symbols that are dense with meaning and often involve a call to action. She tells of an author whose dream involved a graduation ceremony. While the other candidate simply needed to step forward to receive a diploma, the mother had to first climb over a huge pile of laundry. To Marchiano, this represents the importance of remaining in tune with the everyday, mundane moments of parenting while simultaneously undergoing the spiritual journey it provides. A wise awareness of the eternal, the big picture, and the passage of time “must be grounded in the imperfect, ordinary existence if it is to be more than a beautiful defense against our very human vulnerability.”
Although the theories Marchiano sets forth are deeply instructive, Motherhood doesn’t read as a lecture, but rather as an invitation to engage. Marchiano explicitly invites a conversation with the text through reflective questions at the conclusion of each chapter, inquiries that prompt “aha” moments as applicable patterns come to light. Through this interactive examination, mothers can consciously transform relationships with their children and themselves, realizing the gifts that come with the expedition:
Motherhood is a dizzying high-wire act, a masquerade, and a communion with mortality. It is a falling from and finding of grace, a falling in and out of love, and heartache by the hour. Motherhood is the ultimate confrontation with yourself. Whatever is there to discover at the bottom of your soul, whether dross or treasure, motherhood will help you find it.
Marchiano’s engaging book places readers securely on the path to that discovery, through her elucidating, honest discussion of mythic fairytales and fables alongside the circumstances and perplexities of modern motherhood. Only through this self-awareness, she suggests, can we reap the treasures of adulthood—”mature spirituality, renewed creativity, and an abiding sense of inner authority, allowing us to become, as Kahlil Gibran states, ‘the bows from which [our] children as living arrows are sent forth.'”