Healing the Mother Wound
We first heard about the curious concept of the mother wound—the theory that there is a wound/burden/responsibility/hole passed down from one generation of mothers to the next—from Dr. Oscar Serrallach. A family practitioner in rural Australia, Serrallach has become a perhaps unexpected, but very welcome, source of support for moms in the goop family (from his piece on postnatal depletion and recovery to his new vitamin and supplement natal protocol, The Mother Load). The mother wound, as he describes it, is both ancient and modern, entwined in Western patriarchy and also a thought—in other words, a learned behavior passed subconsciously, subtly from mother to daughter. Below, we ask him what the bigger societal implications of this mother wound might be, and what healing might look like for us and our children.
A Q&A with Dr. Oscar Serrallach
Does the mother wound have roots outside of modern Western society?
The mother wound has been around for thousands of years—we see it in ancient stories through the trials of figures like Persephone and Inanna—but it has changed greatly over time. The four fundamental functions of mothering are: to nurture, to protect, to empower, and to initiate. In the ancient legends, archetypal stories show daughters that have been nurtured, protected, and empowered, but denied their initiation or final transformation into womanhood—by their mother or a person representing the mother figure. Think the stepmother in Cinderella, or the queen in Snow White.
In these archetypal stories, the mother wound more so manifests as a mother figure thwarting the attempts of a daughter to become a full majestic woman. In modern society, the daughter’s attempts are thwarted by everyone and every aspect of society—daughters are not given the avenue to become full majestic women. We have had generations of unprotected, disempowered, uninitiated woman.
“In modern society, the daughter’s attempts are thwarted by everyone and every aspect of society—daughters are not given the avenue to become full majestic women.”
Within this lies the challenge of facing issues around the mother wound, which is really a re-wounding—a multigenerational issue of “wounded mothers” subconsciously wounding their daughters, entrapped by the patriarchy.
How can we heal from the mother wound?
Big picture: The solution lies in a ground roots-type evolution that reestablishes the matrilineal system, and reveals the current, patriarchal system for the truly dangerous and harmful thing that it has been for generations…
For a start: A core part of healing the mother wound is also reconnecting with your sisterhood, with other women, with the feminine. It’s women being conscious of the self-talk they pass on to their daughters, and all of us being conscious of the social programming of our children, and finding ways to support our daughters as they develop and understand their power and potential.
“‘Transform’ does not imply removing or fixing the traumas and scars from our childhood that we all carry.”
On a personal level: The mother wound is an opportunity for healing and for transformation. “Transform” does not imply removing or fixing the traumas and scars from our childhood that we all carry. Transformation is about slowly developing a new relationship with what is difficult in your life, such that it is no longer a controlling factor.
What’s one way we can empower girls?
Let’s be mindful of the way we speak to and interact with our daughters and girls: So much energy in our society is devoted to how a woman looks. Often, if an adult is talking to a child, the default response with a boy tends to be a comment or question about what they are DOING. For a girl, the first comment or question more often tends to be around how they LOOK, or what they are wearing. It is an interesting example of our social programming. The end result as I see it is that boys think what they do is the most important thing, and girls think how they look is the most important thing.
Is there such a thing as the father wound?
Less is written about the father wound, but to become a balanced, healthy society it is equally important to examine the generational burden passed on by and through fathers.
In terms of the father wound and sons: The father represents the blueprint of what it means to be a man. I grew up in the era of masculinity that largely defines a man by what he isn’t: Don’t be a crybaby, don’t be a pansy, don’t be a wuss. While this mantra has shifted somewhat, as a society, we still don’t give boys access to the full emotional tapestry of life, or properly guide them to understand what is important about the masculine and feminine principles and the interplay that they have in their own bodies and in their relationships.
What about between genders—moms/sons and fathers/daughters?
Parents of the opposite gender, of course, play a critical part in establishing one’s social and emotional compass points. While the parent of the same gender starts our connection with our own gender power, a mother is a son’s first connection to the feminine, and a father is a daughter’s first connection to the masculine.
For sons, the mother wound can predispose boys to dark aspects of the feminine. Many men also become culturally conditioned as boys to rely on the women with whom they’re intimate to meet all (or at least most) of their deep emotional needs, which places an unrealistic burden on their future partners for total emotional support.
From their fathers, daughters begin to learn the masculine language of expression, expectation, and interaction that serves as the basis for all further intimate relationships with men. The dynamic between father and daughter shapes the types of partners a daughter seeks later in life and the social dynamics of those relationships.
How does the mother wound relate to postnatal depletion?
The history of women in medicine and the medical care of woman throughout history is the most disempowered story.
Ideally the birth of a child is a time where communities come together and provide various levels of support, strengthening the already established intimate bonds within the community. In this scenario, a mother can fully, physically and emotionally, recover and be honored and supported in her role as a mother.
In reality, families are often distant in both location and in their ability and desire to offer support. Our communities are often not very connected, and today they are more transient than ever before. Interactions between neighbors tend to be superficial and polite at best, with many people not even knowing their neighbors.
Post-pregnancy can often be a time of isolation, confusion, insufficient support, and suffering for mothers and families—when the stressors of modern life are combined with the physical, emotional, and social demands of pregnancy, breastfeeding, and raising a child, plus sleep deprivation. This is fertile ground for postnatal depletion, and postnatal depletion is fertile ground for the perpetuation of the mother wound. A mother whom hardly has the physical energy or the mental clarity to take care of herself and her kids is hardly going to have the energy and time to devote to supporting other mothers and sisters in her community. I see this as a perpetuating intergenerational cycle.
As we collectively heal our mother wounds, do you think there are implications for society as a whole?
Yes, definitely. Our society has been derailed and I see the mother wound as a collective injury that is preventing our communities from healing. I don’t see distant wars and anti-environmental capitalism being able to survive in a world full of initiated woman.
I think often of the Dalai Lama’s well-known quote from the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit: The world will be saved by the Western woman.
“I don’t see distant wars and anti-environmental capitalism being able to survive in a world full of initiated woman.”
I see a lot of truth in this, and particularly in the role the Western mother can play: As mothers unite and the sisterhood is re-established, families can grow closer, communities will regain their identity, and our society could regain its strength and meaning.
Oscar Serrallach graduated from Auckland School of Medicine in New Zealand in 1996. He specialized in general practice, family medicine, and did further training in functional medicine, working in a number of hospital and community-based jobs, as well as in an alternative community in Nimbin that exposed him to nutritional medicine, herbalism, and home birth. He has been working in the Byron Bay area of NSW, Australia since 2001, where he lives with his partner, Caroline, and their three children. Serrallach currently practices at the integrative medicine center, The Health Lodge, and his first book, Mothermorphosis, comes out in 2018 from goop Press.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.