I’ve been sitting here thinking about maternal and paternal archetypes. Without getting too bogged down in Jungian technicalities, it seems to me that we do have a place in our psyches, whether innate or culturally contrived, which craves a manifestation of a Mother Figure and a Father Figure. These roles need not each be filled by a single person, nor by separate entities, nor by a member of any specific gender. But I think they do need to be filled or we find ourselves with a parent-shaped hole in our hearts. A void that can be very large indeed.
The Mother is the nurturer. She feeds us healthy food, takes care of us when we are sick or hurt. She is the constant in making sure our daily needs are met. She validates our emotions and helps us navigate social interactions and relationships, which includes making sure we have clean presentable clothing to wear to school and gentle reminders not to pick our noses.
The Father is the protector. He gets rid of spiders and monsters in the closet. He banishes our fears. He fixes things when they are broken and gives our lives direction. He may not be there for every moment of daily life, but he is there when we need him and his presence can be felt materially through the food and shelter he provides, even when he is physically absent.
When a child is hurt or afraid, the Mother will hug and comfort them and let them know it’s ok to feel that way. But when the band-aid has been applied and kissed-all-better, the Father steps in and says, “It’s time to stop crying and go back out and play.” Left to herself, the Mother would nurture the hurt and fear, reinforcing the negative feelings. The Father, on his own, will immediately send the child back out into the world, ashamed of their own emotions, and not knowing how to express them or deal with them appropriately. Both Maternal and Paternal traits (which, let me reiterate, need not be provided by members of any particular gender) are necessary to teach a child how to develop healthy reactions to the world.
When a problem arises, the Mother is the first line of defence. She provides immediate care and comfort, the reassurance that we are not alone, that we have a support system to help us deal with it. After that, the Father’s task is to approach the problem logically. If there is still a problem, let’s solve it. If it has been solved, let’s get over it and move on.
When I say “child,” I am speaking of the inner child as well as the literal one. As we grow up, our actual parents become less present and less active in our lives, and eventually absent entirely. For some of us this happens earlier than for others. For some, one or both roles were never adequately or correctly filled, whether the incarnation of the parent was there or not. If we did have strong parental figures to perform all the necessary duties (whether it was a single parent, a string of step-parents or foster-parents, other assorted family friends and relatives, or an entire village), then, when the inevitable absence does occur, hopefully the corresponding void can be filled with our memories and the coping skills that we learned from them while they were there.
But if the void still exists into adulthood, we are left searching for some way to fill it. It becomes something of a black hole, sucking the light out of our lives. In a panic, we throw things at it at random to try to fix it or fill it. New cars, food, drugs, self-help theories, shame and self-loathing. We relive our bad relationships with our parents through bad relationships with our partners, hoping that it will turn out differently this time.
I don’t actually know what the solution is here. I am not an expert on solving this sort of problem, though I do have plenty of my own personal experience with it. In the past I thought it must be something that I had to do for myself. The answer had to come from within. After all, I only have control over my own actions.
But I’m beginning to think that that’s the wrong way to look at it. I do not exist in a vacuum. In fact, the problem is a vacuum, a void inside of me left by improper parenting. I’m not going to waste time here on blame. That won’t fix anything. And we are all human. No one is a perfect parent.
I think the thing that I can do is let other people fill that void, if they are willing and able to do so. Friends, relatives, lovers, acquaintances, whatever. Another thing I can do is be the person that fills that void for someone else. A child cannot survive in isolation. Neither can an adult. Our parents are the core of our community during our infancy. They provide the connections and infrastructure to extend that community as we grow and our world expands, and eventually the skills to build our own communities. If they weren’t there, or if they didn’t have the knowledge or materials, or just didn’t care enough to build a strong foundation for us, then we have to find strong, reliable people to help us do that. We have to trust them when we don’t know how or who to trust. We have to let them support us while the bricks and mortar are being laid. And we have to support others who need it too. We have to be strong, reliable, trustworthy people even if we’ve never had an example of that to emulate.
We all need nurturing and protecting, throughout our lives. And we can all be nurturers and protectors. That’s the only way I can see to fill that parent-shaped hole that so many of us carry around in our hearts.