Our earliest years are our most formative, a tender time when we learn what it feels like to belong and be loved. Our relationship with our mother, or other primary caregivers, establishes the emotional tone and psychological patterns that will impact us for the rest of our lives. Even if we were lucky enough to have a mother who was present, loving, and capable, there is no such thing as a perfect parent. Every mother has her own unique history, emotional wounds, and painful struggles that will inevitably impact her children. As adults, spending time deeply and honestly reflecting upon this most primary relationship can be both enlightening and healing.
Laura Davis, bestselling author of the groundbreaking book The Courage to Heal, recently published a memoir about her tumultuous and complex relationship with her mother, The Burning Light of Two Stars. Now Davis leads writing workshops to help people explore this relationship. “Putting our stories on paper can greatly expand our perspective and help us find clarity,” Davis says. “Writing can help us remember our joys, process our pain, and foster compassion for both our mothers and ourselves.”
In her workshops, Davis guides people to explore their “mother knot”—the legacy of our deep and often complicated relationships with our mothers. Davis points out that our stories often morph over time and with age. “It’s okay to fully embrace your subjective truth today, knowing that it may be different tomorrow or years from now when life gives us a new perspective.” She quotes author Deborah Fruchey, who wrote, “Every time I look in the rearview mirror, the past has changed.”
A Free-Writing Practice to Untangle Your Mother Knot
Davis teaches a free-writing practice first developed by author Natalie Goldberg. It is designed to uncover our unfiltered truth. And you don’t have to consider yourself a writer to do it.
Here are the basic guidelines.
Commit to a predetermined time. If you’re new to this practice, set a timer for ten minutes. Gradually, you can extend the duration. Once you start, write continuously for the entire time period. “When you don’t allow yourself to stop,” Davis says, “you are forced to write from your heart and gut, not through the filter of your mind.”
Don’t edit as you write. As Davis explains, “One of the biggest mistakes people make is to write and edit simultaneously. Editing while you write will inevitably censor your rawest and truest thoughts. Don’t cross out or rewrite, and never worry about things like spelling, syntax, or grammar. Just write without stopping until the time is up. This is the secret to uncovering the real jewels, the deeper stories, the deeper truths. You can always come back and edit your work later.”
Know that you are free to write “the worst crap in the world.” Davis urges people to write without expectations or a plan. “Don’t second-guess yourself. Stick with your first thoughts. Go for the jugular. Be totally honest. Don’t keep anything back,” says Davis. “Just keep your hand moving, ignore distractions, and let it fly.”
Utilize a prompt if you get stuck. Feel free to start each new sentence or paragraph with a writing prompt, many of which are featured below. If you are still stuck, try starting with the phrases, “Here’s the part I never told anyone before …” or “here’s the real truth …”
Writing Prompts to Unravel the Mother Knot
Writing prompts make facing a blank piece of paper less daunting. They get you going by giving you a specific place to begin. “Prompts should be provocative and stretch you to enter new territory,” explains Davis. “They can help you remember things you forgot long ago. The most helpful prompts are specific: ‘My father’s hands,’ versus the generic, ‘Tell me about your father,’ which can feel overwhelming.”
Stick with a single prompt for the entire writing session. Read through the prompts below and follow your intuition about which to choose. Sometimes the prompt that repels or frightens you is the one that has the most charge and will yield the most unexpected gems, so try not to shy away from it.
“The direction our writing takes often surprises us,” Davis says. “Allow yourself to be spontaneous and go where these prompts lead you. Hold the reins loosely. The prompts are meant to open you up, so go with the flow and meander. Trust your gut and let your pen lead.”
Davis loves creating compelling prompts that inspire deep writing. Below are thirty of her favorites to help people unravel the mother knot.
In my mother’s kitchen
What my mother taught me
What my mother failed to teach me
My mother’s hands
Tell me about something that happened behind a wall
Tell me about an object you strongly associate with your mother
Tell me about a secret—one your mother kept from you or one you kept from her
Things my mother still doesn’t know about me
Things I still don’t know about my mother
A gift my mother brings/brought to the world
Tell me a story you were told repeatedly about your mother’s early life
Lies my mother told me
Lies I told my mother
Tell me about an aspect of your mother’s life that has nothing to do with being your mother
Describe a time you observed your mother when she thought she was alone
Tell me about a moment your mother forced you to do something
Tell me about a time you resisted and said no
Tell me about something your mother loves. Now tell me about something she hates.
Tell me about a fight the two of you had
Tell me about something you love(d) to do together
Tell me about your mother’s relationship to food and describe how she eats
Tell me about your family from the point of view of the kitchen table
Something my mother could never acknowledge about me
Something I could never acknowledge about my mother
What I couldn’t understand as a child
Tell me about a moment when one of your stories about your mother fell apart
What I understand about my mother today
I am no longer waiting for
This is the way things are right now
Davis advises people to repeat prompts that are emotionally charged until they feel ready to move on. “When you’re dealing with something huge, like grieving a major loss, it can be fruitful to use the same prompt every day for a week or a month, even just ten minutes at a time. Each day, your responses will subtly shift and change.”
Davis strongly believes in the healing power of writing, but she cautions that writing about our mothers can feel highly emotional, particularly if the relationship is unresolved, fraught, or estranged.
“Be gentle with yourself,” Davis encourages. “Resist pushing too far out of your comfort zone and give yourself ample time to rest, relax and integrate afterwards. Get support if you need it. And don’t forget to congratulate yourself for being brave enough to dive into such rich, sensitive territory.”