Saturday, March 26, 2011

Letting Go?

In the good mother’s way with her sons;
The fledged bird is thrown
From the nest – on its own
But the peasant in his little acres is tied
To a mother’s womb by the wind-toughened navel-cord
                                                        (excerpt from The Great Hunger by Patrick Kavanagh)

In the summer of 2002 I visited an unusual place in the Garden County. Just outside Roundwood is an Indian Sculpture park called Victor’s way. This oddity in rural Ireland is owned and managed by Victor, who inherited the land and developed it into a philosophy park. The sculptures are strategically located around the place to enable the visitor to reflect upon the various stages of life.

           As I ambled around with my son who was five then, I was rooted to the spot by one piece called ‘Separation’. It spoke to me on a gut level. I experienced nameless emotions and sensations. It was made of granite stone depicting a woman and a teenage boy. They were naked in body and emotion. The woman’s legs, one human, the other fish tail, were spread-eagled and wrapped around the boy. She was screaming in mid pose with enormous breasts and jutting nipples. The boy was also arching back with mouth wide open. They were clinging on and pushing against each other. It was raw and primal. Victor explained that it depicts the moment when the mother must push away her son so that he can become a man.
           The memory of that statue has remained with me. My son is thirteen now. The process of separation is beginning. His metaphoric wings are strengthening and he is testing his independence. It is drawing closer to the time when I must cut the cord between us. We associate the good mother as all sacrificing and all giving to the exclusion of the self. She becomes a non-person. She becomes ‘Mother’ who cooks, cleans, feeds, heals, mediates, cares and gives, irrespective of tiredness, sadness, grief or illness. Her devotion is endless, yet, for some mothers a terrible price is exacted from her adult children, in particular from her adult sons. It is payback time.
           It is my belief that The Great Hunger is one of the most powerful poems in Irish literature. It challenges the all sacrificing mother who refuses to relinquish her children to adulthood. Every mother should read the poem and embed its terrible message into her psyche. It is a terrible wrench to cut your son loose. To know, in the words of the poet Kahil Gibran, that ‘your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself,’ (The Prophet). She has to resist the urge to cling to her child, halt his independence, to make him need her.
          The good mother has to accept that where she was once on the inside of his life, in time she will be on the outside. She has to stand sentry, silent as he walks towards manhood. This process starts in adolescence. Sooner or later, they discard toys and teddy bears. Hugs become fewer, friends become more important.
          A mother has to let go of her child accepting that it will cause her agony. If she refuses, she will psychologically kill him. The boy-man that is tied to the mother is a sad creature  who will never have the capacity to be a self-actualised man. He will, as Kavanagh describes him in The Great Hunger, be: ‘A ragged sculpture of the wind’. The infantilisation of men in Ireland was and is an acute problem.
        Kavanagh understood this when he gathered the courage to leave the homestead and follow his artistic dreams but knew that many of his countrymen remained tied to the home.  The Great Hunger was his response to this problem. No other poem encapsulates the mental agony of the boy-man who is forced into celibacy or the impact it has on the individual and the wider community. Scores of men up and down the country have not left home nor had a relationship. They live out highly ritualized and closeted lives with the Mammy.
       Yet what becomes of these men when she dies? How do they cope? What a terrible tragedy and what of these women who subsume their identity to be the all encompassing Mother. There are no winners in this scenario, just an empty living death experience. The image of the wind-toughened cord is an apt one. It is unyielding. It has outlived its purpose long, long ago. So despite the deep ache in my heart and the soaring joy as I watch my son moves towards manhood, I know it is what I must do to be a good mother.

© The Bag lady March 2011

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