The Broken Mirror and The Symbol of the Mother

A reflection on self love, growth, and the symbol of the mother.

By Gabriel Sanchez-Ortega, Staff Writer

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt)

“In individual emotional development, the precursor to the mirror is the mother’s face” 

– D.W. Winnicott

Life begins with separation. This is what I believed. But psychoanalysis tells a different story. The quote above from Donald Winnicott, a psychoanalyst who devoted his life to understanding child development, describes the primary experience and the beginning of our understanding, not only of ourselves but also of our emotions.

We were once united with our mother inside the womb. Now that we’re born, we’re separated. This is one way to see it. However, as Winnicott points out, the mother acts as a mirror, reflecting the state of our inner being. The baby smiles, and the mother smiles back. The whole world is reflected in our mother’s face.

“Mother is the name of God in the lips and hearts of little children.”

— William Makepeace Thackeray, 19th century British novelist

The infant has no understanding of separation between his own self and his mother. When he cries, his mother feeds him. As Winnicott himself said: “There’s no such thing as an infant.” This is because the infant cannot exist without the mother. It is as if they are one being—at least, from the perspective of the child.

With time we gain a sense of our own individuality. We are weaned. We grow to become aware of our separate nature against that of our own parents and of other children. And it is in those early, vulnerable years from our interactions with our parents and our surroundings that we learn much of our current understanding about relationships, our sense of self-worth, and how to deal with our emotions.

I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes; on my face they are still together.”

— Warsan Shire, Contemporary British-Somali poet

Unfortunately, these relationships are often flawed. In an unstable household, or in the absence of one or both parents, there is often an emotional lack. The child is unable to understand why he cannot have his needs met.

His sense of self, compromised by a need to hold on to his providers, who are both the source of his torment and the reason for his survival, tends to create unhealthy attachments and coping mechanisms.

Is it a surprise then, that so many of us look outside of ourselves for what we lack? Many look to fill an emotional void through our relationships, as if to prove to our own selves that we deserve to be loved.

Of course, even in the best cases, human beings are fallible. And with the best intentions or efforts, relationships can still falter and end in disappointment. The success or failure of a relationship should not be the basis for self-love. Neither should it be any indication of whether or not one is worthy to be loved.

When our ambitions or our desires are stifled by some obstacles, we tend to return to those emotional places where we felt we did not deserve to be loved, or were made to feel ashamed, or felt that we were not good enough. How should we reconcile the desire to better ourselves and the acceptance of who we are?

“You have no idea how hard I’ve looked for a gift to bring You. Nothing seemed right. What’s the point of bringing gold to the gold mine, or water to the ocean. Everything I came up with was like taking spices to the Orient. It’s no good giving my heart and my soul because you already have these. So I’ve brought you a mirror. Look at yourself and remember me.”

— Rumi, 13th Century Persian poet

Each of us has the right to live, to live a life that one can be proud of and to strive for our own self-growth and nurturing. To better ourselves and to accept ourselves as we are can go hand-in-hand. There is perhaps no other way to move on and to work towards what we want, unfettered by the past, than by forgiving ourselves for our mistakes.

We are human. We make mistakes. We have the right to live. This is something often forgotten but that we have to remind ourselves each day. And it is something which was known even before a child becomes aware of who he is. It is inside of us: a sense which often breaks like a mirror from self-rejection and pain. But, it is perhaps something that can be found again, after much effort and struggle—at the end of a long life.

I want to leave you with one of my favourite passages from a novel by Dostoevsky. In the story, the character of Shatov has lost faith in everything. He is a nihilist. Once, he had endeavoured with a group of revolutionaries to better his society, but he had since abandoned those ideals. At this moment in the novel, his wife comes back to him—she is pregnant.

He desperately runs to find a midwife in the middle of the night, paying her what little money he could. And in the moment he hears the cry of his infant child, he regains his faith in humanity.

“Then suddenly he heard a cry, a new cry, which made Shatov start and jump up from his knees, the cry of a baby, a weak discordant cry. He crossed himself and rushed into the room. Arina Prohorovna held in her hands a little red wrinkled creature, screaming, and moving its little arms and legs, fearfully helpless, and looking as though it could be blown away by a puff of wind, but screaming and seeming to assert its full right to live.”

— Fyodor Dostoevsky, 19th century Russian author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *