Moth·er·ing n. The nurturing and raising of a child or children by a mother.
From “Mama Grizzlies” and “Tiger Moms” to ‘Bringing Up Bébé, mothering styles in North America are once again being brought to our attention, but this time within cross-cultural awareness. We might play a game of lodging each of the aforementioned parenting styles within a psychograph charting lines of maternal development, or perhaps seeing where they land within action-logics. But I’d rather focus on the concept and practice of Integral mothering in general from my perspective as a long-time teacher and new grandparent.
All decent parents want to do what is best for their children, and we as very smart and well-read members of the Integral community would without doubt access the totality of our beings to parent the next wave on the evolutionary continuum. I get very excited whenever I hear that a friend within my Integral circle has had a child. I am filled with confidence that the little one will be nurtured and loved from a well-rounded place.
I also know the temptation to romanticize our newly produced offspring. I’ve been there. When little Adam Nathan Knott made his entrance out of our daughter’s womb July 28, 2011, my husband confidently stated, “You are looking at the first Jewish president of the United States.”
For those of us suffering from a version of the pre/trans fallacy, there is the temptation to look at the squirming red bundle as closer to the Ultimate Mystery than we are, imbued with perfection and unsullied by the gross realm. This “affliction” usually wears off as I have seen happen to other moms who are not within our acute awareness of levels of consciousnesses.
As far as I have been able to track the mother/child relationship within my own community for over 35 years, the ones who continue the romanticism of their children wind up doing them great injustices. The boy who presented with ADHD had been decreed by his mom to be a special Indigo child, and I as a member of the teaching team at his high school was rebuffed in any attempt to provide him with resources that would help him succeed at his level of competency. The girl with an off-key singing voice was defended by her mom when she repeatedly failed to gain the lead role in our school musical. We were obviously discriminating against her superior talent, the mom acidly reproached us. The poor young woman went off to try her luck on Broadway without any masculine compassion from her mom. She was just too “precious” for entry into the real world.
It is easy for us to see into the egoic world of these two moms. One was in denial that her son had a problem that needed a different school setting, medical or dietary intervention, depending on one’s perspective. The other mom was clearly living through her daughter, and could not bear to “die” to the truth that her daughter was not “special” in the way that spoke to her ego.
Yet with our young mothers who are aware via a spiritual path of the “aims” of meditation and evolutionary consciousness, it is reasonable to assume that they might be tempted to engage in what I am calling, “mothering as Atman Project.” None of us are immune from cutting off aspects of our fears and repressing them into the shadows. Each level of conscious evolution has its own possibility for negative and harmful manifestations. It would be a violation of the Integral meta-theory that we as mothers are somehow immune from all of the social and cultural constructs of our time.
In this video interview below, I discuss Integral Feminine Leadership and Life Conditions at the Integral Leadership in Action conference to help provide some contextual examples on these social and cultural constructs.
Ken Wilber’s, The Atman Project was my first Wilber book, the one that got me hooked, rewired my brain, and sent me on an Integral course that has enriched my life in ways I could never have imagined. When I encountered it, my own daughter was 3 years old and I was a 2nd year law student trying to balance roles as mother, daughter, niece, student, wife, and step-mother to a highly troubled young girl. In all but the student role, I was the primary caregiver which sapped my energy considerably. In none of them did I, or could I, engage in an Atman Project, and thus the text was a curious glimpse into another way of being in the world.
So what is this Atman Project, and what does it have to do with Integral Mothering? It describes a failed unity with Atman/God which places a substitute self for our True Nature as Atman. The mother is called upon to pretend that this substitute self presents as the fulfilled wish to be kosmocentric, to be Atman, to be the source. To quote Wilber:
“It is a self which substitutes for the illusorily lost Atman and pretends to itself, in symbolic form, to be that lost Atman. Since (1) the self wants to recapture Atman-consciousness, but (2) since it is terrified of the necessary death and transcendence involved, then (3) it arranges a compensation and a substitute: it takes the intuition of Atman-consciousness that always arises moment-to-moment and subverts it to itself. It is seeking Atman in ways that prevent it and force symbolic substitutes.”
A bit later he summarizes what I consider to be the heart of mothering as Atman Project:
“Thus, in place of Atman-consciousness, which is always his true nature and prior estate, though one he has illusorily abandoned, he “fusses about” in search of substitutes which will pretend (convincingly) to present him as kosmocentric, deified, unique, immortal, one without a second—a search based on the prior intuition of his Real Self, which is indeed infinite and eternal, but an intuition perverted by its application to his separate self, which is absolutely finite and mortal.”
It is easy to read the entire book as a cautionary tale for young Integral mothers who might be tempted to place their absolutely adorable, kissable, huggable, smiling toothless wonders of creation at the center of a substitute world within which she can engage in the drama of a play of desires, making the child and mother appear kosmocentric. It is so easy to watch this captivating little soul manifest subtle visions and archetypal ecstasies which our young mother can then feed herself as proof of her and her offspring’s perfection.
In discussing Integral mothering with other moms within the Integral community, the “laugh-line” is usually something like, “Call us when the children become teenagers.” Once our children pass through the Diplomat stage, they have this uncanny call to develop into their own unique selves. I once asked an Integral father how his teenage son was doing. His answer made me smile: “He’s just wonderful,” he said with true appreciation. “He hates me and his mom, is in a grunge band, and experimenting with drugs. He’ll be just fine.” Here is a father who had evidently died to his Atman Project. He was not using his son for a substitute for his own growth, his facing of death, and moving into transcendence.
For those of us who have raised children through their twenties, we understand what he is saying. We have seen the arc of outward development that manifests in the unique teenage years of agency and rebellion, and back into the inward arc when our adult children come back to us with love and appreciation.
But what might ensnare one of our Integral mothers? Wilber explores that potentiality here as well. The mother has an ego ideal that has informed her since her earliest days and which she has codified as her conscience. She has within her structured restrictions (“We don’t do/eat/say that in our family”) and consciously or unconsciously demands it of her child at the membership stage as “visceral ethics.” The child is loath to go against any of this for fear of the loss of his parents’ love, and even as we might think that we are raising our children in some aperspectival awareness, we moms are indeed transferring our values to our little ones overtly and covertly. These values seep into our children’s conscious and conscience. If the child serves as the mom’s substitute Atman, then the child falls prey to dissociation, fixation, and repression. Again from Wilber:
“Thus, an individual who has a false and idealized persona will dissociate and repress any facets of his self (such as the shadow) which threaten this inflated self-image. Instead of accepting the death of the false persona, the individual substitutes the death of the shadow by repressing and dissociating it.”
The kindest and most “Integral” thing that we as moms and grandmothers can do is to watch what idealization we are putting upon our children. If we place our idealized selves upon our children as proof of our superior ability to raise children, then the child will not be able to withstand the separation anxiety of striking out on his own or having an original idea separate from mother, or father, of course. We are left with adult children who are still fused to us, and neither becomes capable of true transcendence.
Being a mother can fill us with a sense of our own superiority; it becomes the strange attractor for hosts of egoic actions as agency thrusts us forward to prove our worth. I would hope that “The Atman Project” is re-read by our young Integral moms. There is nothing, in my opinion, more delightful than watching Adam unfurl another petal of who he will become. It’s sort of like watching the grasses grow. He has some of my DNA in him, yes, but whoever he becomes will not reflect on my spiritual or psychological growth. We are two flavors of an incredible Unity that deserve to be enjoyed just for that alone.
What’s Hot for Lynne Right Now…
Currently Reading: The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life by Thomas Armstrong
Practice Focus: Having golden fluid enter through my crown chakra and flowing down to heal any cell that might be thinking of going rogue.
Currently Watching: Mad Men
Link of the Week: Shadow Work in Evolutionary Spirituality
Shadow Element or Emotion Discovered While Writing This: I had such a turbulent and difficult life, especially when my daughter was little, and I wish I had had a calm space to parent her with more intention. However, she matured into a fantastic young woman who still surprises and delights me in who and what she has become.
Lynne D. Feldman, M.A., J.D., is an attorney, educator, and mentor. She is Co-Director of the Integral programs and Director of Integral Education at One Spirit Learning Alliance. She has been published in the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, is on its editorial board, and is an Integral Scholar. Lynne co-founded New York Integral with Joanne Rubin, has taught classes on Integral theory at One Spirit, Montague House, and before many groups in New York. She is CEO of Integral Educational Consultants, and Director of the community service organization Stories for Sailors.