Not every mother is a good mother.
I’ve known far too many folks who have had terrible moms. Moms who were self-absorbed, cruel, or absent. Yet as a society, we don’t talk about this. There is something almost taboo about mentioning these mothers. The mere feat of carrying a child in her womb seems to elevate women to a smidgen of saint status. Or maybe the reality of truly bad moms is just too awful for us to consider. But this is the truth: there are a whole lot of mothers who do not love their children as we expect mothers to and who do not provide the things a child needs to grow up feeling at home in the world.
As I’ve mentioned before, the archetypal Home corresponds to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Mom, as literally our first home, provides the first of these needs: food, nourishment, and a safe place for us to grow, sleep, and play. After we leave the womb, this responsibility falls to the archetypal Mom – whether our mother of origin or not – and to both parents. When we are young, our parents are responsible for taking care of us. But if there is violence in the home, abuse of any kind, or if parents are emotionally absent, our needs are often not met. We may struggle with feeling loved and feeling worthy of love. If our parents do not keep us safe, feed and love us, we may lack self-esteem.
I believe there is value in looking at mothers through the lens of Greek Goddess archetypes. Greek because, just like the Judeo-Christian religions, this is the history in which most Americans grew up. Greek culture and mythology is embedded in our art, literature, and laws.
Hera, wife of Zeus and Queen of Olympus, can be the worst of mothers. I’m not saying she’s all bad, and, as a woman, she can be an amazing regal presence. However, if there are no other archetypes present to soften and balance Hera, as a mother She can be self-absorbed, jealous of her children, vindictive, and even a narcissist. As a result, children often suffer when this goddess of marriage is a dominant archetype in the home.
Hera is the archetypal Wife. She represents the three aspects of a woman’s life as they relate to a spouse: the maiden (unmarried), the married (or fulfilled), and the widow (forever mourning the loss of her husband). These stages are significantly different from virgin, mother, and crone, which identify a woman on her own merit. Instead, Hera represents the stages in a woman’s life in relation to a husband. Which is to say, her relationship with her spouse is the whole point of her existence. Her fulfillment comes from being married, not from being a mother.
A woman operating under this archetype typically does not have a strong maternal instinct. Having children is simply a function of being a wife. While she is happy to fulfill any obligations of this role, she will always put her husband, and her status as his wife, above her children.
Hera’s most famous child is Ares, the god of war. However, Zeus wasn’t terribly fond of this son because he took too much pleasure in war and resembled his mother a bit too much. Ouch. Then there is their daughter, Hebe, who isn’t discussed much. Outside of eventually marrying Heracles (after he had appeased Hera’s wrath), and attending to Aphrodite at her marriage, she’s really only mentioned as serving nectar and ambrosia to the gods during their feasts. Such a task is more befitting of a servant than a daughter. Ah, but then Hera is a queen and expects others, including her children, to serve her.
You may recall the story of Athena being born, full-grown, from the head of Zeus. Well, this incensed Hera, to say the least. Firstly, Athena was the result of her husband’s infidelity and secondly, she was a rival for his attention. Athena was a formidable presence, so much like her father, and shared his interests. Clearly, he enjoyed spending time with her, which meant less time that he spent with his wife.
As revenge, Hera decided that she, too, would have a child without the help of her spouse. But as the Wife archetype, she could never be unfaithful. Instead, somehow, she becomes pregnant via parthenogenesis. (Which is to say, without the fertilization of sperm.) But the first time she tries this, she gives birth to Typhon, the most horrible of monsters, whom she promptly gives away to Python, the serpent. Then she has Hephaestus, who turns out a bit better. While not a monster by any means, he wasn’t perfect. He was ugly and misshapen, according to his mother’s eyes, so Hera threw him away, causing him to be damaged even more. (Hephaestus spends his life trying to receive his mother’s favor and when she will not give it, he finally achieves revenge. But that’s a different story…)
By some accounts, Hera gave birth to as many as eight children. But outside of those mentioned, we know very little of them. And this is not surprising. The Hera archetype wants the spotlight on her, not on her kids.
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan is a famous example of the Hera archetype. Both she and her daughter, Patti Davis, confirm that Nancy’s whole life revolved around her husband, even to the excess of excluding her children. Despite having been an actress, her entire life was defined as Ronald Reagan’s wife, and this was what she wanted more than anything.
Nancy writes in I Love You, Ronnie, “I’ve always said that my life began when I met Ronnie.” “Ronnie was my whole life. I couldn’t imagine life without him, and I didn’t want to run the risk of anything happening to us.” A year after her husband’s death she told Diane Sawyer, “Everything still is all about him.”
The Hera archetype wants a husband for life and expects to be the only wife, the only woman. Any previous relationships had by her husband are ignored, erased, or treated with scorn. Most people didn’t realize that Ronald Reagan had two children from his previous marriage, even as he was campaigning for the presidency. Nancy did her best to keep her stepchildren out of the spotlight. She wanted the spotlight as his wife and didn’t want anything that pointed to his life before her.
It’s not surprising that Nancy admitted she never cooked. Hera is a queen; she has others cook for her. Nancy says she was great with pancakes, waffles, and french toast, but that was all. Instead, they went out to dinner and employed domestic help, which she hired and fired frequently. Her husband affectionately referred to her as “Queen Nancy” after he purchased his Malibu ranch, noting it was the same size as all of Monaco. Indeed, Mrs. Reagan was considered a grand first lady by the press and public. She refused to live in the California Governor’s mansion and instead insisted on renting a large house with a backyard and pool. She redecorated the Governor’s office and later, both Camp David and the White House, restoring the latter to “its former grandeur.” She purchased more than $200,000 worth of china for the White House and held elaborate state dinners, wearing designer gowns. Her inaugural wardrobe alone was valued at $25,000, (which today would be over $80,000) causing her to be dubbed “Queen Nancy” by the press.
As we know from the tale of Snow White, the Queen is often jealous of the King’s daughter. Fearful that the princess may be more beautiful or more loved than she, the Queen sees her as competition and attempts to have her removed. Patti Reagan believes her mother felt threatened by her when, at the young age of four, she asked her father to marry her. How many of us did this with our fathers? And how many little boys had the same wish with their mothers? This is very common for children to do. Yet in retrospect, Patti believes this was the moment her mother’s heart hardened against her. She writes, “My parents’ love for each other was a territory circled by fences and border patrols, and at that moment I may suddenly have appeared as a trespasser.”
As a child, Patti felt her mother keep her away from her father. She remembers only one summer, when she was a teenager home from boarding school, where she experienced an “easiness” with her mother, which she sensed was due to Patti becoming anorexic. She had starved herself so thin that she had erased any threat of sexual rivalry. It was clear to Patti that her mother was so fiercely in love with her father that “there wasn’t room for anyone else in her world,” including her own children.
The only time Patti remembers her mother being maternal was when she was sick. This temporary softness in her mother’s demeanor was the reason behind Patti’s occasional faking of illness; she longed to feel her mother’s hand stroke her cheek. Instead, far more common was the slap of her hand: abuse both physical and emotional.
Since the Hera mother appears to be the perfect wife, it is often difficult for people to see or believe that she would be abusive to her children. But remember, the Hera woman exists for her husband and wants him to adore her above all else. Children are rivals for his attention. And the time she is expected to spend with her children (as a mother) potentially takes time away from her husband, which is all that matters to her.
Again, Nancy Reagan. While in Vegas for Ronald’s work in 1954, Nancy left Patti with a nanny to attend her husband’s shows seven days a week, two each night, and three on Sundays. She made sure that even when Patti was born, she and Ronnie put their relationship above everything else. Children were a product of marriage; the marriage always came first. Their next child, Ron, was born six years later and, like his sister, had a nanny until the age of six. Patti was sent to boarding school at age thirteen.
If your mother embodied the Hera or Wife archetype, you were probably always aware that your father had the majority of your mother’s attention. You may have felt lucky if you received any positive attention at all.
Fictionally, Emily Gilmore from the wildly popular TV show Gilmore Girls presents the Hera Wife archetype. The “Girls” refer to Lorelai and her daughter, Rory. Lorelai’s parents, Richard and Emily Gilmore, appear in the series as a wealthy couple from upper-class “old money.” Emily cares very much about appearances and her position as wife. She does not work. Her time is spent as a board president of the local chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, attending charity events, and managing household help. She intimidates her maids so much with her demands that she can never keep them long: in almost every episode a new maid appears, whose name Emily won’t remember. She is the queen of her home and her status as a woman is directly tied to her status as a wife.
Episode Sixteen of Season Two (“There’s the Rub”) highlights Emily as Hera. After purchasing a package for two at a very exclusive and expensive spa and hotel, Emily convinces her daughter Lorelai to be her guest and then proceeds to orchestrate every moment according to her own desires with no regard to her daughter’s feelings. Look closely: she claims to be doing something nice for her daughter when in fact she is only serving herself.
Lorelai, all too familiar with her mother’s domineering manipulations, tries to see beyond them and encourages some spontaneous bonding. She convinces her mother to go to dinner at a steak joint and drink martinis at the bar —something that Emily (as Hera) would never do, as it’s beneath her. When a man hits on her, she becomes furious with her daughter for “setting her up” like that. To have appeared as an available woman to a man and as a friend to her own daughter, she feels she has betrayed what is most important above all: her husband. To the Hera archetype, her commitment to her husband is central to her self-image: it is the only thing that matters. She perceives bonding with her daughter, bonding with anyone outside of her husband, to be a threat to this role.
So you see, the offspring of Hera and Zeus do nothing to increase intimacy between their parents. If anything, they are a distraction from Hera’s adoration of her husband and a female child may even be seen as a rival for his affections.
Happiness for the woman under the Hera archetype depends greatly on her husband’s devotion and his appreciation of her. Even, how much he worships her. If the Hera’s husband leaves her, she will likely blame the child(ren), but never herself and rarely her man.
When the husband dies, the Hera mother does not change. She does not suddenly become interested in her children or act more maternally. Her deceased spouse continues to be her focus. She keeps his memory alive in every way possible.
If her husband leaves her and she cannot cling to her role as wife, then SHE will be her sole focus. She is still a queen. She wants the best, even if she cannot afford it. She must be adored and catered to. Nothing her children do is good enough because they can never fill the role of husband. They are beneath her. They are there to serve her. Consequently, they are berated, insulted, and verbally abused.
Now, not all bad mothers fall under the Hera archetype. And, as I said, the Hera archetype is not always bad. But if this is the dominant archetype in a woman who becomes a mother, the children are bound to suffer.
Does this sound like your mom? If so, does it help to have this framework for understanding her behavior? Maybe not. At our core, we are all still kids who want to be loved by our moms. But, if she is still living, maybe knowing this will help you set better boundaries. You’re an adult now. You are not her servant. You can put your needs above hers. You ARE loveable. And you deserve to be treated as such.
Photo credits: 1) Getty Images, 2) from the cover of I Love You, Ronnie, and 3) AFP/Getty Images
Please note: this information is greatly edited for purposes of length. It is not my intention to malign Nancy Reagan, only to shed light on her complexity and her role as a mother, as detailed through numerous books, articles, and interviews. Archetypes and behaviors are always complex. My book on the archetype of home has more detailed information, but it is not ready for publication. In the meantime, I am always happy to discuss your questions and provide greater insight on an individual basis. Please email me!