Mothering Without a Map: The Search for The Good Mother Within

by Kathryn Black


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Book Review

Motherhood is always a hot topic at our book club discussions.  Whether we are talking about issues with our own mothers or the challenges of motherhood, the topic inevitably comes up.  Kathryn Black’s book, Mothering Without a Map: The Search for The Good Mother Within, is one that looks deep into the maternal experience of coming into motherhood.  The book is part memoir, part testimonies from other mothers, and part research from top thinkers in the fields of child development, psychoanalysis, psychology, anthropology, and science.   


Black begins recounting the loss of her own mother when she was six years old.  Being raised by an inattentive grandmother created fears of not being a good enough mother to her own children, which is really the inspiration for her research—to understand and put to rest the myth of maternal instincts and the expectations for mothers to be perfect.   She also seeks to give support to those women, like herself, that were “undermothered” – whose mothers may have had good intentions, but fell short by being absent, unavailable, inattentive, depressed, or less resourced.


According to Black, motherhood is a great catalyst for self-reflection.  She writes,


“Beneath the decision conscious or unconscious to have children lies one’s own childhood.  A woman contemplating pregnancy or one who suddenly finds herself bearing a child will almost certainly be visited by thoughts of her own mother” (Black 92).


Motherhood represents the possibility for renewal and transcendence as daughters seek to see their mothers more clearly.  In her section entitled “The Examined Life,” Black argues that women will benefit from deep self-reflection and even therapy, because understanding our mother’s circumstances (how much support did she have) will help us find forgiveness for our mother’s limitations and shortcomings.  She talks about healing intergeneration transfer of trauma and creating new, healthy patterns for our children.   


This book is full of useful information for how to be a better parent.  Black discusses the biological needs of the infant and the mother, attachment theory, and the path to self-actualization, which is the fifth need within Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  In order to reach self-actualization, children need to be respected, heard, and understood. Children value truthfulness and authenticity, which means “they need to know you as a whole woman” (Black 161).   This quote resonates deeply because I resistance being fully present with my children and letting them see my full range of darker emotions. Of course, children respond to parents modeling behaviors they want to instill.   


For women who are not mothers, but have relationship issues with their own mothers, this book is of great value because Black discusses the insecure attachments that are psychologically damaging, i.e. the present-but-absent mother, the smothers, the rejecting mother, the avoiding mother, and those that cannot compliment to save their lives.  We have all experienced at least one of these types.


Culture is one of motherhood’s greatest influencers.  Black looks at cultural ideals of self-reliance and personal achievement that can cause burnout.  For cultures that value individualism, women can become isolated in their homes without a close network of women and other caregivers they can trust.  She mentions Sara Hrdy’s concept of “allomothering,” which is a way to discuss the community’s responsibility to help mothers raise children. Our book club has read Hrdy’s book, and we really love this discussion because communal living is the foil to privatizing the family and isolating the mother.    


This book is valuable in that it gives hope to new mothers that may be fearful of not being good enough mothers by repeating their mother’s mistakes.  Black ultimately concludes that no childhood is perfect. No mother is perfect, but hope is still alive for women that have experienced the imperfect mother.  It is alive for new mothers that may never get the kind of help they need from their own. Black assures her readers that paths to the “good mother within” are available with deep reflection.  Women can understand their mothers, forgive, heal, and transform their own journeys into motherhood, so long as they have a strong network of supportive women and resources.


Our group did have some criticisms that are worth mentioning.  We wanted more discussion about the cultural or historical circumstances of the mothers, especially the ones being discussed in the testimonies.  If the goal is to not blame our mothers for their shortcomings, then we should seek to understand what was happening socially, economically, and politically that might have stood in the way of their attempts to be better mothers.  We also wanted more shared responsibility for parenting. What about fathers or other caregivers? Black does not focus on fathers, and so the implication is that mothers become the scapegoats for all psychosis. This is a heavy and unfair burden.

Why these ratings?

We gave it a YES because it validates many women’s experiences with being under mothered or dealing with intergenerational trauma. Many women could relate to the stories and even Black’s.​ It also offers a space for women to think about their own experiences with their mothers, good or bad, which all women seem to have on various levels. Black offers some good motherly advice and assurance that under-mothered women still have enormous potential to be the kind of mothers they want to be.

We gave it a NO, only because we desperately wanted Black to give these incapable mothers doing irreparable damage to their daughters some kind of historical context.  Why were mothers during these generations so selfish and unloving? What was happening in the world during their time that might be contributing to their maternal deficiencies?   How can we see our mothers’ struggles more clearly so that we can understand them and forgive them? We cannot simply blame them. Black does not offer any such context.

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