Using compassion to approach women who exemplify the “Death Mother” archetype might improve outcomes for a patient population comprised of unwanted children, including those with schizophrenia, according to an article in Psychological Perspectives. Danielle F. Sieff, PhD, defines the archetype of the Death Mother as a “women whose behavior or feelings threaten the lives of their children.”
In Western culture, mothers are expected to have unconditional love for their children, and this is considered “natural” motherhood. Any women who regret having children, abandon them, neglect them, or otherwise mistreat them are viewed with extreme prejudice. Often, they are labeled as severely mentally ill and “unnatural.”
However, Dr Sieff argues that an understanding of women in these situations can better support their healing as well as the healing of the children who grew up under the care of the Death Mother.
The impulse to vilify mothers who do not show unconditional love toward their children simplifies the complex issue of motherhood. A mother’s response to her children is influenced not only by internal factors, but also by the external physical, relational, cultural, and economic environment. When clinicians take all of these factors into account, they can form a more compassionate, complete understanding of mothers.
From an evolutionary standpoint, Dr Sieff notes that our descendants mothered in an environment where as many as 30% to 60% of children did not survive until age 15. In these cases, mothers had to make difficult choices about raising children with a viable chance at survival. While today’s child death rate is <1%, this evolutionary precedent remains.
There are other important circumstances to consider in terms of a woman’s ability to mother. These include the ability to provide for her children and availability of social support. However, the characteristics of the child are also important to consider, including their health and gender.
By acknowledging these evolutionary and anthropologic processes, clinicians can help break down the cycle of shame in which the Death Mother can become entrapped. When a mother feels shame about her perceived failure at motherhood, her harmful behavior can be exacerbated. By challenging the sentimental ideal of motherhood, clinicians can help mothers put their feelings in a more human perspective.
In addition to helping mothers, this evolutionary knowledge may help heal the children who grew up under the Death Mother. Often, children who grew up feeling unloved assume it is the result of a personal inadequacy. When the evolutionary history of the Death Mother is introduced, it can help children separate themselves from their feelings of inadequacy.
“[W]hen we bring the Death Mother into consciousness, learn about her evolutionary roots, and humanize her, we start to dismantle the self-perpetuating cycles of shame that constellate around her archetypal energy, thereby opening the doors to meaningful change,” Dr Sieff wrote.
Sieff DF. The death mother as nature’s shadow: infanticide, abandonment, and the collective unconscious. Psychological Perspectives. 2019;62:15-34.