By Jeanne Denney
The other day a wise crone friend mentioned an ancient Sumerian story I had nearly forgotten. In it the heroine, named Inanna, descends into the “underworld.” Innana is the Queen of Heaven. Her sister is Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld (or in some stories, Queen of the Earth). Innana visits her sister dressed to kill in every symbol of her power and pride. But as she passes the seven gates of the underworld she is forced to remove one piece of her finery after another until she finally arrives in the underworld stark naked. More adventures ensue for Inanna. They include being ridiculed in anger by a tribunal, having the eye of death put upon her, and being hung on a meat hook for three days by her sis. Some hospitality. Ereskigal is miserable, frantic and we could presume jealous. As Rachel put it, “Of course she is. She is a little like moms with young children. Who really wants to be left alone at home with the kids?”
This simple remark relating the underworld to the plight of modern mothers brought to mind my own descent into motherhood some 25 years ago. I remember feeling like I had descended to a bizarre landscape for which I was unprepared, fighting at times for my life and sanity with four children entrusted to my care. Like Ereshkigal I was sometimes miserable and frantic. Like Innana, I indeed felt naked and betrayed by the culture in which I was parenting, and perhaps the sisterhood as well. It also brought to mind being with women through births in which they too arrived in the end naked, reduced to their essential nature to do battle with death and pain, while bringing new life into the world. Finally it reminded me of the sharp difference between young men’s and young women’s lives. It is curious that biology acting alone takes women into an experience of descent at just the same age that men make their most virile ascent in the outer world, focused on achievement, accomplishment and self-image. How difficult it was for me to accept this in my twenties and thirties when I had just started my own engineering career!
Unprepared for the Descent
I was introduced to a mother’s “underworld” at age 27. Many western women now enter mothering quite mature and empowered,with long resumes and successful careers behind them (their finery). Still, I haven’t met many American mothers who were not shocked by the changes children brought to their psyche. It is often a path of descent into our own early history, the wilderness of our primitive selves and, in this culture, into solitary confinement. In Mark’s neurological terms it is perhaps a return to the depths of the right brain where our own earliest overwhelming memories are stored.
My own story? My husband and I had met as engineers. We sat on the drafting floor together. Other than the fact that Nick was a few years older, we had nearly the same education and experience. But after our first child our lives became drastically different. I was tucked away in a house in the suburbs with an infant who cried 19 out of 24 hours a day, while he began a magical ascent up the company hierarchy, eventually to become a part owner of the firm. Four children arrived in our home. While his career grew, I worked here and there part-time as an engineer, but mainly descended deeper into the mire of motherhood. I was often happy with babes in arms, but I also remember feeling at times as if my identity was falling like Inanna’s jewels and clothes at the gates.
Viewed from the topside male world, it was. I lost my worldly power. Meanwhile, in the world of my female psyche, I was undergoing a strong tempering, a testing, a death/rebirth experience of exponential proportions for which the culture had no name. Nothing prepared me for meeting the wrath and the desperation of an inner Ereshkigal, the strange sister. Later I would sometimes indeed feel as if I had been hung on the meat hook and left to die within the “eye of death” of my self-judgments. It was crazy. I felt bombarded with internal and external mandates to be an utterly child-centered, patient, loving and joyous parent. From family, community and schools I felt single handedly responsible for producing children who were attractive, mannerly, who read early, scored high on standardized tests, and behaved appropriately in school. They were further expected to be highly enriched, motivated and later to know exactly where their lives were going. Our culture naively and rigorously expects Mom’s (and Dad’s) to produce all this while being strictly from Heaven and strongly resists the Dark Sister (which I notice only makes her darker). Is it any wonder that Ereshkigal lives? It is remarkable that our love withstands these crazy conditions for loving.
Maintaining Sanity in an Insane World
Feminists for many years have decried the insanity of western motherhood. I am not a new voice in this collective cry. But I do notice that we do not have enough guides or maps for putting motherhood, history, culture and neuroscience together in new ways that help us embrace the darker parts of our experience and turn them to the gold that Jung knew they were. Usually we attempt to stay in heaven and hope to win the gamble of suppressing the darker parts of ourselves. Mark and I wonder if there is a better way. Perhaps we do not need to wrestle for our freedom all alone.
In the end Inanna was rescued after much politicking and a few horse trades. I was too. Inanna was undoubtedly more wise and less naïve post-journey, and so am I. Indeed, what ultimately saved Inanna were small creatures (fashioned from the fingernail dirt of a god, no less) who showed Ereshkigal compassion. It was learning compassion for my own inner Ereshkigal that saved me, too. The trip did much good for both my dark sister and me. I now consider her a kind of sage, a source of wisdom and strength for when heaven is just too much to bear.
P.S. Having each done the work of embracing our own dark heart material as it emerged in the wake of our last offering, Mark and I are ourselves a bit more tempered and once again ready to reprise the online Embracing Mother’s Dark Heart webinar for a limited number of people. Click here to find out more information about the upcoming offering.