Uncovering the Death Mother
Written by Lauryn Evans
Defining the Death Mother
The Death Mother archetype is something that I only learned about two years ago, and it fascinated me. Soon, I saw this archetype expressed in movies such as Lady Bird (2017). The Death Mother archetype symbolizes ill behaviour or feelings of a woman threatening their child(ren) – meaning their life or psychological, physical, mental, or emotional well-being (Sieff, p. 15, 2019). Though this simplified description of a far more complex archetype is not entirely captured, its very nature is heavy. All women, specifically mothers, are believed to inherently and selflessly love their children. In a Western cultural lens, the Death Mother has been subjected to the shadows and buried in shame. This is due to the belief that it is unnatural for women to neglect, harm, kill, or pose a threat to their child(ren). Western society has decided that there is no space or place for the Death Mother in our cultural consciousness (Sieff, p. 15, 2019). Before going any further with this discussion, I would like to include a content warning here, as some of this material may be activating to some.
This article contains content on: maternal filicide, parental abuse and neglect, eating disorders, and self-harm, if any of this may be emotionally distressing to you, please do not continue further.
The Death Mother is hard to digest because no one wants to believe that a mother, of all people, could be the very one to harm their children. Yet, we must ask ourselves why we hold this notion so closely. Women are often expected to love their children selflessly and entirely; sacrificing pieces, if not all, of themselves for their child is absolutely necessary. However, this is not as commonly expected from fathers. Now, think of a father abandoning his family compared to a mother abandoning her family. Which evokes a stronger response? What did each make you think about and feel? Why do you feel that way? It is a desired thought to imagine every mother is maternal, loves unconditionally and altruistically, is devoted, and even wants their child(ren). It is just that, though, a desire and nothing more.
Not all mothers yearn for that title for themselves – not every woman feels a maternal instinct. A mother may feel threatened by their child for any reason. For example, a mother may feel they have lost their autonomy and freedom because of their child(ren). Furthermore, an unresolved trauma from their past could project onto their child(ren), and the relationship between the child and caregiver becomes complex. The Death Mother holds an intense description, one that I assume no one would want to see themselves in. When we think about the actions of the Death Mother, perhaps we envision extreme physical aggression or the absolute disgust and resentment that the mother feels towards her child. We can quickly imagine that the harm done is overt, yet much of the damage is covert, like many relationships with complex attachment and attunement.
As discussed prior, the Death Mother carries a distinct heaviness and the weight of being outcasted from society. I will be sourcing material written by Daniela Sieff, who has a Ph.D. in Anthropology and has done immense work in the dynamics that underlie trauma and her works on the Death Mother. Daniela Sieff is one of the first scholars and trauma-based workers to approach the Death Mother with compassion and curiosity rather than judgment and fear that further villainizes this emotional dynamic. My aim, too, is to speak and meet the Death Mother with compassion, while working towards humanizing this archetype, and to not vilify those who resonate with this archetype. While doing this, I hope to shed light on the lived experiences of those harmed and traumatized by the Death Mother – the children of those carrying this archetype and its impacts in adulthood.
Holding the Death Mother in a New Light
I would like to use this space to speak about the Death Mother through a different lens. I will speak about maternal filicide, influencing personal and external factors, and utilizing the movie Lady Bird by Greta Gervig (2017) as an example of the Death mother. My intent here is to highlight that the nature of the Death Mother is diverse, carries range, and is not always presented in the same way. Before we begin, I must also note that anyone can have this archetype within themselves. In much of the description of this archetype, there is prominence surrounding the biological ties between mother and child. While this can be important, it is not necessary in order for this archetype to be applicable; just as I mentioned before, anyone can hold archetypes. What is essential in the dynamic of this archetype is the relationship between child and caregiver, biological ties or none.
The Death Mother, carrying the image of extreme harm, may cause you to think of people you know capable of such malice. Some examples you may have considered are cases of maternal filicide, defined as a mother who kills her child(ren) (Friedman & Resnick, 2007). If you are familiar with criminal psychology, you probably know Andrea Yates. Andrea Yates was a mother residing in Houston, Texas, with her five children and husband. In 2001, Yates drowned all five of her children in a bathtub. She was found to be suffering from psychosis and schizoaffective disorder (Resnick, 2007). Other cases of maternal filicide include Diane Downs, a mother who shot and killed her daughter and attempted to murder her other two children, as well as Susan Smith, who locked her two young sleeping sons in their family vehicle before pushing the vehicle into the lake where they drowned (Sher & Braswell, 2010).
In a substantial amount of maternal filicide cases, the mother has a severe mental illness. However, it is not because of mental illness alone that motivates a mother to kill her child. Along with mental illness, many of these mothers also struggle with isolation due to being their child’s primary caregiver (Oberman, 2003). Outside of being a mother, women are leading their own lives and facing their battles, and they are to be seen and valued for themselves – not just for being a mother. Women who are mothers no longer only have themselves to be responsible for; now, they have a whole other being dependent on them. A part of humanizing the Death Mother is also understanding that there is a real, living, and feeling woman underneath. This is not me justifying maternal filicide or any of the harm from someone who holds the Death Mother archetype. Rather this is me speaking on something I believe to be crucial in this discussion. Mothers, along with all forms of caregivers, no longer only have themselves to think about, nurture, or provide for. Many caregivers lose hours upon hours of sleep and are so focused on caring for their children that they neglect themselves. Many struggle to form attachment and attunement with their child for a wide array of reasons such as mental illness, addiction, and working consecutive shifts in order to provide for their child – these are just some of the many factors that negatively impact caregivers’ mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Those impacts can be felt further by their child.
The Death Mother has a hostile force attached to it, and maternal hostility can develop in numerous ways, just as it is expressed in numerous ways. A woman can see a certain vulnerability and innocence in her child that reflects unwanted parts of self. If a woman grew up in an unloving home or was unwanted, this feeling could be internalized and projected onto her child. If a woman without other support cannot care for her child, then the child may be neglected and pose developmental harm. It is often believed that a mother’s hostility is rooted in their psyche, that they are at the core of what is wrong (Sieff, p. 18, 2019). External factors can influence and affect a mother’s relationship with her child, such as her physical, cultural, economic, and relational environment (Sieff, p. 18, 2019).
Suppose a woman does not have relational support from a spouse, family, friends, or community resources, and other means of support. In that case, she will become isolated in caregiving while also trying to provide all necessities. Living in low-income neighborhoods, near toxic facilities, or in an economy recovering from a natural disaster can affect how a mother and child attach and attune with one another. In some cultures and religions, bearing a child before marriage is considered shameful and dishonourable, which are notions the child will be affected by and can leave the mother to make dire decisions. Some mothers are unable or unfit to care for a child, whether emotionally, financially, or because they are struggling with mental illness; if an unfit mother raises a child, those effects, too, will be impactful to the child. What I am illustrating here is that there are copious factors that impact the relationship between a mother and their child and all of these factors have the potential to be significant. When you consider these factors, along with the uniqueness of experience, you can grow a more nuanced understanding of the Death Mother.
When I first watched Lady Bird (2017), I was quickly fascinated by the mother’s psyche and her relationship with her daughter. If you have seen this movie, I am sure you very quickly noted the mercurial and volatile nature surrounding Lady Bird and her mother. The movie starts with the mother and daughter speaking, and what seems like a simple, steady conversation quickly turns into one with judgment, criticism, and tension. Then, of course, Lady Bird decides the best thing to do is jump out of the moving vehicle to escape the argument and her mother, resulting in a broken arm. During the movie, Lady Bird sometimes criticizes her mother, expressing her frustration and dismay. However, if someone voices their views, such as Lady Bird’s first love interest calling her mother crazy, she feels she needs to defend her mother and her love for her. Some scenes depict the love and care in Lady Bird’s and her mother’s relationship, such as after Lady Bird’s first sexual experiences not going as hoped. Her mother picks her up and can see that she is visibly upset, brings her in for a warm embrace, assures her it will be okay and offers to go and do their favourite activity together. As an audience we see these warm, genuine moments, then the very next scene we are once again confronted with the volatility and cruel dynamics of their relationship.
Marion, Lady Bird’s mother, is seen in the movie expressing compassion and being gentle with others. This contrasts how we see Marion often interact with Lady Bird, especially their interactions when they are alone. Marion makes Lady Bird responsible for her emotions and intends to make Lady Bird feel responsible for her father’s emotions. Marion does this covertly; we do not witness any physical violence, force, or aggression, but it is done through psychological and emotional abuse, often motivated by Marion feeling as though everything is a burden for her to carry, even her daughter. Marion attempts to instill guilt, blame, and shame in Lady Bird, much of which is done through emotional manipulation. Toward the movie’s end, we see Marion use the silent treatment against Lady Bird. If you have ever been given the silent treatment, we can agree on how painful and frustrating this passive-aggressive action is. I will also say this: using the silent treatment as punishment is abuse. Lady Bird was not just given the silent treatment; rather, she ceased to exist in her mother’s eyes and life. Her mother would not speak or listen to her; she simply moved and existed as if Lady Bird was no longer there. Lady Bird essentially became invisible. This went to the extent of Marion not wishing or celebrating Lady Bird’s birthday, nor celebrating any monumental moments such as Lady Bird getting her driver’s license, being accepted into college, or even just being proud of her balancing two jobs. Perhaps, one of the most heart-wrenching scenes shows Lady Bird begging for her mother to talk to her and just to see her, all while exclaiming that she knows how bad of a person she is.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, I’m ungrateful and I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I wanted more. Just, please, talk to me… I know, I know I’m so bad.”
– Lady Bird (2017) Greta Gervig (Lady Bird to Marion)
In the movie, Marion briefly mentions that her mother was an abusive alcoholic when Lady Bird asks her if she ever wishes her own mother hadn’t gotten angry in response to something mundane. Though only mentioned in one short response, it is a critical factor. If a mother has unresolved trauma, it can inhibit her ability and capacity to respond sensitively to her child. Further, the unresolved trauma may distort the mother’s perceptions and expectations of her child. This may compromise the development of secure attachment, thus continuing the transmission of intergenerational trauma (Iyengar, et al., 2014). The concept of intergenerational trauma recognizes that exposure to traumatic events and adverse experiences impacts individuals to such a great extent that this trauma is transmitted to future generations (Yehuda & Lehrner, 2018). If this is something you are now learning, I encourage you to read further about this topic and utilize Indigenous teachings.
We all carry our life experiences with us; arguably, our life experiences shape us. Caregivers ultimately learn how to parent through how they were parented. It is common for individuals who grew up in a house described as abusive or neglectful to choose and promise to do right by their own children, ensuring they do not have a childhood like theirs. This is an honourable and commendable thing to do. It takes courage and bravery to confront the fear of having a child and the looming doubt that maybe, you, too, will harm your child. No parent is perfect, just as no person is. In one way or another, as a parent, you will harm your child, but it is about how you are there for them after and how you make amends. Even if the intent is not to inflict harm, it does not mean harm was not inflicted. It is important to be aware of this in all relationships and correspondence, not just in mother-child relationships.
The Impact of the Death Mother
(Content warning: I will be speaking about the impacts of trauma, which includes content about eating disorders and self-harm)
In an interview (2009) conducted by Daniela Sieff with Marion Woodman, a depth psychologist who has done proud work in understanding the inner world of unconscious mind and body, Sieff asks Woodman to clarify the psychological impacts of the Death Mother. Specifically, Sieff asks Marion Woodman to elaborate on what it means to internalize the Death Mother and to have it imprinted onto our physical self. Marion Woodman replies:
“If, while growing up, we sensed that we were unacceptable to our parents, if we were not wanted, or if we intuited that we threatened our parents, then our nervous system will have become hyper-vigilant. Our cells will have been imprinted with a profound fear of abandonment; consequently, our body will numb out when we feel threatened. As soon as we realize that we no longer please somebody, we freeze; we are thrown back into our belief that we are unlovable, which activates our ever-present but unconscious, terror of annihilation. In such moments the autonomic nervous system says “NO,” and the ego withdraws. I call this being catapulted into “possum mentality”; as soon as we sense a whiff of rejection, we are paralyzed with fear, close down, and stay absolutely still to survive. Eventually, that possum becomes a permanent feature in our body-psyche. Life is experienced as a minefield in which we are knocked down by explosions that are inaudible to others. If unconscious hostility exists in the environment, the inner body, acting autonomously, retreats and falls over “dead.” At the same time we may develop defense mechanisms that manifest in an armor of fat, oedema, vomiting, anything to keep poison out. Ultimately, our body may turn against itself as it does with cancer or auto-immune diseases. [The] Death Mother has been incorporated into the fabric of our cells,” (Sieff, pp. 178-179, 2009).
This direct excerpt speaks to the psychological harm created by the Death Mother. Instead of the body being a resource, it becomes a defense weapon. Seen through physical reactions and defense, such as vomiting or weight gain (along with loss), as well as self-harm and self-destructive tendencies may be present in the child of a caregiver with the Death Mother archetype. What I have learned from my research, reading scholarly articles, and speaking to those who understand this archetype personally is that much of physical responses to this form of trauma and harm is that control and power are important.
The Death Mother is a penetratively corrosive force that creates a daunting and powerless voice that can be heard well into adulthood. The impacts of the Death Mother are felt in the deepest sense of self. Many have to learn to self-regulate by themselves; chances are they never learned to regulate healthily and safely emotionally. This is where eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia may develop, along with self-harm such as self-mutilation via cutting, burning, or skin picking. These are all coping mechanisms that form as a result of overwhelming emotions and experiences. These behaviours can act as a sense of control and power and make someone feel numb, which, at times, feels better than being in the present.
The impacts of the Death Mother manifest in different ways. For some, the internalization of the archetype becomes a direct attack on the self. You then become your own Death Mother and perpetuate this harm further against yourself. Or, you may externalize it and instead project your experiences on others. This could mean becoming inappropriately aggressive, taking dangerous risks, or substance abuse/misuse, among others. The ways that individuals cope with the harm inflicted by the Death Mother, or any form of trauma endured, is not to be judged, stereotyped, or unwelcomed. We all cope in different ways, and I am not here to say that there is a wrong way to do so because I get it. You do what you must to feel a sense of security in your immediate environment and body; I think that is a sentiment many more of us know to be true than we think. It is about holding compassion for what we do not understand, especially if we have not experienced it.
The Death Mother is a powerful force, one that is far more common than we know. This force has been villainized and rejected in Western society due to the hostile nature of the Death Mother. Though, when we reject and dehumanize this very true and very real force, we perpetuate further harm to the individuals that hold this archetype within and to those who have been harmed and traumatized by this force. If we continue to deny the existence of the Death Mother, we are doing a disservice to many. Recognizing the background of the Death Mother and the possible factors that lead to this very force being created in someone, we must remember to hold compassion for their lived experiences. While we hold this compassion, we can also recognize and know that the harm and trauma they caused was not okay, nor is it ever justifiable. These two things can be true at once.
To bring this archetype into the conscious, we must first allow this force to take up space and accept it for what it is – no matter how uncomfortable it may be. We cannot say it is unnatural for women to kill or pose a threat to their child psychologically, emotionally, mentally, or physically just because they are the child’s mother. Humans are capable of many things, and it is faulty of us to believe that some humans are incapable of such things just because of their identity and/or familial ties to a child. If you read this article and thought of where you’ve seen the Death Mother, whether it has been in the media or maybe in your own life, all I hope is that maybe you have learned something new. Something new about this archetype, yourself, or others.
Friedman, S. H., & Resnick, P. J. (2007). Child murder by mothers: patterns and prevention. World Psychiatry, 6(3), 137–141. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2174580/.
Iyengar, U., Kim, S., Martinez, S., Fonagy, P., & Strathearn, L. (2014). Unresolved trauma in mothers: Intergenerational effects and the role of Reorganization. Frontiers in Psychology, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00966
Resnick, P. J. (2007). The Andrea Yates Case: Insanity on Trial . Cleveland State Law Review, 55(2). Retrieved February 14, 2023, from https://engagedscholarship.csuohio.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1174&context=clevstlrev.
Sher, L., & Braswell, K. (2010, May 11). Most Infamous Alleged Mommy Murderers in History. ABC News. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from https://abcnews.go.com/2020/infamous-cases-moms-allegedly-murder-kids/story?id=10588541
Sieff, D. F. (2019). The Death Mother as Nature’s Shadow: Infanticide, Abandonment, and the Collective Unconscious. A Quarterly Journal of Jungian Thought, 15, 18. https://doi.org/10.1080/00332925.2019.1564513
Sieff, D. F. (2009). The Psychology of Violence. A Journal of Archetype and Culture, 178–179. Retrieved February 14, 2023, from https://danielasieff.com/media-type/writing/confronting-death-mother-an-interview-with-marion-woodman/.
Yehuda, R., & Lehrner, A. (2018). Intergenerational transmission of trauma effects: Putative role of epigenetic mechanisms. World Psychiatry, 17(3), 243–257. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20568