My mother was never very good at saying no. When as a teenager I would ask her for something she needed to deny me, it would tie her in knots. She would get angry at me for having even asked. When my daughter became a toddler, we began to have battles over TV. She would scream and cry if I turned it off, and beg for me to turn it on at times. I remember feeling tied in knots. And then one day it hit me like someone throwing a brick through the window. If my kid asked to watch TV, I could say no. She might scream and throw a fit, but I could still say no. All I had to do was hold firm to that one simple word, “no,” and be prepared to tolerate her reaction.
This was the beginning of a new phase in my learning about how to carry authority. Like many women, saying “no” in the face of fierce opposition and then tolerating the other’s unhappiness has never come easy for me. In my late 20’s, I achieved a senior management position at a non-profit. A seasoned employee came to my office with an outrageous request. He smiled, chatted me up, and asked nicely. I said yes. Some part of me knew it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t even imagine how to say no.
So having children helped me learn how to say no. I remember being curious as to whether being able to say “no” to a screaming four year old demanding dessert after consuming no dinner would carry over into “real” life. Would I now begin to feel more firmly rooted in my own authority in all areas of my life?
Several years ago, I had the following dream. I was in a beautiful boutique, and in a lit glass case was a priceless object carved in black stone. It was a gargoyle-type figure about the size of my fist. I somehow knew that it had been carved and used for religious purposes a long time ago. It hung on a cord. I asked the proprietor if I could see it. When I put it around my neck, its eyes began to glow red, and it came to life. It attacked the people I was with, choking off their breath, so that they clutched at their throats. I was frightened, but I fought to control the figure. To do so, I used the same counting technique I used with my strong-willed son when he needed to have a limit set. “That’s one!” I told the gargoyle firmly. It ceased its attack. My companions were alright. I had controlled this fiery power. I felt a little afraid, but also slightly exhilarated. The others in the shop agreed that the totem obviously belonged to me by right.
I couldn’t really figure out how to describe the carved figure until the kids and I were driving past the campus of the University of Pennsylvania and they asked me about the gargoyles on some of the dorm buildings. Then it hit me that the totem in the dream had been just like a gargoyle. “Mom,” my daughter asked. “Are the gargoyles there to scare things away?” “Yes,” I explained. I reminded her about the Chinese New Year celebration we had been to the previous year, where dragons were used to scare off evil spirits. “Sometimes you need one kind of demon to scare off another,” I found myself saying.
This discussion gave me a new appreciation for my dream, and made me want to learn more about gargoyles. It turns out that gargoyles originated with a medieval French legend of a fire breathing dragon-like creature called the “gargouille” that inhabited the Seine, devouring boats and terrorizing villages. Saint Romanus subdued and conquered to creature with the help of a convict and brought its remains back to be burned. The head and neck would not burn, however, since they had been long tempered with the creature’s own fire. This head and neck were hung on the cathedral to serve as a water spout.
It’s significant that the saint is able to conquer the gargouille with the help of an outcast and criminal. The convict in the legend would correspond to Jung’s concept of the shadow. This was the name that Jung gave to those aspects of ourselves that we would rather not know were ours. The shadow often contains elements that are truly objectionable, but also those that were unacceptable to our parents or culture, but may be of great value. Anger and aggression are likely to be in the shadow for many women. Certainly, they have been for me. Just as in the legend, accessing disowned parts of ourselves can help us to conquer our demons in a way that produces something of lasting value. The terrifying gargouille becomes a helpful gargoyle. Its energy is no longer destructive, but can be used for scaring off evil spirits, and channeling water.
My dream was showing me how, as a mother, I had begun to learn to tap into my own aggression and anger in a constructive way. My anger has always scared me, but in part through my experiences holding authority with my kids, I was beginning to access that side of myself in a way that makes this tremendous power available to the conscious part of my personality.
My favorite quote about motherhood comes from the novelist Faye Weldon, who said that “The most wonderful thing about not having children must be that you can go on thinking of yourself as a nice person.” Maybe one of the gifts of motherhood is that we no longer have to be stuck thinking of ourselves as nice people.