Being Big, Being Small

1-Mom and PJ
My mother with great-grandson P.J.

I don’t know at what point in recent U.S. history children routinely started feeling wiser than their parents. This attitude felt so normal to me in my young adulthood, I never questioned it. Mothering my feisty teen-age daughter eventually made me wonder if something was wrong. Surely the “Question Authority” button I’d once sported wasn’t meant to be taken quite so seriously? But it was only in attending my first family constellation workshop in 2005 that I finally realized how much this topsy-turvy parent-child thing had been sapping my energy for decades.

There is something surprisingly conservative about family constellation work, developed in Germany in the 1980’s by Bert Hellinger. When I tell people I am trained in this healing modality they assume I am involved in some New Age practice that is way-out, and that’s why so few people in the U.S. have heard of it. But maybe its insights just don’t easily resonate with the rebellious, psychologically pseudo-sophisticated North American soul. I will never forget how in my first workshop I gazed into the eyes of a stranger who was representing my mother, and saw the woman who gave birth to me in all her mysterious grandeur for the first time.

A core insight of family constellation workshops is that we can never be “bigger” than our parents. When we secretly look down on those who gave us life, judging them, dissecting their faults, we lose our own grounding. I didn’t gain this insight from any of the mainstream psychotherapists whom I’d worked with through the years.  No, it was as if once the idea of blaming our mothers for all our problems entered the air many decades ago, even the most progressive forms of psychotherapy seemed to be infected by it.

I recently heard an interview with author Meredith Maran ( She has written several memoirs, the first one at age forty-five, the most recent one at sixty-five. She regrets the hurt she caused her mother in her first book, and is sincerely hoping her own children will gain more perspective before they write about her!  She reflects that we could all easily write an entirely new portrait of our parents every ten years.

I understood, because in the twenty years between my first attempts to portray my mother’s complex character in writing, and the last revisions of my memoir Ollie Ollie In Come Free, my perspective changed profoundly. I was taken aback by my original presumptuousness.

I remember back to my teen-age years, when I, like most kids in our culture, first began to set myself above my mother.  I thought Mom was too wrapped up in her own family, not self-sacrificing enough, because she did not bake cookies for neighbors in need as some other mothers did. I thought she and Dad should take in a foster child. Never mind that she had seven kids, was dealing with Dad’s multiple sclerosis, and was up to her ears in community commitments.

I wonder, looking back on my adolescent judgments, whether they were my early way of dealing with helpless feelings as I first became conscious of a hurting world.  They were my cry of “Someone do something! This is intolerable!”  Since I myself could have so little impact on the world around me, I thought my mother, the all-powerful, was just being selfish and insular. And where had I received my desire to make a better world? From my mother!

I can honestly affirm now, relatively late in life, that I really do not know what made my mother tick.  I can only reflect on what I observed in her, entirely through my own lens.  Her personality traits, the ones that so maddened me, the ones that I blamed for my own trials and tribulations in life, may or may not have been as I saw them. How can I possibly know?

One of my younger sisters, who took care of Mom during her years of failing memory, and eventually failing body, used to judge her with as jaded an eye as I did.  But during those years of nursing her, the scales fell away from my sister’s eyes. So she awaited the publication of my memoir with deep anxiety about how I would portray Mom, so soon after her death. She did not want me to violate her transformed love and respect. When she read my book, she was greatly relieved, and I was relieved that she was relieved.

When I first started writing my memoir, it was to voice my truth, and this included my sometimes harsh version of truth about my parents. By publication, after eight years of family constellation work and many tender moments with my aged mother, I knew I had no truth to offer, just my own subjective experience. How could it be otherwise?

What we experience viscerally in constellation workshops is that children really never can know their parents.  The parents’ lives — their dreams, wounds, joys, disillusionments — lie beyond the scope of their children’s understanding. Ultimately, all we can do is bow to our parents (we sometimes do this literally) and the gift of life they have given us.


For more information on Anne’s family constellation work, visit

Published by Anne Becker

Anne Bernard Becker is the author of Ollie Ollie In Come Free: A Memoir of Swallowed Time. Her book, published in October, 2014, explores the impact of her three older siblings' deaths on her childhood and growth in to adulthood, and is based on seven years in psychoanalysis in the 1980's and '90's. Anne grew up in South Bend, Indiana, and studied at Indiana University, the Sorbonne, University of Pennsylvania (M.A. in French) and Fordham University (M.A. in Religious Education). In 1978 she took a position as a campus and parish minister in Cincinnati. Since 2001 she has worked at a learning center as a reading specialist. Anne facilitates Family Constellation workshops that blend her ongoing interest in history, psychology and spirituality to explore the effects of ancestral trauma on family systems. A mother of three grown children, Anne lives with her husband Gerry in Cincinnati.

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  1. Anne, once again, you have done it. I don’t know if our stars are crossed or what–or perhaps it is the Spirit speaking through you–but your words go directly to my current life experience. My mother died (how can it be?) six years ago and I wrote her eulogy with the words, “My mother’s favorite flowers were yellow tulips. I didn’t know this…” I went on to enumerate some of the other things I didn’t know about my mother, acknowledging, I suppose, how little I really did know her at all. My mother and I were not close, to say the least. And, yes, I have judged, and do judge, my parents harshly. It is difficult to avoid when the “sins” continue into adulthood and into a third generation. But there is something humbling about raising one’s own young adults that causes me to question my own contribution to the dynamics. There can be no absolutes in relationships as you so aptly write: “I knew I had no truth to offer, just my own subjective experience. How could it be otherwise?” (Probably one reason the expression “my truth” has always rankled me.)

    I know nothing of this Family Constellation work, only that I am bone-weary of modern day brands of psychotherapy models, especially ones that put the parents at fault, and most of which don’t work in my experience. My husband and I have come to the conclusion that something vital is missing that isn’t being addressed or nurtured in therapy. Our only working theory is that it is a component of spirituality, that more people are actually spiritually ailing than psychologically sick and mistake the two.

    Finally, let me just say that reading your words is a joy–uplifting and full of hope. I write this as I feel words blossoming again within me for the first time in many years. Perhaps you have provided water for a seed? I would very much like your book. Can I still purchase it? Do I send you the money?

  2. Maureen,

    Thank you so much for your comment. I am glad that what I wrote resonates so deeply with you. I know there have been a lot of similarities in our life experiences, and it is good to have fellow travelers. I find your reflections very interesting, and am so glad you have started to write again after what sounds like a long dry spell. If you ever want to try constellation work, it is quite powerful with adoptive parents and kids — the kids don’t have to be present to feel the effect. I would agree that regular psychotherapy just doesn’t make much of a dent, and don’t get me started on getting blamed as a mother by the professionals as well as others! I can sell you a book directly (we can get together while we’ll at it) or you can purchase it on Amazon. Take care.

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