Brief Therapy with Single Mothers: The Transformational Alchemy of Metaphor By Bette Jonas Freedson, LCSW on 9/6/23 - 11:48 AM

Psychic Schemas and the Phenomenology of Being a Single Mother

There are over 9 million single mothers in the USA. Therapists working with these women hear stories of abandonment, disempowerment, loneliness, hopelessness, victimization, rage, and unrelenting stress.

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Disturbing perceptions and emotions such as these, and the distorted interpretations that result, may, but more likely and typically, solidify into psychic schemas characterized by deeply embedded patterns of distorted thinking, dysfunctional reacting, and compromised coping.

Psychic schemas, themselves free of valence, can be understood as internal vehicles serving as repositories for what the individual notices, perceives, and catalogues — including feelings, thoughts, sensations, actions, experiences, and the ever-changing states of the Self. The way these phenomena of living are perceived — through thought, memory, imagination — and the linguistics of the internal narrative, provides the personal schema with its phenomenology, its valence, and its meanings.

As with any individual, what gets introduced and accepted into a single mother’s schema will affect how she thinks, what she feels, how she continues to live her life, and how she views herself. Her existing schema will influence content that continues to be incorporated. The phenomena that become absorbed will affirm or refute negative cognitions, support or refute distorted thinking, validate or dissipate painful emotions, increase or decrease stress, and affect choices of action, including decisions about the mother’s parenting — and about her sense of self.

Through listening to the single mother’s stories, and recognizing her interpretations about them, the therapist can become aware of and assess the possibilities for creatively crafting metaphors that can elicit cognitive shifts, emotional transformations, and behavioral change.

The Transformational Alchemy of Metaphor

The unconscious mind embodies a powerful potential to transform negatively charged schemas into more positive ones that embody uplifting themes and hopeful interpretations. The quiet mind, combined with the evocative and rhythmic language of hypnosis, can fuel a subconscious shift that can reduce stress, increase ego strength (including parenting skill), transform confusion into clarity, decrease stress, and increase a sense of strength and wellbeing.

Used in conjunction with trance, the mother’s personal metaphors become powerful tools that can reach beyond the didactic to tap the unconscious mind’s potential for reframing and restructuring the phenomenology of the single mother’s psychic schema. This potential to redirect focus, shift internal states and create change in the bio-psychosocial-emotional substance of the patient’s psychic schema constitutes the transformational power of metaphor.

Metaphors (and their cousins, simile, allegory and parable) contain rich sensual imagery that can gently and poetically focus attention to perceptions that can shift self-states and move patients toward changes they desire. When used with techniques of trance, such as tempo and attunement, metaphors drawn from patients’ stories constitute a power-filled therapeutic tool for anchoring change and growth in the body-mind with stability and durability that can successfully lead to increased resilience and coping strength.

Using brief, simple, and effective techniques, therapists can assist the single mother in imaging and identifying with new metaphors drawn from her own personal story. In trance, this “sympathetic identification” with new and transformed metaphors can lead to increased confidence, more solid self-esteem, greater ego strength, and a more integrated core of Self. When this positive enhancement becomes incorporated into the psychic schema, the psychosocial-emotional benefit to the mother can also benefit the health of her children.

In the following narrative, my work with “Queen Esta” demonstrates the way in which a carefully crafted metaphor has the power to shift the meaning of a personal and create a stronger sense of Self.

Queen Esta’s Story

“I just left my husband of 30 years!”

That was how Esta introduced herself, at the age of 83, knowing that she could have a future. Esta wanted to understand why she had spent thirty years with a second husband she did not love. To Esta’s credit, she had the wisdom to realize that at this critical turning point, it was important for her to understand the greater span of her life in order to accept her choice to leave her marriage.

As Esta’s story unfolded, it became clear to both of us that Esta’s acceptance of her current choices had everything to do with looking at a different piece of her story. Long before there were social supports and the stigma had faded, Esta had been a single mother. Esta soon came to realize that understanding the impact and meaning of her single motherhood would hold a key to the answers and comfort that she was seeking.

I discovered that Esta had married her first husband in the early 1940’s, shortly before he went into the service and, “when I was too young to know what love was.” The new husband had come home on leave and had left Esta again, pregnant. Esta’s husband was not pleased with the news. When he told her that he wanted her to have an abortion, she agreed it was a very good idea. “I did have one,” she enjoys saying triumphantly — “and it was him!”

After dismissing and divorcing her husband, Esta found herself a single mother of a very young son. In the mid 1940’s, widows, especially war widows, had some acceptance, but single motherhood was not as socially integrated as it is today. How had Esta coped? What had been her resources? Even so many years later, Esta did not fully comprehend how strong she must have been to grapple with the social context of the day and the great difficulties and isolation that single mothers faced.

As single mothers in every era must, Esta had to deal with her own fears and insecurities and raise her child at the same time. Esta had done both successfully, but she did not see the strengths she had drawn on or realize that they could add to her resilience in the present.

During her son’s early childhood, Esta had called upon her inner and outer resources. She had relied on her parents to take care of her little boy while she worked long hours, often traveling alone overnight. She remained mindful and grateful for the help she was getting from her family, feeling fortunate that she had this support. In this way, Esta did not see herself as a victim, but rather cultivated an attitude of acceptance that gave her strength to keep going.

“Esta,” I asked her, “Wasn’t it terribly hard to be a single mother in those days?”

“Yes, it was.” She assured me. “I did what I had to do, but there were others harder up than I was, with no families to help.

“What is the secret of this positive attitude you had?” (She still has it into her 90s!)

“I believe in God.” she said unhesitatingly. “This was the path he chose for me, and I had to accept that. I felt grateful to have my son. He was so precious, and my mother and father loved him as if he was their own. I accepted my decision to divorce and trusted that this was what God wanted for me. So, you see, I was lucky.”

As Esta continued to examine her life story, she came to realize that more than luck had been at work. She was able to see her courage and the intuitive wisdom that gave her the courage to banish husband number one. Finally, she could entertain the idea that there was also deep wisdom in her choice of husband number two. At a point where she no longer had family support, was weary from her grueling job, and had no financial base, Esta had married a man who could, and would, support her and her son.

Esta was now able to make sense of her past and present choices, comforted by knowing that they had been logical, born from a positive impetus. With this knowledge, she was able to accept the sadness of never having had the romantic union, but Esta was relieved of the stress caused by disappointment and regrets, and feelings of well-being replaced disappointment and regret.

Once again, Esta had “done what I had to do.” Realizing how strong she had been in the past helped Esta to see that her decision to leave her current husband was coming from an authentic core part of her Self which knew what was right for her now as it had in the past. As she achieved this wisdom, Esta’s feelings of sadness and self-doubt were replaced by a sense of well-being and an appreciation for her experience and her maturity.

In the throes of her single motherhood, Esta was too immersed in survival to see what she was accomplishing, and the era of self-help and therapeutic support had not yet dawned. Now, so many years later, ready to look back and see her success as a single mother, Esta embarked upon a review that allowed her to know how inner wisdom had directed her to cope and survive. Esta told me about the love of her life, a young man who had died before they were able to be married, almost 50 years ago.

Esta recounted the depth of that old grief, and how difficult life became then, and again when her parents, on whom she had so depended, died. Through all these losses, Esta had kept her sense of humor, her belief in God, and the persistent effort to give her son a good life. She maintained her dedication to him even to the day when this son, now a man, asked for her blessing to follow his destiny 3000 miles away. “My heart broke.” She told me. “But what could I say? This is what he wanted, and I wanted him to be happy.”

As she reviewed the events that required such pervasive and abiding courage, Esta was able to acknowledge that, indeed, life had been hard for her. She affirmed that trust in the will of her Higher Power had enabled her to embody the healthy attitude that had been with her into her 90s. When Esta started therapy, she was no longer the young mother with a little boy to bring up.

However, it meant the world to Esta to transform her doubts of having wasted her life into a view of herself that affirmed her strength, and the deep abiding soul Wisdom that guided her so many years ago, when she just “Did what I had to do.”

When asked how I should identify her in my book, Esta requested that she be called “Queen Esther.” Partly, she says, because Queen Esther in the Bible was a wise woman and a survivor; and partly because now Esta saw herself as “Esther,” a modern Queen, courageously having raised a boy into a good man.

Esther told me that she knows that the difficulties she faced as a single mother helped to make her into the Queen she is. She knows that she made choices from an inner truth that directed her to do the right thing.

Queen Esther was then, and will always be, truly a Soul Mother.

This story is excerpted and adapted from Soul Mothers’ Wisdom: Seven Insights for the Single Mother, by and with the permission of its author, Bette Jonas Freedson, and that of its publisher, Pearlsong Press.   

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy