Every Mother’s Day, there are daughters that hide behind a mask while others showcase stories of connection, love and admiration.
Those who have not been as fortunate suffer the shame that comes with the taboo of dissing our mothers.
For better or worse, our relationship with our mother will have a lifelong influence on our personality, behavior and self-esteem. If we’re lucky, that legacy will be an overwhelmingly positive one. The myths of motherhood which convey all mothers as loving further isolate unloved daughters. Shattering some of this myth can be helpful in lifting some of the hurt and pain.
For most parents and their children, whatever the glitches, scuffles and conflicts, the relationship is largely comforting and supportive. But for some, there’s more pain in the mother-child relationship than comfort and pleasure.
The undesirable mother-daughter relationship dynamic creates discomfort for many. Members of the family, involved family friends and well-intentioned therapists explain it away with various excuses.
We often attempt to align with social expectations and make excuses and take all the blame. Until we understand that the emotional void is a characteristic result of maternal relational injury can we cannot begin to heal. Without understanding, we flounder, we repeat our mistakes, feel unworthy and sabotage ourselves and our lives.
Attachment theory first proposed by Mary Ainsworth but expanded by the work of Mary Main and many others elucidates the significance of this relationship further.
In infancy and childhood, a daughter’s sense of self is often reflected back by her mother’s face. If her mother is loving and attuned, the baby is securely attached; she learns both that she is loved and lovable. That sense of being lovable—worthy of affection and attention, of being seen and heard—becomes the foundation on which her earliest sense of self is built, and facilitates further growth.
The daughter of an unloving mother—one who is emotionally distant, withholding or inconsistent, or even hypercritical or cruel—learns different lessons about the world and herself. The underlying problem the significant dependence a human infant has on her mother for nurture and survival. What results is an insecure attachment, characterized as either “ambivalent” (the child does not know whether the good mommy or the bad one will show up) or “avoidant” (the daughter wants her mother’s love but is afraid of the consequences of seeking it). Ambivalent attachment teaches a child that the world of relationship is unreliable; avoidant attachment sets up a terrible conflict between the child’s needs both for her mother’s love and for protection against her mother’s emotional or physical abuse.
There are some common archetypes that illuminate an unhealthy dynamic.
1) The Angry/Controlling type:
As a psychologist, I am aware that all parents get angry—usually when we’re tired or stressed, or when we need to warn children of danger or teach them an important life lesson.
Although no child likes it when a parent is angry, a single outburst does not produce a difficult relationship. It is only when a parent repeatedly uses anger to close conversations and control family members that it becomes a problem.
When anger overshadows everything at home, children live in a constant state of high alert, waiting for emotional explosions. As well as being psychologically damaging, this type of long-term stress is also toxic to the young brain. Many adults say they still panic in the face of their mother’s anger and grew up feeling they were constantly in the wrong. These people will often become appeasers—gearing themselves to please and placate others.
This type of mother will try to take charge of every aspect of their child’s life—to the extent that she even tells the child what to see feel and want. In a healthy relationship, control is used to shape general values and set down specific rules.
2) The Narcissistic Type:
The definition of a “narcissist” is a person who is totally self-involved.
A mother with narcissistic tendencies will largely be challenged in showing empathy. This emotion is not solidified into a healthy parent-child relationship, because she sees every request for attention by her child as competition.
Tell her you’re sick, for example, and she’ll snap back: “Don’t talk to me about being sick. I’ve been hard at work all day while being sick. You don’t know what being sick is.”
In her egotistical way, she also sees her offspring as a reflection of her, so her children must be outstanding in every aspect of their being to be “worthy” of her.
Any child of a narcissistic mother will be under constant pressure to be both subservient to their mother’s ego, yet expected to shine. A narcissistic mother craves attention and adoration that comes from her own feelings of low self-worth. But no matter how hard you try to please her, you will live under a constant cloud of disdain, regardless of your efforts.
Children in this situation often live with the fear that their relationship with their mother could break apart at any minute should they inadvertently offend her. The silver lining is you may have learned to be extremely diplomatic, patient and set high standards for yourself.
3) Envious Type:
For the envious mother, a child’s success arouses hostility.
Children expect a parent’s face to reflect admiration when presented with good news; instead, the envious mother’s mouth pulls down in contempt.
“Someday you’ll realize you’re not so great,” she warns. Or perhaps the initial response is cheerful, but later you notice that ordinary things you do irritate her. “Stop making so much noise,” and, “Why do you have to go on and on about it?”
Instead of bolstering a child’s confidence and inspiring a sense of their potential, an envious parent begrudges her child’s independence and self-pride. She looks at her child and thinks: “Why can she feel joy when I don’t?” or, “Why does she have a chance to be successful when I have been disappointed?”
Children learn that the good things in their lives somehow offend, even harm, the person who matters deeply to them, and whom they long to please. Parental envy is particularly common when a child hits adolescence and starts to make their own way in the world. Instead of seeing a child’s success as a source of pride, and taking delight in a son or daughter flourishing, an envious mother feels something is being taken away from her.
She believes that she can have a comfortable and secure bond with her child only if her child’s self-worth is as low as hers. For those that have had to cope with such a mother, you may have learned how to stave off the envy of others with charisma, or to look past negative comments. You may even be a high achiever, driven by your mother’s dissatisfaction. But if years of trying to please someone in vain has made it hard to enjoy your achievements, there is considerable scientific evidence to show that pursuing the approval of others leads to greater unhappiness than pursuing what you yourself value.
4) Emotionally Unavailable Type:
A mother’s prolonged emotional absence has even been shown to affect the physical and chemical make-up of a child’s brain. Often the result of depression or perhaps a drug or alcohol dependency, a mother’s emotional unavailability can be incredibly difficult for a child to deal with and lead to all kinds of upset and confusion.
“Affective sharing,” or emotional exchanges between mother and baby, increases brain growth and generates those crucial brain systems that help us manage our own emotions, organize our thoughts and plan our lives.
Positive emotional exchanges have been shown to stimulate the growth of the cortisol receptors in the brain that absorb and buffer stress hormones. It builds the brain strength we need to bounce back from disappointment and failure.
Children with depressed, emotionally unavailable mothers can grow up seeing their role as a comforter and protector. They may feel guilty for feeling happy and often take on large amounts of responsibility to make up for her “absence.”
As an adult, ordinary emotions such as joy and sadness may strike you as extreme, self-indulgent and even dangerous. You may also have deep-seated beliefs about the role you should play in close relationships, believing that other people’s needs are more important than your own,and that you cannot trust people to be there for you.
That need coexists with the terrible and damaging understanding that the one person who is supposed to love you without condition does not. The struggle to heal and cope is a daunting, affecting many, if not all parts, of the self, but especially relationships.
Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver (and, later, others) showed that early childhood attachments were highly predictive of adult romantic relationships, as well as friendships. Not surprising the most common wounds are those to the self and the area of emotional connection.
1. Lack of confidence:
The unloved daughter does not know that she is lovable or worthy of attention; she may have grown up feeling ignored or unheard or criticized at every turn. Daughters sometimes talk about feeling that they are “fooling people” and express fear that they’ll be “found out” when they enjoy success in the world.
2. Lack of trust:
These trust issues emanate from that sense that relationships are fundamentally unreliable. This impacts romantic relationships and friendships alike.
As reported by Hazan and Shaver in their work, the ambivalently attached daughter needs constant validation that trust is warranted and, in their words, these people “experienced love as involving obsession, a desire for reciprocation and union, emotional highs and lows, and extreme sexual attraction and jealousy.” Trust and the inability to set boundaries are, as it happens, closely connected.
3. Difficulty setting boundaries:
Many daughters, caught between their need for their mother’s attention and its absence, report that they become “pleasers” in adult relationships or are unable to set other boundaries which make for healthy and emotionally sustaining relationships. A number of unloved daughters report problems with maintaining close female friendships, which are complicated by issues of trust (“How do I know she’s really my friend?”), not being able to say no (“Somehow, I always end up being a doormat, doing too much, and I get used or disappointed in the end”), or wanting a relationship so intense that the other person backs off.
4. Difficulty seeing the self accurately:
Much of this has to do with internalizing all you were told growing up, and these distortions in how we see ourselves may extend into every domain, including your looks. Daughters report feeling surprised when they succeed at something, as well as being hesitant to try something new so as to reduce the possibility of failure. This is not just a question of low self-esteem but something more profound.
5. Making avoidance the default position:
These women, on the surface, may act as though they want to be in a relationship but, on a deeper though less conscious level, they are really motivated more by avoidance. The work of Hazan, Shaver, and Bartholomew bears this out. Unfortunately, avoidance—whether triggered by fear, mistrust or something else—actively prevents the unloved daughter from finding the kind of loving and supportive relationships she’s always sought.
6. Being overly sensitive:
An unloved daughter may be sensitive to slights, real and imagined; a random comment may carry the weight of her childhood experience without her even being aware of it. Having a mother who’s unattuned also means that unloved daughters often have trouble managing emotions; they tend to over think and ruminate as well.
7. Replicating the mother bond in relationships:
Alas, we tend to be drawn to what we know—those situations which, while they make us unhappy in the end, are nonetheless “comfortable” because they are familiar to us. While securely attached individuals tend to go out into the world seeking people who have similar histories of attachment, unluckily, so do the ambivalently and avoidantly attached. This sometimes has the effect of unwittingly replicating the maternal relationship.
Early attachments form the internal templates or mental representations we have about how relationships work in the world. Without therapy or intervention, these mental representations tend to be relatively stable. Consciousness is the first step in an unloved daughter’s healing. All too often, we simply accept these behaviors in ourselves without knowing their etiology.
So this Mother’s Day work to heal the mother wounds that may reside in you.