In the years since I researched and wrote Mean Mothers, I’ve talked to women about our shared experiences. Every woman’s story is different; perhaps the greatest commonality is the discovery that each of us is not alone, that we are not the only girls or women to have had mothers who can’t or won’t love them. The taboos about “dissing” our mothers, and the myths of motherhood which portray all mothers as loving, serve to isolate unloved daughters. That discovery lifts part of the hurt and burden, but not all of it.
The following catalog of what can happen to a daughter who grows up without a mother’s love and support is derived from anecdote, and not a scientific survey; it’s not meant to be inclusive, either. Again, I write not as a psychologist or therapist, but as a fellow traveler.
Why these wounds are common is amply explained by attachment theory, first proposed by John Bowlby and then expanded by the work of Mary Ainsworth, Mary Main, and many others.
In infancy and childhood, a daughter catches the first glimpse of herself in the mirror that is 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 bedrock on which she builds her earliest sense of self, and provides the energy for its growth.
The daughter of an unloving mother—one who is emotionally distant, withholding, inconsistent, or even hypercritical or cruel—learns different lessons about the world and herself. The underlying problem, of course, is how dependent a human infant is on her mother for nurturance and survival, and the circumscribed nature of her world. What results is insecure attachment, characterized as either “ambivalent” (the child doesn’t 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.
Early attachments form our internal templates or mental representations of how relationships work in the world. Without therapy or intervention, these mental representations tend to be relatively stable.
The key point is that a daughter’s need for her mother’s love is a primal driving force, and that need doesn't diminish with unavailability—it coexists with the terrible and damaging understanding that the one person who is supposed to love you without condition doesn’t. The struggle to heal and cope is a mighty one. It affects many, if not all, parts of the self—especially in the area of relationships.
The work of Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver (and later, others) showed that early childhood attachments were highly predictive of adult romantic relationships, as well as friendships. It won’t surprise you that the most common wounds are those to the self and the area of emotional connection.
The point of looking at these wounds isn’t to bemoan them or throw up our hands in despair at the mother-love cards we were dealt but to become conscious and aware of them. Consciousness is the first step in an unloved daughter’s healing. All too often, we simply accept these behaviors in ourselves without knowing their point of origin.
- Lack of confidence
The unloved daughter doesn’t know that she is lovable or worthy of attention; she may have grown up feeling ignored or unheard or criticized at every turn. The voice in her head is that of her mother’s, telling her what she isn’t—smart, beautiful, kind, loving, worthy. That internalized maternal voice will continue to undermine her accomplishments and talents, unless there is some kind of intervention. 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.
- Lack of trust
“I always wonder,” one woman confides, “why someone wants to be my friend. I can’t help myself from thinking whether there’s some kind of hidden agenda, you know, and I’ve learned in therapy that that has everything to do with my mother.” These trust issues emanate from that sense that relationships are fundamentally unreliable, and flow over into both friendships and romantic relationships. As Hazan and Shaver report in their work, the ambivalently attached daughter needs constant validation that trust is warranted. 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.
- 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 they 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 due to 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. Insecurely attached daughters often end up creating scenarios that are more like the “Goldilocks and Three Bears” story than not—never quite right but, somehow, either too “hot” or too “cold.”
This is often true in romantic relationships as well. Kim Bartholomew’s work helpfully further divides those who are avoidantly attached into two categories—“fearful” and “dismissive.” Both share the same avoidance of intimacy but for different reasons. The “fearful” actively seek close relationships but are afraid of intimacy on all levels; they are intensely vulnerable, and tend to be clingy and dependent. The “dismissives” are armored and detached, perhaps defensively; their avoidance is more straightforward. Alas, both types aren’t able to get the kind of emotional connection that could move them closer to healing.
- Difficulty seeing the self accurately
One woman shares what she has finally learned in therapy: “When I was a child, my mother held me back by focusing on my flaws, never my accomplishments. After college, I had a number of jobs but, at every one, my bosses complained that I wasn’t pushing hard enough to try to grow. It was only then that I realized that I was limiting myself, adopting my mother’s view of me in the world.” Much of this has to do with internalizing all you heard growing up. These distortions in how we see ourselves may extend into every domain, including our looks. (I personally have scoured photos of my teenage years, looking for the girl my own mother called “fat.” She also called me “unlovable” which, alas, isn’t as easy to verify or dispute in a picture. That took years.) Other 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 isn’t just a question of low self-esteem but something more profound.
- Making avoidance the default position
Lacking confidence or feeling fearful sometimes puts the unloved daughter in a defensive crouch so that she’s avoiding being hurt by a bad connection rather than being motivated to possibly find a stable and loving one. These women, on the surface, may act as though they want to be in a relationship but on a deeper, less conscious level, avoidance is their motivator. The work of Hazan, Shaver, and Bartholomew bears this out. Unfortunately, avoidance—whether fear, mistrust or something else triggers it—actively prevents the unloved daughter from finding the kind of loving and supportive relationships she’s always sought.
- 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. “I’ve had to really focus on my reactions or, better put, over-reactions,” says one woman, now in her forties. “Sometimes, I mistake what’s meant as banter as something else and I end up worrying it to death until I shake myself and realize the person really meant nothing by it.” Having a mother who’s unattuned also means that unloved daughters often have trouble managing emotions; they tend to overthink and ruminate as well.
- 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. “I married my mother, for sure,” one woman says, “He was on the surface completely different from my mother but, in the end, he treated me much the same way, the same seesaw of not knowing how he would be with me. Like my mother, he was indifferent and attentive by turns, horribly critical or vaguely supportive.” She ended up divorcing both her husband and her mother.
With this list in mind, the day a daughter takes stock of her wounds is the first day of her healing, and her journey towards new self-awareness and possibility. Let’s toast to the healing and to all the tomorrows!