Food is like sawdust when you are constantly being told how much it costs, how fat it is making you. A roof over your head is merely the container, keeping in the hate, terror and fear.

Melanie

 

photo-1467321309980-a57856cd25f7Although rarely talked about in this way, perhaps the most influential and important role a mother plays is how her treatment of her child will define that daughter’s expectations. These expectations—of how relationships work, how reliable and trustworthy a world it is, and whether growth and exploration are possible and safe—are broad-reaching and affect the daughter long past childhood, deep into adulthood. These expectations bequeathed by our mothers (and fathers) determine how we deal with setbacks, define ourselves, and set goals for ourselves.

A loving and attuned mother raises a child secure in herself who extrapolates from her experience in the small world of the home and believes that the larger world will function in the same way. She is apt to believe that it is as full of understanding, people desirous of connection, and possibility as her family of origin. This doesn’t make her a Pollyanna because even households full of love are imperfect; instead, it makes her an excellent candidate for pursuing a life with more happiness than not. Her expectation is that she will love and care for others and that they, in turn, will love her back. These positive expectations—along with the ability to recover from mistakes and setbacks and to reassure herself in times of stress—are reliable tools for navigating life.

A daughter growing up with a mother who ignores or marginalizes her, who offers her no affection or solace, is also shaped by her mother’s treatment, as are her expectations of the world. She too extrapolates the take-away lessons from her childhood experiences and uses them—in the absence of other, better examples—as the compass points for navigating her adult life.

When unloved daughters try to break their silence and confide, the stock answer is often “But you had a roof over your head, clothes on your back, food on the table” as if basic sustenance were enough to nourish a child’s emotional growth. I hear this from total strangers  in response to my writing who usually add “And you turned out just fine.” Well, leaving aside how fine I am and how long it took me to get there, I posed the question to readers and have incorporated their answers. Drawn from interviews and discussions with now many hundreds of women over the years, here are the most damaging lessons learned, those which shape a daughter’s expectations in the broadest ways.

1.That a sense of belonging must be earned

I had a roof, clothes, and food. Not one day went by that I didn’t have to hear about how good I had it compared to the way she grew up. Made me feel guilty for absolutely everything including existing. Because I’ve heard a thousand times, “I could have died having you. The doctor told me not to have kids.” She didn’t miss a chance to tell me how hard she worked or how much she had to sacrifice to give me those things either. While I had “things,” I don’t ever remember her telling me she loved me. I don’t remember ever getting a hug. I never heard her say anything positive about me. She would always say, so and so said such and such about me, in an attempt to manipulate me. All it did was prove to me that no one cared about me.
She never read bedtime stories to me. She never played with me. She would dress me up like a doll on display just so people would tell her what a great mother she was.

Jill

Many daughters report that this is one of the hardest legacies to get over—that sense of being the eternal outsider or, even worse, constantly afraid that they might somehow fall short and be abandoned by those who appear to love them. This lesson teaches a child that you belong by virtue of what you do or don’t do, rather than being a reflection of being cared for because you are you and have intrinsic value.

2.That the world is unreliable

I never knew how to relax. Forever living on my nerves as walking on thin ice and eggshells was a way of life around my mum. Yes, I was fed, clothed, and was warm. But the love wasn’t there. The sanctuary. The place to feel safe. It was a constant battle of trying to always please my mother and whatever I did it, wasn’t right or good enough.

Annie

The effort to please a mother whose demands shift from day to day or to somehow wrest consistency from a parent who either engulfs or dismisses you by turns teaches a child that there is no stable ground. As an adult, she is often preoccupied and worried, her attention focused on what might  be the next seismic shift. Quick to anticipate possible disaster, she is motivated to avoid situations which might end in failure. At the same time, she’s always on guard against the possibility of betrayal from close others.

3.That people can’t be trusted

That roof wasn’t worth being seen and not heard! Living in fear because you never knew what face your mother was wearing that day or striving for love that never came. I would have traded that roof for unconditional love any day. I say to hell with the roof!!

                                                                        Louise

The unloving mother who sets standards only to change them, makes demands and then pretends that they were never made, and who breaks promises teaches a child that you can take nothing for granted and that commitment doesn’t exist.  A child believes that what happens in her home is what happens everywhere so it’s not surprising that unloved daughters often go out in the world, trusting no one. This not only isolates her but makes her fearful in the day to day.

4.That love is a transaction

I had a roof, food and more…gifts in lieu of love or understanding..to buy the love. The things were appreciated but there was never anything deeper. No acknowledging me as an adult in my own right ever…no respect for my opinions or individuality.

Helen

Many unloved daughters use the words “everything had to be earned” when they describe their childhoods. Again, it’s the same lesson but a variation on the theme: That love isn’t about who you are, your essence or soul, but how you perform. If you perform as your mother demands, then perhaps love will be meted out. Of course, this too is a promise not kept because reliability and trustworthiness are issues too. It leaves the child not just with the conviction that she’s unlovable but with real confusion about love is or what loving behavior looks like. She may believe that love always has a price and, as a result, it’s no wonder that she may find herself in relationships which play by the same rules.

5.That your worth must be proved (again and again)

In looking back, I feel that those basic necessities provided to me were actually the “purchase price” for me to be unflinchingly cooperative, high-performing, agreeable, and (supposedly) grateful for EVERYTHING that was provided for me (in lieu of affection, understanding, kindness, nurturing, etc.)

Johanna

 When a child is unseen or dismissed and not valued for who she is—her personality and character, her traits and talents—but taught instead that she is nothing unless she proves otherwise, she’s left with an endless wellspring of self-doubt. That sense of being unworthy, of being “less than,” can co-exist with all manner of outward success and achievement over the course of a lifetime. She may expect to be found out, uncovered as unworthy, at any moment.

 Our expectations about all kinds of interactions fuel our responses and behaviors. If we expect people to disappoint and betray us, we’re likely to misread their gestures and words and react defensively. If we think people are untrustworthy, we won’t be able to let anyone close enough to actually see who we are. Much of these are projections that become self-fulfilling prophesies. A key to healing from childhood is being to see that the lessons our mothers taught limit who we are and how we live. It’s at that point that we can choose a North Star of our own to guide us.

 Merci beaucoup to my readers for their thoughts and heartfelt responses

Photograph by Andrew Branch. Copyright free. Unsplash.com