Unloved daughters share many common experiences but there are also meaningful differences. How a mother treats her daughter directly shapes her sense of self—her mother’s face is a daughter’s first mirror—and molds both her reactions and behaviors. The child of a combative mother, for example, will either become armored and defensive—fighting fire with fire—or simply give up. But the daughter of a dismissive one will be starved for attention and will do what she can to get it—which can include becoming a high-achiever or, alternatively, rebelling totally and engaging in self-destructive behavior.
What does it mean to have a dismissive mother?
Some daughters describe their mothers as simply ignoring them in very literal ways. One daughter, now in her forties and married with a child of her own, remarked: “The pattern has always been the same. My mother asks me what I want to do and then proceeds to make other plans as though I haven’t said a word. This extends to every realm of life. When I was a kid, she’d ask if I were hungry and if I said I weren’t, she’d pile food on a plate and get angry if I didn’t eat it. “
Other dismissive mothers marginalize their daughters’ thoughts and feelings, as Becca, 35, explained: “I was always wrong and she was always right. Didn’t matter what the subject was; it could be anything. Any decision I made was always the wrong one when I was younger and even now. She’s got the only answer and if her answer isn’t my answer, she puts me down and makes me feel lousy about myself.”
It’s what a dismissive mother doesn’t give her daughter that does the most damage. A loving and attuned mother validates the developing child’s sense of self, and gives her permission to explore the world safely and to begin finding out what she feels and thinks over time. Her message to her daughter is “You are you and that’s just fine.”
By ignoring her daughter’s feelings and needs, the dismissive mother ‘s message is “You’re not important to me and neither is what you feel and think.” It’s a crushing blow to the developing self.
These daughters have low self-esteem and worry about being noticed. Jenna writes: “By the time I was nine or ten, I was pretty sure that no one would ever like me or want to be my friend. It was made worse by the fact that while my mother ignored me, she heaped attention on my older sister who could do no wrong. By the time I was an adolescent, I was willing to do anything—and I mean anything—to get attention. I was a hot mess, and I count myself lucky that nothing bad happened to me during those years.”
Some daughters embark on proving themselves worthy by becoming high-achievers, only to be put down and marginalized by their mothers, no matter what, as Adele recounted: “I decided that I’d have to be a star to get my mother’s attention, and so I became one at school. I got every honor in grade school, junior high, and high school, and then went on to a prestigious college. My mother’s response was always the same: She’d say things like ‘Well, the competition must not have been too tough’ or ‘Being good at school doesn’t do much for anyone in the real world.’ And I believed her. I felt like nothing, no matter what I did. And I was sure that I’d be found out—that I couldn’t fool people into thinking I was something. I finally realized, at the age of thirty, that I had to stop trying to please her and start pleasing myself. I cut her out of my life.”
Even high-achieving daughters often feel deeply insecure, worthless or not good enough.
A dismissive mother robs a child of her sense of belonging, whether she’s an only child or has siblings. But the effects can be different. Patti, age 40, was a singleton and says, “ I didn’t realize until I was in my twenties that how my mother marginalized me wasn’t normal. It was my very caring mother-in-law who pointed it out. It was only then that I began to understand why I was always anxious, worrying about failing or disappointing people. It took therapy to stop me from being the world’s doormat, the girl who could never say ‘No.’”
It’s true enough that many daughters of dismissive mothers become habitual pleasers, always putting their own needs last, in part because they’ve absorbed their mothers’ words and gestures and don’t believe that what they want matters. Ironically, the combination of needing desperately to please and feeling that they are invisible to everyone may cause her to be drawn to those who treat her just as her mother did, both in friendship and romantic relationships.
And the daughter who is dismissed by her mother may be further damaged by the constant comparisons to her siblings who, she is told, outshine her in every way, as well as the differential treatment and affection given to them. Her unmet needs for validation and approval may become even more poignant if she is also the “odd girl out.”
There’s a further irony in being the daughter of a dismissive mother: Often, these daughters find it hard or impossible to break free of their mothers’ influence as adults. Because children are hardwired to need their mothers’ love, support and approval, these unmet needs may carry on into the daughters’ adulthood. Without conscious awareness, even though she knows intellectually that the well is dry, this daughter may keep going back, hoping for the validation she never got in the first place and staying on the merry-go-round to her own detriment.
Until she sees the pattern, the dismissed daughter may help to keep herself invisible, even to herself.
Photograph by Timon Studler. Copyright free. Unsplash.com