Here are some of the words daughters use to describe how they felt in childhood and, for many, long into their adulthood: adrift, disconnected, isolated, an outsider, shut off, wandering, all alone, different from everyone. As one woman put it: “I always wondered why I felt like a drifter…always trying to find that one place where I could belong…it was a very long, painful journey to accept the fact that my mother didn’t know how to love me. In fact, she was totally threatened, challenged and overwhelmed by me.” The feeling of not belonging—of being a misfit or damaged enough so that you’ll never belong anywhere if you don’t belong where you began—spreads out and generalizes in a way to affect all aspects of a daughter’s sense of self.
Among the most significant ripple effects are:
1. Not seeing the self clearly
As children, we first begin to see ourselves in our mothers’ faces which function as our first mirrors. A mother’s smile not only helps calm us but it reassures us that we are safe, loved, and worthy. All of that is missing with the unloved daughter who misses not only that essential grounding—you are you and you are lovable—but must contend with a host of messages that threaten and challenge the self. With a dismissive mother, a daughter learns that she’s invisible, not worth listening to or looking at; her mother’s face throws her very existence into question. With a combative or hypercritical mother, a daughter grasps that she is less than and not good enough, which explains why she doesn’t belong. Comparisons to other children in the family serve to further marginalize her, even if she has talents and gifts.
Unloved daughters have enormous difficulty seeing themselves with any clarity; they often underestimate their talents and gifts, on the one hand, and exaggerate their flaws, on the other. They may internalize the spoken or unspoken maternal rejection and engage in acts of self-sabotage that stop them from achieving any kind of academic or social success.
Many look in the mirror and can’t see their physical selves either; their mothers’ words and gestures effectively act as filters on their perception. “All I saw in my teens was the fat girl my mother described, and I hated myself. Mind you, I wore size six jeans but that didn’t matter nearly as much as what I saw in the mirror,” Jenny, age 36, commented. It should come as no surprise that these daughters may suffer from disordered eating or have a complicated relationship to food.
The internalized maternal voice is often strong enough even to drown out the applause of the outside world. For a high-achieving daughter, there may be the fear of “being found out” or uncovered. This is what one woman confided: “When I became the vice-president of a large corporation, I started having the same dreams I had when I was in business school—of being called out, of being told that I never qualified to get in, in front of everyone. I always attribute anything good to luck or chance, not my own ability. I am constantly anxious and on-guard.”
2.Drawn to unhealthy relationships
Ironically, although the unloved daughter is desperate to establish a sense of belonging, if she hasn’t yet come to see the ways she’s been wounded by childhood, she’s likely to replicate her relationship to her mother with others, whether they are romantic partners or friends. Because our attachment patterns are unconscious, we are drawn to what we know—comfort zones that, in fact, give us no comfort. Most of the men I dated in my twenties were those I had to “win over,” who were expert at detachment and lack of emotional connection, and took pleasure in undercutting me or putting me down; it took therapy for me to understand that I was dating my mother. In this, I was not alone. Penny recounts that “My first husband was outwardly nothing like my mother—gregarious, accomplished, witty, and well-read. He courted me—flowers, surprise gifts—and I fell hard. When we got married, though, he started bossing me around, putting me down if things weren’t done his way, and more. I started having panic attacks that were just like the ones I had as a kid and my doctor had the sense to send me to a therapist. And guess what? He showed me I’d married Mom.”
Unloved daughters have trouble choosing and making the right female friends and, for some, this remains a lasting problem. It may come down to trust—if the first female in your life was emotionally untrustworthy, can any woman be? —and many daughters report that this is the area of life which remains most problematic. For more detail, please see my post on friendship, http://tinyurl.com/h3ldpa4
3.Prone to anxiety and insecurity
That original sense of being an outsider in the one place you are supposed call “home” is very difficult to tamp down or eradicate and even daughters who have gone on to create loving families of their own report a kind of shadow effect. “I’m aware that I’m more sensitive to slights than other people,” Lynne, 43, wrote in an email. “I know my husband and kids love me but I’m always in some kind of watchful crouch. I keep thinking, deep down inside, that the life I have is too good to be true or maybe that I don’t deserve it. Does that make sense?”
Unfortunately, it does. The unloving mother robs a child of that sense of having a safe place in the world, of belonging, and it’s a difficult loss to recover from. It can be done, but not without great effort, and no small amount of self-compassion.
Dedicated to Mary Cutrera Gambino.
Photograph by Michael Hull. Copyright free. Unsplash.com