Years ago, I was sitting in the Green Room at ABC, about to go on national television to launch Mean Mothers. A young assistant producer came in and asked me this: “Would you have written this book if your mother were alive?” I answered: “Yes, because there’s nothing in it about her I didn’t tell her myself.” denial Bogdan DadaShe paused and then asked: “What do you think your mother would have said about the book?” I remember smiling and then I said: “She would have denied that any of it ever happened. That’s what she always did and there’s no reason to suppose the book would have made a difference.” The girl winced and, at a loss for words, simply said, “I see.”

But most people don’t understand that a mother’s denial of her words and actions beginning in childhood where it functions as gaslighting—making the child mistrust her own perceptions and feelings—and continuing through a daughter’s adulthood makes any kind of resolution to the daughter’s inner conflict impossible. That inner conflict is between her continuing need for her mother’s love and support, on the one hand, and her growing understanding of the pain not getting it inflicts on her, on the other.

Maternal denial shuts off the possibility of any kind of repair—what is there to fix if nothing happened, after all?—and effectively forces her daughter to swallow her mother’s version of the “truth” hook, line, and sinker or to go no contact or low contact. Additionally, her mother’s denial effectively keeps the daughter’s wound open and bleeding and, of course, thwarts any hope of closure.

Why mothers deny what took place

There are many reasons, of course—including the need to maintain control over her offspring; the rush of power manipulating her daughter gives her; her love of drama, one-upsmanship, and game- playing; maintenance of the status quo; among them—but one that’s often overlooked is her own investment in believing that she’s either a very good mother or a more than adequate one. Keep in mind that the mythology of motherhood our culture clings to—that all mothers are loving, that maternal love is instinctual, automatic, and unlike any other—affects all women. Take a moment to think of it: What would a mother be admitting to if she acknowledged that her treatment of her child was unfair, unkind, or even cruel? What kind of a woman doesn’t love the child she put on the planet? Imagine, if you will, the shame that would accompany an honest answer.

There’s the deep, dark and hidden root of maternal denial: Shame. Is it any wonder that these mothers cling to denial at all costs? When I was a child, I would ask my mother if she loved me and she would always answer in this strange oblique way which dodged my question: “Every mother loves her child, Peggy.” I would then ask again if she loved me and there would always be silence. As I got older, my question got more pointed: “Why don’t you love me?” Her answer was always “Every mother loves her child.”

When I was small, I thought she dodged my question to protect me. Now I see that she answered as she did to protect herself.

How her mother’s denial shapes a daughter’s adulthood

Not long ago, I got a message on Facebook from a reader in her forties who asked: “Is it possible for an unloving mother to have amnesia or some other kind of short- term memory loss? I have these run-ins with my mother and when I call her out on them, she says they never happened. Is she sick?” The truth is that this kind of denial is very typical, especially when daughters become more empowered, expressive, and start being proactive for themselves. Sometimes, a mother calls in the reserves, as one daughter explained:

“I made the decision to have as little contact with my mother as possible once my two kids were grown but I didn’t make a formal announcement or a big deal out of it. I live 50 miles away and only saw her three or four times a year anyway but I couldn’t deal with her consistent criticism and taunts anymore on our weekly phone calls.    My two sisters, though, are very involved with her; they’re her favorites and each lives less than ten miles away. Well, three weeks of no calls and the posse stormed in. Both sisters calling, berating me, threatening me. Then my mother chimed in when their threats didn’t work and said she’d disown me if I didn’t start calling her again. I told her why I wasn’t calling anymore and she denied each and every instance. Then my sisters started calling me a liar and told everyone in the immediate family that I was sick and making stuff up. In the end, I was forced to go no contact with all of them. My mother wouldn’t admit to anything. It was a nightmare I wouldn’t have gotten through without my husband’s and my kids’ support. They all knew how she treated me.”

While an adult daughter may not be affected by her mother’s denial in the same way as she was in childhood—gaslighting stops working as the daughter sees the pattern—nonetheless it’s painful, crazy-making, frustrating, and continues to keep the daughter tied to her mother in unhealthy ways. It’s been confirmed by many other daughters but I remember that once I no longer focused on getting my mother’s love, what I wanted was an admission from her and, in the best of all possible worlds, an explanation for why she didn’t love me. I wasn’t alone as another reader explained:

“ I kept in contact, close contact, because I wanted her to confess. I wanted and needed vindication—that it was nothing I’d done or said that made her not love me—but, of course, it didn’t happen. My therapist finally encouraged me to cut ties and, yes, it set me free.”

But each situation is different and, sometimes, what happens is more like the myth of Tantalus than not—the story which gave us the word “tantalize.” As punishment for insulting the Gods, Tantalus was forced to suffer, standing in a pool of water and a tree laden with fruit over his head. But every time, he was thirsty or hungry, the water would recede and the tree would bend so that the fruit stayed out of reach. So, both the unfulfilled need for mother love, hopefulness that the need can be met, and the need for some kind of resolution or validation can get hopelessly tangled, tantalizing the daughter to try once again, as one daughter wrote: “She is so mean. My friends keep telling me to stop trying, stop sending cards, calling (and getting hung up on). Call me crazy but I am trying one more time to visit her.”

Many years ago, I got a phone call telling me my mother was dying and that I could see her one more time if I wished. I’d been divorced from her for over thirteen years. I describe this moment in Mean Mothers but it’s worth retelling. Everyone I knew—from my close friends to my acquaintances to my ex-husband to my therapist—counseled me to go so that I could get “closure.” I knew better. I knew that this time when I asked her, once again, “Why didn’t you love me?” the silence would literally stretch out into eternity. I didn’t go.

A mother’s denial damages her daughter, both in childhood and long after. Perhaps most importantly, it presents a huge obstacle to the path of a daughter’s healing


Photograph by Bogdan Dada. Copyright free.

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