it’s almost impossible to overstate the effects of not having your emotional needs met in Infancy and childhood; yet the culture, fed by the myths that hold that mothering is instinctual and that all mothers love, remains resistant. It’s dispiriting to hear people who really ought to know better say things like “It couldn’t have been so bad because you turned out fine,” believing that outward achievement accurately reflects a person’s inner state. Or, worse, “You were fed, clothed, and had a roof over your head so get over it” which betrays a singular lacking of understanding of what a child needs to thrive and what an enormous body of science knows. Human infants fail to thrive or even die without touch, eye contact and emotional connection, even when given food, water, and shelter.
Every time I try to put what the experience feels like into words—yes, it was my reality growing up—I end up quoting the authors of the truly marvelous book, A General Theory of Love. This is what they wrote:
The lack of an attuned mother is a nonevent for a reptile and a shattering injury to the complex and fragile limbic brain of a mammal.
Let me explain. A human infant’s brain develops from the bottom up—the least sophisticated part of it is ready to go at birth, regulating the physical systems that run the body. But it’s the higher brain that develops through attunement because we learn about emotional experience secondhand, by looking into our mothers’ faces. Our brains develop—quite literally—and are shaped by our experiences with our mothers. Children raised by loving and attuned mothers are better at regulating and identifying their emotions, deal with stress better, and understand the world of relationship as safe and satisfying. Children whose emotional needs aren’t met—whose mothers are unattached to them in one way or another or who are actively aggressive—have trouble managing their emotions and see relationships as potentially hurtful or frightening. Some environments are more toxic than others; science knows, for example, that aggressive verbal abuse causes physical changes in the developing brain.
The unloved child flails about, trying desperately to understand why she’s been pushed off by her mother, but her brain adjusts to the circumstances. We can thank evolution for this adaptability—it’s survival of the individual that matters after all—but the damage is done. Children raised by unloving mothers become insecurely attached, relating to others with an anxious/preoccupied style, a dismissive avoidant style, or a fearful/ avoidant one. All of this happens beyond consciousness.
But humans, even small ones, want to make sense of their circumstances. The age at which the child begins to question varies enormously from individual to individual but here, drawn from anecdote and story, are the questions unloved children ask. Our hardwired need for maternal love is the engine for the questioning voice.
Notably, they are questions that bubble up to the surface throughout the lifetime of the adult who was once a child unloved by her mother. And, while the answers may shift over time, there’s a sense in which they’re never answered satisfactorily.
1.Why doesn’t my mother love me?
This is the scary question because the terror is located in the first answer that comes to mind: Because of me. Unfortunately, from the child’s limited point of view, this is the most likely answer and has devastating effect. She may reach this conclusion because her mother treats another sibling differently. She may find confirmation in the aisle of a grocery store where she sees how a stranger responds to her child, or on the playground where she glimpses a little girl being cuddled in a way she’s never been. The jealousy—and panic—she feels in the moment, sparked by those mother-daughter pairs, may dog her for the rest of her life. The child whose mother is combative or dismissive in her treatment may have the answer echoed in abusive statements about her failings and weakness. These words— “You’re always so difficult,” “You’re not good enough to make anything of yourself,” “You’re too sensitive and weak”—confirm her fears that it’s all her fault that her mother doesn’t love her. That becomes internalized as self-criticism and underscores her understanding that she’s not loved because she’s unlovable. It’s a hard conclusion to shake.
2.Will my mother ever love me?
This is the question that launches the sometimes life-long quest to somehow wrest or capture the maternal love the child so desperately needs. It’s hard to overstate the passion, energy and effort that goes into this effort, fueled once again by that hardwired need for maternal love, support, and acceptance. It can last for decades and, ironically, actually increases the damage done to the daughter’s psyche in childhood. Daughters spend years defending their mothers in their heads as well as the outside world, making excuses for their behavior, because if they don’t, the answer to the question will be a definitive no. Rather than deal with that heartbreaking truth, they sally forth, ever hopeful. It’s a destructive and painful pattern, made worse by the daughter’s inability to set boundaries and her mother’s unwillingness to heed them.
3.What can I do to make my mother love me?
This is an aspect of the quest for maternal love but it begins in childhood and often continues. In childhood, the daughter comes up with strategies, some of them constructive and others self-destructive to get her mother’s attention and hopefully her love. Some daughters become high-achievers, hoping that will do the trick, while others take a more negative path. “I became a hellion as a teenager,” Sarah confided, “Because I thought that would make my mother pay attention to me. It totally backfired because my behaviors only confirmed her belief that I was worthless and not worth her attention. I was lucky in that I didn’t do anything really risky that could have derailed me for life and that a teacher of mine took me aside and pointed out what I was doing. She saved my life.”
4. Will anyone ever love me?
This is the biggest question of all, the answer to which has the power to make or break a person’s life in myriad ways, large and small. After all, if the person who put you on the planet in the first place doesn’t love you, who can or will?
The path to healing from childhood experiences is arduous and long but it’s a journey from darkness into light. There are different answers to these four questions than the ones we once thought were obvious but it’s only by working to heal ourselves that we can begin to grasp their truth.
Photograph by Chinh Le Duc. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com
Lewis, Thomas, Fari Amin, and Richard Lannon. A General Theory of Love. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.