There are two things I routinely hear from readers when I write about toxic mothers. The first is always “I thought I was the only one,” which underscores the loneliness of the unloved child. The second is “I never told anyone because I was afraid no one would believe me or, if they did, they’d think it was my fault.”
The code of silence, as I call it, is part of the unloved daughter’s legacy because maternal behavior is a closely guarded secret. The irony is that these mothers—whether they are high in narcissistic traits, dismissive controlling, emotionally unavailable or combative in style—tend to care deeply about what other people think. The daughter’s emotional confusion and pain are magnified by the disparity between how she’s treated by her mother in private and her mother’s public persona. The reality is that most of these mothers present beautifully to strangers. Even if they’re not well-off financially, they tend to be great housekeepers and hostesses who make sure that their children are nicely dressed and turned-out. They are often active participants in their communities as well; image matters to them.
My mother put down my academic achievements throughout my girlhood, saying it was a good thing I was decent at something since I was so fat and ugly. She made me feel awful about myself every day. Imagine my surprise when I discovered as an adult that she bragged about me to her friends because I made her look good. In a way, that was the final blow. What a hypocrite she is and as.
Hiding in plain sight
While sometimes relatives or members of the extended family are let in on the secret and told that the daughter is “difficult,” “moody,” “too sensitive,” or “in need of reining in or discipline”—thus providing a handy justification for singling the child out which might otherwise raise eyebrows—most usually the secret stays within the household. Larger gatherings are managed in such a way that the mother maintains her image as a loving, attuned, and supportive parent.
While fathers are sometimes part of Team Mom and actively undermine their daughters, many do not. They may turn a blind eye to their spouses’ behavior or accept their explanations because they accede to her supposedly superior childrearing skills. In some families, the father finds a way of supporting his daughter, if not overtly:
My father didn’t want to become a target himself so he skirted the issue. But he did show his love and encouragement in small ways, less openly than I would have liked, but I still felt he had my back. That helped considerably. It didn’t cancel out the pain of my mother’s treatment but it helped.
In other families, the secret is a shared one with siblings currying for their mothers’ favor and making picking on the daughter a team sport. Controlling and combative mothers corral support, as do mothers who are high in narcissistic traits since it keeps the spotlight where they want it: On them.
Covert warfare and gaslighting
Family secrets further isolate the unloved daughter who already feels that she doesn’t belong. Not surprisingly, the larger question that haunts every one of these children is alarmingly simple: If the people who are supposed to love me don’t, who in the world ever will? The question tends to drown out whatever applause she receives in the outside world—the boost to her self-esteem conferred by making friends, doing well in school, displaying a particular talent. Her mother’s treatment of her continues to erode her sense of self, a steady drip, drip, drip of self-doubt. In fact, when the warfare is covert—and includes gaslighting—it inflicts the most damage.
When I got old enough to talk back, to call my mother out on what she said or did, she’d simply deny that it ever happened. She’d flat out accuse me of making things up. She would call me ‘crazy’ and encouraged my brothers to call me ‘crazy Jennie.’ I knew I was right but I didn’t really believe it somehow and that battle still goes on in me. I never totally trust my take on things, you know.
Why it’s hard to break the silence
It’s hard to overstate the complexity of the unloved daughter’s emotional bind. She still wants her mother to love her, even as she absorbs the painful recognition that maternal love is absent. She feels shame and isolation but fears that sharing the secret will bring more shame and isolation. Most of all, she worries that no one will believe her.
It’s estimated that somewhere between 40% and 50% of children don’t get their emotional needs met in childhood and have an insecure attachment style. Family secrets make it harder for these children, now adults, to be heard and supported. If you were lucky enough to have a loving parent or parents and experienced a childhood that, while not perfect, helped you thrive, I’d ask you to keep these facts in mind.
Photograph by Matt Jones. Copyright free. Unsplash.com