If there were a single image that summed up my childhood, it would be one of me reading a book. I learned to read very young—at three, sitting in my father’s lap as he read the Wall Street Journal—and stories were my refuge and sustenance. I was Eloise living in the Plaza Hotel with Nanny (her mother was never there which sounded like heaven), sitting on pumpkins with my fictional sister in that Little House on the Prairie, Nancy Drew solving mysteries and speeding off in her roadster, one of the three adopted girls in Ballet Shoes. It turns out that I wasn’t alone; readers on my Facebook page a year ago confided that books, stories, and movies played an enormous role in their emotional lives as children. Books offer the unloved child the promise that things the way they are now aren’t forever: Cinderella finds her prince and the stepsisters are punished; Max comes home to his supper after all, no longer King of the Wild Things; Peter Pan escapes his unloving parents; love conquers all in E.T; and the sometimes Sheila the Great gets to confront and outgrow her fears in Judy Blume’s classic tale.
But despite the welcome presence of stories, the things we longed for as children have extraordinary staying power, and often accompany us in the life journey as adults. These deep and unsatisfied longings—often largely unconscious—may animate our lives in the present without our awareness.
Opening the cupboard where childhood secrets are kept
Many taboos and myths work in concert to convince the unloved child that keeping her silence about her childhood experiences is the wisest and safest course of action; additionally—even though it sounds counterintuitive—unloved daughters tend to normalize their experiences or, because they’ve internalized what they’ve been told about themselves, think that they’re actually the reason their mothers or others treated them badly. Self-blame is the unconscious default position. The myths that all mothers are loving and that mothering is instinctual become the foundation for saying nothing, very little, or putting the best possible face on memory. Additionally, in a culture that both idealizes motherhood and insists that true strength is shown by how fast you “get over” emotional turmoil or loss—there seems to be a popular consensus that pain and grief have invisible “use by” dates stamped on them—there’s very little chance of getting empathic support.
So, in this post, I’ll do the heavy lifting and swing open that door for all of you. These observations are based on some fifteen years of talking to and hearing from unloved daughters, and are part of my forthcoming book.
What the unloved child really longs for…
These aren’t in any particular order because, of course, their relative importance will vary from person to person.
- To feel safe
This isn’t about physical safety, although it may be for some children, but about safety in the widest, broadest sense. Not one of us would ever drive a car or cross a street if we didn’t believe that other drivers were highly invested in not hurting anyone, including themselves. A child who grows up feeling loved, supported, and cared for sees the world as an essentially safe place; she understands that there are some bad drivers but she sees them as relatively rare and ls confident about identifying them. That’s not true for the unloved child who sees the world of connection as unsafe, and who focuses on her vulnerability to pain. Not trusting people is most usually her default position unless she has been lucky enough to have someone in her life—an aunt, a grandmother or father, a neighbor, teacher, or mentor—to open her eyes to the possibility that her mother is the rare bad driver.
- To be understood
When a child’s feelings and words are ignored or marginalized, she’s deprived of the support she needs to develop a sense of self. She often feels invisible and unworthy of attention or understanding or she may be so detached from her own feelings and thoughts that she feels like she’s play acting her way through life. Her fear of being discovered as a fake can co-exist with her need to be seen and understood which creates its own kind of stress and misery.
- To be accepted
It’s hard to overstate the power of feeling rejected by the very people who are supposed to love you automatically—your family of origin. Raised to feel the perpetual outsider, the odd girl out, the unloved daughter may never feel truly at home anywhere, even when she’s alone.
- To simply be
An attuned and loving mother teaches an infant and, later, a child that she’s fine just as she is; that’s not true for the child who is always made to feel that she’s lacking in some basic and essential way. The strong base of self-confidence bequeathed the child who’s loved is missing in the unloved daughter who’s often in flight from herself. Just being—and feeling peaceful within the self—may continue to elude her as an adult.
- To belong
An unloving mother robs a child of her sense of belonging. For many, belonging becomes a life-long quest. The unloved daughter may be so armored against possible pain and rejection that she actually facilitates her sense of being an outsider for protection; she may also be so hypervigilant about being rejected that she helps set rejection in motion by being so volatile.
- To be loved for who she is
Even though self-criticism is a constant companion, what the unloved daughter really wants is for someone to say “You don’t need to change because I love you as you are.” Unloved daughters grow up thinking that love is a transaction, that you must do x or y or satisfy certain requirements—be smarter, prettier, thinner—to be loved. After all, if the person who’s supposed to love you unconditionally doesn’t, who will?
Understanding both the longings and the wounds is the first step on the road out for all of us whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood.
Photograph by rubberduck1951. Copyright free. Pixabay.com