When I was a teenager, I had a secret calendar in my closet which was a countdown of the days I had left living under my mean mother’s roof until I went off to college. It was hung way in the back, under clothes, where my mother couldn’t find it since she had a habit of snooping through my drawers and reading my diary. I think I started with 1000 days or so and, every morning, I’d cross off the day. This was my game plan at age 15—to go off and never come back. I was sure that the simple act of leaving would fix everything.
You won’t be surprised that that’s not how it worked out. Extricating myself from my mother and her influence took another two decades after college, plus or minus. I know now, as I didn’t then, that leaving your childhood behind isn’t as simple as packing a bag and heading for the door. In fact, it’s not unusual for unloved daughters to spend two, three, even four decades of their adult lives trying to figure out what they can do and what they should do about their relationship to their mother, no matter how unloving or outright abusive she’s been. I’ve even developed a term for it: The core conflict.
What is the core conflict anyway?
Children are hardwired to love and need their primary caretakers, most usually their mothers, and that need doesn’t end with childhood. The slow dawning of the daughter’s recognition that her mother has wounded her and continues to, has marginalized or invalidated her and continues to, openly disparages her and continues to, absolutely coexists with her undiminished need for her mother’s love and support. That is the core conflict: the push-pull of the need to be free of toxic influence, on the one hand, and the need to be mothered, on the other.
It’s not unusual for the core conflict to keep a daughter stuck for years. She may go low or no contact, only to go back again. She may try to set boundaries and rules only to panic and get right back on the merry-go-round. A crisis in her own life may make her feel that somehow, this time, her mother will be a safe haven and she’ll go back, expectant, despite everything she knows intellectually. I call this going back to the well, and I did it many times myself. Even though your brain knows that the well is dry, your heart is still hoping for a miracle or perhaps a magic wand.
The core conflict wears down the bravest and hardiest at times of stress.
5 proactive strategies you can try
These strategies are based in my own experience, those of women I have interviewed, and research. It’s worth saying that like all serious decisions in life, deciding how to manage your relationship to your mother is one that can’t and shouldn’t be made on the spur of the moment or be fueled by anger; it requires real deliberative thought.
- Address the core conflict
Understanding where you locate yourself in terms of still needing your mother’s attention is key. It’s usually impossible to look at the situation objectively without considering all the other possible losses of other significant family relationships should you decide to act, whether that’s setting boundaries or going no contact. You are the only person who can determine the best solution for you and whether that solution will increase your ability to thrive and be happy. Please seek the advice and counsel of a therapist if even thinking about the situations is too painful or upsetting.
- Examine the source of your self-doubt
Most, if not all, daughters of unloving mothers grow up doubting their feelings, thoughts, and perceptions in childhood, and that default position may persist into adulthood. Recognizing the source of why you discount what you’re feeling or thinking is important; it may have been that your mother marginalized your efforts to express yourself or flat-out told you that what you were feeling was wrong, especially if she used gaslighting or scapegoating as a way of controlling you. Self-doubt can easily undermine or totally derail a daughter’s efforts at trying to manage her relationship to her mother, leaving her to wonder whether her mother is right and that she’s “too sensitive” or “too antagonistic” or even “crazy.” In adulthood, a chorus of siblings who actively disagree with her about their mother—a not infrequent occurrence, as it happens—may increase her tendency to second-guess herself as well as her anxiety.
- Talk back to your denial and hopefulness
Some of your second-guessing and inability to act may simply be a function of your hopefulness that there’s some kind easy fix that will make your relationship better. A part of you may feel that understanding it from your mother’s point of view—reflecting on her own childhood, how hard her life was, etc.—will facilitate matters but the truth Is that it will only spur you on to being her apologist and ignoring your own needs. This may make you feel like a better person in the short-run but it’s a fruitless path. Being able to act starts with your recognition that you can only influence the behavior of one person in the relationship—yes, that’s you—and that is where you must focus. In that sense, the words of the Serenity Prayer are spot-on
- Build support for yourself, starting with your own
Self-blame is another typical default position for an unloved daughter. Often, it echoes what she was told during childhood about herself—that she’s difficult or moody, uncooperative or lazy, stupid, and the like. Many mothers actively shift the blame for their behaviors to their children in subtle and not-so-subtle ways (“I wouldn’t have to yell at you if you listened in the first place,” “If you were more like your sister, I wouldn’t have to punish you,” “You brought this on yourself by being a difficult child”). As an adult, the unloved daughter may blame herself for being the source of the problem (which she isn’t), may take herself to task for not being able to fix things (which she can’t on her own), or may castigate herself for being a wuss or not being strong enough to withstand her mother’s onslaught (which she shouldn’t.) Learning to turn off self-blame and begin to practice self-compassion is an important step; until you really understand and believe that the little girl you once were didn’t deserve the treatment she got, you will stay stuck.
If you have trusted people in your life—and that can certainly be a therapist—building a circle of support for yourself can be a terrific boon. There’s no need to figure this problem out on your own.
- Begin to mourn the mother you deserved
Whatever you settle on doing—whether it’s setting forth clear boundaries, initiating low or limited contact, or deciding to divorce your mother—involves loss, the largest of which is the hope that the relationship can be fixed. Many of my readers have called the death of that hope the hardest part of the journey, and I understand why.
But mourning the mother you deserved—that one who would have listened to you and laughed with you, walked arm in arm with you, who would have been thrilled at your being you—is another step that needs to be taken.
Many of us vacate our childhood rooms but still struggle with what we learned when we lived in them. Leaving them behind is a process.
The ideas in this post are drawn from my forthcoming book.
Photograph by Brooke Cagle. Copyright free. Unsplash.com