During the many years I’ve been interviewing and hearing from unloved daughters, there are some questions that are asked again and again, familiar variations on a theme. The questions themselves are revelatory since they articulate the concerns and worries daughters have about managing this most central of relationships in a female’s life. A mother’s face is the first mirror in which a daughter catches a glimpse of herself and how true or distorted that reflection is has many long-term consequences. At the beginning, during infancy, this takes place without words and is informed by eye contact, touch, and tone of voice; later, as the child matures, words become an important way she gathers information about herself and the larger world she lives in.
A loving and attuned mother who soothes her infant, reads her gestures and sounds, and is reliably responsive teaches her child that the world is a caring and safe place; with words, she’ll confirm that her daughter is lovable and capable. As she picks up her crying child, the mother communicates that there is love and caring to be had. When she claps her hands or smiles at something the baby has done, the child absorbs the lesson that she is a separate being who has close ties and connections, that’s she’s just fine as she is, and should feel proud of herself. Genuine self-esteem is made of up of hundreds and hundreds of small gestures, most of them not even remembered. This, though, is how we learn to love and appreciate ourselves.
The child with a mother who doesn’t reliably respond or ignores her infant’s cries and gestures teaches other lessons about the world of relationship. “You’re on your own” is what her lack of attention communicates to a small being utterly dependent on her. The dyadic dance of touch and eye contact may be missing which leaves the baby unable to self-regulate or soothe herself and she will, in response, begin to defend herself by pulling away from interactions. Alternatively, the mother may misread or ignore the baby’s signals, intruding when the child needs space. Later, words don’t become the foundation for self-esteem as they do for the well-loved child but, instead, messengers of inadequacy, self-doubt, and even shame.
The unloved daughter’s recall of childhood experiences may be spotty since children self-defend by walling themselves from repeated stress, thanks to evolution, or vividly painful and fraught.
Making sense of childhood experiences: the questioning self
Ideally, this is less of a journey about the relationship per se than it is about the daughter’s growing understanding of how her treatment in childhood shaped her behaviors, both conscious and unconscious, and how she coped and adapted in her family of origin. While jump-starting the process with a therapist who understands the depth and range of these problems, self-help can, with effort and practice, become part of recovery.
While I’m neither a therapist nor a psychologist, this is a path I have walked myself, and what I know about it is informed by scientific research and discussions with many women. Here are the questions I’m most frequently asked by readers and the answers I’ve come up with over the course of many years.
These aren’t the only questions, of course, but they are the ones that bubble up to the top. All of this is fully explained in my new book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
- Why did it take me so long to see the problem? I’m in my 40s.
Children normalize their experiences when they’re young, assuming that what goes on at their house goes on everywhere. As the daughter matures and she begins to realize that her relationship is different from those her friends have to their mothers, she may begin to question the dynamic but it’s likely that it won’t go further than that. The problem is that she still wants her mother’s love and is still focusing on getting it; her hopefulness that she can builds up resistance and denial because she’s just in search of normalcy and a loving mother. As an adult, still hopeful, she may rationalize or excuse her mother’s behavior or feel shamed by her disloyalty. There’s much more pressure on the daughter not to really see than there is to understand; that’s why it often takes decades of adult life before the daughter actually pushes forward to understanding and recognition. Being in your 40s is actually on the early side, judging from my readers.
- Does it ever stop hurting—that feeling of loss?
Yes and no. There’s just no sugarcoating the fact that not being loved by the very person who, according to the culture, is supposed to love you unconditionally is a huge blow. And no there’s magic wand to fill up that emotional photo album with new images that evoke Mary Cassatt or Norman Rockwell. But recognizing that it was never really about you and the girl or woman you are or were permits you to pivot and gain perspective on the fact that it was about her. And that you were as lovable and deserving of love as all the little girls who were loved. Realizing that diminishes the sense of loss and shifts your attention to the places and people you do belong to and who see you truly. It takes time but, ultimately, the sunlight takes over those old shadows.
- Am I doomed to keep choosing unloving partners?
No. Once you’ve fully understood your behaviors and reactions, you’ll able to make different choices and stop falling into the trap of gravitating toward what feels familiar. We need not recreate our childhood homes in our adult lives if we become consciously aware.
- My mother says she loves but it doesn’t feel that way to me. I don’t feel loved. Am I crazy?
Your doubting your feelings is another thing you learned In childhood and the chances are that if you don’t feel loved, you weren’t. Alas, it’s likely that your mother will stick to her guns and tell you that your not feeling loved is your problem (and that, maybe, you’re crazy). Loved children don’t wonder whether they are loved; they know it. Your emotional confusion probably is a combination of hopefulness that you’ll find the key—the right accomplishments, the right look that will please her, the right whatever would make her happy—to make her love you and your own desire for normalcy and peace. Please keep in mind that mothers deny too; after all, what greater shame is there than for a mother not to love her own child?
- How can I turn off the tape in my head that says I’m nothing?
Lots of patience, talking back to the tape, and working on not being so self-critical. The “tape” is the habit of self-criticism—the messages and supposed “truths” about yourself you were told by the very people charged to love you that you internalized. The self-critical voice or the tape pops up when things go wrong in your life, large and small. Your default position is self-blame and lots of it. It sounds like this: “He left me because he was only with me because he didn’t know me and once he did, he left because I had nothing to offer,” “I didn’t get the job because I’m not very smart or personable,” “My presentation fell flat because I’m a failure and a dud.” Instead of dealing with major and minor setbacks and failures objectively, daughters who had hypercritical mothers or mothers who belittled and demeaned them, personalize failure and attribute to a character flaw that can’t be fixed. That’s very different from taking responsibility for what you might have brought to the party and also looking at what the other person brought or the problems inherent in the situation. Here are those same statements recast as a well-loved daughter might view the same setback: “The relationship failed because we were too different and wanted different things. He shouldn’t have chosen me and I definitely shouldn’t have chosen him,” “I can see how the interviewer felt I wasn’t the right fit. I didn’t explain myself very well and, in truth, the job probably wasn’t right for me,” I started off strong in the presentation and then I could see I lost them. What I said was smart but too abstract and boring and I have to work on that.”
Resilience can be learned and the tape shut off. REALLY.
- Will I ever be able to make friends and keep them?
The answer is yes but it takes lots of work. Even unloved daughters who have been able to forge lasting partnerships and marriages with men often struggle with female friendship; it’s a pretty consistent theme and a great source of worry and loss for many. Why? The most simplistic analysis is that if your first experience with the most important female in your life showed her to be untrustworthy, opening up and trusting another girl or woman will be hard. Is this true? It’s only a partial explanation It’s the additional pile-ons that make friendship harder which involve what you did learn in childhood and what you didn’t. On the learned side, rejection sensitivity, being focused on pleasing, and an anxious-preoccupied style of attachment get in the way, while not learning about boundaries and the dyadic give-and-take of expressing your own wants and listening to someone else’s make it difficult to maintain friendships too.
We can only heal from childhood experience if we understand that experience first and how it shaped us.
These and other ideas are explored and explained fully in my new book, Daughter Detox
Photograph by Nastya_Gepp. Copyright free. Pixabay.com