If I had a twenty-dollar bill for every time someone tells me that my mother “must have done something right” because I “turned out fine,” I could probably retire tomorrow in luxury. This came up during an interview recently, as if where I went to college and graduate school and have accomplished in my professional life could somehow be laid at my mother’s feet. Of course, the “fine” part depends on your definition of what constitutes “fine.” Many high-achieving daughters and sons continue to suffer the ill effects of a toxic childhood, all appearances to the contrary; to the extent that they haven’t recovered from their treatment, they may suffer from excruciating bouts of self-doubt, an inability to choose the right partners and friends, and a feeling of not belonging which permeates and taints all of their relationships, all of which can fitfully co-exist with real-world achievement.
To make use of a well-worn cliché: You can’t tell a book by its cover.
Why people hate admitting that mothers can be toxic
Have you ever noticed that the culture finds it way easier to accept that a father can be unloving or even downright abusive than a mother? A deadbeat dad is one thing, but an unloving mother is another—even though that Commandment tells us to honor both. I have a personal theory—unproven, of course, as all personal theories are—that our cultural myths make it very hard to accept that a mother can be unloving. We all need to believe in one kind of inviolable love and, alas, romantic love just doesn’t fill the bill. But wait—there’s maternal love which, according to the mythology, is instinctual and hardwired and, even better, all women by their nature are nurturing. Yippee! Unconditional love—at last and for once! When I was 14, I read Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving and what he had to say stopped me dead in my tracks: “Mother’s love is bliss, is peace, it need not be acquired, it need not be deserved.” Sounds great but, alas, not true. People still believe this and I totally get why; betrayal hurts and they want to believe in one kind of love that’s not vulnerable to change.
The fact that they can’t hear you is about them, not you.
The “move on” and “get over it” contingent
Ironically, most of these people are well-meaning, if sadly misguided. These are those who believe that even thinking about your past and its effects constitutes “wallowing” and you simply need to move on because “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” The irony is that they believe they are being empathetic when the truth is that they’ve just marginalized your pain and your continuing efforts to make sense of your past and its continuing influence on you.
Mind you, some of “get over it” group will not necessarily be disinterested bystanders; in fact, if you have aired your feelings about your mother’s treatment of you or have gone “low” or “no contact,” you may well find yourself under attack by close family members. Each of them might have different motivations—one sibling might disagree with your assessment of your childhood or another might simply want to keep the peace or be alarmed that dirty laundry is being aired—but it adds another layer of pain and loss to a situation which is already full of both.
4 ways to hold your own and own your truth
As I’ve written before, adults whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood or who were taunted, ignored, or verbally abused, tend to keep their silence, in part because of the shame they may feel. Until the daughter or son fully accepts—on both an emotional and cognitive level—that her or his treatment was a reflection of the parent’s shortcomings and biases, both the feeling of shame and the worry that somehow she or he was deserving of the treatment may persist. These wounds run deep.
Breaking the silence helps but how to do it without feeling as though you’re the crazy or outlier? Here are some thoughts, drawn from interviews I conducted for my new book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
- Consider therapy
Many unloved daughters and sons are highly resistant to the idea of going into therapy because they wrongly see it as a sign of weakness or confirmation that there’s something wrong with them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Putting your own happiness and ability to deal first is a sign of healthy self-compassion and a commitment to your own well-being.
- Choose your confidante carefully
Recognize the cultural biases and the fact that in a knee-jerk kind of way, people are much more likely to judge you without even thinking about it because of their own assumptions and denial. The taboos are out there; you simply have to be discerning about whom you confide in.
- Don’t take it personally
Recognizing why people react as they do rather than falling into old habits of thinking it’s somehow your fault is very important. The whole subject of the unloving mother is a loaded one, and people’s responses can be very volatile. I’ve been called names for assailing “the person who gave me life” which, honestly, isn’t my problem.
- Work on seeing yourself clearly and curbing self-criticism and blame
The most important person you need to convince of your truth is you, especially if your inner child is still hopeful that there’s a magic wand out there and that by waving it, the spell will be broken and your mother and family will be transformed and finally see you as you truly are. Work on healing yourself by talking back to that self-critical voice that tells you that you’re worthless and unlovable. That moves you steps closer to leaving your toxic childhood and its effects behind.
You know it happened. It happened to lots of us. You’re not alone.
Photograph by Zohre Nemati. Copyright free. Pixabay.com.