Of all the eight patterns of toxic maternal behavior I use in my work, the hardest to deal with is the unreliable mother, and it may well be the hardest to recover from. Why is that? The unreliable mother is someone who has trouble managing her own emotions; she swings from being unbearably present and intrusive, disregarding her daughter’s boundaries, to being absent, physically and emotionally withdrawn. She lacks the key thing an infant needs which is steady attunement—reading her child’s cues, responding to her consistently, using words and vocalizations, eye contact, and touch.
The problem is that the infant never knows which Mommy will show up—the one she has to push away with her hands because she’s encroaching on her or the one whose face looks like stone. Neither, by the way, is what the baby needs. This makes the baby what I call an “emotional Goldilocks,” always stuck with too hot or too cold and never just right. The baby is hardwired to seek out her mother’s attention, of course, but when she feels overwhelmed, she instinctively pushes back and looks away. According to attachment theory, these early patterns are internalized as mental models of how relationships work. The child of an unreliable mother will not only have trouble managing her own emotions but will be conflicted about whether love and connection are things she should seek because they never work out.
These daughters grow up demonstrating an avoidant style of attachment and an anxious one by turns. One woman I interviewed for my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, explained how her mother’s treatment had shaped her life. She was 41 at the time of the interview:
I trace my own lack of self-confidence back to my mother. She was horribly critical of me one day, ignored me the next, and then was smiley and smothering the day after that. It took me years that the lovey-dovey-in-my-face stuff only happened when there was an audience. I’m still armored and really sensitive to rejection, have trouble with friendships, you name it. These wounds run deep.
The daughter’s self-doubt and blame
The mother’s ability to appear loving in one moment and dismissive the next creates a wellspring of self-doubt in the daughter, along with a great worry that she’s somehow responsible for her mother’s withdrawal. That feeling that she is to blame—and that if she could just change herself, then her mother would love her—is common to all unloved daughters but it’s even more pronounced for the daughter of an unreliable mother. The controlling mother, for example, always needs to have the upper hand, and won’t listen to her daughter; the unreliable mother may appear to be listening one moment and then not the next.
One daughter, 55, highlighted her confusion:
It took me forever to realize that mother’s treatment of me had nothing to do with me or anything I did. I would feel terribly guilty when she went from hot to cold, and desperate to find out what I’d done. She would cut me dead, stop calling. But she feels perfectly fine about acting out whenever she feels like it. She could care less what I’m feeling and then, when she feels like playing Mom again, she calls me. I finally am done. My father excuses her behavior and says she’s just moody. My brother says it doesn’t bother him. So I am labelled ‘too sensitive’ by everyone because I just couldn’t do it anymore.
Common effects on a daughter with an unreliable mother
These observations are drawn from my book, Daughter Detox.
- Heightened emotional volatility and defensiveness.
- Rejection-sensitive in all relationships.
- Has trouble managing her own emotions and identifying what she’s feeling, which are key elements of emotional intelligence.
- May be drawn to controlling lovers and friends because she confuses control with reliability and desperately wants order in her life.
- May normalize toxic behaviors such as stonewalling, verbal abuse, and gaslighting in her adult relationships.
- Experiences a heightened sense of what I call the “core conflict,” or the tug-of-war between her recognition of how her mother has wounded her and her need for her mother’s love. Since there are moments that she feels her mother is relatively loving and attentive, she remains emotionally confused and conflicted.
While healing can feel elusive, it can be achieved, especially with a gifted therapist to guide you.
Photograph by Annie Spratt. Copyright free. Unsplash.com