“I don’t see why you tear your mother down in this public way. It’s very clear that your mother must have done something right because you turned out fine, didn’t you? After all, not everyone gets to be a writer, you know? Grow up, move on, and stop blaming Mom. Your childhood was perfectly fine.”
I have heard comments like this so many times that if I had a twenty-dollar bill for each, I could retire tomorrow in luxury. It’s interesting, too, how the “turned out fine” part gets attributed to my mother’s efforts; that’s a function of the mother myths, of course. Many high-achieving daughters continue to suffer the effects of a toxic childhood, all appearances to the contrary. To make use of a well-worn cliché́: You can’t tell a book by its cover.
How to deal with people who say things like this or, in a variation, tell you that you need “to move on because the past is the past,” or simply call you whiny because you’re “still” talking about your childhood was actually one of the questions readers wanted answered in my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood. This post is adapted from the book.
Should you respond when someone marginalizes your experience?
Whether you want to answer at all really depends on how connected you are to the person who’s making the comment. But it is valuable, I think, to examine why people say these things without understanding that they’re marginalizing your experience as well as your pain; ironically, most of the time, these folks wrongly believe that they’re being helpful.
Be aware that this is common and try not to take it personally.
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 permanent and 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, unconditional. People don’t want to hear your story or mine because it contradicts a deeply reassuring belief about the nature of maternal love.
Our “can do” culture, fixated on the Little Engine That Could, often responds to crisis or loss by insisting that there’s a time limit on grief, mourning, or recovery. Many people think that taking “longer” to recover or show that you’ve bounced back is a sign of weakness or lack of resilience. They apply this standard to the recovery from childhood along with divorce, job loss, and other calamities believing all the while that they’re being helpful.
Healing vs. wallowing
And then there’s ignorance about the process of healing. There 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 influence on you. Mind you, some of the “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 while another might simply want to keep the peace or be alarmed that dirty laundry is being aired—but their attacks add another layer of pain and loss to a situation that is already full of both.
How to find support in an unsupportive world
Breaking the silence helps, but how to do it without feeling as though you’re the crazy one or outlier? Here are a few suggestions.
Some unloved daughters 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 confidantes 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. I will readily admit that when I was in my twenties, my closest friends both had great, if very enmeshed, relationships with their mothers and did not understand what I was feeling at all.
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. You know it happened. It happened to lots of us. You’re not alone.
For self-help strategies, my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, may be of help.
Photograph by Luca Iaconelli. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Copyright © 2019, 2020 by Peg Streep