“It’s still hard explaining what it was like to people who didn’t experience it. I think most people think I’m exaggerating. I’ve gotten to used to it, over time, but it still stings and recovery is mostly a lonely process..”
Adele, age 42
“I have ghost images of my mother, most usually when I want a woman to like me, hire me, or include me in her circle. Nothing I ever did pleased my mother and it made me feel nothing I did was ever good enough. I still feel that way when I seek a woman’s approval.”
Sarah, age 56
In the years since I wrote Mean Mothers, I’ve talked to many women about the process of healing from the wounds of childhood. As a layperson who’s been on this journey herself—and who’s sought professional help—my understanding has been enriched by two important insights. The first is from A General Theory of Love written by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon. In simple terms, they explain that lack of love has both neurological and psychological consequences:
“ Love, and the lack of it, change the young brain forever….as we now know, most of the nervous system (including the limbic brain) needs exposure to crucial experiences to drive its growth… The lack of an attuned mother is a nonevent for a reptile and shattering injury to the complex and fragile limbic brain of a mammal.”
The second is from Deborah Tannen’s book, You’re Wearing that?Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation:
“This, in the end, may be the crux of a parent’s power over a child: not only to create the world the child lives in but also to dictate how that world is to be interpreted.”
For me, these two insights in combination—the rather literal shaping of the brain in response to the conditions of an individual’s childhood and the super-sized influence a mother has on a daughter’s understanding of how the world works—capture why recovery can be so elusive.
The unloved daughter’s responses, both automatic and conscious, are different in kind from those of a daughter who has an attuned and loving mother. The unloved daughter grows up not trusting her own experience of events and interactions; she may be confused by the very nature of emotional interactions and her neediness—caused by the shattering injury to which Lewis and his co-authors refer—may make it impossible for her to navigate boundaries in relationships. Often, when she challenges her mother, she will be told that she’s wrong, or too sensitive, or, even more destructively, that what she’s talking about didn’t happen. These events create an internal wellspring of doubt which often yields to an incorrect but seemingly inevitable conclusion: “My mother doesn’t love me because I am unlovable. It’s my fault.”
The lack of love and approval leaves a daughter desperate for both. It’s not surprising that the quest to fill that metaphorical hole in the heart—an expression I have heard many times over and have used myself—can include both destructive and constructive behaviors. Alas, the journey to recovery may be even more complicated for the daughter who seeks comfort in behaviors that ultimately are dangerous blind alleys.
I’ll detail the blind alleys first and then proceed to what I’ll call the clear paths.
1. Unhealthy relationship to food
In most households, it’s the mother who’s in charge of food—both its preparation and serving—which, when a mother is unloving or manipulative, makes eating a potential locus for control. In her groundbreaking book, The Hungry Self. Kim Chernin detailed and explored the primal connections between food and female identity, as well as mothering and emotional hunger. These connections are both subtle and obvious. In response, a daughter may seize on eating or not eating as something she can control, as a way of countermanding her mother’s vision of the world or her place in it. Some daughters will develop clinically disordered eating while others will simply carry their complicated relationships with food and its connection to self-image into adulthood. In her book. When Food is Love, Geneen Roth (the daughter of a physically abusive mother and an emotionally distant father) explains that disordered eating may be an act of self-protection, a way of armoring the self against pain.
Recent studies exploring the connection between insecure childhood attachment and disordered eating more closely have made some interesting discoveries. For example, Jenna Elgin and Mary Pritchard found that while it was true enough that secure attachment was negatively correlated with disordered eating, not every type of insecure attachment was positively correlated. Only the fearful attachment style (which includes both a negative view of self and a negative view of others) was positively correlated with bulimia but neither the dismissive or preoccupied styles were associated with disordered eating.
Paradoxically, many emotionally abused or neglected daughters often comment that they wish the maltreatment had been physical because, as one woman put it,” Then, at least, the scars would show and I wouldn’t have to prove their existence to anyone.” It’s been hypothesized that self-harm or cutting is intimately connected to lack of love, another effort both to fill the emptiness and to feel pain which you are able to control. In their book Bodily Harm, Karen Conterio and Wendy Lader write, “ self-injury represents a frantic attempt by someone with low coping skills to ‘mother herself.’ …Bodily care has been transformed into bodily harm: the razor blade becomes the wounding caregiver, a cold but available substitute for the embrace, kiss, or loving touch she truly desires.” Following up on previous lines of research, Jean-François Bureau and his co-authors looked at specific dimensions of parenting and their relationship to NSSI (non-suicidal self-injury) in young adults. What they found was that among those engaging in self-injury, their descriptions of childhood included portraits of parents who failed to protect them and abdicated their roles as parents, of parents from whom they felt alienated, as well as those who were over-controlling. These parents were generally seen as less caring, untrustworthy, and more difficult to communicate with. Generally, research has confirmed the link between self-harm and emotionally distant or abusive parenting and insecure attachment.
3. Compulsive behaviors
Substance abuse, compulsive shopping, and even sexual promiscuity have been understood as ways of filling the hole in the heart. Unloved daughters may turn to the instantaneous self-soothing and oblivion offered up by alcohol or drugs. In her book, Mothering Ourselves, psychotherapist Evelyn S. Bassoff writes that, “For some, alcohol—which warms, fills, and anesthetizes the inner emptiness or aching—becomes the soothing mother…the alcoholic stupor replaces the sensations of being wafted to a sound sleep in mother’s arms.” Hope Edelman describes the “emotional hoarding” of those who are unloved and writes, “Back-to-back relationships, overeating, overspending, alcoholism, drug abuse, shoplifting, overachieving—all are her attempts to fill that empty space, to mother herself, to suppress feelings of grief or loneliness, and to get the nurturing she feels she lost or never had.”
4. Hurtful relationships
Research shows that all of us are more likely to choose partners who are more like our parents than not—which is fine if you were raised by loving and attuned parents and not so wonderful if you were not. These relationships are comfort zones—which offer no real emotional comfort but which feel comfortable because we feel the way we did when we were children, living in our mother’s house. They offer no real solace, and, for many unloved daughters, finding ourselves in a relationship like this may prove to be the turning point that propels us to seek help in the form of therapy.
But these blind alleys aren’t the only ways daughters seek to fill the hole in their hearts; many—even those who have been stuck in a blind alley— find the healing they seek and need.
The hole in the heart can be filled productively with new experiences and voices that tell the unloved daughter that she is worthy, valuable, and lovable. While the experiences of childhood shape us, they need not hobble us and many unloved daughters, by confronting and articulating their past, move into the present and future as loving and loved partners, friends, and mothers.
1. Earning secure attachment
Even if your upbringing didn’t offer you secure attachment, you can earn secure attachment in adulthood. Self-understanding is the basis for new interactions and healthy and healing connections to others as various as teachers, mentors, therapists, friends, or lovers. As one woman confided, “My first steps towards healing took place in the company of an older woman, my neighbor, who was kind and understanding. She was the first person in whom I confided my story and by telling her, I broke the silence my mother had imposed me. I heard my voice for the very first time in my conversations with her.”
Being able to make sense of your experience—making it into a coherent and understandable narrative—is the key to earned secure attachment, as posited by Mary Main one of the proponents of attachment theory. In an important study, Glenn I. Roisman and his co-authors looked at individuals with earned secure attachment in an effort to determine whether or not they were, however, more at risk for depressive symptoms. What they found was that not only were those with earned status (by making coherent sense of their past) involved in romantic relationships of a quality comparable to those with happy childhoods, parented as effectively as those raised in secure environments, but also were at no greater risk for internalizing distress than other secure groups.
2. Re-defining family
For many unloved daughters, creating a “family” on her own terms is part of the journey toward healing; sometimes, it will include distancing herself from her family of origin but not always. More than anything, this is an important act of reinvention, which can take the form of a close-knit circle of friends or getting married and having a child or children herself. In my early twenties, when I was estranged from my mother and single, I made Thanksgiving dinner every year for friends who had nowhere to go or whose families lived far away. Those dinners were one of the first steps I took to claiming earned secure attachment for myself. As one daughter commented: “In adulthood, I have surrounded myself with people I feel safe with. That wasn’t true of my childhood but it is now and it has made a world of difference. This doesn’t mean that everyone always loves everything I do or say, or that no one ever gets critical or ticked off at me. But I always know I am cared for, no matter what.”
3. Mothering the self
Learning how to self-soothe in healthy ways and replace the critical or dismissive maternal voice internalized in your head—the one that tells you that nothing you do is good enough or that you are “less than” a daughter should be—with a message of self-love and an admonition for patience are also important steps toward healing. A therapist can be of enormous help at this juncture.
Giving voice to what actually happened in your childhood is part of self-mothering because it gets you out from under the code of denial imposed on you and allows you to develop an inner voice that is truthful, strong, and reliable. Permitting yourself to acknowledge your pain, frustration, and anger with your mother and her treatment of you is a necessary part of the process—both in terms of stilling the critical or dismissive maternal voice and growing your own inner voice. Grieving may be part of the process as well as mourning the loss of what you needed and never had.
Learning to be kind to yourself, as well as patient—as your mother wasn’t—is also part of self-mothering. All of this takes time—there’s no magic wand to replace the acceptance and love you lacked with a sense of self-acceptance—but it can be accomplished. Talk to yourself as you wish you’d been spoken to by your own mother, and cut yourself slack as necessary. Acknowledge the process, applaud the steps forward, and accept the steps backwards. The hole doesn’t vanish but it gets smaller and smaller, and has a different context.
Fellow travelers, good luck and Godspeed!
Copyright© Peg Streep 2014
READ MY NEW BOOK: Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work
Lewis, Thomas, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon. A General Theory of Love. New York: Vintage Books, 2001.
Tannen, Deborah. You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. New York: Ballantine Books, 2006.
Chernin, Kim. The Hungry Self. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Bassoff, Evelyn. Mothering Ourselves: Help and Healing for Adult Daughters, New York; Plume Books, 1992.
Roth, Geneen. When Food is Love: The Relationship Between Eating and Intimacy. New York: Plume Books, 1992.
Conterio, Karen and Wendy Lader. Bodily Harm. New York: Hyperion Books, 1998.
Bureau, Lean-François, Jodi Martin, Nathalie Freynet, Alexane Alie Porier, Marie-France Lafontaine, and Paula Cloutier, “Perceived Dimensions of Parenting and Non-suicidal Self-inury in Young Adults, Journal of Youth and Adolescence (2010), 39, 484-494.
Edelman, Hope. Motherless Daughters. New York: Delta Books, 1994.
Roisman, Glenn I, Elena Padron, L. Alan Sroufe, and Byron Egeland, “Earned-Secure Attachment Status in Retrospect and Prospect,” Child Development (2002), vol. 73, no. 4, 1204-1219.