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Unloved Daughters and the Pain of Maternal Abandonment

"She felt absolutely justified in leaving us."

Key points

  • Of all the taboos pertaining to motherhood, the mother who walks out on her children may be the least discussed.
  • Feeling abandoned can be the result of emotional neglect, maternal death, being given up for adoption, or a mother literally leaving.
  • Maternal abandonment often remains unaddressed in a family which is struggling to adapt to a "new normal."

The "mother myths"—that all women are nurturing, that mothering is instinctual, that maternal love is always unconditional—stand guard in front of the cultural cupboard where taboos and secrets are kept. Over the course of the years of writing about these taboos—more than a decade—I’ve come to see that the secrets are more like those Russian nesting dolls than not. It’s a fitting metaphor because the largest outside doll is the external view of the mother and the Russian name for these dolls, matryoshka, is derived from the Latin for mother or mater. Inside this mother are other dolls, each other smaller than the first, each holding a secret inside until you get to the very last, tiny one.

Maternal abandonment is one of the taboos hidden within that outer doll; the forms it takes are all damaging and become more destructive as the abandonment takes more literal forms. Maternal abandonment evokes a flood of emotions, some contradictory; mixed in with pain and longing, there is often rage and anger, along with guilt and shame.

The Forms Maternal Abandonment Takes

1. Emotional abandonment or neglect. We’ll begin with the most common, which is emotional abandonment; it’s literal in one sense and not in the other because the mother is physically present but is a distant sun which her needy and emotionally starving daughter circles. Being raised by an emotionally neglectful mother or one who simply ignores you provides no foundation for self-esteem and is fertile ground for internalizing the idea that her abandonment of you is somehow “justified” and “your fault.” These daughters tend to grow up to be women with an insecure style of attachment and exhibit either anxiety or fearfulness about close relationships. Some will become emotionally detached themselves which they carry forward into their adult lives.

2. Maternal death. Daughters whose mothers have died during their childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood often speak of being abandoned, even though their mothers didn’t choose to leave them; as Hope Edelman makes clear in her classic book, Motherless Daughters, the death of the mother signals the end of the family as it was and the life the daughter had when her mother was alive.

Suzy’s mother died when she was nine and, for years, her strongest emotion wasn’t grief but intense anger at her mother for leaving her in the care of her father. Her father went on to remarry within two years and her stepmother was controlling and intent on proving that she was a better mother than the one she replaced.

As Suzy told me, “What I wanted didn’t matter; she was insistent that she was the authority. I couldn’t get angry with her while I still lived under my father’s roof because he saw my stepmother as his savior and second chance. He also pretty much abdicated his role as a parent to her. So I simmered with rage at a ghost, my dead mother, for years until, finally, I got into therapy. It saved my life.”

3. Being placed for adoption. While this form of maternal abandonment is often born out of good intention or legitimate need, it can also feel like an abandonment and rejection, especially if the adoptive mother is unloving, withholding, or neglectful. I will deal with the emotional reckoning of adopted daughters in a separate article because it is a remarkably complex issue.

4. Literal abandonment. And, then, there is the very real and very big deal: When a mother walks out of her child’s life under her own steam. I have to admit up front that I have very visceral responses to these women who wake up one morning and decide this is not what they wanted and leave their kid or kids behind. Personally, I have known three women who did this—all three are now back in some kind of contact with their adult children—and I have zero empathy for them. It’s interesting too that with all the thousands of words I have written about mothers, this is the first time I have tackled it. Sometimes, there’s a matryoshka you want to avoid and this may be mine.

It’s not clear how many women walk out on their children. Alas, reliable statistics depend on the questions asked, and this tends not to be one of them; surveys look for facts. In the United States, we know that while in 1968, 85 percent of children lived with two parents regardless of marital status, by 2020 only 70 percent did. In 1968, only 11 percent of kids lived only with their mother but, by 2020, 21 percent did.

The number of children who live only with their fathers remains small but it has quadrupled in fifty years, going from 1 percent to 4.5 percent. But we don’t know why these fathers have their children; the mothers may have lost custody, died, or walked. The number of children who lived with no parent rose 1 percent over fifty years, from 3 percent to 4. But more than half of those (55 percent) who lived with no parent did live with a grandparent.

What these statistics do tell us is that mothers are under more pressure than ever and that a dialogue about mothering—and its failures and successes—should be top of mind.

What Happens When a Mother Just Leaves

Judging from the questionnaires readers filled out, everything awful happens. Terror. Weeping. Intense pain. Shame. Guilt. Reading the answers, it was as though I had been invited into a dark room where a child was left to drown in emotions, most often without help.

The shame that envelopes the family as a whole echoes through the answers. The father left with three kids who soldiered forth and refused to talk about it; this appears to be a coping mechanism adopted by many fathers and is echoed in Melissa Cistero’s memoir, Pieces of My Mother. The father who cleaned house and disappeared the mother even more by tossing every photo of her. The paternal grandmother who said, when the children said they missed their mother, “You can’t miss what you never had.” For a child, a mother’s leaving is life-altering.

Gillian, now 40, was eight and her brother was five when her mother left:

“She packed bags and drove away when I was at school and left Dad to figure out what to tell us. He mumbled something about her needing to find her way and that was that; he refused to talk about it. I asked if she was coming back and he said he didn’t know. I asked him if she’d left because of me and he said no but then he said something like motherhood wasn’t what she expected. I don’t think he really understood how I heard that and, for years, I racked my brains for what I might have done to make her go. I felt horrible about myself.”

Her mother called her some weeks after she left, saying that Gillian was big and strong and that she “shouldn’t take it too hard.” Her mother said she was moving to Louisiana and would be filing for divorce. Mind you, she was telling this to an eight-year-old girl.

Her mother sent postcards and called from time to time, filling Gillian in on details in her life: she got a great job, made friends, she met a man who she’d be marrying once the divorce was final. She was leaving Louisiana and moving to Vermont. She sent birthday and Christmas presents but it would be three years until she saw her children again; Gillian was eleven when her mother and the stepfather she‘d never met before came to pick her and her brother up for a visit. Gillian’s memory is pertinent:

“The really mind-boggling thing—and it’s still true today—is that she felt absolutely justified in leaving us. When I questioned her about it, she’d tell me it was no big deal and that I would understand when I was an adult that she had to answer her own needs. Besides, she always said I was in good hands with my Dad and that both of us turned out fine. Since I’ve been in therapy on and off for more than twenty years, that is debatable. My brother has all sorts of issues, including anger management, and is not exactly a happy camper. Now that I am a mother, what she did is no less unfathomable and reprehensible now than it was then. I have strict boundaries and a limited relationship with her because I don’t want my kids getting close to her. She’s just not a trustworthy person. And, believe it or not, she bemoans the fact I am so distant.”

The Effects Are Profound and Often Unaddressed

Anecdotally, at least, the adult now in charge of the child does what he or she can to normalize the experience which, alas, has the effect of downplaying the emotional significance. Not one adult child that I spoke to was referred to a counselor or therapist, for example, when the abandonment took place. As a culture, we don’t seem to know how to deal with grief, especially that of a child. In the next post, I will be looking at the emotional effects.

Many thanks to my readers on Facebook who shared their stories.

Copyright © 2021 Peg Streep

Facebook image: christinarosepix/Shutterstock


Edelman, Hope. Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss. New York: Delta Books, 1994.

Cistaro, Melissa. Pieces of My Mother: A Memoir. Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebook, 2015.