The Mirror Speaks in the Mother-Daughter Connection

If mother can’t love, can you still love her?

Posted Apr 27, 2012

Having studied mother-daughter connections for twenty years, as well as writing about maternal narcissism, I find a misnomer that keeps rearing its unexpected head. Mother’s Day is approaching and this time of year discussions about mothers explode, but of course the roaring voices describing maternal narcissism are hushed to the background. We hear the praise and celebrations about good mothering, but simultaneously the complete stillness and silence about inadequate mothering.

As I talk to daughters of narcissistic mothers, this upcoming holiday is a time of pain. It reflects something very different than for those who are closely connected with their mothers and are celebrating Mother’s Day with authentic love and intimacy. It’s a time where daughters of narcissistic mothers find themselves wishing and hoping that they had a different lot in life. They fantasize and wonder what it would have been like for them if their mother also fit that saintly archetype of a loving mother. It usually is a time that causes triggers for posttraumatic stress reactions ranging from buying the card for Mother’s Day to getting through the day with family.

If adult children of narcissistic parents discuss their upbringing, they are usually met with disdain. “Good girls or boys don’t hate their mothers!” “There must be something wrong with you, if you are not connected with your mother.” “It must be your fault.” So, this population of people goes into hiding. They go back to what they were taught and practice superficial pretending which does not help their own recovery process. They are told once again to “put a smile on that pretty little face and pretend that everything is just fine with this family.”

But here’s the misnomer. If a narcissistic parent raised a daughter or son, it means that the parent was not capable of empathy and unconditional love. So, that child did not receive the bonding, attachment and maternal closeness from that parent. The issue lies in the disorder of the parent. It does not mean that the daughter or son is not capable of loving or that they don’t love that parent. In fact, these adult children have spent their entire lifetimes trying to get attention, love, approval, and nurturing from the narcissistic parent to no avail. What I have seen in my research and work is that adult children who come from narcissistic families dearly love their parents and the issue is that the parent is not capable of loving them back. Therein lies the need for acceptance and grief for the adult child and this is the first step in their recovery process. But, because the adult child is reacting to the lack of maternal love, they are seen as the one who does not love the parent. This misnomer is not readily understood.

Let me say that again. Adult children of narcissistic parents do love their parents; the parent is the one in these families who doesn’t know how to love back. But, because of the taboo nature of this discussion, particularly around Mother’s Day, if these adult children are reacting to the lack of maternal love, they are usually seen as being the bad kid who doesn’t care about their parents. This is destructive for them. Can you imagine spending a lifetime of loving someone and trying to get their love back, and then being blamed for being the one who doesn’t love? We do call that projection. The narcissistic parent will make it about their kid not loving them.

I observed this issue recently when a daughter of a narcissistic mother described her mother’s death. The daughter was thrown into a complicated grief process and needed time to sort. She was struck with shock, grief, and also visions of the mother she didn’t have and would never have. She did not find a normal grieving process. It was not a time for her to remember all the good times as the family was doing. Because she had worked recovery, she was not capable of allowing inauthentic behavior but rather knew she had to deal with her reality. As the family was elevating the mother to the pedestal of sainthood in death, the daughter was left alone to deal with her own truth. Grieving alone in isolation and feeling like the lone ranger in a family who is steeped in denial, further complicated her grief process. The family also viewed her as the one who did not love the mother and of course this is the point. She did love her mother i.e., the misnomer in these cases. Can you imagine the crazy making and pain?

If you are an adult who was raised in a narcissistic family with either a narcissistic mother or father, you know what I mean. I am interested in your thoughts about this insidious disorder and how it affects children. When others think that you do not love your parent, does it not give you an internal spin? “What? I have been spending my life wanting, wishing, hoping to get love back in return from this parent and it has not happened. And now, you think I am the one who does not love this parent?” You may be reacting to the effects of being raised by a narcissistic parent and going through the grief process. You may be experiencing much anger, sadness, numbing, and feelings of betrayal and that is normal. It might look to others that you don’t love your mother (or father.) But this mirrored projection of what happens in narcissistic families begs for further education and understanding. The importance cannot be overstated, as this is a generational family dysfunction that unwittingly passes through the family tree. The legacy of distorted love is on stage and the players in the drama can truly be unconscious and unaware of the real roles they have undertaken.

So let me ask you this: Because you see the disorder in the parent and you are reacting to it and working your own recovery, do you think that means you don’t love your parent? Or are you simply standing in your truth, accepting your reality, and working on your own mental health? Mental illness in your parent is often something that you can’t see or touch…it is like an invisible disability. If you are trying to explain this to others, think of this quote from Victoria Secunda, author of When Madness Comes Home:

“Unless they’ve had firsthand, day to day experience with mental illness, it’s a conversation killer to say that you are a veteran of such devastation. Most people don’t really get it. Why should they? In general, the scant knowledge they do have is, at best, grotesquely distorted, at worst, just plain inaccurate.”

As you approach Mother’s Day hearing the family, media, and national blitz about the sacred institution of motherhood, celebrate those mothers who do know how to love. But, also celebrate your own recovery and your ability to love and don’t let others define you as the creepy kid who doesn’t love your mother when you know that is simply not true.

Additional Resources for Recovery:

Resource Website:

Book: Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers

Audio Book:

Workshop: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers Virtual Workshop. Work recovery in the privacy of your own home, complete with video presentations and homework assignments:



Daughter Intensives: One on one sessions with Dr. Karyl McBride

“Is this your mom?” Take the survey: