4 Things Unloving Mothers Miss Out On
"She missed a friendship that could have added meaning to her life."
Posted Jan 04, 2016
If you are thoughtful and reflective, revisiting pivotal moments and experiences in your life will occasionally yield a new perspective. I've written at least a few hundred thousand words about unloved daughters in a book and articles (not to mention that I've spent youthful hours in therapy, read reams of research, and conducted hundreds of interviews). I actually believed that the dust had pretty much settled, that I had gleaned every possible insight from the wreckage.
Well, never say never.
My epiphany? The utter wastefulness of the unloving mother—the squandering of a unique relationship that can enrich your life and sense of being in so many ways. I lay the blame for the waste at the mother’s feet. During a daughter’s childhood and after, it’s she who has the power to shape the relationship. Deborah Tannen explains it perfectly:
“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.”
I understood this recently with utter clarity on a trip to Amsterdam—my mother’s hometown—with my own daughter, now almost 28, with whom I am close. We were on our way to Artis, the zoo, one of my mother’s favorite destinations; while she didn’t love me, she adored animals. The rain had actually stopped and the sun was shining. We were walking along streets as familiar to me as New York’s, talking and laughing. It struck me how lucky I was to have such a smart, perceptive, and funny companion to spend my time with. That I’d had a hand in her creation seemed nothing short of miraculous.
And then it hit me: This was precisely what my mother missed because she threw it away. By the time I was my daughter’s age, I had broken off all connection to my mother, deciding enough was enough. If you have read my book, you know the story. If you didn’t: She was mean, dismissive, and withholding. By 28, I had tried to wise up, and didn't invite her to my wedding. But we are hardwired to need our parents (and my Dad was dead) so I reconciled with her—not she with me—a few years later. After much back and forth, I finally divorced her when I was pregnant with the very same person who sparked my epiphany.
Appreciating my daughter, I really felt the wastefulness of my mother’s actions and behaviors, without pitying her. In a world where true connection is so maddeningly elusive, love is hard to find and even harder for most of us to hold on to, my mother’s stubborn insistence that I was lacking, unlovable, and had nothing to offer her (or anyone else) seemed all the more unfathomable in light of my relationship to the granddaughter she never knew.
The journey of the unloved child toward healing is a long one, and there’s no doubt that this epiphany has much to do with how old I am. I am no longer the wounded child who longed for my mother’s love, though I will go to my grave mourning the love I deserved and didn’t get. My own role as the mother of a daughter has long since eclipsed the emotional importance of being my mother’s child. This makes it possible for me to consider what my mother missed in not loving me without giving her a pass or an ounce of forgiveness.
But thinking about her wastefulness put the focus on me in a different way. It’s now easy to see that I was just as cute, funny, and smart then as my kid is today except my mother was too jealous and hateful to see it. She took my accomplishments as an affront unless she could use them to aggrandize herself.
It occurred to me that it might be useful for those daughters (and sons) who are working on healing to think about what their mothers missed in a theoretical way. Remember that many unloving mothers never acknowledge their behavior, so the idea of their addressing what they missed is more or less a fantasy; the denial is too great. But I thought there was a value in shifting from what a daughter wanted, needed, and never got—a first step in identifying your childhood wounds—to what her mother lost.
So I posted the question on Facebook: What did your mother miss in not loving you?
Not surprisingly, the immediate responses were critical of the very idea. As one reader wrote:
“I find this hard to contemplate. I don't care what my mother missed out on. That's for her to lament (which I don't think she really does. Or if she does, she blames me as the cause). I care far more about all the time and energy I wasted (there's your wastefulness theme) trying to win her love, be worthy of her time and attention.”
She wasn’t alone in feeling that way.
I posted an explanation and then someone else shared:
“I read this and immediately began to cry. What a new idea for me: My mom missed out. I've been so focused on how I've missed out on having a loving mother. But it also touches me deeply because it touches that core belief that I am unworthy. And makes me think: Maybe I'm not unworthy.”
Others echoed that thought as they began to reflect on what their mothers had missed. Then someone posted:
“Did my mother miss everything or was it nothing to her? The problem with this (for me) is my mother's value system is so completely different from mine. Often, Mom doesn't show the ability to miss something or someone. Her children are ‘loved’ but out of sight and out of mind. She doesn't cherish relationships nor is she able to recognize their worth.”
Suddenly, we were onto something.
Many women responded simply: “She missed knowing me. Knowing how generous and loyal I am,” one woman in her fifties wrote. Another listed qualities: “She missed my empathy. My sense of humor. My drive.” “She missed the opportunity to be loved unconditionally, or as unconditionally as possible,” said another, age 47—a thought that others echoed. Another mused on how unloving mothers use emotional knowledge to manipulate: “My mother has missed out knowing what a loving daughter she had in me, but it was never acknowledged, for whatever reason. I could have made her life much easier or should I say much more fulfilled, as a mother of 7. I am generous, to a fault, but that much she did know about me, and she used it against me. Does this make sense?“
Alas, it does.
Another, a comic and actress by profession, said:
“She told me I had no gift. I invited her to my first gig and she walked out in five minutes. To this day, she’d rather win with her opinion of me than see me. I am done.”
Yet another emailed to say:
“It’s not an overstatement to say my mother knows nothing about me. How could she? She was never present emotionally. She never heard me or listened. And when I did speak or tried to share, she put me down.“
Daughters who had gone no-contact noted how their mothers missed out on their spouses, friends, life events, and even grandchildren. “Kate” (a pseudonym) made it all the more poignant:
“My daughters are allowed to be beautiful and compassionate. My mother will never know what that looks like, how that feels to have a daughter love you not because of fear or to survive but because she does.”
In a thoroughly unscientific way, I’ve rounded up the main themes daughters have raised in thinking about what their mothers lost by being unloving. There are many more, of course. If you are an unloved daughter who is ready to think about this, it’s a reflection that yields no small amount of clarity.
1. Sharing in her daughter’s life.
Yes, here is the great payoff for a loving mother—to see the child you’ve brought into the world make her own choices, succeed and sometimes stumble, and be a part of it all.
This is how one daughter put it:
“She’s missed the fun of life with family. She's missed the fun of my personality, my adventure-seeking, my business-owning, my grandchildren-raising. She has missed my sweet life, being jealous all the time of my blessed life.”
Another daughter, while commenting on what her mother missed, insisted her mother didn’t see herself as “missing” anything:
“I am 54 now and it has taken me this long to have the clarity that I do today. So, without going into a zillion paragraphs explaining myself, I would just like to say that I do not believe that my mother is ‘missing’ any part of me or my life. She had the opportunity to be a loving grandmother to my children and grandchildren and all she could do is the same cruel and manipulative behaviors that she did with my sister and me as we were growing up. She is very cold-hearted and I can clearly see now that she is incapable of caring about anyone but herself. Of course I would love to be able to share my life with her, my children, my garden, new recipes, the holidays, but this will never be.”
2. Really knowing her child.
Being intimate with anyone is a terrific opportunity to move past the confines of our own skins and ways of perceiving the world. But there is something very special about knowing someone from the very beginning, as this mother—an unloved daughter herself—shared:
“I love how different my two girls are, each with her own brand of strength and talent. I am now watching them make life choices and it is thrilling to see them take flight. I love their confidences, of things gone right and things messed up. I love that they trust me enough to put their failings into words. If I had done that with my mother, it would have just invited her to wound me. Boy, did she ever miss out on some of life’s best moments.”
Another woman, the mother of two sons and a daughter, said:
“Each of my children is amazing, you know? Different, unique and I love that about them. They are my favorite people in the world. Honestly.”
This is doubtlessly biased but the world gets brighter when I see the child I know and love. Her insights and reactions remind me of the limitations of my own points of view and help me—even at this age—to keep on growing.
3. Watching her daughter flower (and seeing the role she played).
There’s an enormous difference between seeing your child as an extension of yourself or someone you have to “mold” into shape as some unloving mothers do and playing the role of gardener as your child grows. A good gardener provides her with the love, support, resources, and protection she needs to become herself. And, yes, it’s fine to feel pride in what you’ve been able to give your daughter.
This is what one unloved daughter, now 45, said:
“I received the best letter from my 15-year-old daughter for Christmas. She thanked me for leaving my crazy family and changing the dynamic and being a good Mom. She said in many different ways how much she loved me. My Mom never experienced any of this. I always felt like a crazy person stuck in a family that only cared about fake appearances and seeming like a fake loving family. My mother missed out on so much. She is still missing out on the wonderful mother-daughter relationship that I have worked so hard to create with my kids. I would do anything for my girls. Even though I have had many years of counseling, it is still hard to figure out why Mom does not have the maternal instinct that is so strong in me. I am at a place of acceptance that it can't be any different but, boy has she missed a lot.”
Another daughter offered this insight:
“My mother had me because it was the thing to do. She missed the look of love in a child's eye, a warm hug, endless artwork made at school or at home. Mother's Day cards which were made from love not forced because of another adult telling me I had to do it. Little love notes under a pillow because little daughters are silly that way. Tea parties and long talks of where fairies come from. She missed ME but the world has me now. I just need to be a shining star for myself and my daughters.”
One woman looked back with more than a little bit of wistfulness on her own mother’s choices:
“She is missing out on watching me succeed in my career choice and the ability to be proud of what I've become. But maybe that would be painful for her, knowing I became who I am despite her best efforts to destroy me. She is also missing out on watching my children grow and progress. She could have been a proud adoptive grandma, but instead she saw only skin color, DNA we didn't share, and disabilities.”
4. Having fun and joy with (and because of) her daughter.
Yes, the dismissive, hypercritical, absent, or “it’s all about me” mothers miss out on the fabulous company an adult daughter can be. I’m not being a Pollyanna here and saying my daughter never makes me crazy or that we never fight. We do. The arguments are epic when they happen but we easily resolve them. The rest, folks, is what my mother missed—the stuff of life that fills your heart with joy and puts a smile on your very soul.
As one 30-year-old daughter put it:
“Well, I think that she missed out on a wonderful friendship. I have a couple of girlfriends who have really great and fun relationships with their moms. I was jealous of how easy, nurturing and natural these relationships were. The relationship I had with my mother was mostly insufferable. So all my life I was jealous of my friends because my mom wasn't my friend. I couldn't talk to her about anything. I couldn't share with her my insecurities. I couldn't count on her support. She was cold, she was judgmental, she was hypercritical, and a lot of the time she was downright mean. Had she been an actual friend or boyfriend, I would have dumped her a long time ago! So my mom missed out on what could have been a warm and wonderful friendship. A friendship that could have added more meaning and fullness to her life.”
Yes, loving a child brings all of that and more to a life, not to mention having someone you can wear antlers with.
In the end, here’s the truth: You weren’t the only one who missed out. Really. Keep it in mind on your journey toward healing. These ideas are explored fully in my new book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
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Copyright 2016 Peg Streep
Tannen, Deborah. You’re Wearing That? Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. New York: Ballantine, 2006.