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Daughters of Unloving Mothers: Facing Up to Denial

Why it sometimes takes so long to see the damage done in childhood.

Yuliya Yafimik/Shutterstock
Source: Yuliya Yafimik/Shutterstock

It’s a testament to both the centrality and complexity of the mother-daughter relationship that, for many unloved daughters, the recognition of their wounding and its source comes late in life. Some women are in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and even 60s—and, often, mothers or even grandmothers themselves—before they finally begin to understand how their mothers’ treatment of them in childhood has affected—and continues to shape—their lives.

I know this because I hear from them—at Psychology Today, on Facebook, and via email. They always write a variation on of “How could I not have known for all this time?”

Some unloved daughters know at a very young age—as I did—that their mothers didn’t love them. They “know” it long before they can even put it into words. I was no older than three or four; others say they knew at six, seven, or eight. These daughters don’t know why their mothers don’t connect to them; in fact, they are very likely to blame themselves for whatever might be wrong. Additionally, their perceptions don’t stop them from trying to become the kind of daughter their mother would or might love. But they know deep inside nonetheless and, as they get older, they begin to wrestle with the problem. Note the word begin because this is a long process, even with therapy.

Why the Mother Wound Is Denied or Rationalized

What gets in way of a daughter's seeing her mother’s behavior as hurtful, destructive, or even willful? Part of it is certainly the hardwired need for a mother’s love and approval which is part and parcel of every infant’s being. This need doesn’t appear to have an expiration date; it lasts long into adulthood and, perhaps, the entire lifespan. This is what one daughter wrote, reflecting on her mother’s death, and capturing many of the feelings an unloved daughter has:

"She was on her deathbed and someone said, 'Do you want to tell Linda you love her?' My mother answered 'no.' Of course, I rationalized her behavior because it felt better than thinking I was unloved. I rationalized her behavior for years but it never helped my pain. I would tell people she behaved that way because she was 'sick,' because she grew up with a detached mother herself, because she was abused…. I barely cried when she died and cried more when I had to put a beloved dog to sleep. Why did I rationalize? Who wants anybody to know that they were unloved by their mother? I think that on some level I felt that if my mother couldn’t love me, how could anyone else?"

That fear—that her mother is right, that she is ultimately unlovable—underlies much of a daughter’s denial. You can mix that in with a sense of shame at being “the only girl in the world whose mother doesn’t love her”—an easy conclusion to reach when the culture preaches not just the idealization of motherhood but insists that maternal love is “instinctual,” which it is not.

Trying to Find a Reason

Because the world of a child is small and the interactions that go on in it are familiar, most daughters begin by accepting their mothers’ treatment as “normal.” That’s reinforced by the fact that the mother doesn’t just rule that little world but dictates how actions and interactions in it are to be understood.

Harsh words and castigation are labeled "discipline" that is “necessary” for building a daughter’s character. Even if her mother treats other children in the house differently, the daughter is likely to believe that, somehow, it must be her fault that she’s treated one way and her siblings another—and, besides, she remains hopeful that, somehow, she’ll be able to change things.

The effort to make sense of things—especially for adolescents and young adults who don’t seek counsel from either friends or a therapist—is emotionally turbulent and confusing, and can keep a daughter locked into the patterns for years, as another daughter wrote:

"I rationalized how my mother behaved toward me my whole life until last year. (I’m 37.) I wanted there to be a reason for her behavior that I could actually get my head around. I don’t think you ever want to admit what’s really going on when you want so desperately to be loved by your mother."

Sometimes, the wake-up call—the moment when the rationalization and denial finally stall out—comes when the pain of rejection becomes too much to bear or the daughter’s own patterns of behavior learned in response to her childhood experiences have begun to wreak too much havoc. That was certainly true for Deidre, whose a-ha! moment happened in her late 30s:

"I was in two serious relationships and, in hindsight, both were abusive. I left the man who abused me emotionally and made me feel like nothing—pretty much as my mother did—and then married a man I thought was different. He wasn’t. Once we were married, he tried to control my every move—as my mother did—and eventually moved from being verbally abusive to physically threatening. A light went off in my head. I went into therapy and finally saw the pattern: I was going back to Mom. My mother denied it and so when I divorced my husband, I divorced her, too. Sad to say, my relationship to her thrived on denial but it could not survive an ounce of truth. She wouldn’t allow it and I couldn’t go back."

Sometimes, it’s a third-party intimate—a friend, a lover, a spouse—who opens the door to seeing the pattern, as Jenn’s story makes clear:

"I was living with the man I ended up marrying and we invited my mother to dinner to celebrate my getting my master’s degree. He’d met her before but never one-on-one in this way, in an intimate setting. It was the same old thing with her but when she left, he turned to me and said, 'Was this Beat Up Jenn day? I thought we were celebrating.' He then went on to rattle off every criticism and lousy thing she’d said about me—my flat looked slovenly, I’d gotten fat, did I think I was really going to succeed outside of school?—and I burst into tears because I realized I was so used to her being that way that I just sponged it up. He encouraged me to go into therapy and I did. Unfortunately, my mother didn’t want to take responsibility for anything so we are long estranged. It’s a pity, really."

Is it any wonder that unloved daughters deny in order to unconsciously protect themselves from recognizing such a painful truth? Yes, that’s a rhetorical question.

Denial and the Code of Silence

There’s more that feeds into the dance of denial, of course. All children want to fit in and the unloved daughter who already feels as though she’s an outsider in the one place she’s supposed to belong (yes, home) is unlikely to share her feelings with anyone, especially if she feels—as she does—that she’s the only daughter on the planet whose mother doesn’t love her. The irony here is that the daughter is not altogether wrong; even when she moves out of the stage of life where she wants to be like “everyone else,” she’s not always likely to find a sympathetic audience.

Rationalization is fed by other people’s responses—the people who tell you, as they tell me, that “It couldn’t have been so bad because you turned out just fine” or “Stop complaining. You were fed and clothed, weren’t you?” My own, thoroughly unscientific take is that people want so badly to believe that one kind of love is immutable, unconditional, and never wavering—given that we all know love in the world is hard to get and harder to hold on to—that they’re resistant to giving up that belief. An unloved daughter’s story challenges that pastel-tinted vision of the all-loving mother—and there’s the Biblical commandment to boot.

Speaking up and recognizing the truth of a mother’s behavior may be made harder by other family members who prefer to continue to deny, as one daughter wrote:

"My mother’s behavior is still excused by my siblings and they hate it and get triggered when I name it. My mother and my family explain and excuse her behavior by painting her as the victim due to her upbringing. I still doubt my own impressions and thoughts daily because of this. And I'm still afraid of being punished in some way because of what I think of my mother. All I can do is try to trust the feeling of disconnection and lack of secure base I experience, but it’s hard because I end up questioning my impressions even though they’re definitely real."

Because the unloved daughter has her view of the dynamics in the family challenged throughout her life, she often doubts her perceptions and understanding. To let go of denial, she has to rise to the challenge of believing in herself, which isn’t always easy.

Ending Denial and Confronting the Self

The moment at which the daughter stops denying and starts looking is the first step of what is a long journey—unraveling the ways in which her own behavior was shaped in childhood and how it stands up to scrutiny now. It’s a journey of self-discovery that can belie chronological age, as Gillian’s experience testifies:

"I rationalized and excused from a very young age and from early on, the only constant in my life was the huge question mark hanging over my head: What was wrong with my family? My mother blamed my father in order to hide her own responsibilities, as well as her past. Now, 25 years after her death, I realize I never knew my mother as a woman or a person—only as a dysfunctional and ineffective parent figure who inflicted her own pain on her children. While my counselor thinks it’s important not to 'dwell' on the past, the things I’ve learned about my mother since her death have brought understanding, and put pieces of the puzzle together, though not forgiveness. What appalls me is how like her I am, while spending my life in search of what I thought was a different way of being. So much still not understood but it helps me to grow."

Coming to terms with the self and experience requires self-compassion, insight, and emotional fortitude—which, of course, denial does not—and a decision about how to use and process both the information gleaned and the experience. This is what Laura came to understand:

"I rationalized my mother’s behavior all of my life. I always had an excuse or rationale for why she said or did things. This was all about minimizing me, because if there were a ‘reason’ for her behavior, somehow it was OK. Eventually, after getting out of the blame cycle and ignoring all the New Age garbage about ‘forgiveness,’ I decided on honesty and accountability. As long as I was excusing/rationalizing her behavior, I was discounting what it did to me, condoning it as OK because I didn’t deserve any better. A-ha! It took a while to figure this one out—I’m 59. I’m a mother myself so I’m tired of being on a pedestal or in the gutter."

It’s not just that the unloved daughter truly gets to see her mother once she stops the dance of denial, but that she is finally afforded the opportunity to see herself in full, unobscured by the second-guessing, self-doubt, and shame which looking away from the real problem induces. For many, it’s a hard path but it is a hopeful one, as Alicia wrote:

Photo by Brooke Cagle. Copyright free.
Source: Photo by Brooke Cagle. Copyright free.

"We are filled with so much self-doubt that loving ourselves and having belief in our worth is so hard. For so long we believed the trouble lay within ourselves. As a mother myself now, there isn’t a thing I wouldn’t do for my kids and I won’t put a price tag on it. Loving my kids unconditionally has let me see that I am actually a much more capable and stronger person than I ever knew."

The dance of denial is born out of many impulses, fueled by the need to be loved and supported by the women most central to our young lives. It’s a dance that may keep us going for a while, but when the music stops and we reflect in stillness, it’s the moment we begin our own re-imaginings—no longer hers but belonging first and foremost to ourselves.

Merci beaucoup to my readers on Facebook who spoke up with courage and brilliance.

Copyright 2016 Peg Streep