Unloved Daughters: Mother's Day and the Sense of Loss

Set against the starkness of the pandemic, a difficult day becomes even harder.

Posted May 06, 2020

Photograph by Dmitry Schemelev. Copyright free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Dmitry Schemelev. Copyright free. Unsplash

Not surprisingly, the messages from my readers started when the calendar flipped to May; that wasn’t unusual since it happens every year. Still, the tenor and tone had a different edge: “Is it me or is anyone else being driven crazy by all the postings about missing Mom on her special day?" and “It seems that if everything else is on pause, we ought to be able hit a pause button and cancel this miserable holiday this year, don’t you think?” and “I can’t believe I have to wander the aisles, wearing a mask and gloves, searching for a card that doesn’t make me a total liar, once again.”

Amid the tsunami of mugs and cards festooned with roses and glitter that declare that “A Mother is a Girl’s Best Friend” and “The Greatest Gift is a Mom’s Unconditional Love,” the unloved daughter tries to keep her balance, no matter how she has decided to manage her relationship to her mother. It doesn’t matter whether she’s still in contact, gone low contact, or no contact; inevitably, it’s a day that makes her feel as though she’s adrift, singled out, and forever banished from that circle of daughters who turn to their mothers for comfort, understanding, and love.

This year, with the normal routines of life lost to the coronavirus, whatever sense of loss always accompanies Mother’s Day is magnified and, yes, harder to deal with.

Dealing with the mix of emotions that the day brings up

The mother myths—that all mothers love, that maternal love is always unconditional, that women are always nurturing, that mothering is instinctual—are the engine that drives this holiday invented by a pious daughter and to act in a way that points out that they are myths effectively brands you. The truth of the unloving mother is one that few people want to hear. One woman put it bluntly: “I still feel the shame of it, even though I know there was nothing I did that was shameful. But the culture is so critical of you if you don’t display loyalty to your mother. It’s become my dirty little secret. "

Whether a daughter has set boundaries to manage her relationship to her mother, limited contact to a few calls and visits a year, or has completely estranged herself, the reality is that she’s likely not to tell many people, if any.

But shame isn’t the only emotion this most commercial of holidays evokes; there’s anger as well as a deep sadness for many daughters, as one woman wrote to me after reading my book, Daughter Detox:

“Now that I am a mother myself, my mother’s treatment of me seems more abusive than ever. I tried to please her for years and years, still thinking somehow that there was a magic formula or some way that I could get her to care for me. Now, I have a name for that, thanks to you, and I’m not dancing in denial anymore. I’m angry at the time wasted but I am also sad that I got so unlucky to have her as my mother. That’s is the hardest part to get over. That sense of loss.”

How to deal with those feelings

Healing is a process and not a one-step thing, so the chances are good that you’ll need more than one strategy to deal with your emotions on Mother’s Day and any other day. Working with a gifted therapist is the best route to healing but self-help can promote the process. Keep in mind, especially if you’ve had trouble setting boundaries, that the pandemic comes with its own ready-made excuse for why you can’t see her; that is the one silver lining I can point out in this ominous and scary cloud.

The following suggestions are drawn from the interviews conducted for and research plumbed for my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.

1. Understand that the shame isn’t yours to own. Blaming themselves is a default position for unloved daughters; researchers suggest that taking responsibility for your mother’s treatment by thinking you deserved it is less scary than confronting the truth that the person charged with protecting and taking care of you won’t. We carry those assumptions into adulthood, along with the shame of being unloved. Now is the time to let go of that shame and to recognize that you never had the power to change the relationship.

2. Work on labeling your feelings. Again, this is basically an exercise to hone your emotional intelligence skillset, and Mother’s Day is likely to arouse a number of emotions at once. Is it anger you are feeling and, if so, what are you angry about? If you feel sad, target the source of your sadness. Or is there fear mixed in as well? Many daughters harbor deep fears that the world of relationships is unsafe or that their mothers were “right” and that they are essentially unlovable.

3. Feel compassion for the little girl you were. Shame and the habit of self-criticism—focusing on what you believe to be flaws in your character that can’t be fixed—often stand in the way of feeling compassion for our adult selves. Many daughters find it easier to connect to their younger selves because of their vulnerability, which probably accounts for the popularity of this exercise from my book Daughter Detox. Choose a childhood photograph of yourself, and spend time looking at it; see that little girl as if she were a stranger and pay attention to all the things about her that make her special. Talk to that little girl, and reassure her that she won’t be sad or lonely in the future; become the mother that this little girl so desperately needed, and plant the seeds of self-compassion.

4. Mourn the mother you deserved. Part of healing entails no longer looking at your mother and asking yourself why she treated you as she did; recovery requires that your focus shift to you and the ways in which you were shaped by not having your emotional needs met and validated, and one strategy is to think about the mother you deserved. Begin by visualizing her, endowing her with the qualities which your own mother lacked. How you imagine her will give you another perspective on your development as well as your adult needs and wants. The mother I deserved sees me as I am and listens to me, for example.

Keep in mind: Mother’s Day is just one Sunday and even in a time of the pandemic, the sun will set and then rise again on Monday morning.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2020