5 Ways for Daughters to Heal From an Emotionally Absent Mother
Realizing You Had an Emotionally Absent Mother Allows the Healing to Begin
When we have children of our own, most of us feel a deep connection to our own moms. We feel tremendous gratitude for all they did for us. We have a new-found appreciation for the patience, effort, and loving care it took to nurse us, potty train us, help us with our math homework, guide us through the awkward preteen years, and let us make our own stupid mistakes as young adults. But, for others of us, motherhood makes us realize that we missed out on something crucial during our childhoods—the profound emotional bond between mom and daughter.
An emotionally absent mother is not fully present and especially not to the emotional life of the child. She may be depressed, stretched too thin and exhausted, or perhaps a bit numb. Many of these mothers were severely undermothered themselves and have no idea what a close parent-child relationship looks like. They are doing the outer things they think a mother should do, but have no clue how very big the job of mothering is.— Jasmin Lee Cori, author of "The Emotionally Absent Mother"
Emotionally Absent Mothers Can Be Dismissive of Our Feelings
When my husband and I were going through the long and painful process of getting our 3-year-old son diagnosed with autism, I started to have flashbacks of my growing-up years. Up until that point, I had placed those dreadful days in a dark corner of the closet and moved on with my life. But my mother's lack of compassion and understanding about my son stirred up unpleasant memories from the past.
Not only was she not sympathizing with the heartache I was going through—mom to mom—but she was actually downright hostile and dismissive of my feelings. She couldn't relate on any level to the intense hurt I was experiencing. More than any other time in my life I needed a mommy, but she steadfastly refused to act like one...or, perhaps, she just didn't have it in her and never had.
Emotionally Absent Mothers Ignore Our Inner World
Overwhelmed by my son's diagnosis and a new baby, I didn't have time or money to attend therapy. Thank goodness, my friend told me about Jasmin Lee Cori's The Emotionally Absent Mother. This book led me to reflect upon my childhood instead of just blocking it from my mind like I had been doing. I read it at a snail's pace—needing to thoroughly digest one page at a time, ponder its content, and journal about it.
Cori explains that many daughters of emotionally absent mothers spend their childhood trying to win their mom's love and approval instead of focusing on themselves. As a result, they grow up not knowing who they are, what they want from life, and what they enjoy doing. They might feel empty, alone, and without a purpose, which leads to anxiety and depression. This perfectly described my own situation.
Every page of Cori's book spoke to my experiences growing up with a mother who did all the outward behaviors of a good mom—cooking our meals, cleaning the house, driving us to school—but did nothing to care for our inner universe—responding to our emotions, empathizing with our struggles, and comforting us when we were blue. I often needed to put the book down for days or even weeks because it made me so emotional. When I finally finished reading and absorbing it, I set five goals for myself that proved immensely helpful on my road to understanding, healing, and forgiving.
1. Find a Mother Figure
We wound ourselves when we limit the search for a mommy to just one person—our biological mothers. The mother archetype is a universal one, depicting someone who's nurturing, caring, unselfish, and emotionally open. If our own mothers don't fulfill that role, it's essential we find someone who does—female or male, older or younger, a person who'll be there for the long haul or just for the immediate situation.
My son's occupational therapist, Nora, became my maternal figure. Although she wasn't much older than I was, she was the wiser and more experienced one who gently guided me through the autism maze. Because her teenage son had Asperger's, she spoke not only from a professional perspective but from a personal one and always with genuine kindness and concern.
While her primary job was to help my son, she never left me out of the equation. She made sure I was taking good care of myself—going to a support group for parents of children on the spectrum and having fun with my husband and baby. She reminded me to enjoy my son as a wonderful, unique kid and not just one with autism. I'm no longer in touch with Nora but remain grateful that she mothered me during this difficult period.
A Word of Caution About Finding a Mother Figure:
In my search to find a mother figure, I had a number of missteps. As Julie Floods writes in her article, Why We Repeatedly Choose the Wrong Relationships, "people tend to be drawn to the familiar" and go toward the devil they know. I kept trying to form friendships with women who were closed off like my mother. I was trying to win them over and change them just like I had done with my mom as a child. Once I identified this pattern, I was able to stop it and start pursuing friends who were emotionally available and desiring of an open, honest, and reciprocal relationship.
2. Mother Yourself
I didn't treat myself well, and it was catching up to me. I didn't eat right, make time for exercise, spend time with friends, or have hobbies. I didn't feel like I deserved good treatment—not from others and not from myself. I knew changing that belief was central to improving my life.
In elementary school I was the rag-a-muffin girl whose hair needed a good brushing. In middle school I was the one with the frumpy wardrobe who needed someone to teach her about style. In high school I was the pimply teen who needed to visit a dermatologist. I never had anyone mentor me, advocate for me, champion me, be my cheerleader, or mother me. I finally decided to do all those things for myself.
Today, I don't let malicious voices in my head tear me down until I can barely function. I'm kind and gentle to myself, making time for activities that bring me peace and joy. I talk to myself like a mother talks to a child: "You've worked long enough. You're tired now and need to sleep...You need to slow down and eat a healthy meal. Nothing is more important than that." I begin many mornings by writing a note to myself from my ideal imaginary mother. She tells me how much she loves me, how proud she is of what I've accomplished, and encourages me to treat myself well throughout the day.
I remember hearing Iyanla Vanzant, the life coach and television personality, tell women to put themselves first and to "keep your cup full!" I had heard nothing of the sort while growing up but found out quickly how right Vanzant was. It's empowering to finally have someone looking out for me...especially when it's me. I no longer feel so completely drained. I look forward to every day and have so much more to offer.
3. Examine and Forgive
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But, for those of us with painful pasts, it's often difficult to re-visit our traumatic times. When I started to look at how my mom's childhood related to my own, though, the puzzle pieces started to fit and a clear, cohesive image appeared. I realized that not only did I need to forgive my mother, but that she deserved my forgiveness.
My grandparents conceived my mother to save their unhappy marriage. When their first daughter died, they contemplated divorce. They ultimately chose, however, to have another child, my mother, in the hopes of saving their union. It didn't work. My grandmother began to drink, eventually dying from cirrhosis of the liver. My mom got sent away to boarding school. She never had a mother figure in her life again and never experienced what it was like to live in a family until she had kids of her own.
It's no wonder she couldn't emotionally connect to her own children. She was still preoccupied with the suffering of her own childhood (and still is today, well into her 70s). When talking with my mom, I quickly realized she saw her mom's alcoholism as an act of rejection. She commented, “she choose booze over me.” My mom never took the time to learn about alcohol addiction, to attend an Al-Anon meeting, or to find answers in therapy. She didn't have a mother. She didn't mother herself. So how could she mother her children? With that insight, it was easy to forgive.
4. If You're a Parent, Make Your Home Child-Centered.
According to Jasmin Lee Cori, many children who grew up with emotionally absent mothers didn't have “child-centered” homes. She says, “These parents didn’t supervise kids, they didn’t talk to their kids, they didn’t touch their kids, and they weren’t there when their kids came to them for help.”
In my family, our mother always had more important things to do than mothering. Her career (ironically, as an elementary school teacher) was always put ahead of us kids. We'd sit at the dinner table, and she'd tell story after story about the students in her class but never asked about our days.
As a parent, I've made a conscious effort to create a child-centered home with my sons' activities taking priority over my own. I don't burden them with adult issues like my mother did with me. She confided in me all her marital problems, work struggles, and financial concerns. I would never think of doing that with my own kids.
Dr. Jonice Webb Offers a Hopeful Message for Those Who Grew Up With Emotionally Absent Mothers
5. Let Yourself Feel Everything
As a child, my mother denied my feelings again and again. If I said, “I feel sad,” she would then tell me why that couldn't possibly be true. Because she had an alcoholic mother who had died, she thought my life was perfect, and I had no right to feel anything but sheer contentment. That's when I started to stuff my emotions with food. As an adult, I concealed them with anti-depressants, leading to a robotic existence.
Dr. Jonice Webb, author of Running on Empty, says mothers who discount a daughter's emotions during childhood are creating enormous problems for her in adulthood. The daughter thinks: My feelings don't matter so I must not matter. She learns at an impressionable age to bottle up her emotions. Then, as an adult, she cannot tap into those feelings when she needs them. Dr. Webb writes, "When your emotions are blocked off, your body feels it. Something vital is missing. You sense this deeply, and it does not feel good...You are emotionally numb."
After getting off anti-depressants, I decided to feel every emotion for the first time in my life. It was scary because I thought my husband and kids would turn their backs on me. I thought they would tell me that my feelings were wrong just like my mom had, but they didn't. They accepted them and, therefore, accepted me.
I also started writing down my feelings and experiences as the daughter of an emotionally absent mother. Through the process of putting pen to paper, I made sense of what happened to me and how it shaped my life. Writing things down helped me organize my thoughts. I realized that I didn't always need other people to understand my history and validate my emotions; I could find peace just by putting the words on the page and that discovery was truly transformative.
To not have your suffering recognized is an almost unbearable form of violence.— Andrei Lankov
Did you have an emotionally absent mother?
If so, what helped you to heal?
This Is the Book That Began My Healing
This book got me started on my journey toward healing. It took me a long time to finish it because it was overwhelming. I'd read a couple of passages and then walk away, needing time to think, journal, and cry. I saw my story here and it felt good to know I wasn't alone. I'm currently in the process of re-reading this book, wanting to understand more.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
My mom was emotionally absent, and I didn't want to be like her when I became a mom. I've done really well with my kids, but I get frustrated dealing with their emotions. How can I do better?
It's understandable that you, the daughter of an emotionally absent mother, would struggle to deal with your children's feelings despite your best intentions. Growing up without a role model to show you how to do things correctly, you're left to your own devices. When you were a child, your emotional world was not attended to, and now you may perceive your children's intense feelings as scary and threatening. You may wrongly interpret their anger or sadness as saying: “Mom, you're doing a lousy job and I'm unhappy about it.”
It's so wonderful, though, that you recognize your weakness in this area and want to improve. Now you need to cut yourself some slack and become more methodical in your approach. I, too, found myself reacting without patience and empathy when my sons were expressing their emotions. Sometimes it was simply because I was tired but other times it was because of the emotional neglect I experienced as a kid.
I found myself wanting to fix my children's problems and move forward as quickly as possible with no emotional messiness. That was my legacy as the daughter of an emotionally absent mother. Therefore, I decided to become more deliberate, slow down, and follow these three critical steps:
1. Let them have their feelings.
Feelings are neither good nor bad; they are. Help your children identify their feelings and name them (sad, frustrated, angry). Help them figure out why they're having these feelings (I'm angry because I lost at Monopoly...I'm frustrated because we didn't have pizza for dinner...I'm sad because I didn't get invited to the birthday party). Be their guide as they explore their feelings. Let them cry if they need to cry. Don't try to suppress their emotions. Help them find ways to deal with their feelings in a constructive way: punching a pillow, going outside, waling the dog, exercising, talking to a friend, writing in a journal, taking a bath, etc.
2. Don't get defensive.
Keep in mind that their feelings are their own. Get your ego out of the equation and don't make it about you. Step back from the situation. Don't take their strong emotions as a condemnation of your mothering. This is about them getting to know more about their emotions and themselves. It's normal, natural, and healthy.
3. Listen and don't try to fix things.
What one of the biggest complaints wives have about their husbands is that they immediately jump into solving the problem rather than listening and empathizing. As daughters of emotionally absent mothers, we can be guilty of this as well. We're uncomfortable with the raw emotions. We want them to go away and everything to return to normal. When we do this, however, we give our kids the wrong message. We communicate that feelings are undesirable, so it's best to bottle them up inside and then suffer all the negative physical and emotional consequences of doing so. As a daughter of emotionally absent mothers, this is the last message we want to pass along to our kids!
Our moms didn't listen to us when we were children and didn't pick up on our feelings. There was no emotional bond. Now it's our opportunity to do better with our kids and not pass the emotional neglect to the next generation. It may not come naturally to us, but we can do it because we're aware and highly motivated.Helpful 39
Do you have any more book recommendations? I finished the one mentioned in your article, and I need to read more on the subject as part of my healing process.
After I read "The Emotionally Absent Mother," I was eager to move forward like you probably are. I didn't want to get stuck in the victim role, constantly re-hashing my childhood. I had spent enough time doing that, so I read books that helped me make my life better in the here and now. I read Jasmin Lee Cori's follow-up, "The Emotionally Absent Mother: A Guide to Self-Healing and Getting the Love You Missed," and "Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers" by Dr. Karyl McBride.
Both books helped me understand how growing up with an emotionally distant mom shaped my childhood, causing me so much shame and self-doubt. I had blamed myself for my terrible childhood, thinking I was a failure as a kid and teen. These books helped me realize that I was not to blame, and I could finally start to nurture and love that wounded little girl inside of me. I began taking good care of myself for the first time in my life: losing weight, exercising, and eating well. Before that, I just didn't like myself enough to bother.Helpful 24
How can I get my emotionally absent mother to be a better grandparent to my kids?
You can't. Moreover, you and your kids will be better off when you finally accept who your mother is. While it's wonderful for our children when they have loving and involved grandparents, they can do just fine in life without them. What they need to thrive are devoted parents and a support system made up of extended family and close friends. It's you who's pained by your mother's disinterest, not your kids. They're only negatively impacted if you make it a big deal. They feel hurt because you're hurt.
Expecting our emotionally absent mothers to be emotionally engaged grandmothers is unrealistic and sets us up for disappointment. It's a misguided attempt to re-do our childhoods and try to fix them, turning our detached moms into attentive ones. It won't work, though, because our moms are still the same people they've always been. We owe it to our kids to accept the situation as is, modeling for them that we can't change others, only ourselves. We need to be fully present for their childhoods and not stuck in the past trying to re-do ours.
Michael Singer writes about what he dubs our “inner thorns” in “The Untethered Soul.” When we have an intensely negative reaction, we're experiencing an inner thorn moment (typically, a hurt from childhood). When your mother reacts in a detached way with your kids, it triggers the anguish you felt as a youngster. Yet, if you calmly recognize that and say to yourself “my inner thorn has just been set off, “ you'll stay in control and have peace. Believe me, I do this all the time when my mother visits and it helps me stay sane!Helpful 3
I want to start by thanking you for sharing your story. I felt I was reading about myself and it's nice to know i'm not crazy. I'd like to know if you had any trouble when you first had your child. I am scared of becoming a mom for fear of being a bad one. Did you have other resources to share on that aspect of your experience?
You're so fortunate to be aware of this now while contemplating motherhood. As I said in my article, I didn't know I was the daughter of an emotionally absent mother until after having my son and struggling through his autism diagnosis. If I had known sooner, I would have saved myself so much heartache and frustration. I never would have expected my mom to act any differently than she always had in emotionally rife situations--cold, angry, and detached--and I would have moved away from her long before starting a family of my own.
Don't think for one minute that your mother will act differently as a grandmother to your kids than she did as a mother to you. I was hoping my mom would connect to my sons on an emotional level and be a special someone in their lives: giving them hugs and kisses, playing board games with them, taking them to the park, talking with them, doing cooking and art projects with them. But, it was insane of me to think that because she had never done those things with my siblings and me. Hope springs eternal, though, and I wanted so badly to have a second chance with her through my sons. People are consistent, though, and my mom acted as a grandmother just as she had as a parent. I didn't want to go through that pain again so I distanced myself from her (emotionally and geographically). Without a doubt, it was the best decision for me, my marriage, and my kids.
I'm so glad I sheltered my sons from my mom because they haven't been damaged by her. That just see her as a passive-aggressive old lady. My two nieces, though, are now young adults and grew up with their grandmother near them. They have no bond with her and hate how she nitpicks their appearance—their hair color, their clothes, their skin, their weight—just as she had done to me and their mom while growing up. Unlike me and my sister, though, they fight back and don't let her crush their spirit!
I think you would be an awesome mom if you deal with these issues before becoming pregnant. Without a doubt, parenting has been a challenge for me because of my son's autism but also because of my childhood. Yet, being a mother has given me a chance to build the family of my dreams in which there's a lot of fun, laughter, and camaraderie.
"Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect" by Jonice Webb helped me realize why I was feeling so tired and drained as a parent. I thought it was only because I was doing too much as a mom, wife, and teacher (which was true), but it was also caused by being the daughter of an emotionally absent mother. Understanding that allowed me to bring more joy and vitality into my life through meditating, volunteering, exercising, having hobbies, and allowing myself downtime. Now I always have things to look forward to that keep me living in the present and not dwelling on the past. My life is a lot more fun now than it has ever been.
Good luck to you on that life-altering decision. It's a big one!Helpful 16
My 15-year-old (step)daughter finally got to move in with us. Her mother has been plain cruel. Along with therapy, are there any books you think a mature 15-year-old could read and benefit from?
First, let me commend you for being so sensitive and compassionate about your stepdaughter's situation. Her therapist would be a much better source for book recommendations than I would. The books I recommend to daughters of emotionally absent mothers are for adult women and explore heavy-duty themes that aren't appropriate for teens. When I read those books, they wiped me out emotionally.
I would suggest, though, that you consider family therapy as you make this big transition. It would be valuable for all of you to have a skilled facilitator in the room as you maneuver this new living arrangement. When a teen is in therapy by herself, she gets the message that she's alone in dealing with these issues. Family therapy gives her the support she needs and shows her how powerful the group dynamic is.
I would imagine that you, her father, and other siblings need support in this new arrangement as well. Discussing these issues now can prevent problems in the future. If her mother would come into the therapy as well, it could be extremely beneficial. Even if the two of them can no longer live together, perhaps they could salvage something of their mother-daughter bond.
My 17-year-old niece recently read “Express Yourself: A Teen Girl's Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are” by Emily Roberts, a psychotherapist. Her mother (my sister) was the daughter of an emotionally absent mother, so my niece is coping with that legacy. She was struggling with depression and anxiety and was cutting herself. Like her mother and me when we were teens, she had bottled up her feelings and didn't have the skills to articulate her thoughts. She said this book (along with therapy) helped her find her voice and get some much-needed relief from her emotional pain.Helpful 11
© 2016 McKenna Meyers