Emotionally Absent Mothers: How They Affect Their Daughters at Each Stage of Development

Updated on March 14, 2018
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After struggling with depression and anxiety most of my life, I'm now dedicated to becoming a stronger person who lives life to the fullest.

Daughters of emotionally absent mothers were often not seen, making them feel inadequate and battling low self-esteem.
Daughters of emotionally absent mothers were often not seen, making them feel inadequate and battling low self-esteem. | Source

How Are We Affected by Our Emotionally Absent Moms?

When my first-born child was a baby, my mother insisted I let him "cry it out" rather than pick him up and attend to his needs. This is what she did with my siblings and me, she boasted, letting us bawl until we were thoroughly exhausted and then fell soundly to sleep. When I rejected her advice and immediately went to my son's crib to pick him up, comfort him, and attend to his needs, she pouted like a thwarted child.

Ignoring my baby's cries went against every maternal instinct that flowed through my body. I didn't need a pediatrician or a scientific researcher to tell me a baby who's screaming needs attention. It broke my heart to think of myself as an infant, calling out from the crib and getting no response. But, as the daughter of an emotionally absent mother, wasn't that neglect just the beginning of a long and painful pattern that existed throughout my life? Don't all daughters of emotionally absent moms experience emotional abandonment during our growing up years and beyond? While we shouldn't become immobilized by our past, learning about its impact can help us find peace, understanding, and strength.

The Early Years: Not Getting Basic Needs Met

We've all heard horrific stories about babies in orphanages who don't get picked up when they cry and become emotionally damaged because of it. They don't bond with their adopted parents. They have extreme fits of anger and suffer from depression. They mistreat the family pets, abuse their siblings, or mutilate themselves. But, what about those of us who weren't in orphanages but had parents who let us cry it out rather than responding to our needs?

When I was a baby 50 years ago, my parents let my siblings and me cry it out because it was an accepted practice at that time. With no female role models in her life (her mom died when she was a girl), my mother knew nothing about the value of breastfeeding and bonding. By letting us cry it out, she felt in control, “training” us so we wouldn't become spoiled.

Because of recent findings in neuroscience, we now have overwhelming evidence about the critical importance of responding to a baby's cries. Infants who are allowed to bawl for long periods of time have abnormally high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. The strain they endure in the early months of life may alter the structure of their brains. Dr. Darcia Narvaez writes, “We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated persons who can pass the same or worse traits on to the next generation.”

Not surprisingly, an emotionally absent mother is less likely to be responsive to her baby's needs. She's less likely to cuddle her infant, sing her lullabies, read to her, and breastfeed. Erik Erikson, the respected developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst of the 20th century, wrote extensively about the importance of a child's first year. He said if a youngster's needs are met by attentive parents, she'll develop a sense of trust in the world and a hopeful spirit. But if her needs go unmet, she'd become mistrustful of the world and struggle with feelings of insecurity and worthlessness. For us daughters of emotionally absent mothers, the latter sounds all too familiar.

A good mother acts as a mirror for her daughter, providing a reflection of her beauty, talent, and intelligence. An emotionally absent mother is too busy, stressed out, or checked out to see who her daughter really is.
A good mother acts as a mirror for her daughter, providing a reflection of her beauty, talent, and intelligence. An emotionally absent mother is too busy, stressed out, or checked out to see who her daughter really is. | Source

The Teen Years: Not Being Seen, Not Feeling Special

When my mother was eight, her mom died and her father sent her to a Catholic boarding school run by nuns. She stayed there until she graduated from high school. That experience shaped her life and influenced the way she parented my three siblings and me. When we were kids, our basic needs were met—clothes, food, and shelter—but unconditional love and acceptance were missing. The four of us kids were interchangeable human beings to her—all treated the same and never seen for our unique characteristics and interests.

She got angry and frustrated when we wanted emotional support as if we were asking for something she just couldn't give. This denial of our feelings was especially hard on my sister and me because we were both shy and sensitive. As a child, I felt invisible, lonely, and unlovable. It all caught up with me during my teen years when I suffered from depression, gained weight, and had few friends.

In The Emotionally Absent Mother,” Jasmin Lee Cori writes about the different roles a good mom plays in the life of her child. One of the most significant is acting as a “mirror,” letting a child see herself by providing a reflection. This is done by being a compassionate and attentive listener, hearing what the youngster is saying, taking it seriously, understanding her thoughts, and empathizing with her feelings. The child is seen as a unique person—loved and valued for who she is. She becomes confident, competent, and eager to take on the world. A child without a parental mirror often has low self-esteem, causing her a lifetime of struggles with romantic relationships, friendships, and career.

Many of us with emotionally absent mothers didn't experience mirroring. Our moms were too busy, stressed-out, or checked out to see and appreciate us. My sister and I were introverts who preferred solitary activities such as reading, writing, drawing, and hiking. I struggled with social anxiety as a teen. But, throughout our growing up years, our mother insisted we were extroverts and treated us as such. When a parent sees you as a frog when you're actually a butterfly, it's painful and confusing. Today, though, I accept that my mother has never seen me as I am. This has allowed me to forgive her. After all, how can I blame someone who was clueless?

The Adult Years: Seeing the Truth and Finding Hope

When my son was diagnosed with autism, it was the most difficult period of my life. But now, 12 years after that hellish time, I know it was meant to be. My son's diagnosis forced me to come to terms with having an emotionally absent mother—something I fought with my entire life. The little girl inside of me stopped blaming herself—thinking she was ugly, stupid, and unlovable—and finally realized her mother was incapable of giving her the love and support she always wanted and needed.

My mother had always let me know my feelings didn't matter and, therefore, I didn't matter. When I turned to her for comfort mom-to-mom when my son got diagnosed, she reacted in her typical fashion: cold, angry, and annoyed. She shut me down, not wanting to hear my worries and my pain. It was the pattern I'd known all my life, but this time I reacted differently. I saw how little concern she had for my son—the most precious and innocent little boy in the entire world—and I knew it wasn't about me. It had always been about her and her inability to connect on a deeper, more profound level with anyone. She was wounded just as I was wounded.

From that day forward, I started reading all I could about emotionally absent mothers. I took notes, wrote in my journal, went on lots of long walks, and shed buckets of tears. I stopped loathing myself and started treating myself with love and respect. The idea of self-care had never been a part of my existence until then when I started eating right, exercising, shopping for cute clothes, putting on makeup, and making myself a priority. Nothing my mother said or didn't say would ever affect me again. I was free.

© 2018 McKenna Meyers


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    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 6 weeks ago from Bend, OR

      Janet's child, I feel your pain about the mothering you missed. When our mothers didn't have mothers, it's not surprising they weren't sweet, loving, and nurturing with us. While we can understand why they didn't bond with us like they should have, it doesn't ease the pain. The hole in our heart is still there. We need to be very mindful of this and be loving and nurturing to ourselves. I take time every day to think of my many blessings and give thanks, focusing on the abundance in my life and not the love I missed from my mom. This gives me peace. Please do something wonderful for yourself today and take care.

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      Janet's child 6 weeks ago

      My mother's mother died when she was 5 and she was raised by a woman who was not raised by her mother, either. (Great Grandparents). I am missing 2 generations of mothering. My mother also had twins when I was 2.3 years of age and I was summarily pushed farther from her lap, even complaining about it ...there are notes in my baby book about it. My needing her attention was a "funny footnote" in my baby book. Wow. She never sang to me, read books to me, we did not engage in "play" together because she was busy with other siblings. I was not mentored or mothered and I became rebellious in a way that haunts me to this day. It hurts me so deeply.

    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 2 months ago from Bend, OR

      Thanks for the prayers, Denise. I'm glad you and your mom have such a good and supportive relationship. My 18-year-old son recently came out to me. I wouldn't share that with my mom in a million years because she'd blame me: "If you had sent him to Catholic school, you wouldn't have this problem" would be her exact words. It's humorous to me now but, as a kid, not having the emotional support of a parent was lonely and confusing. Blessings back to you.

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      Denise McGill 2 months ago from Fresno CA

      Good for you. I didn't experience what you did. I can't even imagine how difficult that must have been. My mother had some antiquated ideas of parenting but she was there and she was supportive. And thank God, she is still alive today. I can talk to her about most things. My prayers are with you.