How an Emotionally Absent Mother Impacts a Daughter: From Infancy to Adulthood

Updated on August 31, 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.

Many daughters of emotionally absent mothers say they felt invisible while growing up.
Many daughters of emotionally absent mothers say they felt invisible while growing up. | Source

How Are Daughters Affected by Emotionally Absent Moms?

When my first-born son 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. Doing otherwise, she explained, would "spoil" an infant.

When I rejected her advice and immediately went to my son's crib to pick him up, she pouted like a thwarted child. Ignoring my baby's cries went against every maternal instinct that flowed through my body. It made me wonder why it didn't have the same effect on my mother. How could she have heard the screams of my siblings and me and not felt propelled to soothe us?

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 initial neglect just the beginning of a long and painful pattern that existed throughout my life? Don't all daughters of emotionally absent moms feel emotionally abandoned during our growing up years and beyond? Don't we all feel like we're crying out for attention but are consistently ignored? While we shouldn't become immobilized by our past, learning about its impact can help us develop self-awareness and a new-found strength as adults.

Emotionally absent mothers come with some variations, but the common theme is that they are insensitive to the emotional experience of their children. It is especially confusing in those cases where they appear, on the outside, to be involved parents—perhaps invested in the kids’ education, providing financial resources, and the like—and yet the children or adult children, when they respond honestly, report they do not feel loved or even known in any real way.

— Jasmin Lee Cori, author of "The Emotionally Absent Mother"

The Early Years: Not Getting Our 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?

While most mothers have a fierce maternal instinct to sooth their babies when they cry, emotionally detached ones don't. Fifty years ago, my mother and others like her followed the advice of John Watson, a behavioral psychologist, who warned that showering an infant with attention would result in a spoiled, whiny, and overly dependent child. In 1928, he published The Psychological Care of Infant and Child in which he instructed mothers to withhold maternal affection (in fact, chapter 3 of the text was titled "The Dangers of Too Much Mother Love"). Watson believed that holding, cuddling, and comforting only served to reinforce negative behaviors in youngsters. Picking up a screaming baby rewarded it for crying, for example, while hugging a frightened toddler encouraged him to be timid.

Not surprisingly, emotionally absent mothers were drawn to Watson's philosophy. It reinforced their reluctance to be demonstrative with their children. From the get-go, mothers like my own decided that a close mother-child bond was a bad thing, leaving their children to suffer the negative consequences of that for years to come.

Letting Babies "Cry It Out" May Alter Their Brain Structure

Recent findings in neuroscience provide 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. In an article called "Dangers of 'Crying It Out'" in Psychology Today, Dr. Darcia Narvaez writes, “With neuroscience, we can confirm what our ancestors took for granted--that letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. 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.”

It comes as no surprise that emotionally absent mothers are less likely to be responsive to their babies' needs. They're less likely to cuddle their infants, sing them lullabies, read to them, and breastfeed them. 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 that youngsters whose needs are met by attentive parents will develop a sense of trust in the world and a hopeful spirit. But those whose needs go unmet will become mistrustful and struggle with feelings of insecurity and worthlessness. For us daughters of emotionally absent mothers, the latter sounds all too familiar.

Emotionally absent mothers gravitate to parenting philosophies such as letting your infant "cry it out."
Emotionally absent mothers gravitate to parenting philosophies such as letting your infant "cry it out." | 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.

A Mother Who's Emotionally Present Acts as a Mirror, Providing a Reflection of Her Daughter's Beauty, Talents, and Strengths

In The Emotionally Absent Mother, Jasmin Lee Cori writes about the different roles a good mom plays in the life of her daughter. One of the most significant is acting as a mirror, letting the 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 daughter 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 daughter 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. You grow up not knowing yourself.

Emotional neglect can take many forms, from a parent having unrealistically high expectations or not listening attentively, to invalidating a child’s emotional experiences to the point he or she begins to feel self-doubt. When a parent is not emotionally attuned to a child, there is no mirror held up, no positive reflection being shared with the child. Developing a positive sense of self, then, becomes more challenging for the child.

— Dhyan Summers, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
An emotionally absent mother is too busy, stressed out, or checked out to see who her daughter really is.
An emotionally absent mother is too busy, stressed out, or checked out to see who her daughter really is. | Source

The Adult Years: Understanding 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 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 from her and moving forward with a new-found determination that my sons would not have an emotionally absent mom like I had.

But now, as an adult, you can choose to heal your emotional neglect. And when you do, you are setting yourself on a clear path to being happier and healthier and being a more connected, effective parent to your children.

Making the decision to heal your emotional neglect is like saying to many generations going back in your family line: “The buck stops here. I will not deliver this burden to my children.

— Dr. Jonice Webb, author of "Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect"

Did you have an emotionally absent mother?

If so, what was the hardest part for you?

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Questions & Answers

    © 2018 McKenna Meyers

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      • letstalkabouteduc profile imageAUTHOR

        McKenna Meyers 

        7 months 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 

        7 months 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 imageAUTHOR

        McKenna Meyers 

        8 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.

      • PAINTDRIPS profile image

        Denise McGill 

        8 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.

        Blessings,

        Denise

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