Ms. Meyers battled sadness, took anti-depressants, and got therapy. She found relief when she realized she had an emotionally absent mother.
Was Your Mom Emotionally Absent?
- Did your mother believe that letting a baby "cry it out" was a sound parenting practice in order to prevent a spoiled child?
- Did you feel invisible as a kid because your mom never saw the real you and didn't listen to your thoughts, concerns, or opinions?
- Did she ignore, deny, or get frustrated by your feelings when you were a child and teen?
- Do you now suffer from low self-esteem as an adult, finding it hard to trust people and often feeling numb and alone?
If you are nodding your head, you may have grown up with an emotionally absent mother and are struggling today because of it. By closely examining what transpired during your childhood, teens, and adulthood, you'll gain a greater understanding of why you wound up feeling insecure, closed off, and empty. With new insight, you can take steps to become more open and loving with yourself and others.
Mothers Who Don't Love
When I gave birth to my first child, my mother instructed me to let him "cry it out" rather than pick him up and attend to his needs. She boasted this is what she did with my siblings and me, letting us bawl until we were thoroughly exhausted and fell asleep. Doing otherwise, she explained, would surely spoil an infant.
When I rejected her advice and immediately went to my son's crib to pick him up, I was met with disapproval as my mother pouted like a thwarted child. But ignoring my baby's cries went against every maternal instinct in my body. This sensation made me wonder why a baby's cry didn't have the same effect on my own mom. 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 a baby, calling out from the crib and getting no response.
And even more: Wasn't that neglect during infancy just the beginning of a long and painful pattern that existed throughout my life? Don't all of us who grew up with detached moms feel that our inner world got abandoned? Even as adults, don't we still 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 newfound strength.
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 Needs Met
We've all heard horrific stories about babies in orphanages who don't get picked up when they cry and became emotionally damaged as a result. They don't bond with their adopted parents, experience extreme fits of anger, and suffer from depression. They may mistreat the family pets, abuse siblings, or mutilate themselves. 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 often don't. 50 years ago, my mother (like many others) 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 three was titled "The Dangers of Too Much Mother Love"). Watson believed that holding, cuddling, and comforting only served to reinforce negative behaviors in youngsters. For example, he asserted that picking up a screaming baby rewarded it for crying and hugging a frightened toddler encouraged him to be timid.
Since then, we have learned that the "cry-it-out" method can kill a baby's brain cells. Still, not surprisingly, emotionally absent mothers were drawn to Watson's philosophy. It reinforced their reluctance to be demonstrative with their children. Mothers like my own decided that a close mother-child bond was a bad thing, and they left their children to suffer the negative consequences of that for years to come.
"Crying It Out" May Alter 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.
Dr. Darcia Narvaez addresses this in the Psychology Today article entitled "Dangers of 'Crying It Out.'" She 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.”
As one would expect, emotionally absent mothers are less responsive to their babies' needs. They're less likely to cuddle with them, read to them, breastfeed them, or sing them lullabies. The lack of love and attention that these infants receive during the first 12 months can impact them for a lifetime.
Erik Erikson, a 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 may sound all too familiar.
The Teen Years: Not Being Seen
When my mother was eight years old, 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 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 impossible. 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.
Emotionally Absent Mothers Don't Provide a Mirror
In The Emotionally Absent Mother, Jasmin Lee Cori writes about the important roles that a mom plays in her daughter's life. One of the most significant is that of a mirror, reflecting who the daughter is: her strengths, talents, fears, and her hopes for the future. As a result of this maternal mirroring, a daughter develops a strong identity, becomes self-assured, and is eager to take on the world. Without a maternal mirror, daughters grow up feeling unseen and misunderstood. As a result, they're more likely to suffer from low self-esteem and a high degree of self-doubt.
When my sister and I were children, our mom never acknowledged that we were introverts even though we loved spending time alone, reading, drawing, and writing. Instead, she always insisted that we were popular, outgoing girls (despite all evidence to the contrary) because that's who she wanted us to be. As a result, I grew up believing that there was something terribly wrong with me and I needed to be fixed.
The Adult Years: Practicing Acceptance
When my son was diagnosed with autism, it was the most difficult period of my life. His diagnosis forced me to come to terms with having an emotionally absent mother—something I struggled 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.
My mother had always let me know that my feelings didn't matter and, therefore, I didn't matter. When I turned to her for mom-to-mom comfort when my son got diagnosed, she reacted in her typical fashion: cold, angry, and annoyed. She shut me down, not wanting to hear about my worries or 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 had been wounded.
From that day forward, I started reading all I could about emotionally absent mothers. I took notes, wrote in my journal, went on 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. 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.
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
In this video, Dr. Jonice Webb discusses some of the difficulties that women face in relationships when they were reared by emotionally absent mothers.
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"
How to Heal From a Mother's Emotional Rejection
Knowledge and understanding will help you outgrow and transcend the limitations of emotional neglect. Below are ideas of ways you can understand and take care of yourself better.
- Research the issue. Read as much as you can about emotional neglect and cold mother syndrome. You might start with the books and links I've provided in this article.
- Talk it out. Find sympathetic people to talk to. Confide in the people closest to you. Seek out other women who have similar experiences. If you can afford it, find a therapist to help you sort out your childhood and its repercussions on your adulthood.
- Write about it. Writing (talking to yourself) in a journal can really help. Putting your memories and emotions "on the page" can help you learn to identify and manage the issues.
- Make yourself a priority. Remember that your feelings matter just as much as anyone else’s. Adopt self-care routines and healthy self-soothing mechanisms. To avoid depletion, learn to help yourself before you try to help others.
- Learn how to recognize and express your needs. Many who grow up with cold or distant mothers have difficulty even knowing what they want, much less asking for it. But even if your mother never validated you as an individual, you can mother yourself by starting to identify and voice your own feelings, needs, and wants.
- Learn healthy self-soothing techniques. Learn to separate yourself from your emotions. Adopt breathing techniques, exercise, diet, and positive self-talk habits.
Did you have an emotionally absent mother?
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
Question: Regarding your response about the mother of 4 girls: your answer was spot on! Her comment about never feeling a connection was in the larger context of how she feels I "put up walls" (not sure how/why an infant would do that) so it was most definitely not her taking ownership. Also, I'm not sure any of the reasons for her bonding not fitting very well. Is it possible my mother just didn't like me?
Answer: Yes. While the topic of parents who dislike their kids is largely taboo and rarely discussed, it's one that some daughters of emotionally absent mothers have wrestled with since childhood. This is especially true for those of us who were sensitive kids and wanted to bond with our moms in a deeper way but were constantly rebuffed. Because our moms were shut off from their own feelings, they got easily frustrated (and even angered) by our desire for connection and closeness. The expression “you can't give what you don't have” sums up our emotionally absent moms perfectly.
When I was a kid, my mother would frequently say to me in an irate, accusatory tone: “You're too sensitive!” Now, as an adult, I realize she didn't have the emotional intelligence and skill set to deal with my inner world. As a kid, though, I got the message that my feelings were a bother and should be concealed. When a mother rejects your feelings like that, it feels like a huge rejection of you.
Sometimes our mothers dislike us because we're not like them. Because we're different, we don't validate who they are and the choices they've made. Emotionally absent mothers often favor the offspring who mirror their attitudes and opinions, follow a similar life path and are easy-going and compliant. They stick close to these like-minded kids because that is where they feel comfortable and affirmed.
Question: I have never felt warmth, received affection, or felt loved and understood by my mother. My three younger sisters have better relationships with her and enjoy spending time together (to which I am not usually invited). My mother recently admitted that she never felt a connection to me, even when I was an infant. I've always felt that she intentionally created distance between my sisters and me, and she excludes me from most family communications. Can you provide any insight?
Answer: I imagine your mother's comment stirred mixed emotions in you. You probably felt hurt but not surprised and, perhaps, relieved that she finally admitted what you always felt. I wonder what her goal was in admitting it now and if she plans to take ownership of the situation. Stating that and not following up with some explanation or insight seems cruel and unnecessary.
Her remark could be used as a springboard for discussion and healing between the two of you. However, as the daughter of an emotionally absent mother myself, I realize that our moms often have little to offer us and little understanding of why they acted the way they did. They can't deal with our desire for an emotional connection and get easily frustrated by our desire for one.
Your mom, though, cannot be clueless as to why she didn't bond with you. There must have been something significant going on in her life when you were a baby. Maybe, she was in a stressful relationship with your father. Maybe, she didn't want a baby. Maybe, she was feeling overly anxious and unprepared about caring for a child. Maybe, you were colicky and she felt like a failure trying to soothe you. She has the answers but maybe too self-protective to share them.
It sounds like you're the black sheep of your family as I am in mine. In the majority of cases, the black sheep is the most sensitive member in the bunch. As children, their feelings and behaviors call attention to the dysfunction in the family and parents often resent them for this. Sensitive black sheep say to the world through their actions: “Help, there's a problem here in our home environment and it needs to be fixed!”
I, for example, suffered from depression and anxiety as a child and teen. Because of it, I gained a lot of weight. The fat was an outer representation of my inner pain as I stuffed my feelings with food. Instead of dealing with my sadness, my mother was embarrassed by me being overweight, thinking it reflected badly on her. She worried more about what her friends at church and in the neighborhood thought than about my pain.
You may have been the sensitive one in your family who pointed out the dysfunction. Your mom didn't like that so she consciously or unconsciously excluded you and kept you out-of-the-loop.
You may want to read my article entitled, “5 Ways for Daughters to Heal From an Emotionally Absent Mother.”
Question: My mother was emotionally absent to my two sisters and me but is very affectionate to her grandchildren. Is it possible that she has realized her behaviors?
Answer: Yes, and the grandchildren are so lucky to reap the benefits from it. It sounds like your mother was emotionally absent when you were a child because of her life circumstances, not her disposition. Therefore, now that things have changed, she can be warm and affectionate.
Some moms check out because they're simply too exhausted and too overwhelmed to deal with their children's inner world. They may struggle with depression, mental illness, or be profoundly unhappy in their marriages or jobs. They have enough energy to get through the day—cleaning the house, making meals, and getting everybody to and from school—but have nothing left over to connect with their kids emotionally. They're just too drained and depleted. It would be an interesting discussion to have with your mother if you think she'd be honest, open up, and have some insights about that period of her life. It might bring about some healing.
I hope you can enjoy her being affectionate with the grandchildren, and it's not causing you feelings of sadness and envy. I suspect it may hurt at times as you wish she could have been that way with you and your sisters. Those would be natural feelings to have but will only cause you heartache if they persist.
When thoughts about my childhood with an emotionally absent mom creep into my head, I like to recall the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
Question: My mom was and still is emotionally absent in my life. I cry and get very emotional after spending any time with her. As an adult now, I'm not sure how to move forward. How do I stop her from continuing to hurt me?
Answer: You've reached the point that many daughters of emotionally absent mothers come to when we must choose to minimize contact or go no contact. Only you can decide what's best for you given the history with your mom. If you decide to go no contact, though, please talk with a therapist first as it would have a much greater impact than you might suspect.
Even when it's the right decision for your mental and emotional well-being, choosing no contact is life-changing. You'll need professional help to move through it so you don't get depressed. You'll be confronted with an overwhelming realization: I've never had a warm and loving mother and I never will. The finality of that can be devastating as all hope ends for that nurturing mom you always wanted.
It's said in spirituality that we're done with something when it no longer affects us. By minimizing contact with your mom and connecting to something deeper, you can find peace of mind. Through praying, meditating, writing in a journal, and spending time in nature, you can get to a place of forgiveness and acceptance. That's where I am now, but it took many years.
I minimized contact with my mother by moving to another state. It was the best decision for my well-being and for the well-being of my marriage and family. My husband and sons still comment that I'm a different person in the days leading up to a visit from my mom. I get stressed out and easily irritated.
Fortunately, this happens only twice a year so the rest of the time they can enjoy the fun and easy-going me. The last thing in the world I'd want is for them to become victims of the dysfunctional relationship between my mother and me. My love for them pushed me to distance myself from her.
Whether you choose to go no contact or simply minimize contact, it's important to move forward from this place where you feel trapped and miserable. She has too much power over your emotions and you need to seize control. Once you do that, you'll feel a lot happier. I wish you the best.
You may want to read my article, “5 Ways for Daughters to Heal From an Emotionally Absent Mother”
Question: My mother was very emotionally absent with my sister and me but very loving and nurturing with my brothers. Why was this?
Answer: That was true in my family as well. Daughters typically demand a deeper emotional connection from their mothers than sons. Unable or unwilling to meet their needs, emotionally absent moms often get frustrated by their daughters and turn their focus to their sons who are easier to please.
My mother had no problem doting on my brothers by making them their favorite meals and cheering them on at their athletic events. She had great difficulty, however, dealing with the inner-world of my sister and me, especially during our pre-teen and teen years. She had grown up without a mom and didn't know how to listen with an open heart, be patient with our feelings, and offer comfort and support. Whenever we expressed our emotions, she reacted with anger and didn't want to deal with us.
Some mothers see their daughters as rivals but don't have those same jealous and competitive feelings towards their sons. They may see theirs daughters as a threat as they develop into attractive young women who garner the attention of men. Some mothers want to be the dominate females in their homes and don't want their daughters to usurp that position in any way. Some mothers feel territorial about their husbands and don't want their daughters to develop a close bond with their dads. Sadly, these daughters wind up with no connection to either parent and feel incredibly alone.
I write more on this topic in my article “Jealous Mothers: Why Some Women Gen Envious of Their Own Daughters.” https://wehavekids.com/family-relationships/Why-So...
Question: Despite growing up with an emotionally absent mother, I'm a good mom to my kids except in one area. I struggle when they share their negative feelings and often shut them down. How can I stop doing this?
Answer: Since you didn't have good role modeling, listening compassionately to your children's emotional pain is a skill you'll need to develop with time and practice. If you keep shutting down their feelings, though, you won't have the opportunity to improve. Therefore, you need to recognize your own discomfort but control it so you can focus on them.
As daughters of emotionally absent mothers, dealing with our children's inner world can create anxiety for us. We feel ill-equipped. Their intense negative emotions can make us feel shaky at a time when they need us to be their rocks.
This happened to me recently when my teenage son said that he felt overwhelmed because his new job was nerve-racking. I immediately got anxious with pessimistic thoughts taking over: What if he quits his job because it's too hard? What if he gets fired? What if I have to tell friends and family that he's no longer employed? I'll feel like a failure as a mother!
I went to the same self-absorbed place that my mom always had when I was a kid. She had always focused on how my feelings were upsetting to her, making me feel guilty. I realized at a young age that she was not a safe place to go with any emotion other than the sunny ones. Our relationship, as a result, was superficial and stilted and still is today.
After my initial reaction, though, I recognized that my anxiety was taking over and I started to relax, breath, and listen. I was able to let my son open up about his job frustrations without inserting myself, without lecturing, and without interrupting. I was able to operate out of compassion and not fear.
Bishop T.D. Jakes said: “Be what you are missing to yourself.” I've made these words my mantra as the daughter of an emotionally absent mother. Since I missed out on a close, loving relationship with my mom, I take great care to nurture myself. I spend time in nature, journal every day, practice yoga, meditate, and enjoy a rich spiritual life. By investing in myself, I have the love, patience, and understanding to embrace my children's emotions in all their complexity.
Once you make yourself a priority, you'll have so much more to offer your children. When you're relaxed and at peace, you'll be able to acknowledge their feelings and not dismiss them.
Question: I just realized that my family has been systematically neglecting my emotions my entire life. Now I understand that's the reason why I don't feel a bond with them. I don't feel a connection with my parents, particularly with my mother. How can I improve my relationship with them when I feel like they can't understand me at a deep level? To me, it feels like we're from a different world.
Answer: The best way to improve the relationship with your parents is by accepting them as they are. If you don’t, you’ll continue to struggle, suffer, and find them lacking. Instead, be grateful for what they do offer you. Appreciate that the only person you can change is yourself so start building close emotional ties with folks outside of your immediate family.
I was in my late 30’s before I realized that my mother was emotionally absent. When my son got diagnosed with autism, she showed no feeling whatsoever -- not a drop of kindness or compassion. There was never a moment where she showed me that she understood my anguish, mother to mother.
Yet, because of that painful period, I looked back on our history and saw that she had always been that way. I had just been blind to it because it was all I ever knew. She was my mother, after all, and I had always believed that she was much more than she truly was. I finally had to accept her with all her limitations.
You’re fortunate that you see your mom realistically. Don’t let her emotional detachment change who you are. Stay connected to your feelings by talking about them, writing about them, and acknowledging them. This will help keep you healthy, both physically and mentally.
The author, Doe Zantamata, said: “You can’t expect to have a deep relationship with a shallow person.” There are some people with whom we’ll have superficial interactions because that’s all they can offer. We can, though, still love, value, and accept them. However, we need to look elsewhere to fulfill our need for deeper connections. Take care!
Question: I tried recently to go no contact and she sucked me back in. It was as if what she did to finally get me to go no contact never happened. I hate who I become when I have to talk to her or see her. It's like my whole body goes negative when I am forced to have a relationship with her. But she has almost no one so it is very hard for me to leave her when she is so alone. Probably because I know firsthand what it's like to feel so alone in this world. What should I do?
Answer: Going no contact with a parent is an extreme step and one I wouldn't recommend unless you're working with a therapist. My cousin went no contact with her mother but did so under the guidance of a counselor whom she'd been seeing for years. Even under those circumstances, though, it's been difficult for her. I often think that if she had continued to minimize contact she'd be better off today—less tortured and more empowered.
Many daughters of emotionally absent mothers (myself included) can relate to how you feel around your mom—hating who you become. I, too, often became a different person when I was with my mom, taking on her traits of being negative, badmouthing others, and spreading gossip. That pattern began when I was a kid and was hard to break. In the moment, it felt like my mom and I were bonding so I enjoyed it. Afterwards, though, I knew we really hadn't connected at all and I felt guilty for having sunk to her level.
Moving away from my mother and minimizing contact was the best thing I could have done for my well-being and the well-being of my family. I now speak to her once a week for 15 minutes and see her in-person a few times during the year. I've accepted that we'll never link up emotionally so the cycle of unrealistic expectations and inevitable disappointments has ended. Most significantly, I no longer have overwhelming stress like I once did when speaking with her.
Today, when I talk with her, I practice “compassionate listening.” I put my ego on the shelf and let her purge her thoughts and feelings. I set a timer for 15 minutes and, when that time is up, I say, “It's been great talking to you, Mom, but I need to go now.” I no longer try to change her, give her advice, or argue my points of view. It's given me a measure of peace and allows me to maintain a limited relationship with her.
I've written an article entitled, “How to Be a Better Friend With Compassionate Listening” that you may find helpful.
Question: After reading this article, I think that my mother was emotionally absent and that may be causing my problems, should I go back into therapy to talk about it?
Answer: The answer is an emphatic “yes.” However, before you make an appointment, I strongly suggest reading Jasmin Lee Cori's “The Emotionally Absent Mother.” This book will help you determine if having a detached mom is the cause of your sadness. You'll want to digest it slowly, journal about your feelings, and jot down any concerns and questions that you want to discuss later in therapy.
If, after reading it, you're convinced that you're the daughter of an emotionally absent mother, find a therapist who has experience with this issue. Having pinpointed the problem lets you get off to a fast start in your sessions. You can avoid tangential matters and, therefore, save yourself a lot of time, money, and frustration.
Women are almost twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression. There are many biological factors that contribute to this reality but also ones within our control. When women feel powerless in their lives, they often fall into despair. Going to therapy and taking the therapist's recommendations is a positive, pro-active way to take charge of your life and lift your spirits.
While anti-depressants are necessary and beneficial for many, there's no doubt that they are being over-prescribed today. Going to therapy will help you heal your pain in a way medicine can't. The life coach, Vironika Tugaleva said this: “Emotional pain cannot kill you, but running from it can. Allow. Embrace, Let yourself feel. Let yourself heal.”
You may want to read my article entitled, “5 Ways for Daughters to Heal From an Emotionally Absent Mother.”
I wish you well on this journey of empowerment. Take care!
Question: I was speaking with my mom over the phone when she admitted she’s never been an “emotional person.” Throughout my entire life, every time I felt sadness, would cry, or would express my loneliness, she would tell me I’m being “dramatic” and to “cut the s***.” At 27, my mom is still like this. Will she ever finally become warmer/more compassionate towards me?
Answer: No, your mom is who she is and won't change. It would be foolish to think she'll ever be different than she's always been. It would be wise of you to accept her limitations. Start focusing on your own inner world (not hers) and build relationships in which your feelings are heard and valued. If you continue to expect emotional support for your mom, you're only setting yourself up for disappointment and frustration.
Acceptance of our emotionally absent mothers brings peace. The spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, says: “The main cause of stress and anxiety is wanting things to be different than they currently are. When you bring acceptance to all situations, despite your expectations, you instantly remove the need for stress and worry.”
My lack of acceptance regarding my mother led to a major downward spiral in my life when I was 40. When I turned to her when my son got diagnosed with autism, I was met with a coldness that sent me into a black hole of despair. I wound up going to therapy, taking anti-depressants, and living a zombie-like existence for many years. I convinced myself that feelings were the cause of all my problems so I blunted them.
I eventually discovered, though, that a drug doesn't selectively numb only difficult emotions like sadness but all of them: joy, excitement, hope. Thank goodness, I finally realized my feelings weren't a curse after all but a huge blessing. I gradually learned to embrace them all.
When I look back at my downfall with the wisdom that time brings, I know it wasn't brought on by my son's diagnosis. As painful as that was, my anguish was caused by my mother's lack of compassion and caring. Her indifference triggered memories of all the other instances when she had behaved the same way when I was a kid.
In his book, “The Untethered Soul,” Michael Singer calls this our “inner thorn”--something from childhood that still induces pain when we're adults. Without a doubt, having an emotionally absent mother has been the inner thorn throughout my life. Today, though, I'm conscious of it, can step back when it's activated, and not let it affect me.
Please accept your mom “as is” so you'll have a more peaceful life and avoid the heartache I suffered. Take care!
Question: I'm aware of my mother's emotional unavailability and have noticed some of the same characteristics in myself. Though I try to be available and patient all the time, I slip up with my own son. I apologize, and I try better next time, but is it enough? I feel like I can't shake some of those subconscious ways I shut down right away. Is part of overcoming the emotional unavailability allowing myself more care and communicating my needs in healthy ways?
Answer: It sounds like you should cut yourself some slack and acknowledge how well you're doing. Many women only realize they grew up with emotionally absent mothers when they become moms themselves (as was my case) and struggle mightily to reverse course while in the thick of parenting. Others fail to recognize it at all, parenting as they were parented, and damage their kids in the process.
You're way ahead in your self-awareness and desire to change. You realize when you need to improve, and you're able to tell your son that you're sorry when falling short. You're an outstanding role model for your boy!
You're correct that the best way to improve is treating yourself with kindness and giving yourself more downtime, patience, and forgiveness. None of us can be present for our children when we're tired, hungry, stressed, busy, or emotionally spent. We need to fill ourselves up first.
We daughters of emotionally absent mothers can struggle when dealing with our children's inner world because it was never modeled for us as kids. When our youngsters are emotionally needy, they tap into our insecurities. We may find it extremely taxing, frustrating, and annoying. We wish that we had a magic wand to just wave it all away because it can leave us feeling inadequate.
Finding ways to connect with our own inner world every day is the best way to remain open to our children. Whether it's when taking a morning walk, writing in a journal, or talking with a friend, we need to connect with our emotions and tend to them. Throughout the day, we need to ask ourselves: “How am I feeling?”
We need to be honest with ourselves and not deny our feelings like we were programmed to do as kids. When I have a feeling and want to express it, I can still hear my mother's exasperated voice pop in my head and say “that's ridiculous!” Fortunately, I now immediately recognize it as her voice of dismissal and boldly reject it. I finally embrace my emotions as a valuable part of who I am.
Dr. Wayne Dyer, the self-help author, said: “You can't give away what you don't have.” If we're not emotionally well-balanced in our daily lives, we can't help our children achieve that. It sounds like you're doing extremely well with this. If you think you need more help, though, talk with a therapist. It will be well worth the time and money if it makes your parenting journey more relaxed and fulfilling.
Best to you and your son!
Question: Is it normal to feel resentful, hurt, sad, envious, and a lot of negative emotions towards my mom for choosing to look at my cousins over me? I always resented how she bought my cousin a ticket to Hong Kong so he could join my other cousins on their trip since my uncle couldn’t provide.
Answer: “A Course in Miracles” says: “I'm never upset for the reason I think.” I imagine that this is true here. Your mom buying a ticket for your cousin is not the real source of your hurt. Instead, it's the profound sadness that you feel for a lifetime of living with an emotionally absent mother. When you embrace that reality, you'll know longer react to each incident that arises but practice acceptance and, therefore, have peace.
When I was growing up with an emotionally absent mother (but not knowing it), I got jealous and hurt when she did nice things for other people or gave them compliments. Then, I would get down on myself for being so petty and insecure. It was only when I became a parent myself that I realized how her behavior was not like other moms and that it would make anyone in my shoes feel precarious. I realized that a strong foundation of love and belonging was never constructed during my childhood. Therefore, I felt that I could collapse at any minute...and I often did.
Reading Jasmin Lee Cori's “The Emotionally Absent Mother” can help you put your feelings into context and see that you're not alone. Once you understand your past and put it into perspective, it's a lot easier to move forward and get excited about your future. What your mom says and does will no longer have power and you can finally live like a mature adult, not a child under her control. You'll become motivated to do what Bishop T.D. Jakes recommends: “Step out of your history and into your destiny.”
Question: I married a man who's emotionally absent. What now?
Answer: Only you can make that call. Some women marry indifferent men and are content with their situation. Some have grown up with emotionally absent mothers so it feels safe and familiar to them. A sensitive, affectionate, and emotional man may seem too weak, too needy, and too suffocating to them.
Since you asked this question, though, I imagine you're not satisfied with your relationship and believe you made a poor choice in a husband. If you're unhappy and want out, that's certainly something you should explore in therapy. I'm sure there are complexities that need to be addressed: your children (if you have any), your financial situation, your living arrangement, and so on.
I wasted so much of my life waiting for my emotionally absent mother to love me, to be interested in me, and to be curious about who I was. I'd wonder what was wrong with me because she was so remote. It was only when I had kids of my own and saw how disinterested she was in them that it finally clicked. All those years I had tried to get blood from a stone and, of course, had failed miserably. I was so ready to have an emotionally responsive partner in my life and you may be feeling the same way.
Now my life is fulfilling because I don't look for approval from others but from myself. I hope you'll become proactive and not get stuck in your marriage if you're dissatisfied. The spiritual counselor, Iyanla Vanzant, sums it up beautifully, “You don't get to tell people how to love you or how to love. You get to choose whether or not to participate in the way they are loving you.” You didn't have that option when you were growing up with an emotionally absent mother but now you do.
Question: I'm an only child, whose mother chased men. Why do I hate babies and when people have babies?
Answer: I can't answer why you have strong negative feelings about babies and those having them. If you think it's connected to having an emotionally absent mother, that may or may not be the case. Just because one came before the other doesn't mean there's necessarily a cause and effect relationship.
If this is concerning you, though, please discuss it with a therapist. There are many good ones with experience in treating daughters of emotionally absent mothers. You should most definitely do this if you're planning on having children of your own some day.
My mother never dealt with her issues growing up with an alcoholic mom. As a result, my siblings and I have struggled with depression, anxiety, and troubled relationships. I firmly believe that our lives would have been so much better if our mom had just taken the time to work with a therapist before having kids. We need to be healthy, both physically and psychologically, before becoming parents because it's a tough job even for those who are emotionally stable.
It's a wonderful thing to be curious about yourself and wants to learn more about what makes you tick. This is especially true for you since your mom was preoccupied with chasing men during your childhood. Taking a journey of self-discovery is exciting and will enrich your life.
© 2018 McKenna Meyers
Please Share Your Experience in the Comments Section
McKenna Meyers (author) on July 26, 2020:
MM, it’s understandable that a catastrophe such as the coronavirus pandemic can make us feel mournful about our emotionally absent mothers. Even though I’ve finally accepted her limitations, I still long for a mom who could comfort and support me during this time and, perhaps, say something wise or encouraging. However, pandemic or no pandemic, I know that will never happen. I suggest that you read Jasmin Lee Cori’s “The Emotionally Absent Mother” and journal while you do so. It will be trying at times but well worth it because you’ll feel a sisterhood with other daughters who have emotionally absent moms. Take care!
MM on July 25, 2020:
I have never read an article more accurate.
I'm 29 and still struggling with this, even worse now during corona lock down.
McKenna Meyers (author) on June 20, 2020:
Gina, I'm glad that it made you feel better. When we know where we've been and what we've endured, it's easier to accept the past and move forward. Take care!
Gina on June 19, 2020:
I can relate to this article and made me feel better reading it
McKenna Meyers (author) on June 08, 2020:
Georgina, your reaction is similar to how I felt after reading Jasmin Lee Cori’s “The Emotionally Absent Mother.” Every page spoke to my experiences and made me feel less alone. It’s definitely easier to move forward when you understand what you left behind. Best to you!
Georgina on June 08, 2020:
So grateful to have found an article which I could relate to very much. That relief on my chest upon reading it. All my teenage and early adult life I've been so confused about my own identity, and I had no confidence with myself. I feel like I just found the root cause of my life's issues, and I can now move on and start repairing from that. Thank you.
McKenna Meyers (author) on July 17, 2019:
Sudipa, I'm sorry you're hurting. Like you, my emotionally absent mother favored my brothers over my sister and me. They didn't challenge her to enter the emotional realm so she was far more comfortable with them. You don't want to shut down your feelings like our moms did. It's very sad today that so many people have the false notion that “being strong” means having no emotions (that's why so many people take anti-depressants, over-eat, drink, and numb themselves in other ways). Feel all your feelings. Write about them in a journal and talk about them with friends. Deal with them as they come up rather than stuffing them. Tend to your inner world but don't expect your mother to do so. Stay open, vulnerable, and loving. Take care!
Sudipa Ghosh on July 17, 2019:
Same here. My mom loves my brother And treats me like a burden. I often get very emotional and cry a lot.
McKenna Meyers (author) on February 25, 2019:
Sometimes. When getting married, we typically go in one of four directions: 1)we marry someone like our mom or dad to replicate our childhood because it was so happy 2) we marry someone like our mom or dad because, while they weren't great, we gravitate to what we know 3) we marry someone like our mom and dad because they were damaged in some way and, in adulthood, we seek to fix the situation 4) we marry someone who's not like our mom or dad at all because our childhood was miserable and we want to be as far removed from it as possible. It sounds like you went with number two: what seemed familiar and, therefore, felt safe.
With a growing awareness of having had an emotionally absent mother and what that meant in your life, you may now want to go in a different direction and find a partner who's warm, open, and loving. Dr. Robin Smith says, “Adulthood is to finish the unfinished business of childhood.” That offers hope for us who grew up with emotionally absent moms and want to find someone today who can nurture us and give us what we missed as kids.
Lisa on February 24, 2019:
Do women then marry emotional unavailable man? I did
McKenna Meyers (author) on December 22, 2018:
Pamela, I'm so happy that you overcame an emotionally absent mother and built a beautiful bond with your daughter. You could have so easily repeated what you knew, but you made a conscious choice to do otherwise. I, too, have struggled mightily in my life and have made countless mistakes. The one thing I got right, though, was my relationship with my sons. If we stay in the present and savor the loved ones we have, we know our painful pasts had a purpose. Enjoy your grandchild!
Pamela on December 21, 2018:
I fit all these descriptions. I am a 67 year old woman and my life is pretty great, having worked through most of those issues. I went through extreme rebellion and alcoholism before I was able to do the work necessary to live a happy and productive life. My mother just passed away and yet I have a lingering sense that something awful happened between us when I was too young to remember. It is the only thing that still bedevils me. I know that forgiveness must be key and yet my mind just goes to self pity when I consider that I never had a real mother. Thank God, however, that I knew it and was able to forge a wonderful relationship with my daughter, who is now a doctor with a darling baby to shower with love.
McKenna Meyers (author) on October 24, 2018:
Thanks, Anne. Autism does run in families and I certainly see that some of my relatives may have fallen on the spectrum including my mother. She never recognized or accepted that there was anything different about my son so it makes sense. Thanks for you thoughtful comments.
Anne on October 23, 2018:
I believe that autism can run in families. It can express itself differently in different family members and in different generations. It could be possible that your mother struggles or is indifferent to emotion for that reason as well as loosing her own emotional mirror at an early age. Your own insight and the things you are learning may be invaluable to her also. How satisfying to be the one to break the chain. All the best in your endeavours.
McKenna Meyers (author) on February 02, 2018:
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.
Janet's child on February 02, 2018:
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.
McKenna Meyers (author) on January 14, 2018:
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.
Denise McGill from Fresno CA on January 14, 2018:
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.