Joseph Burgo Ph.D.


When Your Mother Didn't Love You

The unloving mother is more common than you think.

Posted Aug 08, 2018

One of the most widely and deeply held beliefs within our culture is that mothers always love their children. At least here in the United States, we revere maternal love as the purest of emotions; we insist that even mothers who fall short are “doing the best they can.” Socioeconomic or psychological issues might hobble their efforts to mother effectively, but deep down, their love for their offspring burns hard and true.

If you, like most people, share this conviction that mothers always love their children, author Peg Streep has news for you. Building on her last book, Mean Mothers, Streep has written a new guide for women whose mothers did not, in fact, love them, and often treated them with hostility, contempt, or indifference. From the very first page, Daughter Detox explodes the myth of the universally loving mother and brings the truth to light. It turns out there are far more unloving mothers out there than you might have imagined.

For daughters whose mothers did not love them, this book will come as a tremendous relief. Because they, like us, have grown up in a culture pervaded by the myth that mothers always love their children, these daughters have spent their lives blaming themselves for being “unlovable,” making excuses for or rationalizing their mothers’ behavior, and going back again and again to the empty well, hoping to finally secure the love they needed but never got. Daughter Detox will help these women recognize that they are not alone.

It will also give them detailed and practical advice for how to move forward. Streep divides the process of recovery into seven stages, with chapters on each stage informed by a deep understanding of attachment theory. While Streep is not a psychotherapist, she’s immensely knowledgeable about the science in this area, from the “Still Face” Experiments of Ed Tronick to the attachment styles of Mary Ainsworth. She’s also an unloved daughter herself, so she can connect with her readers in a deeply personal and intimate way. She profoundly understands the legacy bequeathed by the unloving mother upon her child – “shame, self-doubt, and sometimes self-loathing.”

In an early post on this blog, I discussed shame as a kind of “unrequited love,” and I return to this theme in my forthcoming book. As Streep explains, humans are born into this world with an innate expectation that a loving mother will be there to look after them, bond with them, attend to their needs, and engage in joyful interaction. Human mothers, however, do not have “an innate ability to nurture or love. In truth, elephants are more instinctually suited to mother well than humans." When a loving baby reaches out to an indifferent, detached, hostile, or contemptuous mother, the unrequited love that the baby experiences will instill a profound type of shame that lasts a lifetime.

But Streep offers hope for recovery and detailed guidance for how to reclaim the life you might have lived with a loving mother. Along with a companion volume, a "Guided Journal and Workbook," Daughter Detox outlines a step-by-step process for understanding how the unhappy past inevitably colors your relationship styles, trigger points, and emotional regulation strategies, often maladaptive because they were formed during years of neglect and abuse. Streep doesn’t offer her readers simplistic or overly optimistic advice for how to move forward. She explains that “[m]ost of the work involved in reclaiming your life from the effects of a toxic childhood is about bringing unconscious patterns of thinking and feeling to the surface so that they can be changed through consciousness.” 

That’s not an easy process, but if you’re willing to reach out and take Streep’s hand, she'll walk you through the stages, share her own experience down the same path, and cheer you along the way.