Unloved Daughters and 6 Questions That Keep Them Up at Night
Second-guessing and self-criticism can impede healing.
Posted Jul 26, 2019
Recovering from a childhood in which your emotional needs weren’t met, especially if you were marginalized, ignored, scapegoated, or actively targeted, is a long and complicated journey. Recognizing how toxic your relationship is with your mother often takes years or decades of adult life. Recognition is impeded by many factors, including a continuing need for maternal love and the hope that, somehow, you will get it; fear of losing all family ties, no matter how frayed or fragile; self-doubt and rationalization; and emotional confusion.
Sometimes, recognition involves an epiphany of sorts when the daughter actually catches a glimpse of what an emotionally healthy and functioning family looks like. That was true for “Marnie,” who understood who her mother was by becoming close to her mother-in-law:
“Joe and I came from what seemed like similar backgrounds, each of us with a younger sibling and an older one. But I went into shock when I actually spent time with his parents, especially his mother. She was and is everything I ever dreamed of in a mother—kind, open, welcoming. She listens to everyone with real intention and focus and hears you. It was like landing on another planet. And because of her, I began to see my mother clearly. The constant put-downs and dismissals, the constant criticism, the sheer nastiness of how she pretended she hadn’t heard a word I’d said—all things she’d always done—jumped out at me. It was like someone shined a bright light into a dark corner for the first time. I understood what love felt like.”
Some women stumble into understanding when they go into therapy to deal with other problems—depression or anxiety, a series of failed relationships, an inability to thrive at work, or any other obstacle getting in the way of a happy adult life—only to discover that the malaise of the present has its roots in the past. That was certainly the case for me many years ago; in therapy, I discovered that all roads led back to Mom.
Deciding how to manage the relationship with your mother (and perhaps your father) may take considerable time as you weigh the various options open to you, none of which really is a solution since, most usually, your mother isn’t open to any kind of discussion. That leaves it up to you to try to put boundaries in place (and deal with the inevitable pushback); go “low contact,” or limit your interactions to her in meaningful ways while also setting boundaries; or go “no contact,” which is the most Draconian approach and, in my opinion, more of a last-ditch effort to save yourself than anything else.
Not one of these is a solution to what the daughter sees as her problem. Her problem? That her mother doesn’t love her. Each of these is a stop-gap measure once the denial, normalization, and rationalization have begun to fall away. The problem remains, and the journey of healing entails dealing with it. The recognition of the problem and the question of how to deal with it is a process, not an "aha!" moment in which the answer magically appears.
Keep in mind that this process often stretches out over decades of an unloved daughter’s life; it’s not unusual for her to be in her 50s or 60s when she’s finally ready to take action and comes up with an answer that works for her. This moment usually happens once she has stopped asking the questions this piece is about.
Questioning and the unloved daughter
While it’s generally true that questioning promotes learning and growth, it’s more of a yin-yang thing than not for the daughter who is trying to reclaim herself from her childhood experiences. Many of her habits of mind—a deep well of self-doubt, the habit of blaming herself and being self-critical, her inability to manage painful emotion, and her tendency to ruminate—often make questioning more of an obstacle or dead-end than a conduit for growth and recovery. Part of the journey of healing involves learning which questions are productive and open up your understanding, and which stop you dead in your tracks, keep you stuck, and leave you emotionally confused.
We live in a culture which is very fixated on the “right” answers—think standardized tests and blackening the correct bubble—but we often forget that finding the right answer very much depends on asking the right question. A great teacher focuses on teaching the fine art of questioning, which leads to enhanced analytical thinking, while a mediocre one drills his or her students on the answers alone.
How important the right question is was brought home once again when I embarked on writing a question-and-answer book for daughters navigating their way out of a toxic childhood; most of the questions were, in fact, submitted by readers of my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. The process of writing it was revelatory in a number of ways.
The one question I knew had to be abandoned—and then I discovered more
As an unloved daughter myself, I knew firsthand that the question that every child asks—Why doesn’t my mother love me?—had to be abandoned in order to heal from childhood experiences. Years of research, interviewing others, and coming to grips with my own experience allowed me to see why this question is so central and for so long; it’s not common for women to ask it for 40, 50, or 60 years, and to continue seeking the answer.
It’s the hope of finding the answer that keeps you spinning; you keep thinking if you can figure out why she doesn’t love you, you’ll be able to change yourself and become that daughter she can love, and all will be well. That answer will never be forthcoming, because she doesn’t love you for many reasons or none, and all of them have nothing to do with who you are but who she is. That is the sad and inescapable truth.
I wrote about giving up this question in my book Daughter Detox, but when I actually took on the task of answering 110 questions, I discovered there were many more that set us back or lead us down a dead-end. In fact, I ended up beginning the book with six questions that must be given up, of which “Why doesn’t my mother love me?” is the first.
The next 5 questions
These aren’t the only unproductive questions I write about, but they are among the most commonly asked ones; I certainly asked all of them in childhood and later. Adapted from my book, here they are with a brief explanation of why you need to banish them pronto. Needless to say, the answers in the book are expanded and more nuanced.
What can I change about myself to make her love me?
This looks as though it is just an offshoot of the “Why doesn’t my mother love me?” question, but it is actually a stand-alone. This question is like an invasive plant in a garden which, in putting down its roots, ruins every beautiful plant. (If you mistrust the metaphor, do Google Bamboo or even Lemon Balm.)
This low-to-the-ground vine takes over your motivations and “if only” beliefs. You keep thinking that there is something unlovable about you—your way of talking, how you look, your view of the world—and then you are in tumble-down mode. This doesn’t just erode whatever self-esteem you have but puts your mother back at the center of your universe, which, in effect, puts you back in your childhood room and locks the door.
This question also derives energy from what your mother has said to you and about you, which you probably absorbed as “truths” about your character, such as that you’re “too sensitive,” “lazy,” or that you “always” behave in ways that are lacking or inappropriate. None of this is true, but that doesn’t stop you from believing.
Finally, this question reinforces the idea that love is a transaction and must be earned, which happens not to be what healthy love is like at all.
Is it my fault she doesn’t love me?
Self-blame is the default position for most unloved daughters, often echoing what’s been said by her mother and perhaps others in the family. There’s also interesting research which posits that self-blame may be closely tied to self-protection and denial; the researchers opine that it’s much less scary to blame yourself than to face the fact that the people who are supposedly entrusted with your care and safety are unreliable. Similarly, self-blame is easier to deal with emotionally than is the admission that a parent is abusing you.
In any case, this question needs to be off the table, both because it’s not your fault and asking it stops you from recognition and dealing with the situation as it is.
Who might I have been if I’d had a loving mother?
This one is a real dead-end, and it usually comes up as the daughter begins to recognize her mother’s mistreatment of her truly, and she becomes angry at being singled out in this way. Anger often creates a fair amount of emotional confusion for the unloved daughter, because while the anger directed at her mother may be momentarily energizing, the anger directed at herself for denying and trying to make do for so long can be a profound setback. This question arises out of anger—“Why me? Why was I so unlucky?"—and frustration at how long healing takes and how difficult it is.
This may seem like a fruitful question in the moment because you think it will allow you to assess the damage done, but it’s no more productive than wondering what you would have been like if you’d been born a princess, a world-class athlete, or any other variation on the theme. You are you, and that’s just fine.
If your own mother doesn’t love you, who will?
The cultural mythology that all women are nurturing and that all mothers love their children, along with your self-criticism, give this question its seeming power; it actually has none.
Your mother’s inability to love you is her problem, not yours; it predicts nothing.
Should I have tried harder to make things right?
This question has both a cultural and personal context. Culturally, along with the mother myths, we have that special Commandment requiring that we honor our parents, and with that comes the idea of filial duty and a boatload of guilt. Strangers, as well as people you know, are quick to remind you that your mother fed, clothed, sheltered, and educated you—all of which are required by law. And, if fulfilling those needs fully described parenting, then orphanages would be ideal parents.
I think you catch my drift here. The culture always judges the child, not the parent, so if there’s any hint of estrangement, it’s always the daughter who’s on trial in the court of public opinion. Always.
The personal context of the question is the longing for maternal love, which doesn’t seem to have an expiration date; the old flame of hopefulness dies fitfully, and the question makes you wonder, once again, if there’s something you might have done after all. Again, self-criticism bolsters this question too, as well as the old insecurities.
But the sad truth is that fixing it, making it right—“it” being the relationship with your mother—was never on the table, because you couldn’t do it alone. Things could only have been fixed if your mother agreed and wanted a true connection. That is a hard truth to face, and once again, we can see that the question helps us dodge that painful truth.
Once again, this is a question you must give up to recover.
Part of the journey of healing entails knowing which questions push us forward and which hold us back.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2019
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
Streep, Peg. Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. New York: Île D'Éspoir Press, 2017.
Streep, Peg. The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Out of a Toxic Childhood. New York: Île D'Éspoir Press, 2019.