Why grieving the mother you didn’t have is key to recovering from childhood.
“Will I ever stop feeling I was cheated of something essential?? Even at age 59, it makes me angry and my mother died over 10 years ago.” —Priscilla
The road that is recovery from a childhood without a mother’s love, support, and attunement is long and complicated. One aspect of healing that is rarely touched upon is mourning the mother you needed, sought, and — yes — deserved. The word deserved is key to understanding why this remains elusive for many women (and men): They simply don’t see themselves as deserving, because they’ve internalized what their mothers said and did as self-criticism and have wrongly concluded that they’re lacking, worthless, or simply unlovable.
As an unloved daughter myself, fast approaching my seventh decade of life, the role that grieving plays in healing struck me once again last week, which marked the 16th anniversary of my mother’s death. Since I write about unloved children frequently, some people wrongly believe that I think about my own mother all the time. Nothing could be further from the truth.
After years of going back and forth, I cut my mother cleanly out of my life, 13 years before she died. My decision, at almost 39, was prompted by my discovery that I was carrying a daughter, my first and only child. I was finally able to do for my unborn child what I hadn’t been able to do for myself: Get free from my mother’s poison. In anticipation of becoming a mother, I began the process of mourning the mother I deserved, which had nothing to do with the actual woman who’d given birth to me.
When I learned that my mother was failing 16 years ago, I did not go to see her, even though everyone in my life — including my therapist — thought I should go for “closure.” But I was wise enough to realize that they hadn’t walked my path, and their vision of closure was based on novels and Hollywood movies in which a-ha! moments flourish and mothers always love. In real life, I would ask the question I always wanted answered — “Why didn’t you love me?” — and she would refuse to answer, as always, but this time her silence would stretch out into eternity. I didn’t attend her funeral, either. But I did grieve — not for her, but for me and my unmet needs. And the mother I deserved.
Why it’s important to mourn the mother you needed—and why it can be so hard.
“As I started finally to see her for what she was and how she will never be the mother I need and want, I started standing up for myself and setting boundaries, and her anger and insults got worse. Finally, I put my foot down and told her I would no longer tolerate her behavior and stopped all contact. And, NOW, I am really in mourning. I finally acknowledged the truth, and it hurts like hell. And I’m at the age where some of my friends are starting to lose their moms to old age and their stories, of times with their moms, are heartbreaking to me… I guess I just started this mourning process, and I’m still in it.” —Annie
Grieving the mother you needed is impeded by both feeling unworthy of love and, more important, what I call the core conflict. This conflict is between the daughter’s growing awareness of how her mother wounded her in childhood, and still does, and her continuing need for maternal love and support, even in adulthood. This pits the need to save and protect herself against the continuing hope that, somehow, she can figure out what she can do to get her mother to love her.
This tug-of-war can go on for literally decades, with the daughter retreating and perhaps going no-contact for a period of time and then being pulled back into the maelstrom by the combination of her neediness, hopefulness, and denial. She may paper over her pain and make excuses for her mother’s behavior, because her eyes are on the prize: Her mother’s love. She puts herself on an ever-turning Ferris wheel, unable to dismount.
Those who concede the battle — going no contact, or limiting communication with their mothers and usually other family members — experience great loss along with relief. For the daughter to heal, this loss — the death of the hope that this essential relationship can be salvaged — needs to be mourned along with the mother she deserved.
The depth of the core conflict can be glimpsed in the anguish of those daughters who stay in the relationship precisely because they fear they will feel worse when their mothers die. Meg’s words echo those of others:
“If I cut her off and she dies, I’m scared I’ll feel even more pain than I do now. What if she changed and came to her senses, and I missed it? Then it would be my fault, the way she always said it was.”
The stages of grief echo a daughter’s recovery from childhood.
In their book On Grief and Grieving, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler point out that the five stages of loss for which Kübler-Ross is famous — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — aren’t meant “to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages.” They instead emphasize that everyone experiences grief in a unique and individual way. Not everyone will go through each stage, for example, and the stages may not necessarily follow in the expected sequence. That said, the stages are still illuminating, especially when seen in the context of an unloved daughter’s journey out of childhood, and they make it clear why mourning is an essential part of healing.
Denial: As the authors write, “It is nature’s way of letting in as much as we can handle.” With the experience of great loss, denial helps cushion the immediate blow, allowing the person to pace the absorption of the reality. That’s true for death, but it also applies to the daughter’s recognition of her woundedness. That’s why it can take years or decades for the daughter to actually see her mother’s behavior with clarity. Counterintuitively, some women actually only see it in hindsight, after their mothers’ deaths.
Anger: In the wake of death, anger is the most accessible of emotions, directed at targets as various as the deceased for abandoning the loved one, God or the forces of the universe, the unfairness of life, doctors and the healthcare system, and more. Kübler-Ross and Kessler stress that beneath the anger lie other, more complex emotions, especially the raw pain of loss, and that the power of the grieving person’s anger may actually feel overwhelming at times.
Unloved daughters, too, go through a stage or even stages of anger as they work through their emotions toward recovery. Their anger may be directed squarely at their mothers for their treatment, at other family members who stood by and failed to protect them, and also at themselves for not recognizing the toxic treatment sooner.
Anger at the self, alas, can get in the way of the daughter’s ability to feel self-compassion; once again, it is the act of mourning the mother you deserved that permits self-compassion to take root and flower.
Bargaining: This stage has to do with impending death most usually — bargaining with God or making promises to change, thinking that “if only” we’d done x or y, we’d be spared the pain of loss. With death, this is a stage to be passed through toward acceptance of the reality. The unloved daughter’s journey is marked by years of bargaining, spoken or unspoken entreaties in the belief that if some condition is met, her mother will love and support her. She may embark on a course of pleasing and appeasing her mother or make changes to her behavior, looking in vain for the solution that will bring the desired end: Her mother’s love. Just as in the process of grief, it’s only when the daughter ceases to bargain that she can begin to accept the reality that she’s powerless to wrest what she needs from her mother.
Depression: In the context of a major loss, Kübler-Ross and Kessler are quick to point out that we are often impatient with the deep sadness or depression that accompanies it. As a society, we want people to snap out of it, or are quick to insist that if sadness persists, it deserves treatment. They write instead that in grief, “Depression is a way for nature to keep us protected by shutting down the nervous system so that we can adapt to something we feel we cannot handle. They see it as a necessary step in the process of healing.
Since I’m neither a psychologist nor a therapist, I’m staying out of the fray on this one.
The terrain for the unloved daughter is equally tricky; it’s normal to feel sad, even depressed, by your mother’s treatment of you. This sadness is often given more depth by feelings of isolation — believing she is the only unloved girl in the world — and shame. The shame emerges from the mother myths (that all mothers are loving) and her worry that she’s to blame for how her mother treats her. Just as well-meaning people try to push and prod mourners out of this stage of grief, so too friends and acquaintances in whom the daughter confides may unwittingly marginalize her sadness, saying things like “It couldn’t have been so bad, because you turned out so well!” and other comments of that ilk. (Side note: I have heard this too many times to count. It’s the subject of emails I receive from people who insist my mother must have been a doll…)
Acceptance: Most importantly, Kübler-Ross and Kessler are quick to say that acceptance of the reality isn’t a synonym for being all right or even okay with that reality. That’s a key point. It’s about acknowledging the loss, identifying the permanent and even endlessly painful aspects of it, the permanent changes it’s made to your life and you, and learning to live with all of that from this day forward. In their view, acceptance permits us “to withdraw our energy from the loss and begin to invest in life.” Acceptance permits the mourner to forge new relationships and connections as part of their recovery.
All of this applies to unloved daughters as well, though acceptance remains, for many, somehow out of reach. This is why, once again, the need to mourn the mother you deserved is crucial.
One Daughter’s Story
One of my readers used Kübler-Ross’s framework to describe her own mourning as a work-in-progress. Her mother is still living, so this story is still ongoing. I think her first-person account, quoted in full but anonymously, will be of help to many who are still floundering.
Denial: “I couldn’t believe that a mother would choose to do this to her own child. How could she not love me?”
Anger: “I was angry for a very long time. Angry for her attitude, what we could have had. But most of all angry at her for her choice that she would rather feel RIGHT than have a relationship with me. She would choose to give it up for the sake of her screwed-up narcissistic self. This is what pissed me off the most.”
Bargaining: “I don’t think I had this stage. There were ‘if only’ feelings, but you can’t bargain with a person like her. It just won’t work.”
Depression: “This stage has lasted decades. When the person is still alive, I think you always have this deep-down hope of reconciliation. Maybe she’ll come around. Maybe on her deathbed, she will have an epiphany of some kind and realize what she’s done. A last moment of clarity and confession. Don’t hold your breath. It’s been hard on me to see my friends and their moms who have great relationships. You think, ‘Why didn’t I get that? I deserve that too, dammit!'”
Acceptance: “I don’t know whether I will ever have this stage fully until she’s gone. One of the ways I have dealt with it is to be the very best mom I can be to my own children. They know all the family history. They get it and understand why I did what I did.”
What does it mean to mourn the mother you deserved?
Just what it sounds like — to grieve the absence of a mother who listened to you, took pride in you, who needed you to understand her as well as she understood you, a woman willing to own up to her mistakes and not excoriate you for yours, and — yes — someone to laugh and cry with.
I look at my relationship with my own daughter and, sometimes, I can see how my younger self would have envied her. Even now, it’s difficult to look past how my mother squandered countless opportunities; chief among them, actually knowing me.