Source: Marcelo Silvo. Copyright free. Unsplash
The decision of whether to have a child or children is one every woman confronts but for the daughter whose mother was unloving or downright cruel, who ignored or marginalized her, or inflicted emotional damage or psychological pain, the question is different in kind. Chief among the thoughts that bubble up into her mind is the paralyzing fear that she might mother as her mother did. I can tell you from personal experience that it’s a fear like none other, one that creates a pit in your stomach so deep that it threatens to swallow you whole.
For almost two decades of my adult life, I made the conscious decision not to have a child; the therapists I consulted at the time largely felt that these abusive and unloving behaviors were more than likely to be repeated. The buzzword I remember most was “recidivist,” and the examples used all adduced patterns of physical abuse in families. I wasn’t physically abused nor was I surrounded by violent behavior but, still, the question remained: Could I be loving as a mother or would the patterns in my family, at least two generations deep, persist?
I would only discover many years later that I wasn’t the only unloved daughter asking the question.
Cultural myths and inconvenient truths
The myths pertaining to motherhood are the backdrop for the inner turmoil the unloved daughter experiences, as well as the cause for her feeling isolated and alone, facing a problem no else needs to deal with. The myths include the false notion that mothering is instinctual in our species (it isn’t), that all women are nurturing, and that all mothers love their children. The bow that wraps up the mother myths is the idea of unconditional love; to quote psychologist Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving, “Mother’s love is bliss, is peace, it need not be acquired, it need not be deserved.”
An unloved daughter knows better, alas, and the chances are good that, for many years, just thinking about the relationship will fill her with shame and fear that she’s to blame, on the one hand, and desperate longing for her mother’s love, on the other. Adulthood brings with it other challenges, chief among them how to manage her relationship to her mother and, most usually, her connections to the other members of her family of origin. As her recognition of her woundedness grows (along with her understanding of who wounded her and continues to it), she will still long for her mother’s love and support. This is what I call “the core conflict” in my work—the tug-of-war between needing to tend to behaviors and reactivity learned in response to her mother’s treatment and her continuing need for her mother’s positive attention.
The question of children or living childfree
Once considered a marker and goal of adulthood, there’s no question that the decision has become much more individual. As statistics show, not having a child no longer makes a woman a cultural outlier since birth rates continue to drop in the United States. In fact, more and more women are choosing to remain childfree for many different reasons including life goals and priorities, finances, and more. That said, a study conducted by Leslie Ashburn-Nardo and published in 2017 suggests that cultural views of parenthood as normative may actually lag behind real-world decision-making; in her study she had 204 psychology students read a passage about a married adult and judge how fulfilled the person was. The passages were identical save for the individual’s gender and whether he or she had a child or children. Not only did the participants judge the individuals who were childfree less fulfilled but they expressed a certain measure of moral outrage at their choice. Keep in mind that the average age of the participant was 20.6, and that the 141 women participated who were predominantly White (compared to 49 men) and that the university was in the Midwest. Still, we know from the mother myths that cultural assumptions about what constitutes normative behavior often has ballast it doesn’t deserve, as well as the reigning cultural assumption that people are happier and more fulfilled when they have children, which remains unchallenged despite the very mixed bag of results research has delivered.
But women who decide to live childfree do so for very different reasons than do unloved daughters.
The crux of the matter for the unloved daughter: will the past repeat itself?
These two points of view are drawn from interviews conducted for and contained in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Having a child was very important to me, and I went on to have three. Yes, I was nervous but I was also determined to have my kids be loved in all the ways I wasn’t. Was I a perfect mother? No, far from it. But my children thrived and I showered them with love, affection, understanding, and support—everything I was denied myself. (Lorraine, 48)
I didn’t trust myself to bring a child into this world. I was panicked about visiting the same misery my mother rained on me. I was particularly scared of having a girl and, maybe, if there’d been a way of guaranteeing I would only have a son, I might have gotten up the courage. My mother was fine with my brothers, her sons. Do I have regrets now? Yes, because I am different than I was 20 years ago. And now it’s too late. (Deidre, 46)
These are two responses from opposite ends of the possible answers and, of course, there are many possible ones in between; there are women who end up having strained or difficult relationships with their children and there are many who don’t regret remaining childfree. The truth is that the most unloved daughters become good mothers, provided they are consciously aware of how their childhoods damaged and hurt them; many of these women go into therapy as well. This isn’t to say that they don’t worry about how they mother—they do—and they sometimes struggle with their own reactivity and the legacy of their own childhoods. But good mothering isn’t about being perfect; it’s about being attuned to your child, loving, and staying present.
The sad truth is that the unloved daughters who are most likely to perpetuate the cycle of uncaring and emotional neglect are those who wrongly believe that having a child will heal them, give them greater standing in their mother’s eyes or someone else’s, or who have a child because they desperately want someone to love them. These reasons all share one commonality: They see the child as an extension of the mother herself and her own needs. That is a recipe for repeating the past.
Learning from the past and moving away from it
The daughters who decide to have children and are able to mother successfully are those who face the consequences of their own childhood experiences squarely and with consciousness, often with the help of intensive therapy. Many of these women, including myself, use the “run in the opposite direction” approach as their compass; they look at what they lacked in their own childhoods and focus on making sure their children get what they need.
But perhaps more important than what they do is what they don’t do. They consciously don’t adopt the behaviors that were part and parcel of the everyday in their own childhoods. Science knows that “Bad is Stronger than Good” and that avoiding the most damaging of parental behaviors does more to insure the emotional health of your children than all the good things you do give them. That is what Daniel Siegel and Mary Harzwell point out in their book, Parenting from the Inside Out, in which they describe staying on the “high road” or leaving your own emotional baggage and reactivity behind and connecting to your child in an attuned and aware way.
Among the more important things the loving mother avoids are these:
- · Seeing her child as an extension of herself and not an individual
- · Using words as weapons of shame or blame
- · Beginning a reprimand with a recitation of a child’s flaws
- · Dismissing a child’s feelings by saying he or she’s too “sensitive.”
- · Undermining her child’s recitation or recollection of events
- · Ignoring a child’s personal space or boundaries
- · Never apologizing or admitting a mistake
Keep in mind that mothering successfully does not mean mothering perfectly; humans are by definition imperfect. That’s why being able to admit your mistakes and apologize is so important.
Choosing and the road not taken
I changed my mind about not having a child at the age of 38 and the first thing I did when I discovered I was carrying a daughter was to end all contact with my mother; it was a decision I’d wavered on for almost twenty years, breaking contact and then going back, and becoming a mother decided it for me. I chose to protect my child. My daughter is now thirty and, yes, having her was the best decision I could have made for me. It came at a cost; it changed my marriage significantly and not for the better (I had married with not having children as part of the ground rules) and changed my friendships as well. In my case, motherhood redefined me.
But my answer isn’t everyone’s answer. Not long ago, I got a message from a reader of my book who’s now 60 and who wrote: “I looked at the kid question every decade from twenty to forty and then, again, at 45 as the door was closing and I decided no for the last time. And it was right for me. I needed to flourish on my own terms after my stressful beginnings and I’ve loved my work as an immigration lawyer. I love my husband and our life together. But I’m not really childless either. I have the children of friends whom I love, a niece I’m crazy about, and the young people I’ve mentored. My life isn’t empty and I don’t believe I missed anything.”
Amen to that.
Conscious awareness and choice are what matters in the end. It’s time to let the secret that not all women are suited to mother out of the cupboard, begin an honest discussion, and banish the shame that dogs the unloved daughter’s steps.
Copyright © 2018 Peg Streep