The Unmothered Child

By Rachel Negar Partiali, Ph.D.  

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Although a mother can be physically present to her child, her emotional absence can leave her child feeling unmothered, or motherless. Most mothers intend to care for their child’s needs, but their emotional unavailability may create challenges in doing so. When a mother is emotionally absent she is not only unable to attend to her child’s emotional needs, but she is also unable to care for her own emotional needs. A mother’s lack of emotional attunement may be the result of her preoccupation with external stressors, such as financial hardships or marital discord. Furthermore, her emotional capacity to be attuned to her child may also be compromised by her preoccupation with internal stressors, such as mental health concerns and unresolved past traumas.

A connection between a mother and infant is the infant’s first bond and it creates the foundation for future relationships – relationship with the self, the world, and others. For healthy development to occur, a child needs a caretaker who is attuned to not only his physical needs, but also to his emotional needs.

So, what does it mean to be attuned to a child’s needs?

Attunement is the capacity to recognize another’s needs at any given moment. Since infants and children lack the capacity to express their needs in words, children need caretakers to be able to understand their needs and meet those needs. Parents are often adept at providing for the physical needs of children, but meeting the emotional needs of kids requires greater skill. In essence, it requires the emotional availability of the parent. For a mother to be able to attend to her child’s emotional needs, such as helping him feel his sadness, have a space to express his anger, or cry over a sense of disappointment, she needs to first be able to tolerate and express such emotions within herself. Mothers who have difficulty tolerating difficult feelings within themselves may struggle with allowing their kids to express such feelings overtly. Being emotionally attuned to a child involves making yourself available to your child. For instance, listening to your child express his emotions while suspending judgment and advice will create an intimate connection and give your child the feeling that he matters.

The experience of not having one’s emotional needs met during childhood is traumatic. When we think of trauma, we often think of negative events that occur that overwhelm our psyches. Yet, trauma is not only the negative experiences that happen to us, but also the necessary experiences for healthy development that did not occur. For instance, it is traumatic to a child to not receive appropriate emotional engagement and attunement throughout childhood.

Most mothers bring children into the world in an attempt to love and nurture them, so why would they be emotionally absent to their children?

Although most mothers hope to provide their child with the best mothering possible, their capacity to do so can be compromised due to various factors. It is very likely that the emotionally unavailable mother did not receive adequate nurturing and mothering in her own upbringing. Often, being unmothered gets passed down from one generation to the next if it is not acknowledged and healed. It is also possible that the mother experienced major disruption in her development through experiences of trauma. Trauma that is not acknowledged and healed will prevent the parent from being fully present – not only to her child, but to herself and to her surroundings. Traumatic experiences directly impact our ability to connect. Emotional connection becomes threatening as it triggers feelings associated with the trauma that we are trying to keep at bay. As a way to feel safe, traumatized mothers may distance themselves from intimate connections, including the connection with their child. One of the biggest gifts a mother can give to her child is to become aware of and heal her own emotional wounds.

What does a child experience when her mother is emotionally absent?

The world is an unsafe, lonely place to an unmothered child. When a child has a strong attachment to her mother, she feels a sense of safety in the world and her sense of loneliness is dissipated. Every child needs to feel that she exists in her mother’s mind as a top priority, but this can be a foreign concept to a motherless child. The neglect she feels as a result of her mother’s emotional absence can leave the unmothered child feeling like something is profoundly wrong with her. If her mother did not connect to her adequately, she is left feeling very rejected. This creates a deep-rooted sense of shame, one in which the individual may try to ward off by never getting too emotionally intimate with anyone. The mindset may be, “if I never get too close then my sense of badness can never be exposed. I will spare myself from the anticipatory rejection by staying emotionally distant from others.” To prevent her innate sense of badness from being exposed, the unmothered child confines herself to a lonely life. Even if she is around others and has a partner, her deepest and most vulnerable self is hidden. By warding off intimacy and deep connection, the unmothered child maintains her attachment to her emotionally unavailable mother. In essence, as she is disconnected from others, she remains connected faithfully to her disconnected mother.

Why would the unmothered child maintain her attachment to her unavailable mother if the emotional distance that she experienced in her relationship with her mother brought on so much pain?

The psyche wants mastery over experiences that were once overwhelming. The infant did not have any control over her mother’s emotional availability to her. As an unmothered adult, there is a desire to correct the lack of mothering that was once experienced. The adult hopes to gain mastery over the lack of mothering she experienced during childhood through the recreation of adult experiences that resemble her dynamic with her mother. The hope is that if she recreates a similar experience with future partners, then she will be able to change the outcome of her weak relationship with her mother by creating a healthy relationship with her partner. Her hope is that she will be able to heal her mother wound through other relationships that trigger her mother wound.

The motherless child ends up unconsciously either choosing people who are emotionally not open to intimacy (similar to her mother), or she becomes the emotionally distant partner in the relationship (she becomes her mother). Although she is hoping to heal her mother wound and have the intimacy that she desperately needs, she actually ends up warding off intimacy. In doing so, she is maintaining her internal attachment to her emotionally unavailable mother. This cycle can repeat itself and with each unsuccessful relationship the unmothered child will experience further heartbreak.

"Amma" by R. N. Partiali

"Amma" by R. N. Partiali

How do we move past our mother wound?

A child orphaned by inadequate maternal care may seek many maternal surrogates throughout his/her life, such as mentors, friends, and partners. Unfortunately, such relationships will never cover the emptiness that is left from inadequate mothering. To heal, the mother wound needs to be fully mourned. If we try to heal by seeking partners who we hope will love us the way our mothers should have loved us, we will surely be disappointed. To get out of the cycle of attracting unavailable partners or being unavailable to our partners, we must first recognize that we did not receive adequate mothering. And sadly so, no amount of love and mothering can make up for what we did not receive. Even if an emotionally unavailable mother is able to heal herself now and become available to her adult child, the adult’s childhood wounds won’t disappear.

Fully allowing ourselves to grieve this pain is our way out of the trap of loneliness that is brought on by being motherless. As we grieve not having been mothered we are providing ourselves with the kind of mothering we deserved all along. When we allow ourselves to feel and process this deep pain, we also create emotional space within us for emotionally satisfying relationships to enter our lives. As we mourn our mother’s inability to care for our emotional needs and the impact it has had on us, only then do we open up to the possibility of receiving emotionally connected partners and other relationships that satisfy our emotional needs.