Perhaps the most painful of all feelings is the awareness that your mother was not there for you emotionally as a child, this creates the mother wound. She might have been physically present but emotionally absent. Perhaps she was (is) very critical and she was telling you to put a smile on your face when you were sad and needed a hug and comforting. Perhaps she belittled your feelings and demanded you to be supportive of her when she needed you. She may have told you to worry about what the world thought of you more than what you thought of something and how it impacted you. Perhaps she was absent because she was drinking or too busy with her own life. She may have been even frightening and abusive.
Recently, I wrote a 3-part series on toxic romantic relationships: recognising, healing and moving on after a toxic relationship and then I also wrote about how our early relationships (attachment) impact adult relationships. This 2-part post series looks at the root of many emotional and psychological difficulties, the mother wound, what it means and how it potentially impacts you as an adult and how you can start to heal the wound left by the lack of emotional engagement and nurturing by your mother.
The reason this post focuses on the mother wound even if many of the experiences may be related to your relationship with your father is that your mother is the one that gave birth to you and she was the first experience of Other for you. Therefore, the mother wound is even more painful than the wound caused by an emotionally absent father.
The role of mothers (parents) is to nurture their children both physically and emotionally. It is equally important to teach children to read and understand their own internal worlds (such as labelling feelings, recognising emotional responses, understanding needs, having boundaries and being able to say “no”, which all contribute to having the belief that “I am good enough and lovable”) than it is to feed children nutritious food and offer a roof over their head.
It is a mother’s role to teach children about (self-)soothing. From the early hours after being born skin to skin contact helps to regulate a new-born baby’s underdeveloped nervous system and in fact, in this close proximity, the parent receives a release of oxytocin, a cuddling hormone, too. This way the child and the parent are co-regulating each other.
Self-soothing is an important skill as an adult and you learn it by having been soothed by another person (a good enough parental figure). Instead, if you were left to cry for long periods of time without your mother responding to your attachment call or you were quickly distracted away from your feelings, you may have learnt that your feelings are not accepted and you should not express them or numb them.
Therefore, a mother who gives hugs, listens and talks to their child about their feelings helps the child to understand their emotional responses, and this helps with learning to tolerate different emotions and soothe the pain of emotional experiences. Having had this experience as a child helps to you to use it as a resource as an adult when facing stressful life events.
There is a lot of talk about the “terrible twos” when in fact this a special developmental period that should be celebrated as the time to learn about personal boundaries and learning to say “no” to unwanted things. It is a mother’s (parents’) responsibility to support a toddler during this time to develop a sense of agency and have a right to say “no”, and help to understand the child’s needs and wants. You may have been taught to be “a good girl or boy” and do as you are told, and labeled as being naughty if you expressed or explored your own needs. You may have internalised a message that you have no right to say “no” and often end up pleasing others at your own expense.
All mothers (parents) try to do their best for their children, but for their own difficulties and often due to their own mother wound they end up repeating behaviour patterns that are potentially emotionally damaging. However, it was your mother’s responsibility to offer you emotional safety.
Of course, as a parent, it is challenging to have a toddler who refuses to go in the car seat when you are in a rush to go somewhere or wants to wear something that you feel is inappropriate for the occasion. However, these are golden opportunities for learning (for both the parent and their child) about expressing oneself and remaining calm when being challenged. If you are faced with this situation, remember to breathe. If you are really struggling, it may be helpful to have emotional support for yourself.
If you are a parent and now worrying about having to be a perfect mother in order not to cause a mother wound, please remember that we are aiming for “good enough”, not for perfection at all times. The main thing is that you are aware of your responsibilities and you have a desire not to repeat the behaviour patterns you experienced as having a mother who emotionally neglected you and you wish to offer your children a different experience.
The awareness of not having experienced a loving and emotionally attuned mother leads to underlying questions related to the mother wound like “did I do something to deserve this” or “I must be bad because she did not have time for me” or “if I had been a better child, she would have cared more”. You may have internalised self-critical messages that either you were not lovable or you have to earn love by achievements.
The mother wound may contribute to you struggling with, for example, emotional emptiness, permanent sense of sadness, worry and anxiety, depression, and difficulty to know who you are and end up in relationships with partners who are emotionally unresponsive. You may use food or alcohol to soothe you when you experience difficult feelings. You are likely to struggle with self-compassion and being kind to yourself. Perhaps you try to be the perfect mother yourself to others and struggle to give yourself the same.
McBride (2013) wrote an excellent book: “Will I ever be good enough?” and talks about the high-achieving daughter who tries to buy mother’s love by excelling academically and/or in trying to be “perfect” in every other aspect of your life. Of course, it doesn’t matter how much you achieve in life, a toxic, very critical and/or narcissistic parent is unlikely to recognise your achievements. They may ask even more from you. You may have internalised a message that if you work hard and aim for perfection, you will have your mother’s love and you may live in a hope that it will happen one day. Then every time you wish for your mother’s recognition for your achievements, you are disappointed and may even say “What is the point”.
McBride (2013) also talked about a daughter that self-sabotages as a result of a mother wound and for not feeling worthy of good things in life. She listed four typical traits of a person who self-sabotages:
• Giving up
• Numbing the pain of a mother wound by external things and having addictions
• Remaining stuck in self-destructive behaviour patterns and lifestyles
• Underachieving and not going out there use your full potential and skills
When you believe about yourself that you are not deserving of good things in life and you may struggle to grab any opportunities in life that there are in front of you, or perhaps you start but easily give up when facing adversity because you don’t deep down believe that you have the skill or the drive to achieve good things in life.
This first part of the 2-part series has focused on understanding the mother wound and what it means. You can read the second part here. I have also recently written about what to do if your mother wound gets triggered.
Having mother wound is very painful, but you can heal from it. Even if it has impacted your life in many ways so far, it does not have to determine your future. You can heal and rewrite your destiny.
Therapy can help you to heal from past hurts, if you are looking to have therapy to address your mother wound, please take a look at my services page on childhood trauma.
Alternatively, find more free resources on healing, living wholeheartedly and having fulfilling relationships. There is also a free Relationship checklist to assess whether your relationship is “good enough”.
McBride, K. (2013). Will I ever be good enough? Healing the daughters of narcissistic mothers.