Mothers mold us — often physically in the womb (though there are many other types of mother-child relationships, including adoptive ones) and emotionally through their interactions with us.
The bond is so strong that British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott believed that there’s no such thing as an infant, but only an infant and their mother. He believed that a child’s sense of self is built by the kind of a relationship that they have with their primary caregiver (usually mom).
So what happens if mom wasn’t there for you emotionally? According to some psychoanalysts, researchers, and other theorists, the so-called “mother wound” occurs.
Children (usually daughters, but sometimes also sons) are said to experience the mother wound if their mother:
- provided support by taking care of the physical needs of the children, but didn’t give love, care, and security
- didn’t provide empathy to mirror the child’s emotions and help them label and manage those emotions
- didn’t allow the child to express negative emotions
- was extra critical
- expected the child’s support with their own physical or emotional needs
- wasn’t available to the child either because they had to work or because they were busy with their own interests (Do note, however: You can be a working mom — even a working single mom — without instilling the mother wound!)
- had suffered emotional or physical abuse themselves, didn’t process the trauma, and was therefore unable to offer love and nurture
- had an untreated mental health condition
- experienced alcoholism or drug addiction
The mother wound is not a specific diagnosis — although it can hurt so much that you’re sure it warrants one. While both daughters and sons can feel the impact of the under-mothering that leads to the mother wound, it’s typically considered a mother-to-daughter wound.
Thanks to psychologist Mary Ainsworth and her
In patriarchal societies, it may be easier for mothers to pass on their own mother wound to their daughters. Women who have internalized stereotypical beliefs that relegate women to second-class citizens are more likely to consciously or unconsciously transmit these beliefs to their daughters.
Daughters in these societies may find themselves caught in a double-edged dilemma: Accept what Mom believes in so that we’re in the same boat and she keeps on loving me, or fight for my own beliefs and aim for empowerment.
It’s no easy feat to take up the fight.
A daughter who chooses to do so may find herself sabotaging their own success much in the same way that Matina Horner’s classic 1970 “fear of success” study demonstrated. More recent studies have replicated Horner’s study and shown similar stereotypical responses that hold women back from self-actualization and keep that mother wound festering.
If you’re wondering which signs could signal the presence of the mother wound in your life, think back to your childhood and try to recall what the child version of you experienced.
If many of the feelings in the list below seem familiar, you may have a mother wound:
- Your mother just wasn’t there for you on an emotional level.
- You were reluctant to turn to your mother for comfort or security.
- You doubted you had your mother’s approval, so you were always trying to be perfect.
- You felt nervous and frightened around your mother.
- Your mother expected you to take care of her physically or emotionally.
If the points on the list above resonate with you, what does that mean for you now? These negative feelings can lead to:
- low self-esteem
- lack of emotional awareness
- inability to self-soothe
- the feeling that warm and nurturing relationships aren’t in your reach
Let’s see why this could happen:
Secure attachment makes a child feel that they matter. Without this basic belief in themselves, children struggle to get a sense of self and to believe in themselves.
Lack of emotional awareness
A mother who is present for their child is able to mirror their child’s feelings, label those feelings, and help them to manage the feelings. The child doesn’t need to suppress negative feelings, because they have a way to manage them.
Inability to self-soothe
Without the awareness of how to manage their feelings, children and later adults never develop the ability to self-soothe. Instead, they turn to things outside of themselves for comfort. These things could include numbing activities like alcohol and drugs.
Adults with the mother wound have difficulty forming and maintaining the positive relationships that we all crave for because they’ve never learned to
Healing from the mother wound is a balance between acknowledging negative feelings such as anger and resentment and recognizing that we may need to forgive our mother. While remaining mired in the negative feelings may make us feel temporarily right, in the long run, we actually lose out.
So how do we get the balance that will heal us?
Express the pain
The first step is letting yourself say, “Ouch” — and more — if you need to. Therapy can help your child-self express the pain of being unloved, ignored, shunned, ridiculed, and even victimized. Journaling can also help.
Our concept of self was built through the way our mother interacted with us. We need to realize that the fact that our mother was unable to build our self-image in a positive way was not our fault. By letting go of the less-than-ideal image, we can recreate our self-image.
Without our mother’s feedback, we didn’t have the reinforcement needed to develop self-awareness. We need to learn how to get in touch with our emotions. Take the time to stop and feel what you’re feeling. Naming the feeling is the first step to coping with the feeling.
We can also learn how to parent ourselves, and give ourselves all the things we never received as a child.
Self-care isn’t spoiling ourselves; it’s taking care of our needs. For some of us, self-care a solo morning walk before settling down at your desk. For others, it’s taking time off for a coffee date with a friend who makes us feel good about ourselves.
Acknowledging our own feelings and grieving over what we never got as a child creates the emotional space needed to move towards forgiveness.
Mothering is hard work. If you’re a mother, you already know that. And sometimes mothers get things wrong. Even very wrong. If you can recognize your mother for who she is and not dwell on who you’d like her to be, you can move toward understanding her and accepting her.
Once you’ve done that, it could be possible to build a relationship with your mother. Learn to set boundaries and you may find that together you and your mother can build some sort of relationship. Even if it’s not the perfect relationship, it can become something meaningful.
Of course, in some cases, you may have had a neglectful or abusive mother that you truly cannot forgive. In such cases, it may be better to work through those hard feelings within your support network or with a therapist — without extending the olive branch.
It would be convenient and easy if we could blame all of our faults and failures on our mothers. But it wouldn’t be truthful. And that’s because we all have the gift of choice.
We can choose to take the steps to heal our own mother wound and to make sure that we don’t pass on this hurt to our children. It’s a challenging journey, but it’s the beginning of empowerment.