Unmothered Mother & Child

Raising a child while neglecting to actually Mother said child:  Unmothering.  Growing up, the moments of my adoptive mother acting like a Mother were scant.  Mother and Mommy are similar but different; truthfully, I’m not recalling anything outstanding for the Mommy category, either.

There were moments she acted like a Mother.  Dependable, positive, pleasant and I felt she was both in my corner and I could rely on her.  She had my back.  But only for that moment.  This version of my Mother never lasted and just as you were leaning into trusting the uncharacteristic warmth and the affection, it disappeared without a trace.  Like a meteor shooting through the sky.  Now she loves you, now she don’t.

As a teenager, some of my friends thought my Mother was so cool, funny, they’d give her a big hug after school concerts or plays I’d been in, or if we ran into them in the grocery store.  Cooly cordial but affable.  She was always kinder and outright complimentary of other people’s children (if she liked them) than she ever was of me and my sister.  We both learned at a very early age that whenever and wherever we were out in public or at a friend’s home, our every move and word represented her.  Everything we did had to be a direct reflection of her, and it had to reflect positively or we’d risk punishment, be it physical or emotional.  At home, her standards were higher and nothing I did or said was ever right or good enough.  No coaching, certainly no modeling the behavior she hoped I would somehow absorb whether from her or from being around kids she liked.  I was just supposed to, somehow, know what she wanted from me and then deliver it.  Which I never could.  Still can’t and I’m 55.

While she was allowed to change her mind, be moody, be so enraged she would suck all the air from the room, have tantrums, give the cold shoulder for a week at a time, ignore me – I was allowed none of those things.  None of those emotions, especially none of my own opinions or needs or asks.  Everything was about her and what she needed.  We worked hard to keep up appearances outside the house.  Her reputation, her social status, her name in the community, at their private sailing club…her needs always came first.


When I was pregnant with my one-and-only child, my daughter, I became terror-stricken.  I’m going to be a horrible Mother because mine had been a monster to me.  I can’t do this.  I shouldn’t do this.  This is a joke – everyone knows who my Mother is and I have been set up to fail at yet another thing.  I can’t do this in front of other people.  I need to go away to be this baby’s Mother…

Therapy was immensely helpful.

We talked about everything that I brought to the Mothering table.  My past, my parents, my adoption, me as an adopted person…and me as a very soon to be Mother.  My therapist at the time was a women, a Mother to a college-aged son, and she could not have been more helpful.  My baby arrived two weeks past her due date, and after a week’s stay in hospital, we brought her home and I began Mothering her, basically solo.  Meaning, that my Mother, who “hates babies”, would not come to visit but it was fine for me to pack the baby bag, ready myself  and the newborn perfection that was my daughter, load the car seat and schlep the 45 minutes to their home.  Just so she could “see the child.”

And, I did it.  A lot.  Because it was good for her.  It made her happy; I was being a good daughter and while I should have taken better care of myself, I did it because any scrap of positive attention from her meant I was worthy.  Question is:  Worth of what, exactly?

My mother was not there for me but once during the post-delivery hospital stay.
She never visited to see the baby at home; she used the excuse that she did not know the roadways below a certain highway line and it was just easier for her if we visited.  Easier for her and I was the one with the newborn/baby/toddler/kindergartner/grammar schooler/high school student.  This excuse of not knowing the roads continued until she was declared legally blind, so I should have no issue at this point.  One would think.

My daughter, whom I have recently laid eyes and hands on, visiting her where she is attending college, is recently 21.  She is confident, funny, bright and self-aware as much as any 21-year old can be.  She is warm and has good friends, and seeks to know the world while improving upon it at the same time.  She called me Mommy for a long time, which I just adored.  Now, I’m just Mom – and I love that, too.

She has her own set of issues stemming, my guess, from the fact I left her father when she was four.  And, after that we were together intensely, maybe too intensely, until a blow-up early her second semester of senior year in high school.  She moved to her father’s and shut me out for a year.  Worst year of my life.  Maybe hers, too.  We don’t talk about what happened.  My natural tendency to solve the unsolvable makes me want to explore that time with her but I don’t dare ask.

I would like to believe that I have never qualified my love for her under conditions demanding she be someone other than herself; that I have raised her with love and unconditional support and the knowledge she is allowed, encouraged, to be who and what she desires; that regardless of her choices of hair, dress, career, life path, partner, politics, religion or belief, music, cuisine or home, I have been here for her offering good, loving Mothering so she can be herself and not what or who she thinks I’d like.

I want her to be happy and safe.  Like every good Mother wants for her children.  Like every Mommy hopes, watching their baby sleep or play.

I am an unmothered Mother.  It has not been easy.

I am an unmothered daughter.  That has been much harder.



2 thoughts on “Unmothered Mother & Child

Add yours

  1. A few random responses to this installment:

    Thank you for shedding light on the difference between the roles of “unmothered mother” and “unmothered daughter”. I wonder if the latter has been more difficult because you’ve had no agency. Nothing you did,, no choice you made, could make a difference in how your mother treated you because of her own deeply ingrained insecurities – which is completely about her and not you. That kind of experience can bring on learned helplessness, which is the basis for depression. On the other hand, as a parent, the choices you made had some correlation with, if not outright determination over, the outcome (to the extent that’s ever possible in interpersonal relationships and life in general), at least until the volatile teen years, when it’s our kids’ job to differentiate themselves from their parents. Even though you had no model, you must have had a vision for being a mother, even if it was being the antithesis of your own experience. And, from this vantage point, it seems like you had a lot of efficacy as an unmothered mother, even if the process was difficult.

    More power to you for your self-awareness when you got pregnant and, even more so, for your willingness to seek help. As lucky as it might seem to find a therapist who was so helpful, I think it speaks to your openness and readiness to grow that you ended up so much more ready to be the parent your daughter needed you to be.

    My heart again aches for the girl/woman/daughter/mother who never received the consistent love and validation she wanted and needed to thrive. Hug to you, Jennifer!

    1. Thank you. Your comments are so thoughtful and I really appreciate your feedback.

      “… even if it was being the antithesis of your own experience.” There was that, yes. I was quietly determined to be the opposite of what had been modeled as mothering/what a mother does, that by the time I became a mother it boiled down to privately telling myself this: “Follow your gut. Follow your instinct.” Once, when asked about nursing or not (I did), a similar thought repeated itself in my head; it lasted for most of the first year of being a mother: “The milk arrives with the baby for a reason.” It was never an issue to nurse, or to know “how”, just to learn what worked for me and my baby. Instinct. 🙂

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