April 13, 2023

Daughters of unloving mothers: what it means to heal

It sometimes takes a long time before realising how toxic the family one grew up in was. It also takes a lifetime to acknowledge that one grew up in an abusive environment where love and care were missing. It’s more common to try to normalize the abuse because it can be extremely painful to see reality as it is: the people one grew up with didn’t know how to love, they confused hate with love…and so it’s better to convince oneself that despite all the abuse, they were still loving and caring their own way. And let’s remember that family ties are the most difficult ones to break. It’s a grieving path that can take a lifetime to process.

But let’s be clear: maternal instinct doesn’t come naturally and yes, some mothers don’t love their children for various reasons. It might be that they were themselves abused in their childhood (although some abused mothers can later become amazing parents when they acknowledge the harm that was done to them and when they decide to break the chain of abuse), they didn’t process their own traumas, they repeat the abusive relationships with their own child, or they didn’t heal from the wounds caused by their own unloving mothers.

For one thing, most daughters remain hopeful – despite what they know intellectually – that they can somehow still earn the love and recognition they deserved. The hope comes out of the same old hunger for their mother’s support, love, and affection and really has no realistic validity except in their hope. It’s hard to overstate how recognition of toxic patterns is pitted against the denial unloved daughters have long used to self-protect against the pain and turmoil of recognition, and the truth is it’s much easier to deny that painful reality than face the unbearable truth at hand.

But as scary and frustrating as the journey of recovery is and as difficult as it is to reclaim your true self, both are possible. We need not live in adulthood as we did as children—chased by fear, hungry for love and attention, unable to cope except in ways that don’t serve us. Coming to terms with what frightens each of us most as individuals is part of this healing journey because we can only figure out our paths of self-care if we know what we need. This recalls the very beginning of the path, when we couldn’t begin to deal with our wounds until we recognized them.

Recovery and reclaiming your life take real time. Unloved daughters sometimes spent many years being shaped and influenced by their family of origin, and the work of unlearning is accomplished in small steps, as is the process of learning new behaviors. Among the things that they will need to learn is to be kind to themselves and understanding of the process that entails separating out the old habit of self-criticism from taking responsibility.

Often, our expectations of what it means to heal are unrealistic. Too many of us end up looking for a magic wand that will make up for all the wounds engraved in us. Our culture also views damage as something that needs to be hidden: we repair something valuable that’s been broken so that it’s perfectly rendered to its previous state. However, this definition of healing not only doesn’t help us but it can also actively hold us back. It makes us dissatisfied and unforgiving when our old behaviors come to the surface or we’re suddenly overwhelmed by emotions we’re unable to handle. We become our worst enemies instead of the compassionate person we need to be.

I believe that the Japanese view, expressed in the ancient art of kintsugi, is not only more realistic but ultimately also psychologically healthier. Kintsugi is used primarily to repair precious objects made of ceramic; the breaks are mended by joining the pieces with lacquer mixed with precious metals such as gold, silver, or copper. The breaks are thus immortalized, and while the piece is now “whole,” its history is visible to the eye, creating a different kind of beauty.

I think this is a better way of thinking not just about healing but also about the incorporation of our scars and past experiences into our present and recovered selves. Understanding healing through the lens of kintsugi emphasizes our capacity to be resilient while acknowledging the hurt of the past. It also allows us to see ourselves as whole without denying our initial brokenness. It encourages us to see the beauty in ourselves as defined not by perfection but by strength, hope, doggedness, and belief in the self.

Healing is possible as long as we acknowledge our past experiences. It takes courage to face these wounds: it’s the first step towards recovery. It’s all about transforming our past wounds into less painful scars. It’s about creating a past where it’s possible to leave behind the unbearable emotions related to the events that took place in our childhood. It’s only possible to leave these emotions in the past once we have processed them in therapy. That process takes time. It’s also painful at times but extremely rewarding. Only then, will it be possible for unloved daughters to develop more self-love, self-respect and live a meaningful life focused on the present, a life worth living for.