Criticizing one’s mother is usually seen as both cliché and taboo. When someone does speak up, the responses often focus on analyzing or defending the mother, while neglecting the adult child’s feelings once again. This article looks at good-enough mothering, the effects of neglectful mothering, and the path to healing through learning to grieve.
Wound of absence
Neglectful mothering leaves a profound wound of absence. It is hard to name what is lacking, and even harder to question and heal the feeling of not deserving any better. If the mothering you received wasn’t good-enough, you may notice a sense of recognition or longing as you read. You may also notice intense rage, grief, or despair. Take breaks if you need them, and receive your emotions and thoughts with as much gentleness as you can.
Attunement and mirroring
A good-enough mother is attuned to her child. She attends to the subtle and not-so-subtle signals the child gives her, and does her best to meet the child’s needs. This includes noticing needs for closeness and space, an ongoing dance as the child grows and explores. Attunement feeds not only the child’s daily needs, but also the deeper need to feel welcomed and important.
A good-enough mother also notices and mirrors emotions like excitement or distress, giving the child a sense of being seen and acknowledged. She provides soothing and containment when emotions intensify. Over time, the child learns how to soothe and contain emotions as well, internalizing the mothering.
Note that good-enough does not have to be perfect. A good-enough mother may sometimes feel overwhelmed and yell at her child, but she soon comes back into attunement. She stays aware of her own needs, sets appropriate limits, and shares care of the child with other adults.
Many ways to be good enough
Good-enough mothering is found in all cultures and environments, from rich to poor, from strict to lenient, from staying home to full-time employment. Children can form a mothering bond with fathers and other caretakers as well. With attunement and mirroring, children grow up feeling secure and loved in a wide variety of households.
Blocks to attunement
Unfortunately, not all women who give birth are capable of attunement and mirroring. Severe physical or mental illness, or personality disorders such as narcissism can prevent attunement to their children. Some are sociopaths, truly not caring about their children (or anyone else). Some have not received enough nurturing in their own lives to learn how to nurture others.
Neglectful mothering can occur in any culture and environment. The problem may be invisible outside the home, adding to the child’s distress and lack of validation. Some neglectful mothers allow or even perpetrate active emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse. Whether or not there is additional abuse, the neglect itself has many damaging effects.
In a neglectful home, children do not receive validation for internal needs and feelings, nor the tools to handle them. Receiving nurturing is conditional on attending to their mother’s needs, so children become externally focused on pleasing others. Lacking unshakable confidence in their own worth, they embark on an endless quest to deserve love. Not only are their needs and feelings neglected when they are young, but they internalize this neglectful style and continue to treat themselves the same way into adulthood.
“Needy” vs. “strong”
Adult children of neglectful mothers often carry a powerful longing for nurturing and acknowledgement, along with an explosive cache of unexpressed grief and pain. There can be deep conflict between the “needy” young voice looking for mothering, and the “strong” older voice of self-protection and survival. Neither voice seems to hold the answer, since both vulnerable neediness and inauthentic façades lead to painful, chaotic relationships.
It turns out that both voices hold parts of the answer. The needy voice is right about needing to learn the missing lessons of self-acceptance and emotional containment, in order to safely release that cache of emotions. The strong voice is right that adults need to maintain clear boundaries, rather than merge like infants.
Fortunately, self-acceptance and emotional containment can be learned a little at a time, while maintaining clear boundaries. Every interaction which includes a little attunement or mirroring helps to heal the wounds left by neglectful mothering. Compassionate friends and helping professionals can provide these reparative experiences.
You can create your own reparative experience right now. Bring your attention to your next breath in, and out. Simply notice sensations and thoughts. Whatever you notice, say to yourself, “It’s okay to feel/think that.” Even if you don’t notice anything (you might be dissociating), say to yourself, “It’s okay not to notice anything.” Everything you are experiencing in this moment is okay, whether positive, negative, or neutral. This is attunement and mirroring, acceptance and support. This is your birthright.
Learning to grieve
As these reparative experiences accumulate, a more compassionate maternal voice grows inside. Gradually, it becomes possible to tolerate and even comfort the grief, rage, and pain at the loss of good-enough mothering. Through allowing and expressing those feelings, the old lessons of self-neglect are slowly replaced with abundant self-love.
Acceptance and support
Neglectful mothering leads to a terrible spiral of pain and self-judgment. The only way out of the spiral is acceptance and support. At first, these seem like empty ideas, but gradually external reparative experiences and support lead to internal acceptance, creating a new spiral of healing and joy.
In her book Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, Karyl McBride describes the behaviors and effects of narcissistic mothers, and provides a detailed roadmap for healing.