Unloved daughters share many common experiences but there are also meaningful differences. How a mother treats her daughter directly shapes her sense of selfher mothers face is a daughters first mirrorand molds both her reactions and behaviors. The child of a combative mother, for example, will either become armored and defensivefighting fire with fireor simply give up. But the daughter of a dismissive one will be starved for attention and will do what she can to get itwhich can include becoming a high-achiever or, alternatively, rebelling totally and engaging in self-destructive behavior.
What does it mean to have a dismissive mother?
Some daughters describe their mothers as simply ignoring them in very literal ways. One daughter, now in her forties and married with a child of her own, remarked: The pattern has always been the same. My mother asks me what I want to do and then proceeds to make other plans as though I havent said a word. This extends to every realm of life. When I was a kid, shed ask if I were hungry and if I said I werent, shed pile food on a plate and get angry if I didnt eat it.
Other dismissive mothers marginalize their daughters thoughts and feelings, as Becca, 35, explained: I was always wrong and she was always right. Didnt matter what the subject was; it could be anything. Any decision I made was always the wrong one when I was younger and even now. Shes got the only answer and if her answer isnt my answer, she puts me down and makes me feel lousy about myself.
Its what a dismissive mother doesnt give her daughter that does the most damage. A loving and attuned mother validates the developing childs sense of self, and gives her permission to explore the world safely and to begin finding out what she feels and thinks over time. Her message to her daughter is You are you and thats just fine.
By ignoring her daughters feelings and needs, the dismissive mother s message is Youre not important to me and neither is what you feel and think. Its a crushing blow to the developing self.
These daughters have low self-esteem and worry about being noticed. Jenna writes: By the time I was nine or ten, I was pretty sure that no one would ever like me or want to be my friend. It was made worse by the fact that while my mother ignored me, she heaped attention on my older sister who could do no wrong. By the time I was an adolescent, I was willing to do anythingand I mean anythingto get attention. I was a hot mess, and I count myself lucky that nothing bad happened to me during those years.
Some daughters embark on proving themselves worthy by becoming high-achievers, only to be put down and marginalized by their mothers, no matter what, as Adele recounted: I decided that Id have to be a star to get my mothers attention, and so I became one at school. I got every honor in grade school, junior high, and high school, and then went on to a prestigious college. My mothers response was always the same: Shed say things like Well, the competition must not have been too tough or Being good at school doesnt do much for anyone in the real world. And I believed her. I felt like nothing, no matter what I did. And I was sure that Id be found outthat I couldnt fool people into thinking I was something. I finally realized, at the age of thirty, that I had to stop trying to please her and start pleasing myself. I cut her out of my life.
Even high-achieving daughters often feel deeply insecure, worthless or not good enough.
A dismissive mother robs a child of her sense of belonging, whether shes an only child or has siblings. But the effects can be different. Patti, age 40, was a singleton and says, I didnt realize until I was in my twenties that how my mother marginalized me wasnt normal. It was my very caring mother-in-law who pointed it out. It was only then that I began to understand why I was always anxious, worrying about failing or disappointing people. It took therapy to stop me from being the worlds doormat, the girl who could never say No.
Its true enough that many daughters of dismissive mothers become habitual pleasers, always putting their own needs last, in part because theyve absorbed their mothers words and gestures and dont believe that what they want matters. Ironically, the combination of needing desperately to please and feeling that they are invisible to everyone may cause her to be drawn to those who treat her just as her mother did, both in friendship and romantic relationships.
And the daughter who is dismissed by her mother may be further damaged by the constant comparisons to her siblings who, she is told, outshine her in every way, as well as the differential treatment and affection given to them. Her unmet needs for validation and approval may become even more poignant if she is also the odd girl out.
Theres a further irony in being the daughter of a dismissive mother: Often, these daughters find it hard or impossible to break free of their mothers influence as adults. Because children are hardwired to need their mothers love, support and approval, these unmet needs may carry on into the daughters adulthood. Without conscious awareness, even though she knows intellectually that the well is dry, this daughter may keep going back, hoping for the validation she never got in the first place and staying on the merry-go-round to her own detriment.
Until she sees the pattern, the dismissed daughter may help to keep herself invisible, even to herself.
Photograph by Timon Studler. Copyright free. Unsplash.com