“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” – traditional 19th century American spiritual
Not everyone gets the mother every child by birthright deserves. Sometimes a child doesn’t have a mother due to death or abandonment. Sometimes mothers who were not mothered themselves haven’t a clue how to do it. Sometimes a mother is addicted, abused, or mentally or physically ill and has all she can do to survive herself. And sometimes a mother’s idea of mothering is to be selfish or harsh. Whatever the reason, a child who lacks a mother or who lacks a mother who is mothering knows instinctively that something is missing.
It’s not at all unusual for a motherless child to come to mistaken conclusions like these:
- “I’m unworthy of love”. “After all”, she thinks, “if my own mother didn’t love me, how can anyone else?”
- “Being motherless is my fault.” In a strange way, this is empowering. She thinks, “If it’s my fault, I can fix it”. That child tries and tries and tries to find a way to be acceptable enough for the mother to want to nurture her. As an adult, she may think she has to always smooth the way for a lover in order to be loved – even at the expense of herself.
- “I may not have had a mother but I can get the relationship by mothering.” Sometimes the motherless compensate by mothering everyone in sight. They are always the nurturer in a relationship, being there for others but never asking much for themselves. On an unconscious level, they have given up being on the receiving end of mother love. They put themselves in the mother role in order to have some semblance of a mother-child relationship.
- “The emptiness inside is a black hole that I must fill.” She latches on too quickly and compromises too much in a relationship to fill that empty space with something that looks like love.
- “I’m irreparably damaged.” Diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) – an inability to comfort others or seek comfort that comes from the lack of attachment as a child – she has given up on love.
Of course, not everyone whose mother couldn’t do the job spends the rest of their life trying to find one. Some people seem to be born with a special ability to cope, to understand, to forgive and move on. But I do think it takes most motherless children time to get there.
Fortunately, being motherless doesn’t have to mean a lifetime of being without a mother. If you grew up motherless, you can still have mothering in your life. Now that you’re an adult, you can reconsider the mistaken conclusions you made as a child and find the mothering you need and deserve.
Embrace the other mothers in your family. Hailey’s mother was alcoholic and depressed while Hailey was growing up. Although her mother did minimal caretaking, she didn’t have love to give. The high point of Hailey’s year was an annual 2 week summer vacation at her grandmother’s house where she felt seen and loved. As a young adult, Hailey has come to understand that although her mother really wasn’t able to be mothering, her grandmother had been a source of mother-love all along. She has reconnected with Grandma and thanked her for the years of annual reminders that she is a lovable and interesting person. They now see each other often and enjoy a mutually loving relationship, a relationship that has helped Hailey develop more trusting and loving relationships with others.
There are some families that are happy to share their relatives. Jasmine’s mother abandoned her when she was only 6. She then bounced through several foster homes until she could strike out on her own when she was 18. She’s resilient. She’s a survivor. But she still felt that empty space inside that should have been filled by a mother’s love. Her best friend Nan’s mother has been happy to fill that gap. “Call me Auntie”, she said. Jasmine has been “adopted” into a big rowdy family where the five adult kids understand that sharing their mom doesn’t diminish their own relationships with her one bit.
Accept the “mothering” that is part of healthy friendships among women. Suky and Fiona have been friends for 40 years. Like many long time friends, they nurture and support each other. They celebrate each other’s successes. They bring tea and sympathy when needed. They can be honest in their judgments but don’t judge. They are secure in their friendship and love. If that’s not “mothering” in the best sense of the work, I don’t know what is.
Look for older women who can serve as mothering mentors. Makayla was feeling insecure about managing motherhood, never mind balancing mothering and a full time job. Happily, she was introduced to Ruthie, a retired woman in the neighborhood who has three successful and caring adult children – but who live far away. Makayla and Ruthie struck up a friendship based on a mutual interest in vegetable gardening. That friendship quickly expanded to another level. Ruthie enjoys having a smart, insightful and entertaining young friend in Makayla. Makayla appreciates having an older and wiser woman to talk to who provides her with emotional support and practical advice she never got from her own mother.
Learn to mother yourself. As an adult, you can provide love and compassion to the little kid inside who still feels unlovable, unloved, and unworthy. Be the mother to yourself that you wish you’d had. You can develop habits of self-care, even if you weren’t well cared for as a child. You can listen to your own needs, dreams and desires and encourage yourself to make choices that are healthy and dignified. You can give yourself needed structure and practice self-discipline to compensate for the lack of structure and discipline when you were a kid. You can affirm your own worth. With practice, time and openness to the women around you, you can have the mothering you need and deserve.