A central tenet of object relations theory is that the first object internalized is that of the mother. As an object, the mother is expected to be good, loving, and safe. Through a pattern of caring behavior, attendance to the child’s needs, and emotional connection, a child grows up to believe that others can be trusted, and that the world is safe.
And yet this doesn’t always happen.
“Everyone wants desperately to believe that, in a world where love is so hard to find and even harder to hang on to, one kind of love is inviolable – a mother’s love,” writes Peg Streep in her new book, Daughter Detox: Recovering From An Unloving Mother And Reclaiming Your Life.
Streep, who is the author of Mean Mothers, should know. Having grown up as an unloved daughter herself, she acknowledges that it is a truth she didn’t want to believe, that she blamed herself for, and that she was afraid to disclose for many years. In her new book, she offers the life lessons of recovery, reclaiming life, and learning how to live fully.
The process often begins with recognizing the emptiness of growing up alone, without a mother’s love.
“Over the last few years, I’ve come to see that the sense of isolation – of being singled out in this way, of being labeled as damaged or less than, of being afraid that there is something terribly wrong with you – is just as wounding as the lack of mother love itself,” writes Streep.
Maternal love is so essential to a daughter’s ability to thrive, that even in the face of love and care shown by others, the belief that something is terribly wrong with her prevails. It has been cemented through her mother’s inability to show love.
“The first explanation that comes into most children’s mind – that they are unlovable – is both terrifying and disheartening,” Streep writes.
We learn who we are through our relationships with others, and an unloving mother disrupts a daughter’s ability to see herself accurately. Often the result is disrupted self-concept and lack of self-acceptance. The result is what is known as the Goldilocks problem.
“She’s Goldilocks, always finding herself in a place that is either too hot or too cold and without the tools to make it just right,” writes Streep.
Without the capacity for self-soothing, many disordered behavioral patterns can emerge – from disordered eating, self-harming behavior, compulsive shopping, substance abuse, and even sexual promiscuity.
Through their dismissive, emotionally unavailable, overly-controlling, unreliable, self-involved, combative, enmeshed, and role-reversed patterns, unloving mothers can make even the highest achieving daughters feel worthless.
Streep quotes the world famous singer, Adele:
“I decided that I’d have to be a star to get my mother’s 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 mother’s response was always the same: She’d say things like, ‘Well the competition must not have been too tough,’ or ‘Being good at school doesn’t do much for anyone in the real world.’ And I believed her. I felt like nothing, no matter what I did.”
Being an unloved daughter can also have ripple effects through the family, that result in feeling like a scapegoat, feeling like the odd-girl out, or being placed in a rivalry with her siblings.
“Almost all daughters report that in one way or another, their mothers orchestrated their sibling relationship with deliberation,” writes Streep.
Yet the real damage doesn’t lie in the lack of love, but rather, in the lack of learning. Of particular importance is emotional intelligence, and moving emotions from the category of disruptive to that of instructive.
Through making the unconscious conscious, becoming aware of attachment patterns and their behavioral consequences, and thinking realistically, daughters can begin to reclaim their power and learn the strategies of successful emotional management.
Streep suggests giving up positive thinking, which she says is not helpful because reclaiming power requires an accurate perception of one’s agency.
“Thinking positively – reaching for that silver-lining script or putting on those rose-colored glasses – not only skews our ability to assess situations critically but also encourages us to avoid or distract ourselves from dealing with negative fallout,” writes Streep.
A better approach for daughters is to let go of pleasing and appeasing, stop normalizing toxic behavior, let go of the idea that they must keep trying to gain their mother’s love, and embrace the self-compassion, mental contrasting, and agency that can help them reach their goals.
Daughter Detox is not a feel good book. It is a frank, clear, and sobering wake up call to all daughters of unloving mothers. Reclaiming your life will not be easy, but with the right amount of work, it is possible.
Daughter Detox: Recovering From An Unloving Mother And Reclaiming Your Life
Ile D’Espoir Press
Softcover, 248 Pages