Mending the Mother Wound |

7 min read
LuckyBusiness / iStock

Source: LuckyBusiness / iStock

Messy relationship dynamics are ubiquitous.

Talking about the challenges within family relationships, especially with our mothers, remains taboo. The idealized version of the mother-child relationship is one in which the mother is fiercely loving and protective of the child, and the child, nestled in safety, reciprocates this love.

However, not all scenarios are ideal. Most aren’t.

As much as the social norm is to be best friends with our mothers and be grateful for their sacrifices, there are always compromises, and their costs are essential to consider.

The mother-child bond is the primary and foundational relationship from which much of the child’s sense of self derives. As the famous pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott believed, there’s no such thing as an infant alone, but only an infant with their mother.

What Is a Mother Wound?

The mother wound is not a clinical diagnosis. Still, it refers to a type of attachment trauma that instills deeply rooted beliefs that make the child feel unloved, abandoned, unworthy of care, and numb to their feelings.

There can be various factors that can cause the mother wound, such as the mother’s inability to cope with the societal demands of mothering or their history of abuse and trauma getting in the way of nurturing their children. Factors such as substance use, intimate partner violence, poverty, and living in underserved communities can all lead to a rupture in the mother-child relationship.

There is a difference between being bonded to the mother and the mother wound. Children, by nature, are egocentric: Everything is for and because of them.

For this reason, they are prone to internalizing their mother’s false belief systems and tend to blame themselves for their mother’s inability to meet their needs or provide security and warmth. This can result in the child shrinking and not living up to their full potential out of fear of betraying their mother.

The mother’s job is to come to terms with her sacrifices, grieve her losses, and set her children free.

Unconditional love does not go both ways. The child is not required to love a parent who is unable to tend to their needs or is abusive.

Mother wound can also refer to the internalized negative belief systems and social norms around meeting the oppressive standard of gender roles. Children learn these rules by observing how their parents interact with their surroundings.

Children might learn to undermine their needs, abandon their true self, and live below their potential by watching dysfunctional coping mechanisms. If left unresolved, these strategies of self-denial, self-sacrifice, and self-abandonment are passed down from generation to generation.

Conditions That May Lead to a Mother Wound

  • The mother met the child’s physical needs but did not address emotional needs.
  • The mother was hypercritical.
  • The mother was unpredictable.
  • The mother was physically, sexually, verbally, or emotionally abusive.
  • The mother needed the child to tend to her emotional or physical needs.
  • The mother gave love conditionally.
  • The mother had poor boundaries.
  • The mother treated the child as a peer.
  • The mother lacked empathy.
  • The mother was demeaning.
  • The mother left the child unsure of her love.
  • The mother was overly demanding.
  • The mother prioritized work, addictions, spouse, or other siblings over the child.
  • The mother was emotionally absent.
  • The mother forbade the child to express difficult emotions.
  • The mother did not tend to the child’s needs.
  • The mother didn’t provide comfort or security.

A mother attuned with their child can mirror their feelings, help their child label their emotions, and teach them how to self-soothe. When the child does not have parents who allow them to feel their complicated feelings, they will not learn how to express or regulate their emotions.

This makes the child increasingly susceptible to turning to numbing or self-destructive coping mechanisms such as substance use.

A constant fear of disapproval can lead to people-pleasing behaviors and a perpetual sense of walking on eggshells. When children don’t grow up in households where they can trust their caregivers, they approach future relationships with mistrust.

When the parent treats the child as their peer or expects them to take care of their emotional or physical needs by unloading their struggles that the child is not developmentally ready to carry, the child does not learn where their boundaries are and is unable to individuate.

I was conditioned to believe any boundary I had was a betrayal of her, so I stayed silent, cooperative.

—Jennette McCurdy, I’m Glad My Mom Died.

Multiple dynamics can occur within the mother-child relationship that can be seemingly acceptable but profusely damaging to the child. For instance, if the mom has not healed her trauma and is repeating self-deprecating, toxic relationship cycles, the child might learn to normalize abusive behaviors.

My dad had limitations. That’s what my good-hearted mom always told us. He had limitations, but he meant no harm. It was kind of her to say, but he did do harm.

—Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl.

Children who feel safe and loved can use their energy to get curious about life, play, and grow. When children have emotionally unavailable or outright abusive parents, they have to spend all their energy on surviving.

Over the years our mother has beaten us with belts, shoes, rulers, extension cords, hairbrushes, a wooden spoon, a fly swatter, a toilet brush, wire coat hangers, wooden coat hangers and sometimes one of our own toys. When you get whacked by your own paddleball paddle or you must watch your sister getting spanked with a badminton racquet that she asked Santa Claus (aka Grandma) to bring, you don’t feel much like playing with those things ever again.

—Bob Thurber, Paperboy: A Dysfunctional Novel.

Mother Wound Manifestations

  • Feeling abandoned, unloved, and unworthy of care.
  • Lack of emotional awareness.
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships.
  • Inability to self-soothe.
  • Self-sabotaging.
  • Making oneself small.
  • Self-destructive behaviors, including eating disorders or addictions.
  • Fear of becoming a mother.
  • Fear of success.
  • Not feeling good enough.
  • Perfectionism.
  • Critical internal dialogue.
  • Frequently, feeling like the victim.
  • We are reliving past experiences.
  • I was having too many walls up.
  • I had poor boundaries.
  • It is apologizing for one’s needs, success, or even taking space.
  • Feeling less than other family members.

Healing From a Mother Wound

1. Practicing self-care/ self-compassion: Indulging in healing practices such as taking a walk, meditating, or going out for coffee with friends will help us undo the damage of insufficient mothering.

2. Creative expression: Various forms of art, music, drama, and writing can promote awareness and help us recognize dysfunctional patterns.

3. Getting in touch with your emotions: Allowing ourselves to feel the rage, the hurt, and the resentment is vital for healing. Naming the feeling and exploring strategies to regulate ourselves will strengthen our ability to self-soothe.

4. Parent yourself: Recognizing that the ruptures in your early attachments weren’t your fault will heal the damage that led to feeling unworthy of love, self-denying, and deprecating.

5. Inner child work: Inner child work promotes healing and nurturing subconscious parts of our psyche and allows us to tend to our unmet childhood needs. Finding our inner mother and learning to nurture ourselves will lead to healthier attachment styles.

It feels important to note that when discussing mothering, we do not necessarily refer to the female gender. We all have feminine and masculine archetypes within us and can mother ourselves, whichever gender we identify as.

We can choose to take the steps to heal our mother wound and ensure we don’t pass on this hurt to our children. Although it is the main route towards wholeness and healing, it is challenging.

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