Monday, October 16, 2017

The Emotionally Absent Mother in Times of Crisis

Many daughters never realize their mothers are emotionally absent until faced with a major crisis in their lives—a cancer diagnosis, a divorce, the death of a child—and their moms don't show up in any supportive way. It's this life-changing event that makes a woman stop and look at her mom in cold, hard truth. She's no longer able to overlook or explain away her mom's profound lack of emotion and empathy. While she's always suspected something was missing within her mom, she never knew for certain until that moment.

Many women have opened up to me through the years about when they finally determined their mother was emotionally absent. While many suspected for years (and even decades), it took a major crisis for them to finally see the reality. It's hard at first but eventually it leads to acceptance and understanding.

The crisis in my life that convinced me my mom was emotionally absent happened when my son got diagnosed with autism. Her reaction was one of anger, not sadness about her grandson's condition or compassion for the pain I was enduring. Her fury was unexpected and jarring and made me look back at her pattern of reacting with aggravation and avoidance at emotionally-charged situations. Whether it was my father's death, my sister's divorce, or my own teenage battles with depression, she had always gotten furious and frustrated. It became crystal clear to me that I had been expecting her to give something that she just didn't have. I wanted her to be that wise, loving, and empathetic maternal archetype I knew from TV and movies, but she didn't have it in her.

Unfortunately, many younger women have not reached the point of realizing and accepting their mom's emotional limitations. I was recently talking with my hairdresser, Kelsey, who had been in a terrible motorcycle accident the month prior. She was riding on the back of her boyfriend's bike when an SUV turned right in front of him. He crashed into the car and Kelsey went flying over it, landing on the street and skidding for 30 feet. She was left with a concussion, bruises up and down her body, a broken rib, and an achy back and shoulders.
As Kelsey detailed her mother's reaction (or lack of reaction) to the accident, it sounded all too familiar. I knew she was describing an emotionally absent mom. It was also obvious that Kelsey was far more hurt by her mom's lack of love and support during this time than any of her many injuries. Two weeks after the accident, her mother called Kelsey to ask why she wasn't at the apartment to help her move. Kelsey was taken aback and reminded her mom she was on bed rest ordered by the doctor. She wasn't supposed to drive and, most certainly, shouldn't be lifting heavy boxes. Her mom acted like this was all news to her even though Kelsey had already explained it. Then her mom told her how disappointed she was and abruptly hung up.

For Kelsey, this was the beginning point of understanding her mother's emotional shallowness. While extremely painful, it will eventually lead to acceptance and peace. Accepting that reality is inevitable and important and leads to a better life for us daughters of emotionally absent mothers.

Here's the book that began my healing:

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Emotionally Absent Mother and the Parentified Daughter

Throughout my childhood, but especially during the teen years, my mother and I reversed roles. Convinced my father was having an affair with a co-worker, she turned to me for comfort and advice. Although I had no experience with romantic relationships (let alone marriage), I become her personal on-the-spot therapist. I took on the grownup role – doling out wise words and offering constant support – while she became the confused kid who didn't know what to do or where to turn. It's only recently in reading about narcissistic parents that I come across the term for what happened to me during these years; I was parentified.

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It's amazing how having a name for something brings much relief. Finally, I wasn't alone, knowing that other daughters (and sons) get parentified by moms and dads who are self-absorbed, depressed, or mentally ill. Parents who are troubled – going through a divorce, supporting a family by themselves, struggling at a job – turn to a child to help them cope. At the time this happened to me, I was flattered to be placed in such an esteemed role. After all, I was just a kid with little life experience and here was my mother coming to me for counsel. It was heady stuff but had powerful negative consequences for my future.

Now, in my fifties, I understand how extremely damaging being parentified was to my development. It separated me from my peers and the normal activities that teens do: going to football games, dating, hanging out with friends, getting a part-time job, discovering what I wanted to do with my life. Without the benefits of a carefree childhood, I grew up to be an adult who struggled with social anxiety and depression. I found it hard to build and keep relationships.

According to Dr. Samuel Lopez De Victoria, a psychotherapist, my reaction to being parentified is typical. He explains that many of us also suffer from intense anger. That was certainly true in my case. My clinical depression stemmed from the rage and frustration I had pushed down within me. Now I understand that my anger came from not having a joyful childhood and getting burdened with my mother's issues. It came, too, from feeling used by my mother. When I became a parent myself and no longer had the time and energy to listen to all her problems, she dumped me and found someone else to play the therapist role.

Now that I identify myself as a someone who was parentified, I understand my choices so much better. I see how I've avoided relationships because I didn't want to get put in another care-taking situation, feeling helpless and used. I only want healthy reciprocal friendships in my life. Knowing this intellectually hasn't yet given me the impetus to start building new relationships, but it's a first step in a long journey.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Emotionally Absent Mother and Narcissism

Many of our emotionally absent mother are narcissists to one degree or another. Current research shows that narcissism is not a black or white thing like we once believed but rather something that exists on a spectrum from mild to extreme and everything in between. I now clearly see that my mother falls somewhere in the middle of the continuum and this contributes greatly to her inability to connect with her kids and grand-kids. Here are three traits of a narcissist that my mom exhibits and your emotionally absent mother may as well.

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1. Craves Narcissistic Supply From Strangers, Not Family

Narcissistic supply is the term used to describe the approval, attention, and admiration that pump up a narcissist's ego. While some narcissists search for this adulation from those in their inner circle (spouse, children, parents, co-workers), others such as my mom seek it from complete strangers. Wanting the stamp of approval from people she doesn't know is something I've noticed about my mother since I was a little girl. But it was only when I reached adulthood that I understood it was part of her narcissism. As a kid, I internalized it. I thought I was boring and unworthy while others were far more interesting and deserving. This led to feelings of shame and self-loathing that I still struggle with today.

A good example of my mom craving narcissistic supply from strangers occurs when my family goes out to eat with her. Without fail, she'll immediately scan the restaurant looking for someone to interact with while ignoring the rest of us at the table. She'll catch someone's eye, smile at them, and continue to stare, eventually getting up and walking over to where they are and starting a conversation. She'll lay on the compliments: “You two make such a cute couple...Your children are so well-mannered...You're such a beautiful family.” She's beyond thrilled when the diners give her compliments in return, eating up every word like a dog gobbling up its kibble.

Her reaction to compliments from strangers is completely different from most of us who don't take them too seriously. If someone we don't know likes our outfit or lauds our ability to tell a joke, it makes us feel good for a minute or two but that's it. A narcissistic such as my mother, though, takes these throw-away comments to heart. She thinks about them for days to come, repeating them to family and friends and ruminating about their deep significance. She feels validated by the words of strangers as if they these people appreciate how truly amazing she is.

 2. Enthralled With Her Own Life Story

When we're teenagers, most of us are self-focused. We think about our friends, dates, social lives, grades, and appearance. But, as we grow older and mature, we begin to look outward and realize that everyone has a unique life story that shapes who they are. We look at a homeless person on the street, for instance, and think: I wonder what events transpired in her life that made her end up here – alcoholism? depression? divorce? mental illness? If we're decent, compassionate individuals, we don't dismiss this person with a comment such as: ”What a loser! I'd never let that happen to me!”

Narcissists, however, often never evolve to the point where they appreciate that every individual has her own powerful life story. They're still stuck in an adolescent mindset with the world revolving around them. Their life story is the only one that matters. It's compelling beyond belief while everybody else has a mundane tale to tell.

My mom grew up with an alcoholic mother who abandoned her. Even though she's now in her late seventies, this story still defines every day of her life. When my siblings and I were kids, she never had compassion for our problems. In her mind, our lives were perfect because we had a mom at home. She thought that was sufficient, regardless of whether she was emotionally available to us or not.

Many Narcissists Are Enthralled With Their Own Life Story

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    3. Lacks Empathy

A lack of empathy is one of the characteristics of a narcissist listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder. How I wish someone had explained this to me when I was a kid! Instead, I wasted so much time and energy during my childhood (and early adulthood) trying to get my mom to care about my pain, but she never could. My suffering as a teenager – severe depression and social anxiety – didn't mean a thing to her. She found it mildly annoying because it made her look like a bad parent, but not enough to take me to a doctor for treatment.

At an early age, I played the role of therapist to my mother because it was the only way to get her attention. I listened and advised her about her marital problems with my father even though I was a kid and had no experience in that arena. When I became a parent myself and had a child with autism, I finally saw how cold and indifferent my mother was. She couldn't relate to my suffering mother-to-mother. If I expressed sadness about my son's condition, she'd get angry at me. I now understand that I was asking her to give me something – empathy – that wasn't inside of her. She got frustrated because she didn't know how to relate to me on an emotional level.

Now I understand my mom's limitations and never expect any close bond with her. Our relationship is superficial because that's all she can manage and I get it. If I want more than that, I turn to my husband, mother-in-law, and close friends. If a pond is shallow, I wouldn't dive into it. The same can be said for a narcissistic mother.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Daughter of an Emotionally Absent Mother: Stop Trying to
Quench Your Thirst From a Broken Drinking Fountain

What if you had a drinking fountain in your yard that was broken? At first, you'd keep going to it, trying to quench your thirst. But after a while, you'd remember it was broken and stop. If you forgot it wasn't working and went for a sip, you'd feel pretty darn stupid and may kick yourself.

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When you have an emotionally absent mother, it's a lot like having a broken drinking fountain. As a kid, you turned to mom for love, empathy, and connection but got nothing. If you were smart and resourceful, you found what you needed in other people: dad, grandma, a neighbor, a teacher, or a friend. But, if you were like many of us, you fell into a self-destructive pattern of going back to mom again and again, expecting to create an emotional bond but getting rejected each time.

When I look back at my five decades on this planet, I realize what a slow learner I was when coming to terms with my mother's emotional unavailability. Fortunately, I've forgiven myself for not catching on sooner and moved forward. The mother archetype – nurturing, caring, and unselfish - is universal and compelling. It's difficult to wrap our heads around the notion that our mom is less than that and, sometimes, the very opposite.

I finally realized what my mother was all about when I had a child of my own – a son with autism. Having a grandchild with special needs brought out the worst in my mom. Not only was she critical and uncaring, she was angry and jealous. She lashed out at me because I was devoting too much time and energy to his treatment, taking him to speech and occupational therapy three times a week. She thought it was a waste of time and had no compassion for my situation whatsoever.
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This period in my life gave me a chance to stand back and look at her objectively. What I saw was a woman who was small, petty, and unfeeling. She was judgmental of me as a parent, unwilling to open her mind and learn about autism. She was unable to open her heart to the pain I was feeling and bond with me mother-to-mother.

The older I get, the more I think everything in life happens for a reason (or, perhaps, we're simply better equipped at making sense of things). My son's autism helped me see my mother for who she was. It gave me relief from that constant desire to build a connection with her. The truth was she didn't want to form a bond with me. That realization stung, but it also gave me freedom from the struggle.

I no longer go to that broken drinking fountain and curse it for not working. That would be dumb and a waste of time. I've readjusted my expectations and turn to other people and things in life that make me feel connected, loved, and supported. Most importantly, I've become my own mother – loving, supportive, and nurturing. I no longer hate myself. I no longer engage in self-destructive behaviors. I take good care of myself each and every day and that's something new and beautiful in my life.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Daughter of an Emotionally Absent Mother:
Embracing the Label

Like many who work in special education, I often wondered if labels – dyslexic, hyperactive, high functioning – did more harm than good. But, after years of working in the field and having a son with autism, I decided they're a necessary evil. They're what we need to identify kids and get them the services they need. When I read Jasmin Lee Cori's The Emotionally Absent Mother, I started thinking of labels in a more positive way. By accepting and embracing the label, daughter of an emotionally absent mother, I felt like I was not alone. That label summed up my life so perfectly and succinctly. It gave me an effective way to describe my history. It helped me feel both relief and elation at finally discovering who I was.

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 I hated my childhood...while living it as a kid and while remembering it as an adult. But I could never quite put a finger on why it was so unhappy, lonely, and frustrating. I hated myself for the mistakes I made as a kid and wondered why I had been such a train-wreck. Why hadn't I been fun, popular, and carefree like other children? Why did I always have the weight of the world on my shoulders? Why did I find solace in food? Why did I suffer from depression and anxiety as a teen and nobody stepped in to help?

When I was an adult, my father died unexpectedly and I was able to observe my mom's emotional detachment from a safe distance. Even though she had been married to my dad for 36 years, she didn't shed a tear or express a sad sentiment. She moved on with her life unfazed. The only feeling she showed was jealousy when people said nice things about him at his funeral. (yes, she got envious of a dead man)! This was the first big moment when I started to question my mom's ability to connect with others on an emotional level. It started me thinking of all the times throughout my child when she was cold and indifferent about my feelings, causing me to shutdown, turn to food, and become more and more depressed.

I think it's so valuable for anyone who identifies as the daughter of an emotionally absent mother to make a timeline of such events and examine each one. While painful at times, it helps you understand yourself so much better. It lets you travel back in time and take care of that little girl you once were – the one who never got the unconditional love and support she deserved. She was a sweet little girl who needed a mommy and didn't really have one. It lets you realize how much she needs to be mothered you!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Daughter of an Emotionally Absent Mother:
Adopting a Daily Mantra

As the daughter of an emotionally absent mother, I suffered from depression since my early teens. I only had enough energy to do what needed to get accomplished with none left over to experience any joy. My life was like a chore as I trudged through the day. When my therapist suggested I adopt a daily mantra to elevate my spirit and remind me of my goals, I decided to give it a try. I had no idea what a positive impact it would have on my life and on my soul.

Now I think of a slogan each morning, write it down, and repeat it throughout the day. Sometimes I chant it or write it over and over on a piece of paper. It's a simple habit I easily incorporated in my routine, but it's made a world of difference.

I highly recommend this to everyone, but especially daughters of emotionally absent mothers. It's so easy for sadness to engulf our thoughts and prevent us for living life to the fullest. By choosing a mantra, you seize control over your painful past and exist in the now. While there are hundreds of them available on the internet, I think it's more powerful to write your own mantra, personalizing it to fit your current needs.

I found it helpful to keep it wholly positive. When I used the mantra “Don't let the past hold you back,” it actually made me obsess about my wrenching history. So instead I changed it to “Live for today,” something completely affirming. I keep my mantras as short and sweet as possible so I'll remember them. Here are some I used over the past few months:
  • Be kind to yourself every day.
  • You're strong and powerful.
  • The best way to get something done is to begin.
  • Struggle is good.
  • It's not the destination; it's the journey.
  • You'll never have this day again so live it to its fullest

    Daughters of an Emotionally Absent Mothers: 50 Ways to Take Care of Yourself

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As the daughter of an emotionally absent mother, the biggest challenge I face each day is taking good care of myself. Growing up without a mom to love and nurture me, I developed a self-loathing that led to self-destructive behaviors, namely overeating and not exercising. I didn't value myself and didn't put time and energy into my appearance and mental health. This neglect of self resulted in obesity, depression, and social anxiety.

In a counseling session years ago, my therapist declared simply: “You've never felt special.” At that moment, I knew truer words had never been spoken. I now think of those words each day and dedicate myself to helping that wounded little girl inside of me feel better. She is special and she deserves to feel that way. She is worthy.

So instead of numbing myself with food, I made a list of 50 ways I can take care of myself – activities that bring me peace and joy. I found a way to “feed” myself without feeding myself. I encourage everyone to create such a list, making sure it contains a minimum of 50 ideas. We all deserve ways of bringing joy and tranquility into our lives but especially if you're a daughter of an emotionally absent mother.

  1. walk on the treadmill while listening to Motown hits
  2.  add a slice of lemon to an ice-cold glass of water and drink it slowly
  3. work in the yard, pulling weeds and planting bulbs
  4. take my dog for a walk
  5. go to a park, find a tree, and read a book
  6. write in my journal every day, keeping focused on positive thoughts and goals
  7. buy a bouquet of flowers at the store to make the house look and smell beautiful
  8. try a nice recipe for dinner – something healthy and delicious
  9. take a long bubble bath with no distractions
  10. put together a jigsaw puzzle
  11. listen to a favorite podcast while cleaning the house
  12. look at a scrapbook or photo album and enjoy the memories
  13. make cookies for the people at our local homeless shelter
  14. text my husband a loving message
  15. hug my sons
  16. find meaningful quotes on Pinterest and copy them on index cards to put on my bulletin board
  17. color in an adult coloring book
  18. go to a playground and watch kids play
  19. push negative thoughts from my head
  20. forgive people who've hurt me
  21. do weight resistance training
  22. wear something that makes me feed good about myself
  23. go bowling with my family
  24. play Scrabble with my husband
  25. watch the birds at the feeder
  26. put on music and dance
  27. play fetch with my dog
  28. smile at people when I'm out and about
  29. think affirming thoughts to myself: You're getting a lot accomplished today... You're doing a super job at work...You're a good mom.
  30. Play a board game with my family
  31. Say “no” when I'm feeling overwhelmed
  32. Make a cup of green tea and sip it slowly
  33. Stay off social media and cultivate real relationships
  34. Listen to the oldies station on the radio
  35. Go rollerskating
  36. Read poetry
  37. Meditate
  38. Write down 3 things that make me feel grateful
  39. Go for a walk in nature
  40. Avoid negative people
  41. Take a bike ride
  42. Go to the farmer's market for fruits and vegetables
  43. Use a different mantra each day to focus on improving my life: Use a strong voice to show you're powerful...Food won't make you feel loved...It's better to feel sad than feel nothing at all.
  44. Give my husband a massage and have him give me one
  45. Eat a piece of fruit and savor every bite
  46. Spend at least 20 minutes at the dinner table eating and talking each night
  47. Take an evening walk with my husband
  48. Say “I love you” to my kids
  49. Phone someone to see how they're doing
  50. Paint with watercolors or oils