Didn't have the mother you needed? - Some constructive options to consider

By: Tom Cloyd - 7 min. read (Published: 2024-05-19; reviewed: 2024-06-04:1606 Pacific Time (USA))

mother and young child

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

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At the vulnerable age of 14, she lost her father when he left her mother. Her father grew up in a migrant-worker family, her mother in a family of small-town Texas rancher-merchants. Neither had an abundance of emotional intelligence, and her parent’s breakup was a disaster for her.

World War II was escalating. Our country needed nurses, so at 16 she left high school and joined a special program at the University of Texas to accelerate the training of nurses. There, she met a young medical student and married him at 17.

The marriage was a mistake, she realized six months into a pregnancy, but as a young pregnant wife in Texas in the early 1940s she had few options, so she stayed her new husband. Three months later, I was born. She was just 18. Then, as she told the tale forty-plus years later, “the love I might have given my husband I gave to my new baby”.

My father noticed. His resentment toward me was unmistakeable. So was my parent’s inability to establish a constructive relationship. My mother slowly slide into depression, and then a kind of psychosis. Years of psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapy did little but keep her medicated. My three younger sisters and I slowly lost my mother to mental illness.

Life is complicated and messy, for many of us. While our personality derives from many influences, there is little doubt that our mother profoundly influences who we become. This can be a mixed blessing, or almost none at all. For those dealing with an unresolved psychological trauma, the relationship with their mother can be especially troubling, for so many reasons.

  • She may have died before she could take you in her arms. If so, you never got to meet her.
  • She may have given birth to you, then walked away from you, for any of several reasons. You, too, probably never met your mother.
  • She may have tried to care for you but found the task overwhelming, so that you were not given the support that every child needs to thrive. Neglect is serious, and often worse for a child than outright trauma.
  • She may have gotten a good start with you, but then disaster struck, for her and thus for you. A failed marriage, a serious chronic illness, or a descent into some kind of addiction - and you were unexpectedly dealing with a mother who disappeared on you.
  • She may have done her honest best but simply was a bad match for your particular personality, so you never really connected well enough.
  • She may have left you to go elsewhere to work. In some countries, where opportunities for supporting one’s family are meager - especially for single mothers, a common option is to leave a child with relatives or a friend to go work in another country or city.

And then there is psychological trauma and all the ways it can enter your life: abuse from the man your mother chose to live with, abuse from her, abuse from family or neighbors. If this happened, where was the protecting mother that you needed and longed for?

At best, a mother can only ever protect and nurture you up to a point. Beyond that you are a small child in a large and not always friendly world.

If the safety, nurturing, and support you needed were not there for you, the consequences are often wide-ranging, and both obvious and subtle. And as you become aware of the problem, you acquire the possibility of responding with purpose and intention. But what can you do?

GRIEVE your loss - loss of opportunity, loss of love, loss of support - when you feel the need to. Be honest about what it cost you, as much as you can. This is simply a matter of self-respect.

TRUST THAT HOW YOU SEE YOUR MOTHER WILL CHANGE after you complete competent trauma therapy. We cannot see things clearly during a storm, and when your emotional storm subsides, after therapy, you will see many things from a different, more tolerable perspective. This is one of the great gifts of therapy.

FORGIVENESS IS NOT A FIRST PRIORITY. Many religions value this, but it is not a priority in trauma healing. Forgiveness is to be taken up, if at all, after healing has been accomplished.

AS AN ADULT, YOUR FIRST RESOURCE IS TO CARE FOR YOURSELF before all others. This is especially critical if you are caring for someone else, and even more so if they are a child.

Self-care means attending to your physical, emotional, and mental needs:

  • Physical safety: Even if it means leaving your home, your marriage, your family, your job - whatever, you need safety. You cannot heal in the presence of ongoing threats.
  • Sleep: Without adequate sleep, your brain cannot function adequately. This is not negotiable; it is a necessary.
  • Nutrition: Learn what your body needs, then see that it gets it. Most of the time this means eating good whole food and avoiding bad over-processed food.
  • Exercise: A daily 20-minute walk, with speed increasing gradually over several weeks, will accomplish miracles. If you can add some muscle resistance exercise (body weight calisthenics, exercising with weights or resistance bands) you will get additional valuable benefits, especially as you get older.
  • We all need to be valued by others. You can get this by giving to others. When you value other people they tend to return the favor - - and be sure that you notice this. Also, seeing value in others is good for YOU! It changes how you see your world.
  • Nurture relationships with people who are emotionally stable and realistically positive in their attitudes. Their positive effect on your emotions and mood is not to be underestimated.
  • Work to increase self-awareness. Normally, good mothering results in a child who has some idea of what she or he is feeling, but for some of us this awareness has to come about through deliberate work, after childhood. Journaling is one way to do this work. Therapy can also be a great help.
  • How we perceive ourselves and our world and the meaning we attach to those perceptions is critical to our quality of life. Working to become more self-aware gives you the power to act and bring about change.
  • How accepting are you of the gender role given to you by your culture? Gender roles can be oppressive for both men and women, but increased awareness gives you power to go beyond roles, so read, discuss, and thinking about this.
  • How aware are you of your personal goals? Do you desire things that you cannot presently work for? Where you get help with this? Would you be open to accepting this help?
  • How constructive, which is to say positive, is your general attitude? Realistically positive people experience many benefits from their view of the world. But if your trauma-related distresses are not yet resolved, a constructive, positive view of the world may be difficult to achieve. Prioritize healing before all else.
  • Finally, realize that we humans are designed by our evolutionary history to live with others. We are social animals. Giving high priority to living and working with good people is an exceptionally wise action you can take.

This is a simple, but powerful idea: Do what serious athletes do - set modest but real goals, then act to make then real, and track your results. Here are some ideas:

  • Good goals are about working for progress in small steps, and maintaining progress achieved.
  • Be specific. We don’t eat food. We eat a bean soup, a cheese sandwich, and a cookie. Reality is specific, and your goals should be also.
  • Focus first on self-care issues that are most serious for you. If you need help assessing this, get it from family, friends, or a mental health professional.
  • As soon as possible, focus on making contact with constructive, positive, helpful people. You may find such people among your relatives, at school or work, or in religious, political, or hobby groups. Not only will their mere presence be supportive, they will also serve as models for what works.

With specific, reasonably short-term goals written down, set up a log to keep track of your efforts, successes, and failures - and what you are learning as your effort continues.

Why do this? Because this simple act of logging makes you serious about making progress. It takes you beyond talk and wishful thinking into the realm of personal accountability, and that is where reality becomes your teacher - but only if you decide to commit to action and risk of failure.

If you want to supercharge your self-care, use social facilitation: share your change effort with a trusted family member or friend. Be clear with them what you are trying to do, and keep them informed of what happens. People who know they are being watched simply follow through more often on plans!

Be patient with yourself. All real change requires initial learning about how to make change happen. Most of all, it takes simple persistence. People who persist most often succeed - look around you and you’ll see this truth everywhere.

You must matter to yourself to be healthy, and this happens when you decide to act as if you matter. If you are not already doing do, I hope that you make that decision, and soon.


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