(based on the teachings of Clarissa Pinkola Estes)
What is an unmothered child?
We are unmothered when we have not been cared for with a loving hand by our mother or father, or primary caregiver in our infancy and childhood.
This lack of care can be generally divided into two categories: abuse and neglect.
Abuse is where there is humiliation, shaming, name-calling, punishment, hitting, yelling, screaming – essentially, anything that causes the child to unnecessarily go into a fight-or-flight response that they can truly do nothing about.
Neglect is where the mother (or primary care giver) does not pay attention to the child’s feelings or needs. Not meeting the baby’s physical needs for being fed when hungry, being changed when the diaper is wet. Not meeting the child’s emotional needs by not responding when the baby is crying, not holding or containing the child in a way that helps the child feel safe and secure. Not meeting the child.
This mothering of neglect is often due to the mother simply being unaware of the baby’s basic needs. Some mothers do not have a mothering response, as they too were neglected in their infancy. And sometimes the parents themselves are little children – internally they are not yet a grown up and do not know how to take care of a baby. Or, there is depression, trauma, or addiction, which gets in the way of parenting and caring.
Why is this important?
In the formation of a sense of self (particularly during infancy and childhood), the reaction of others provides a mirror that teaches us about who we are and what we can expect from the world. We learn to treat ourselves by the way we are treated.
If, for example, a child’s reaching out to the caregiver is met with care and love, this interaction supports the development of a child who is transparent to the self and has healthy sense of self love and self-esteem. Imagine what happens if the caregiver is too tired, busy, or sick to attend to the child. What if the caregiver is angry and punishes the child. Imagine what happens with chronic neglect and abuse.
When the spontaneous behaviour of the child is not met with love and receptivity, the child experiences hurt and pain, and the natural development of the self is interrupted. The child begins to internalize the messages from the environment, and in order to ensure survival, begins to conceal the spontaneous expression of the self. Begins to hide, and with more severe pain, dissociate. This marks the beginning of a departure from who the person really is, and brings suffering.
Infancy is supposed to be a paradise where all our needs are met. Generally, in a healthy family, this paradise would be broken around school age, when we go out into the world and get to know and have to confront some darker aspects of human nature – outsiders who hit and hurt. In families where things go wrong, however, the darkness is right inside the home and it is the mother and the father who does all the hurting. The paradise is destroyed early on and the child never really experiences love, safety, connection and guidance. Instead, they learn fear, pain and defensiveness.
As adults, the unmothered children will go into a psychic regression when someone is angry with them or acts toward them in a way that is quite negative. Instead of remaining as an adult with adult responses, they go on an instantaneous journey into the pain of the past and relive it. This activates defensive reactions and very old feelings of worthless, lack of safety, not knowing what to do next, wishing to be invisible, wishing to even die in order to avoid the terrible pain of rejection, separation or abandonment that one feels.
How do we heal?
In a deeper therapeutic process, the healing journey begins with going inwards and facing our wounds and pain. We access the residual impact of our lived experience, digesting and integrating it so that it no longer has a hold over us. But this process alone is only part of the journey.
In order to heal fully, we have to grow an inner mother. We need to cultivate internally what was missing in our upbringing: a sense of self love, self respect, safety, and a general caring for all that we are.
If things happened properly when you were a child, that would already be all grown within you. But if you have been failed by your external mother or father, you will need to grow this capacity inside.
Often, the people who have this sense of being unmothered are constantly searching for love. And if they just found love, everything would be so much better. That is not the case. No amount of outer love will heal you if you do not love yourself.
To grow the inner mother, you need to be willing to accept your own love and your own respect and regard for yourself. You have to be willing to be good to yourself. Developing a sense of self internally that doesn’t waver when someone looks at you the wrong way, or disapproves of you, or is angry.
No matter what happened to you, this inner mother, this love can be grown within.
Survival is not enough. One must learn to thrive! – Clarissa Pinkola Estes