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Unloved Daughters: 5 Accidental Truths My Mother Taught Me

Some reflections on unintended maternal influence.

  • Some parents wrongly treat love as something to be earned by children, rather than giving it freely.
  • Parents' jealousy and abusive behavior can ultimately diminish their own lives.
  • With time, people who were mistreated by a parent can learn from the parent's example in ways that were never intended.

Last week marked the 20th anniversary of my mother’s death, which I mentioned on Facebook, elaborating that, in fact, I had been fully estranged from her for some 13 years before her passing. Not altogether surprisingly, the mother apologists once again chimed in, saying that “she must have done something right since you turned out OK.” Much of that statement hinges on two factors: the first being the idea that her influence alone is responsible for how I turned out, and the second being one’s definition of “OK.”

Copyright 2020 by Leslie Fry. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Source: Copyright 2020 by Leslie Fry. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Since I write about the subject often, it’s very easy to enumerate how my mother’s influence shaped my early development: I was defensive and angry, anxious and starved for love, mistrustful and desperate for validation, along with a host of other unhappy-rendering behaviors I spent a few decades unlearning. (If you want to get the big picture on how an unloving mother affects a daughter, do take a look at my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. )

While I would trade the mother I had in for the mother I deserved without a moment’s hesitation, it did get me thinking about what she taught me about life without ever meaning to impart a single lesson. Since I am old now, I have a very different perspective than I had on these matters 20, 30, or 40 years ago, much less 50 years ago, when I graduated from college. And while I’m neither a Pollyanna nor one of those people who’s always telling you to make a cold drink when life hands you yellow fruit, nonetheless, these observations may be of use to you. They are based on my own experiences and thousands of comments by readers over the years.

5 Truths Learned and Why They Matter

I might add that less-than-optimal childhood experiences make it harder to have these truths empower action and behavior, but the reality is that recognition is the very first step on the journey out.

1. Real love is not a transaction.

While I spent much of my childhood and adolescence trying to figure how what to do in order to wrest some crumbs of love from my mother, I also knew at a relatively young age that my mother’s transactional model—in which love was doled out at the cost of pleasing her—was decidedly different from the behaviors of those who actually loved me simply because I was, not because of what I did or didn’t do. Knowing that you’re worthy of love just because—for no reason or any—is a lesson well-loved children know from the very beginning. My mother didn’t teach me that, but there was value in knowing what love wasn’t—a version of cash-and-carry.

2. Envy and jealousy are corrosive.

My mother craved material things—the more expensive, the better—to be able to show off and preen, and her jealousy of those people who had them in plentiful supply diminished her pleasure in what she did have. Inevitably, if this is how you see the world, someone always has a better version. It doesn’t matter whether that’s an opportunity, a job, a handbag or coat, an apartment or house, or a vacation, because if you’re focused on what others have, you’ll derive little pleasure from what you have.

I learned this young because her jealousy and envy animated her vision of almost everything and everyone, including me. It was inside-out learning of how to take pleasure in other people’s successes without measuring my own against them and to celebrate my own victories. More mundanely, I have always loved the shoes on my feet and the rings on my fingers without worrying about what everyone else was wearing.

3. Truth does matter.

An inveterate and committed gaslighter, my mother’s version of the truth was as fluid as water, and her constant lying cemented a real commitment to muster whatever honesty I could always and in the moment. This she did not intend, nor have I been 100 percent successful every day, but it is a tenet I live by.

4. Abusive behavior diminishes the abuser.

This is certainly not something I understood as a child, an adolescent, or a young adult, but my mother’s need to control and maintain power over me didn’t just stay in the sphere of her motherhood; it seeped out into other areas of her life, sabotaging many of her goals and, as she aged, isolating her from almost everyone. And that isolation served to ramp up her jealousy and envy, which, alas, just increased both her tendency to verbally abuse and her isolation.

Ultimately, her charm—which was considerable—sank under the weight of her need to feel powerful. This trajectory echoes many stories I have heard from other daughters of tyrannical and harsh mothers who ended up very much alone.

5. There’s real growth in recognizing a mother’s wastefulness.

Again, this is another truth that emerged slowly over time as my relationship with my now-adult daughter changed and deepened, and I began asking myself and my readers, what had these dismissive and unloving mothers missed out on? Of course, what they missed was knowing us, and as I pondered the question, I realized the word that kept floating to mind was “wasteful.” Again, that’s very much an older person’s point of view, and it’s not something I would have said or could have when I was still on the trail of trying to get my mother to love me.

But every time I enjoy a conversation with my daughter—from frothy banter to real discussion—I see my younger self was just as interesting and fun to be with as my daughter is today. It’s true that my mother never had FOMO, but she should have; she might not have thrown valuable possibilities away by the handful.

Again, none of these observations is meant to diminish the damage unloving mothers do. But sometimes, a bit of irony is exactly what we need.

Artwork copyright © Leslie Fry. For more of her work, please visit her website and store.

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