The Unmothered Mother

Jayne Joyce, Oxfordshire, La Leche League Great Britain

Jayne Joyce writes about the connection between how we are parented and how we parent our children. Families define themselves and function in many ways. Some readers, who have experienced parental care that was abusive, neglectful or entirely absent, or who do not identity as mothers, may find the language and concept of “mother” and “mothering” unhelpful for them. The term “un-nurtured parent” might be a useful alternative.

An unmothered mother sits in a La Leche League meeting.  “Think about a moment when you felt mothered,” says the Leader.  “What happened? What did it feel like?”

The unmothered mother looks inside herself. She might hear words of wounding criticism, or feel deep sadness, or fear. She might find only emptiness.

She watches a family across the room: a new mother, baby and grandmother.  She watches the way the two women sit comfortably together, sharing their delight in the baby. She watches the grandmother feed her breastfeeding daughter sips of water and mouthfuls of cake. If she is conscious of her own feelings, she might notice envy, underpinned by grief.

Unmothered mothers are everywhere. Some of them are motherless, having lost their mothers to death or abandonment. Many, though, have a living and even an involved mother, but have not had the “good enough” mothering they needed. At least a third of young children assessed by Mary Ainsworth’s “strange situation” test do not have a secure attachment to their primary caregiver.[1] Their attachments are characterized by avoidance (“mother is unavailable—I’ve given up on her”), anxiety (“mother is unreliable – I’m not sure what response I’ll get”) or, in extreme cases, chaos (“mother is dangerously unpredictable”). These children have an “internal working model” of mothering which does not leave them feeling secure in the world.

Just as babies are programmed to seek the breast, they are hard-wired to form strong bonds with their caregivers. When the mother is unavailable, unresponsive, preoccupied, or too immature or distressed to provide appropriate care and guidance, the child seeks nurture elsewhere. Fortunate children find substitutes: their other parent, a grandparent, aunt or uncle, an older sibling, cousin, neighbour or paid caregiver. The motherless, whose lack of a mother is evident to all, may have their need for substitute care more readily recognized.

The unmothered who don’t find what they need must survive on starvation rations. They might be well turned out and provided with every luxury money can buy, but these children are impoverished and have the mentality of scavengers. The unmothered woman may live with a powerful sense of shame:  “I have a mother—why do I feel so unloved, so needy?” She might feel like a beggar, or a thief.

She may be aware of the source of her hunger, and preoccupied either with trying to get what she needs from her still unresponsive mother, or with seeking substitute mothering. She may compulsively overachieve, as a way of feeding her need for recognition and esteem. Or she may attempt to “stuff” her unexplored emptiness with food, alcohol, drugs, sex or self-harm.

In the 1950s, Harry Harlow’s famous rhesus monkey experiments showed that lack of mothering in infancy permanently impairs capacity to form relationships.[2] Provision of some “mothering” in the form of scraps of soft cloth mitigated the worst effects of deprivation, but the motherless monkeys remained less socially adept and more anxious than their mother-raised peers.

Ainsworth’s work on attachment in humans confirmed that adults who did not have a secure attachment to their own mothers were more likely to replicate an insecure attachment with their own children. Yet some insecurely attached children subsequently succeeded in forming secure attachments with their babies. A common pattern was for them to have found a partner with a history of secure attachment, thereby achieving an “earned secure attachment.” Their likelihood of establishing a positive attachment with their infant was similar to that of mothers with a history of continuous secure attachment.

Another fascinating finding, by Ainworth’s student Mary Main, was that regardless of their attachment history, adults who are able to talk about their early attachment experiences coherently, objectively and in a balanced way are more likely to form secure attachments with their own children.[3] This offers great hope to the unmothered mother. She cannot replay her own childhood to make up for what she lacks, but by reflecting on and making sense of her story, she can break the mother-daughter cycle of insecure attachment. This may involve looking unflinchingly at what happened in the past, and without minimizing the pain, finding understanding and even forgiveness.

In LLL we understand the importance of mother-to-mother support. For the unmothered mother, this is even more crucial. She may not have adequate experience and inner resources to respond to and nurture her child. Her capacity to receive what she needs is damaged. She may or may not perceive her own neediness.

The motherly instinct in a Leader may be to reach out and scoop up the unmothered mother, to hold her, to give her some of the nurturing that she has been missing. But the unmothered mother’s childhood has gone, and is never coming back. Perhaps she can receive a hug, but it might trigger complicated feelings that overwhelm her, or perhaps she has had to be so self-reliant that she is as untouchable as a porcupine. This mother needs to be approached with respect and permission, in ways she can accept.

The unmothered mother will never know the comfort of a single, adequate mothering relationship. Like Harlow’s monkeys, she must make do with scraps. Yet out of fragments of love and care, she can make a patchwork quilt of sufficiency. She may seek what she needs driven by unexamined instinct, or with determined purpose.  The fact that she is sitting in an LLL meeting, listening to a conversation about mothering, suggests that her urge to seek what can heal her remains strong and true.

Even a woman with a wonderful mother needs more love and nurturing during her life than one person can give. The unmothered woman especially needs the gifts of many women: her own people (if she has them, and they can receive her), and the supportive community she creates for herself. She needs sisters, peers, elders, mentors and friends. Her need is legitimate, and as she comes to understand this, she is freed to seek and to ask for what she wants. LLL can be part of the unmothered woman’s community of support though it is unlikely, by itself, to be enough. She may need the help of a professional counselor.

As the unmothered mother learns to mother her child, so she can learn to mother herself. Instead of replaying in her head the voice of her critical or dismissive parent (or the silence of absence), she begins to talk gently and encouragingly to herself, as one would to a small, anxious child. She learns other ways of looking after herself with kindness and compassion: making sure that her needs for good food, rest, and company are met; listening to herself attentively and without judgment; and acknowledging and accepting her own messy feelings. She nurtures her spirit through art, music, or enjoyment of nature. She allows herself to create and to play in new ways, or perhaps for the first time.

Some may consider being unmothered a “curse,” but as in fairy tales, a curse can be transformed into a gift. Having survived their dysfunctional families, the unmothered can be exquisitely sensitive to the emotions of others. Having lacked affection, they can become deeply compassionate. Their “brokenness” can become a rich source of energy to care for children, for outsiders, and to tend to every kind of suffering. Many of the world’s great caregivers and healers—no doubt among them many Leaders—have been unmothered children.

In LLL we have always understood the vital importance of mothering.  We can be a place in which unmothered women find dignity and hope.

An unmothered mother writes:

Here is what I have learned:
That no one has ever come
That no one is coming now and
That no one ever will come to rescue me.
But I have a kind, gentle, loving and wise mother, and that mother is myself.

Further reading

Motherless Daughters, the Legacy of Loss
Motherless Mothers, How Mother Loss Shapes the Parents We Become
By Hope Edelman.  Written by a motherless mother, primarily for daughters who have lost their mother through death or abandonment.

Warming the Stone Child: Myths and Stories About Abandonment and the Unmothered Child
By Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Audio CD)
A powerful collection of stories and reflections by a renowned Jungian psychoanalyst.

Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
By Clarissa Pinkola Estés
You might love or hate the title (it makes me cringe) but this is a book filled with wisdom about what women need.  The chapter on “Finding One’s Pack” is the best description I’ve ever read of what we do in LLL.

Healing the Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families
By Charles L. Whitfield
A classic, with particular emphasis on the children of alcoholic/addicted parents.

Mean Mothers, Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt
By Peg Streep
Kinder than the title suggests, this speaks particularly to the daughter who struggles to acknowledge the impact of the mothering she received.

Mothering Ourselves, Help and Healing for Adult Daughters
By Evelyn. S. Bassoff
A gentle, semi-autobiographical book filled with hope.

Jayne Joyce lives in Oxford, United Kingdom with her mathematician husband Dominic, three daughters, Tilly (16), Kitty (13) and Daisy (9), and a hamster called Hiccup. She has a background in social work with families, specialising in adoption, has been a Leader since 2003 and now works as an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) with Oxford Baby Cafes Group. Contact Jayne at