In the 1978 book and 1981 movie, Mommy Dearest, Christina Crawford describes physical and emotional hurts inflicted upon her by her mother, Joan. The portrayal of Joan as an abusive, neglectful, and alcoholic parent is controversial, but the potential damage from mother wounds is not. In fact, some people discover their harmful and abusive behavior has its roots in their relationship with mom.

Mom’s role in shaping self-esteem

What we believe about ourselves has a powerful impact on how we respond to all kinds of situations. Being over-sensitive to criticism, feeling the need to control everything, or an excessive fear of rejection are just three of many examples. These behaviors often don’t serve us well, especially in our intimate relationships.

How we see our value, worthiness, and lovability is at the core of our identity. Much of that sense of self is shaped in our childhoods. Fathers are also instrumental in developing our self-concept, but mothers often play the primary caregiving role.

From the time we were born, our minds record interactions with those around us. In infancy, we pay attention to whether we get our needs met: being fed, having our diaper changed, and being held when we’re upset. As toddlers, we want separation from our parents, but also the security of their care.

The mother wound

Most mothers are loving. Some, however, demonstrate an unconscious hostility toward their children. The aggression is seldom overt, as in the child abuse described in Mommy Dearest; it’s usually more subtle.

This shows up in small signs of dislike, such as unnecessarily withholding care or impatience with naughtiness. Cutting words, a short temper, or a lack of sympathy are also identity-damaging experiences for the child. If mom is unavailable or inconsistent with her care, the youngster develops an insecure sense of self.

Sometimes, these are accompanied by an overprotective attitude designed to compensate for the hostility.  This is illustrated by a mother who’s afraid to let her child out of her sight, fusses over minor illnesses, or worries that something terrible could happen to her darling. If our Mommy Dearest is too anxious and begins hovering, we’ll feel over-controlled.

The effects of these caretaking defects were first explained by researcher John Bowlby and later by Mary Ainsworth in what is known as Attachment Theory. Insecurely attached children often struggle to soothe themselves or handle stress well. They fear being abandoned, but simultaneously, fear being controlled.

Mommy Dearest visits adulthood

These emotional wounds regularly stay with us into our adult lifes. They are particularly brought out in intimate romantic relationships. We respond to our lovers in ways that are really attempts to fix the broken relationship we had with mom.

Any threat of separation or rejection from our lover may bring out anger—an emotion borne of fear. We want to protect the cherished relationship and not suffer the abandonment we felt as a kid. Unfortunately, this anger becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when our partner distances themselves from our fury.

At the same time, adults wounded by Mommy Dearest type mums can also experience a fear of closeness. Too much meddling, too many demands, or too little space given to be an autonomous, independent person feels like the over-control experience of our youth. Our partners find the closeness/distance sweet-spot impossible to attain.

In his book, Emotional Abuse: Silent Killer of Marriage, Austin James describes the impact his relationship with his mother had on his marriage. Donald Dutton describes a mother’s contribution to shaping abusive adults in his book, The Batterer – A Psychological Profile. Both are good reads if you want to understand the connection between a mother and child who later becomes abusive.

Healing emotional wounds from mom

If you can relate to some of the experiences described above (not everyone will), you may be carrying some “Mommy Dearest” wounds. It’s not your fault, but it is your job to clean it up. No one else can, and no one else will benefit more than you when you do.

Most of us aren’t even conscious of how dysfunctional our push-pull relationship behavior is.  If we are, we’re seldom clued into the cause of our problem, which is why I’m writing this post. Awareness is the first step toward healing and change.

Mending childhood emotional hurts is a process that goes beyond the scope of a blog post. Typically, it involves learning to see and care for our inner child, offering compassion and empathy for what we experienced. It’s a challenging exercise and one few of us are naturally equipped for, so get help from a trained counselor.

Also, don’t blame mom. I’ve yet to meet a parent (mom or dad) who wanted to leave their child with emotional baggage. I’m betting this is true for your mother as well. She is/was imperfect, carries her own set of hurts and fears, and likely did the best she could. Feeling like a victim will just keep us stuck. Forgive her and get busy healing.