What do you do if your own mother or father was not able to love you or show you affection?
Even though we know as adults it isn’t personal it really hurts when you are a child. We know that people who have not been shown affection often cannot do it as adults. It doesn’t mean you are unlovable. It just means your mom or dad has issues they have not dealt with.
I know this from the stories my mom told me about her mother who was not affectionate at all and never hugged her and really did not seem to love her only daughter.
This type of neglect may not sound that dramatic, but it can affect your health and well-being long-term if you do not have a way to work through it and learn to give yourself the love you did not get as a child.
Trauma and neglect can be passed down from generation to generation when people do not deal with it in healthy ways. It gets stored in the body as tension, disease, pain, and chronic conditions.
My mother suffered from depression when I was growing up. Her physical health suffered, and she had thyroid issues. Her relationships with men were unsatisfying and short-lived and her financial situation was abysmal.
When I was about 4 or 5 I remember my mom telling me that her mother never showed any affection and never touched her or hugged her. Nana was always very loving toward me. But when we stayed with my grandmother my mom and Nana would bicker all the time.
One time when my aunt and uncle came to visit there was not enough room in the apartment for everyone to sleep and Nana suggested that my mother should sleep in the bathtub. She just said it so off-hand. I was only about 5 but I thought this was the most bizarre thing.
How could Nana treat her own daughter this way? I pictured the drip-drip of the water on my mom’s toes as she tried to prop her pillow up and get comfortable in the bathtub all night. Why should my mom have to do that while I got to sleep in Nana’s big comfy bed every time I came to visit?
My mom was livid and said that she would not sleep in the bathtub. I started to cry. “Oh, it’ll be OK Cookie,” my mom said and hugged me absently.
I think she ended up sleeping on the couch or something.
My mother was very affectionate with me and tried not to make the same mistakes her mom had made. She hugged me and told me she loved me all the time and talked about her feelings with me. Trying not to be like her parents shaped my mother’s life.
Mom had been raised in the south by Jewish parents who were outsiders themselves but were incredibly racist back in the 1930s and 40s.
My mom had to run away from home as soon as she turned 18 to get clear of them. She became a civil rights activist after seeing how unjust and hateful her parents were. The hypocrisy was clear to this intelligent insightful little girl early on.
My mother was a thin dark-haired quiet child who liked to read and play the piano. Her father was an extremely intelligent engineer who had wanted to become a physicist, but it was not in the cards for him because his father wanted him to take over the family furniture business.
My grandfather had married a woman he had nothing in common with. Nana, as I always called my grandmother, was very pretty but superficial and did nothing but shopped and played mahjong with the other middle-class Jewish women in her social circle.
My mom took after her father. Mom is brilliant and articulate, but she was not blond and pretty as a child, like Shirley Temple who was so popular in those days. My mom hated shopping and did not like feminine girlish superficial things like her mother liked.
Nana tried to get her daughter’s hair to curl but it was thin and wispy and would not hold Shirley temple curls. Nana tried to get her daughter to stop reading so much and playing the piano so seriously. She wanted her to be interested in cloths and make a good marriage. She warned my mom not to talk about books if she went on a date as a teenager. They just never bonded.
In childhood pictures, my mom is a delicate and shy, little waif. How could any mother not love such a sweet child? But all my mom got was criticism and disapproval from her mother. She knew she just wasn’t the child her mother wanted her to be.
Mom told me all about her childhood in excruciating detail and it was clear that she never got over the callousness of her Mother.
Her mom was a second-generation Russian. Her parents had fled the Nazis just in time. My great grandmother had become a callous bitch during the war years, so my grandmother was just acting out the way people had treated her.
My mom tells the story of how her mom’s brother lost an infant child and sent her a letter about it. Nana had just laughed when she described reading it. “There were even tears on the pages of the letter, can you believe that pitiful drivel?” like it was shameful to cry over the death of a child.
My mom said she used to cry and get upset as a little girl, but her parents just laughed at her feelings, so she learned not to have them or show them. Now I can see that my mother was feeling the effects of childhood neglect. She was not beaten or raped but she had psychological trauma that needed to be dealt with in a compassionate way.
Even as a kid I noticed that my mom talked and thought about her past an awful lot and I would ask why she couldn’t just get over it. She said she was just not able to let go of it and that “some people just never got over things.”
My mom did not have all the tools and resources we have now, and feelings were not something people talked about. Going to a therapist was only for crazy people. I was my mom’s only therapist.
Therapy was not something ordinary people did back when she was a young woman. you just toughed it out and got on with life.
My mom was a badass and became a composer when women were laughed at for wanting to do anything besides getting married and keeping house. She had incredible tenacity and had me as an unmarried, single mom in 1959 when her parents wanted her to get an abortion. But she just kept on trucking or limping along through life.
My mom has only really been happy when she is doing her political activist work or writing music so that is what she has done. She started a puppetry business to support us while I was growing up and booked puppet making tours all over the country and abroad.
But in a lot of ways, she lived a limited life emotionally and never had a relationship with a man that lasted more than a few months. She gave up on relationships in her 40s after too many painful confusing encounters. Though she has a rich life in her community with many friends and supporters.
All during my childhood she seemed depressed and would sleep a lot during the day and had to drag herself out of bed and drink tons of coffee every morning. She was also angry a lot. That seemed to be the emotion she led with.
She criticized everything and everyone, except me and my friends, mercilessly and complained about how hard it was to work with people in her musical career. It never occurred to her that she might be part of the problem.
She has been in Taos New Mexico for over 40 years now and is still composing music and complaining about how difficult people are to work with, at 84 years of age.
She seems to have made some good friends in the community and made her peace with her life of poverty and obscurity. She lives in substandard housing with an outhouse.
She is the crotchety old woman who lives in the crunch witch cottage in the woods and wears old fashioned black shawls and long dresses. A local picturesque character in an artsy community that welcomes her.
But I hope that by talking and writing about childhood neglect and trauma I can help make a difference for other people, so they don’t have to hide in the shadows and carry this burden through life. It is possible to heal and release sadness over time.
Resources for healing
Lincoln Gergar: Channeling the Higher Self
Kyle Cease: Evolving Out Loud
Take the ACE test to find out your score for Adverse Childhood Experiences and how it can affect your health