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How 'SMothering' Is Childhood Emotional Neglect

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For as long as I can remember my mom and I were best friends. Almost all of my early memories, which are sparse, involved spending time with her. I went to work with her, she hung out with my friends, I helped her with chores, we played Barbies together. As I grew older our bond got even closer. Her values and opinions were my values and opinions, we talked about everything in detail (including sex), she was involved in making costumes and doing make up for my ballet company, I even had decided that when we got old she’d come live with my husband and I. I doted on her, she doted on me. We were inseparable and so close that people often thought we were siblings. From the outside looking in our relationship seemed idyllic. Others would often comment on how lucky we were and how special it was that we were so close, seemingly envious of our entwined relationship.

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But behind closed doors nobody could see that I was dying inside. I knew unequivocally that my mother loved me…too much.

“If anything ever happened to you I’d kill myself.”

“All I’ve ever wanted in life was to have a child to love me unconditionally.”

“Without you my life is worthless.”

“You are my heart and my breath and my everything.”

These words to a child who cannot survive without the nurturance, guidance and protection of a mother sound intoxicating. But they also scared me. I always felt a sense of dread, impending danger, hypervigilance as my trauma therapist would define it. Something was always slightly amiss and though I was the center of my mothers universe, being that center felt like I was a black hole — a void consuming itself. My mothers love went beyond attention or affection, it was “sMothering,” stifling and overwhelming — flooding my nervous system with alarm bells. I was constantly aware that she was unpredictable and volatile and that it was my stable presence in her life that kept her emotionally regulated, safe and OK.

“When a mother treats her daughter as a friend, this is also a form of emotional abuse (neglect). The mother who tells her child, ‘You’re everything to me…I don’t know what I’d do without you,’ isn’t mothering. She’s creating a confusing emotional bind for her child…(The child) might also feel afraid…or excessively dutiful…This child may grow up to feel she’s betraying her mother if she has other interests or friends or wants to move away.”
-Kelly McDaniel, Mother Hunger

In other words, a parent getting their needs met at the expense of a child’s needs is essentially neglect. The love and affection isn’t being given to the child when the child wants or needs it—it’s being taken when the parent wants or needs it. This eventually erodes a child’s ability to identify or honor their own feelings or needs and can lead to an adult who is a chronic people pleaser, perfectionist and susceptible to codependent relationships, because that’s all that they have ever known.

There are a myriad of factors that can lead a mother to parentify a child. Often the mother herself was parentified by her own mother and didn’t have a good enough example of what a healthy relationship between a mother and daughter looks like. In other cases the mother may have gone through a divorce, financial hardship, undiagnosed mental illness, addiction or other trauma. My mother experienced all of these, which set up a perfect storm if you will for her to become not just enmeshed with me but obsessed.

Everything I did or didn’t do would make or break her. And it became a delicate dance for me to be able to read my mothers emotional state at any given moment to determine her capacity to handle… anything. I learned what feelings were acceptable and which ones would upset her. If I was mad, sad or hurt then she would become doubly mad, sad or hurt. And her feelings would either erupt explosively at others or more terrifyingly at herself, resulting in numerous occasions where she’d self-harm in front of me. The last thing a child wants to see is their mother in pain or hurting themselves, so to insure her safety a child quickly discovers that she cannot be her fully feeling self for fear that her reality could literally destroy her parent. It’s a devastating thing to a child’s psyche.

But the obliteration of the humanity of my child self didn’t end at being emotionally responsible — for my mother, it included meeting her needs for physical intimacy. Let me preface this with stating that my mother was never sexually abusive to me, at least not in the form of physical incest/molestation. However, she was covertly incestuous — talking to me about sex, her sex life, my sex life, my maturing body and never respecting my privacy when it came to my wanting to be alone if I was naked. But what I’m referring to more specifically is her physical need for affection. Hugs, kisses, holding hands, touching my face, spooning in bed with me and simply being in close proximity to me whenever she wanted it became asphyxiating.

I’m almost embarrassed to say that as I got older I was almost repulsed by her touch. Every caress, every bid for a hug, every single time she wanted my physical body anywhere near hers I could feel myself stiffen and a sense of needing to flee flood through me. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I thought that it was my job to give her my whole being because as she often liked to remind me, “You came out of my body.” If society tends to objectify the bodies of women, this objectification of my body by my own mother simply reinforced that my body is not my own, something that I continue to struggle with from my body image to my ambivalence toward sex. It has infiltrated every aspect of how I inhabit my corporal being negatively.

It is hard for me to articulate how much shame I felt in acknowledging that this relationship with my mother wasn’t healthy when I started therapy about six years ago. I didn’t feel shame for not recognizing it sooner, I felt shame for no longer inhabiting the role of her everything in life. It felt as though my desire to save myself would essentially result in her dying, if not in a literal sense then very much in a spiritual and emotional one. And I’m sad to say that to some extent that’s exactly what has happened.

As I’ve created and attempted to uphold boundaries to heal myself, she seems to have devolved into a shell of herself. As I have discovered my identity and autonomy outside of being “us,” she has yet to find a sense of who she is beyond being my mother. Her love is real and intense. But it is not unconditional. It is very much a love for an idea of me who is an extension of her. This new version of me is “mean,” punishes her for something she cannot understand and is a disappointment. The grief that I feel for the sad human being that she is without my being her crutch is real and it’s deep. I very much want her to be happy and content. I wish for her to have a full life with friends and maybe even a partner. But I can’t do that for her. She has to learn to do that for herself as an “I,” not a “We”…as my mother and not my sMother.

Original image via contributor

Originally published: January 21, 2022
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