Want to know what it feels like to be raised by an emotionally unavailable mother? Let me tell you my story.

Whenever someone asks me about my mother, I say ‘She died when I was young’. When they reply that they are so sorry, I always say ‘It doesn’t matter, she was an evil cow and I didn’t love her anyway’. Most people are shocked.

Are you? If you are – why? You didn’t know her. You didn’t know what she was like. What it was like growing up with her. And before you say ‘Well yes that’s all very well, but she was your mother’, so what? Tell me what law or unwritten rule stipulates that I have to love my mother? There is none.

You might think it is disrespectful to talk the way I do. But those among you who have experienced an emotionally unavailable mother will understand my point of view. And believe me when I tell you that I tried my very hardest to love her.

What Is an Emotionally Unavailable Mother?

Emotionally unavailable mother’ to me is just a fancy psychological way of saying cold-hearted and unfeeling. But what is the difference between a mother who struggles sometimes to show her love and one that is emotionally unavailable? I can only tell you my story and it may appear cold and matter-of-fact.

But what if your mother never cuddled you or told you she loved you? Or actually even spoke to you that much? What if your mother used you as a means to earn money and her own personal housekeeper? How would you feel if she was abusive to your siblings and cold towards you? Perhaps then you might understand a little of how I feel.

So let me tell you a few stories about dear old mum. Maybe you’ll get where I’m coming from. Or perhaps you’ll think I’m being a total snowflake and I should just get over myself and stop blaming her for everything.

What It Feels Like to Have an Emotionally Unavailable Mother

No loving touch

I remember being very little, probably around 4 or 5 and craving my mother’s touch. She never touched me ever. Not a hug, a cuddle, nothing.

But she did do one thing and that was to come into my and my sisters’ bedrooms after a night out drinking and check we were all in bed. If our bedsheets were tangled, she would straighten them out.

This was an opportunity for me to receive a touch from my mother as sometimes if my arm was hanging out of the bed, she would put it back under the sheets. Imagine being this starved of a mother’s touch that you engineer a scenario where she might come into contact with you? And at that young age?

No response

Again, when I was young, I could write so I guess I was around the age of 5-6, I would leave little notes to my mother. The notes would say things like ‘I love you so much mum’ and ‘You are the best mum in the world’.

I would leave these love notes to my mother on her pillow on her bed so she would see them before she went to sleep. She never mentioned them. She never replied. I would excitably go to bed and look under my pillow to see what she had left for me. After a few weeks, I stopped writing them.

Ignored wishes

I passed my 12+ which meant I could go to a local grammar school. There were two choices; an all-girls one which had a very posh reputation (not me at all, we lived on a council estate) or a local mixed grammar where all my friends were going.

Mother decided I was to attend the all-girls school. Despite my protests, she told me ‘It would look better on my CV later’ when I applied for jobs. Ironically, I wasn’t allowed to carry on and study for A-Levels. I had to work at the factory job she had found for me when I was 16 to help pay the household bills.

Can’t confide with your mother

I had a very bad time at grammar school. I didn’t know anyone. There were cliques of girls who had known one another from middle school and were quite happy to stay in their own little groups.

It got so bad that I ran away twice and went home. Each time my mother took me back to the school, no questions asked. The school did try to help but as far as mother was concerned I was to ‘get on with it’. I contemplated ending it all but got through it.

Some years later, mother and I were arguing and she had said she’d always done her best for me. I shouted back that because she’d sent me to that school I’d tried to top myself. I ran upstairs to my bedroom. She followed and for the first time in my life, she put her arm around me. It felt so odd and strange I felt physically sick and had to move away.

The Impact of Having a Mother Who Was Emotionally Unavailable

So that’s a little of my pity party story. There’s much more but a lot involves other people and that is their story to tell. So how am I affected and what do I do about it?

Well, I never wanted children. I don’t have a maternal bone in me. I am shown pictures of babies and I don’t get it. I don’t feel this flush of warmth or emotion. But show me a puppy or an animal in pain or distress and I am weeping like a baby. I think I feel emotionally attached to animals more because they have no voice. They can’t tell you what is wrong. I felt the same way during childhood.

I have a cold heart. I always say I have a heart of stone. Nothing touches it. I’ve formed this hard barrier around it so nothing will crack it. This is a survival technique I learned as a child. Don’t let anyone in and you won’t be hurt.

A late boyfriend of mine used to say to me ‘You are a hard nut to crack’ and I never knew what he meant but now I do. He also said that I was either clingy or hostile. This is also true. You are either everything to me or you are nothing.

As a child, I had an avoidant attachment style. I had spent a long time trying to get my mother’s attention. Having failed I shut down and become ambivalent about her. As an adult, this has transformed into a dismissive-avoidant style where I keep myself to myself. I avoid contact with others and keep emotions at arm’s length.

Despite the former tirade, I don’t blame my mother for anything.

In fact, I am thankful she had me. It was the 60s, she was out of wedlock and she could easily have not have done so.

I remind myself that I am not my mother. I understand the weaknesses of my upbringing and that allows me to cope with life as an adult.

Then, I have a tendency to shut myself away from people and have to try hard to socialise. The saying ‘better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ doesn’t apply to me. If there is a chance of losing love I won’t love in the first place.

I know why I have to be the centre of attention when I am in company. It is because I craved it as a child and never got it. Likewise, I like to shock people and see their reaction. This goes directly back to my mother. I would intentionally shock her when I was a teen. Just to try and get something out of her.

Final Thoughts

I think that we need to remember that emotional neglect from an unavailable mother can be as damaging as abuse and physical neglect. However, understanding how any kind of neglect has affected you is key to moving forward.

Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)

Copyright © 2012-2020 Learning Mind. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint, contact us.

This Post Has 28 Comments

  1. Avatar
    June Ellis

    I went through this as well . Today my mother and I tolerate each other I cringe when she wants to hug me .. Why now I feel like asking her. I don’t bother she’s old and has many medical issues we have had fights and disputes I just moved on and learned to live with my childhood she didn’t drink but was not comforting in any way … Thank you for sharing it helps to read what others have been through..

    1. Janey Davies
      Janey Davies

      Thank you for your comments June. I wasn’t sure of the reaction I would get writing this. I would like to say that I am OK! Quite happy with my life as it is. Not sure if that came across.
      I appreciate you taking the time to reply. Janey

  2. Avatar
    Lesley

    Thank you for your personal story. I sure relate to it. My mother was of the same type except she was full of emotions about herself but wasn’t interested in me or my emotions or found me weird for having them. There was a lack of touch also, no cuddles that I can recall, except for hugs now and then. I used to like it when I was sick as she took good care of me then.

    1. Janey Davies
      Janey Davies

      Lesley I had forgotten about that! She did take care of me when I was sick. I remember being allowed to have anything I wanted to eat so I had mash, peas and salad cream!

  3. Avatar
    Dianne Lininger

    I can relate. Whenever I tell someone my mother is dead & they say, “I’m sorry”, I reply, “Don’t be, she lived too long anyway!”

    1. Janey Davies
      Janey Davies

      Dianne at least we have a sense of humour about it!

  4. Avatar
    Linda

    Thank you for sharing your story, Janey. Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Jonice Webb? Her book, “Running on Empty,” has been tremendously helpful to me and others I have recommended it to.

    I was glad to read that you live with a dog. The unconditional love and attention of pets can help us heal. 🙂

    1. Janey Davies
      Janey Davies

      No I am not familiar but I will look it up, thank you for suggesting it. I have two dogs, big retrievers that I adore so I am very happy thank you!

  5. Avatar
    Miranda

    Speaking of my mother .. she was raised by 2 fall down abusive drunks, one who burnt their house down ON CHRISTMAS, and the other she found dead in their bathroom from a heart attack when she was 13 years old.

    Real hard knock life you had

    1. Janey Davies
      Janey Davies

      I’m just telling my story, I don’t want sympathy, it is not a competition. I am sorry about your mother.

  6. Avatar
    Sharon Evans

    I can relate to this very much so, although my story differs somewhat. my mother had me at the age of 19, she was a very emotionally unstable person, something i didn’t learn till later in my adult years, because she had been through an abusive and traumatic childhood, my grandmother was apparently quite evil and died when my mother was only 10, this meant that she was placed into a childrens home, which in the 1950s wasn’t a good experience, and mentally damaged my mother further. So my mother was totally incapable of looking after herself let alone a child, and she was also an alcoholic. Anyway because my mother became homeless when i was about 4 months old, and flatly refused to go into a mother and baby home, this was in the 1960s, she got banged up in Holloway Prison for vagrancy, whilst i was placed in a council nursery somewhere in Essex. I wasn’t returned to her until i was almost a year old and by this point i had lost all attachment to my mother. From then on until i was almost 5, she would frequently, would leave me and later on my young sister alone in our home, often not feeding or even taking care of either of us. i remember often being cold, hungry and very much afraid, so when she did come back after a day or so, my reactions was often to be angry, disobedient, to get the attention i craved so much from her and she would hit me, or shut me in the dark shed outside, usually half dressed. i know all this because my mother got done in court for her abuse and negligence towards me and my sister. At almost 5 my mother abandoned us both altogether, she walked out without a backward glance, even though my sister was screamiing for her. we were then seperated from one another not long after we were placed in permanent care. i went on to be shunted from one foster place, or childrens home until a permanent foster place was found when i was 8, one would assume that i was lucky to have found a lovng foster mother but it wasn’t and for remainder of my formative years, my foster mother and my own mother would use me as an emotional pawn between them, my foster mother was a cold and unfeeling person, and only once hugged me in the 10 years i was with her. Her husband, sexually abused me, as a teenager something i couldn’t tell her as she would have blamed me. The worse part of both my mothers was that they both would blame me for each others inadquacies as though it was my fault. And i grew to hate them both, I went on to have 2 daughters of my own, but for me the effects of my own childhood had an impact on my ability to emotionally attach to my own children, so that although i cared for my daughters, i found the emotional part extremely difficult, i ididn’t abuse my children, not in the way i had been but my mother was not supportive and i found motherhood a time of emotional conflct, my relationship with both my daughters has been and still is at times very strained and ive had 3 broken marriages, have battled with long term depressive illness and to date, now at 57 with my children grown up, i find being in my own company far easier and causes me no emotional pain. and so i shy away from too much emotional contact with people. with the the exception of 3 good friends whom i have known a long time, i prefer my own company. i now have a small grandson of 3 and for some reason, my relationship and bond with is something really unique as i do feel loved by him and i love him unconditonally. i hope noone minds me puttng my story on here,

    1. Avatar
      Amy Robison

      Thank you for sharing this Sharron. One of my closets childhood friends also grew up in the same chaos. She too still carries scars, unfortunately her mother still taunts and torments her. It is never ending harrassment. All either one of us ever wanted was to escape from our mothers. Both of us did rebuild our lives and with counseling we have overcome. Sometimes it’s hard to believe it even happened…..I’m not afraid of anyone nor do I feel damaged.

    2. Janey Davies
      Janey Davies

      Thank you so much Sharon for sharing your story, I know what you mean by being in your own company and having just a few erally good friends. How lovely that you have found some sort of loving bond with your grandson. that must be special. xxx

  7. Avatar
    Hannah

    Thank you for your post and being another voice. My mother is still very much alive and it’s tempting to tell others that she’s passed as they seem more able or willing to empathise.
    This as we all know, isn’t far from the truth but I could never wish that on anyone. There have been a multitude of personal consequences that I am now working my way through on a twelve step recovery to tackle the Codependency issues that have governed my life. I’m beginning this year knowing that there really is life after this kind of experience and each day becomes more enjoyable.
    I’m finally learning how to open up to myself which in time will enable me to engage with those around me.
    Sending you and all others that have been through this firm of childhood so much love, light and happiness Xxx

    1. Janey Davies
      Janey Davies

      What a lovely positive message Hannah. Good luck to you on your journey. xxx

  8. Avatar
    Amy Robison

    I’m so glad I came across this post! Without the litany of my story, know that I’m identical to most of you. I’m sparing you the details. I really wanted to add that I have four children. Two are my step kids and two are my biological children. My relationship with one of my sons is very challenging however he has exactly the same problems as my mother….Substance abuse and horrible horrible inability to care about anyone’s feelings. I believe this is some form of Psychosis. I spent over 20 years in counseling to recover from my horrifically abusive childhood but my son knows nothing of this and he is hell bent on making life impossible for everyone. This has to be genetic.
    BTW I love telling people my mother died…..she if course did die but it is so liberating not needing to explain why she is or was what she was and why I wouldn’t go near her. Now I live far away from everyone I’m related to and most people just think I dont see my family much. It works out perfectly. I never have to explain or relive the nightmares of my past. Ironically my horribly abusive mother was a social worker for CPS and a therapist!!!!! My brother shows the most signs of the trauma but at least he and I still speak but not much about our past. My best to all of you! Congratulations on surviving, not all of us do.

    1. Janey Davies
      Janey Davies

      Yes Amy! We survived! Not everyone understands the trauma of psychological abuse. It can be as damaging as physical and last as long. Best wishes to you xxx

  9. Avatar
    Lindsey Horton

    Thank you. I have a great relationship with my mother, despite past trauma that wasn’t directly her fault. I also had several horribly abusive relationships and my husband really died when I was 25. I love my children and I feel like I have a good relationship with them besides my son, he’s a teen and if I even touch him he cringes. I hope he grows out of it. I do tend to put my own pity party first though and reading this makes me realize what I have been doing. Due to depression and other mental illness I used to stay in bed all day unless I was at work. I’m a lot better now after realizing how selfish that was. It’s hard to change all at once. It takes time and recognition. I didn’t even realize it was bothering my kids. At the end of the day I can only do my best, and use any material or tools to try to make myself a better mother/person. Thank you, again

    1. Janey Davies
      Janey Davies

      Thank you for taking the time to comment Lindsey. I’m glad you’re working to deal with your depression, but don’t try and do it all by yourself. XXXX

  10. Avatar
    Leslie Leveck

    I went through the same thing and still do sometimes. It isn’t healthy to feel this way and react this way toward people who try to love you. Have you ever tried meditating or yoga? Through yoga and meditation i learned to love myself and the absence of anyone love doesn’t even matter when you learn you are all you need now. Heal yourself from that trauma so you are able to accept peoples love. You have the knowledge and experience now to weed out the fakes. Good luck to you. Peace and Love

    1. Janey Davies
      Janey Davies

      Hi Leslie, Now I am a woman of a certain age I have been contemplating yoga. Do you go to classes or do it by yourself? Thanks, Janey

  11. Avatar
    Mary

    “she put her arm around me. “It felt so odd and strange) I felt physically sick and had to move away.”

    This is something I have struggled with in my adult years, especially since I started remembering parts of my childhood and my older sister filled in the gaps.

    I still don’t really understand why I feel so repulsed by her but what you wrote resonates with me. Thank you for sharing your story.

    1. Janey Davies
      Janey Davies

      I was lucky Mary that I got love from my dad. I hope you received love too in your childhood xx

      1. Avatar
        Mary

        Unfortunately my father left us when I was a baby (12 months) and moved in with another woman and her 2 sons so my older sister and I were left without a father, and a mother who ate valium like lollies and spent 99% of the first 8 years of my life passed out on the sofa.

        When my sister (who was 4 years older than me) started school at the age of 5 &1/2 I was probably 18 months old. Before we moved to Queensland we lived about 4 houses down from her school, my sister told me that she would get herself off to school because she couldn’t wake our mother and most days I’d be left alone until she came home. Sometimes our mother would get up when my sister came home at morning tea time because I somehow learnt to unlock the front door so there were many times I walked all the way up the street and found my way to her classroom but because my mother wouldn’t wake up when the school called her to tell them I was there I got to stay there until morning tea.

        There’s so much more in the following years but I can’t believe how much I’ve already blurted out, sorry!

  12. Avatar
    ELAINE CHECKLEY

    Here’s the thing ~ I basically had the same kind of mother, learned later in life she didn’t want children and was pressured into giving her mother a grandchild – who BTW died when I was 2 – so much for the grandma connection on that side. NOW after being on a spiritually awakening path for years and after learning about reincarnation – I, ME, choose my parents for this lifetime, choose those experiences (very hurtful and didn’t understand at the time) – but today thankful for the lessons and that their actions instilled in me to be very independent and NOW HAPPY!. Totally relate to the kids – still to this day can not ever understand why people want to have them, don’t get, probably never will. Have a house full of pets and help in rescue as much as I can. I care more about animals than I ever will about people. My grandmother on my father’s side, showered me in love and nurtured me, so my loving background comes from her. When my mother passed and the fellow from the funeral home called with his platitudes, I shocked him when I said “Hell get me a marching band, champagne and balloons, I’m so glad she has gone home”. Today I can stand back and send her love and thank her for playing the role she chose to take one – how hard that had to be knowing your kid hated you half the time back them.

    1. Janey Davies
      Janey Davies

      Yes Elaine, I understand the reincarnation part. I am thankful my mother had me, at one point she wasn’t going to and was under pressure not to. I think she was just not meant to have kids. And I feel much more at home with a bunch of animals than I ever did a house full of kids!

  13. Avatar
    ClaireRita

    Was not planning on reading or reliving my odd upbringing, I am still 61, and losing my new place, today, my job last month and really not to thrilled about ending up here with no funds. It never goes away for long. I wish this part was over now, I’m 61 and exhausted of all of it. It really shouldn’t be this way

  14. Avatar
    Rain

    That exact thing happened with me. Like as was said she felt physically sick when she touched you, I experience the same thing!. I am often called bitter and cold towards my parents, but its only because my father was nonexistent and my mother couch-surfed, moving from boyfriend to boyfriend, (dragging me along)for 5 years of my life until she traded me off to my grandparents every few years. When I entered 8th grade My grandparents got custody, but my mom still legally owned me, so she still received child support every month from my dad. Never using it for me, she instead was selfish and used it for drugs and herself. I was always trying to help my mother in anyway I could, I was my moms emotional crutch. Or something like that..

Leave a Reply