I Had an Emotionally Unavailable Mother and Here’s What It Felt Like

Published by
Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)

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.

View Comments

  • 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..

    • 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

  • 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.

    • 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!

  • 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!"

  • 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. :)

    • 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!

  • 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

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

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Published by
Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)