How An Emotionally Absent Mother Affects Her Daughter’s Life

Are you feeling invisible in your relationship with your mother?

Do you feel like she’s too busy to notice you?

Always walking in her shadow, trying to get her attention?

I often hear comments from women about their mothers, along the lines of – “it’s impossible to get her undivided attention” or “it feels like she’s always busy with work or her social life and I’m just an afterthought” or “no matter what I do, she just doesn’t see me. And it hurts.”

Daughters express their hurt and disappointment. Daughters desire a loving, supportive mother, yet the unfulfilled expectation creates grief and disillusionment.

Women Voicing Their Needs

I’ve been bingeing the series, “The First Lady”, about the women behind the men who were the Presidents of the United States. The series covers the time period of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gerald Ford and Barack Obama.

How much of the series is fabricated is for historians to wrangle with. Yet I loved watching the changes in society over a ninety year time period and observed the slow advancement of women. Given that men have held power for centuries, it was fascinating to see the struggle for women to step up and give voice to their needs.

The First Ladies covered in this series were Michelle Obama, Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt. Each with a deep belief in social justice, they emerged from the shadow of patriarchy, to be seen and to be heard.

Michelle Obama promoted healthy eating, supported exercise to reverse childhood obesity, championed education and advocated poverty awareness.

Betty Ford was known for raising breast cancer awareness after her 1974 mastectomy, was a leader in the women’s rights movement, and was instrumental in setting up the Betty Ford Center for substance dependence, following her own battle with drug and alcohol addiction.

Eleanor Roosevelt wrote for newspapers and magazines, was a lecturer, public speaker and had her own radio show.

Eleanor and her daughter, Anna, were estranged for a time in their relationship.

It is believed that Eleanor felt she was not comfortable being a mother, “It did not come naturally to me to understand little children or to enjoy them.”

If you prefer to listen to this blog, tap the Play button.

In the Shadow of Mother

The daughters of these prominent women struggled in the shadows of their influential mothers.

In one episode of the “The First Lady”, Anna cries out to mother Eleanor, in anguish:

“Do you realise how lonely it is to be your daughter? All I ever wanted was to be as interesting to you as the rest of the world is to you.”

Eleanor is speechless, perplexed.

Anna begs her mother, “Mother, please look at me.”

Eleanor responds awkwardly, “I can’t look at you when you’re upset.”

Anna responds, “Why did you have six children if you clearly have no interest in being a mother.”

This is the clincher, a truth difficult to digest. For many daughters who struggle to understand their mothers, there is recognition – and grief. “Why did my mother show no interest in me?”


There is a pause in their conversation. Eleanor struggles to hear her daughter’s challenging observations. Eleanor responds,

“Sometimes, just because you want something, doesn’t mean you’ll be any good at it.”

My jaw dropped, stunned by the honesty of the women, yet understanding mother Eleanor’s response.

Many mothers comment how special and cherished their children are while also acknowledging that motherhood is an adjustment, a steep learning curve. Motherhood is not an easy path particularly when a mother’s emotional and physical needs are unmet.

As a Mother-Daughter Coach, I hear women share their private experiences, their inner world, not often shared with others. I hear women grappling to understand their mother, and a mother struggling to understand her mother. Each generation impacting the next gen. Each generation reacting against the other generation.

Daughters wonder why their mothers had children at all, when a daughter has felt dismissed or in the background growing up as a child, and as an adult.

The invisible daughter.


Anna is clearly upset after this exchange, tears streaming down her face. Eleanor remarks that she is struggling to comprehend her own self, that she is clumsy at love.

Awkwardly, Eleanor responds to Anna, unsure what to say, unsure what to do. Quietly, Eleanor says, “Look at you, my only daughter, exactly as I hoped you’d be. You’re independent, you’re strong-willed, so kind. And you are a wonderful mother, despite my failings. I’m so proud of you.”

Many daughters may feel that Eleanor is excusing herself for ‘failure’ as a mother. Yet many daughters live in hope of hearing this profound statement – “I’m so proud of you.”

A daughter desires focused attention from her mother to herself, an acknowledgement of her presence. A daughter wants to be seen in her mother’s eyes. A daughter wants to lean into her mother. She yearns for her mother’s comfort, her mother’s unconditional love.

Claiming Your Space

As daughters move through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood, they find it hard to feel good enough when their mother’s attention is diverted away from them. Many women have carried the pain of feeling that their mother ‘looked through them’, feeling unseen, unnoticed, invisible. As though they could never measure up to what mother wanted her to be.

A daughter will shrink herself to keep mummy happy. She will take on chameleon-like qualities to blend into the environment, to please mummy. These behaviours are a girl’s way to survive, to belong, to be loved.

I want to say to you, Daughter, it means stepping out from the shadows, from being invisible to being seen. It means working with a counsellor or Mother-Daughter Coach on asserting your voice, claiming your space, your boundaries, your self-worth, and believing that your needs matter.

Helen Reddy’s anthem, I am Woman, says it well. Here’s an excerpt, go to the link to hear this amazing piece:

˜ ˜ ˜ ˜ ˜ ˜ ˜ ˜ ˜

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again

˜ ˜ ˜ ˜ ˜ ˜ ˜ ˜ ˜

I am woman
I am invincible
I am strong
I am woman


I can help you shake the feelings of inadequacy and change the dynamic within your mother-daughter relationship. Let me support you in your journey to move forward and rewrite your story.

Image: Creative Art, Pikwizard

Janice WIlliams Counselling


Janice Williams is the only Certified Mother-Daughter Relationship Specialist in Australia and the South Pacific region.

Sessions are available across Australia and worldwide.

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