In my blog about lost sense of self, I talk about the Lost Woman, loss of identity within mother-daughter relationships.
There is a story of a teacher who gave her class of second-graders a written test about a magnet and its purpose. In the test, she included this question: “My full name has six letters. The first one is M. I pick up things. What am I?” When the test papers were turned in, the teacher found it astonishing that almost 50% of the students answered the question with the word Mother.
The connection of the magnet and the role that society has placed on mothers is profound.
Mothers are influential within the family and are held to high standards within society. Mothers are the nurturers of children, the supportive companion to their partners, the care-givers to their own mothers, a friend to their mother-in-law. Mothers are chefs, taxis, diary planners, social organisers. The one who loves unconditionally. She is the ‘ideal’, the ‘good’, the one who mothers strive to be and which society expects.
The good mother is the one who offers support, encouragement, protection. She is the one expected to instill good behaviour into her children and when her children ‘go off the rails’, she is often blamed as the bad mother.
Loss of Identity
The Lost Woman is one who constantly gives out to others, yet may be lucky to receive crumbs of care in return. She has no idea of her identity because the person she thought she knew before becoming a mum, has been swallowed up in the all-encompassing care-giving role. Even her name changes to Mum, or Clarissa’s Mum, as though she is owned or enslaved by her role or her daughter.
Perhaps there is a sense of truth in this. Who was Mum before she became a mum? Which paid role did she engage in? What sports or hobbies did she do? What were her values? What was this woman’s identity before transitioning into Mother?
She now views herself through the prism of her children, her partner, her parents. She will gush about her children’s academic, sporting or creative achievements. She will enthuse over her partner’s career. She will lament caring for parents yet others will be impressed by her duty and daughterly concern.
Women have told me they do not want to become their mother – critical, judgey, angry, interfering, crossing boundaries. When women have daughters, this is often the time that women will seek out relationship help for mother-daughter issues. For some women, they assume it’s for a parenting issue and will attend parenting classes to improve their child’s behaviour. These courses can work but it’s often more about the relationship she has with her own mum. It is a generational issue. Children often repeat behaviour that was modelled to them in the home.
She may gossip about others because of her own difficulty in accepting others as flawed humans. She is hurt and angry, and it’s better to project outwardly than to consider herself inwardly. She lives vicariously through other people’s lives. She will judge herself harshly and her self-confidence gets chipped away.
To the detriment of her own identity, as well as her safety, the Lost Woman can be seen within an abusive relationship. She is hungry for love and attention, yet doesn’t know how to receive love and will tolerate and normalise abusive behaviour.
Fractured mother-daughter relationships is a huge secret, yet many women live this experience. The hurt, the anger, the questions “why couldn’t she have supported me?”, “why does she criticise me, what have I done wrong?”, “why does she hate me?”
Underneath a mother’s criticism and her anger is the inability to verbalise her own acute hurt created way back in her own childhood. She grew up in a family where she was not asked how she felt, instead she was told that women feel this or women feel that. Her feelings were dismissed.
So she buries her feelings. She silences herself. Studies have shown that a woman who self-silences, who doesn’t speak up for herself, is at an increased risk of depression, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, a stroke or other cardiovascular problems. Speaking up, saying what’s on your mind, has shown that it is actually good for your health.
Many daughters want to please their mum, not wanting to upset her. Daughters will ‘shrink down’, they will become small, to prevent mum feeling her pain. Daughters hope to get some crumbs of love and attention from mum, just like their mum tried to get crumbs from their mum. The stream of relationship-craving drifts back to the previous generation, then back to the generation before.
A Woman Should ….
In this 21st century, gender has been publicly discussed and examined. Women have certainly been told what they should be like and what they should do. But what happens if women do not fulfil the roles expected of them?
If women dare do the opposite of family and society expectations and consider her own needs, it is deemed inappropriate, shocking, horrid. Underneath these hostile reactions is fear. It is threatening for others when a family member makes a decision to change things for herself and within her family. There will be attempts to destabilise her by demeaning and criticising her.
Women who I have spoken with, who have prioritized their care, have realised that being needed was strongly linked to her sense of worth. Being liked helped stabilise her fragile sense of self.
If the Lost Woman pulls up anchor, she is now either adrift on a sea of emotion, or has set a determined course. She will be overturning decades of gender labelling, of putting a woman in her place and being of service to parents, partners and children.
How The Lost Woman Can Find Her Way Back
If you are the Lost Woman, be assured that you will not be the only one in your family. The silence, the lostness, is generational. Your mother, your grandmother, most likely do not know their worth, their emotional needs as a person. We learn these ideas from one woman down the line to the next woman. If the cycle is not broken, then daughters learn to be silent, to be lost, to be held accountable by society as being ‘good girls’, ‘good mothers’ or being ‘bad’. It takes awareness for one person to decide that they want things changed, for change to happen.
Knowing your mother’s story, your grandmother’s story, the female line of your history, is walking inside your own story. Who was your mother before she became a mother? Who was your grandmother before she became a grandmother? What was she like as a woman?
Embracing and owning your story is the bravest thing that you can do. Letting go of what others think of you and accepting your worth is to empower yourself.
Do I feel less entitled in my relationships with others?
Where does that belief come from?
What can I do today to speak up for myself?
How will I feel if I continue to neglect myself today?
How can I change things?
Counselling will help you explore the question of “who am I?”, and learn how to no longer rely on others for validation. Through counselling, you will find your true identity.
How Do You Take Care Of Yourself?
- How can you receive enough love, care and attention? If not from your partner, or mother or others, then do you know a woman who could mother you? This is important. If those in your circle struggle to acknowledge you as a person, to validate your feelings, your worth, then a mother-figure can help care, support and feed your soul.
- Have compassion for yourself. Soothe your inner child, talk kindly to her. Kristin Neff, a leading expert on self-compassion, says “Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. Self-compassionate people recognize that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals.”
- How will you find time for you? Consider the things you do for others, consider the things you do for yourself. Is there a discrepancy in the number of things you do for others, and not for yourself?
- Some women find that going away on a girls’ weekend is refreshing, others will go on their own to remove themselves from responsibilities for others and to reconnect with themselves and recharge.
- Consider setting boundaries to prevent exhaustion, prevent burn-out.
- Have a massage.
- Go to the beach and smell the fresh salty air.
- Walk barefoot on the sand or on grass, feel the texture underneath your feet and between your toes.
- Pursue a hobby or a special interest, perhaps an unfulfilled childhood activity.
- Exercise is beneficial for the mind, body and spirit.
- Meditation helps manage stress, reduces negative emotions and increases self-awareness.
- Beat those drums! Yes, friends have told me of the therapeutic benefits of self-expression in beating drums.
I am a Mother-Daughter Relationship Specialist. I have seen many women who struggle in their relationships with their mother or adult daughter. Reach out to me and together we will find solutions to the difficulties in your relationship with your mother or daughter so you will feel less stress, more energy, less anger and feel more confident, calm and in control.
This article appeared in Kidspot, Australia’s No . 1 Parenting website
Reference: Hasseldine, Rosjke. “The Silent Female Scream” 2007
Janice Williams is a Mother-Daughter Relationship Specialist.
Janice offers in-person and online appointments. Online sessions are available across Australia and worldwide.