The scene I saw in my mind's eye was not what Hollywood or even my therapist envisioned. I saw myself standing by her bed, talking and, just like every other conversation I had ever had with her, she would be incapable of hearing me. Perhaps this time she wouldn't hear me for a different reason but the scene would be painfully familiar nonetheless. I would stand there, tears in my eyes, and ask her that same question she'd never been able to answer – "Why didn't you love me? "—and this time her silence would stretch out into eternity. And the little girl in me, once again, would be there – hoping and praying with all of her heart – that this time, Mommy would love me.
I didn't go and I have never regretted it. I ignored everyone's advice and chose for myself with full understanding of the implications and the costs.
This is, I know, a story no one wants to hear. But it is a story that needs to be heard along with the stories of forgiveness, of reconciliation, and others which lie somewhere in-between. Each of these stories, in its own way, testifies to what can happen when a mother can't love her daughter in the way she needs to be loved.
The myth of mother love pervades our thinking about family and other relationships in ways both simple and complex. It's not a single myth but one that is more like the largest of those nesting dolls, each of which, when pulled part, reveals a smaller doll within it. It's a fitting metaphor since those Russian dolls are called Matryoshkas or "mothers," and symbolize motherhood as all embracing; the smiling face on the largest doll tells us that motherhood brings only satisfaction and joy. Within the largest doll is the myth of absolute love, free of all and any emotional ambivalence which in turn holds the myth of mother as fully empathic, sacrificial, and without needs of her own. Within that myth is yet another that tells us that mothering is instinctual and that all females are nurturing, which both implies that every woman should be a mother and can be a good one, while marginalizing the anxiety and guilt even a loving mother feels when she doesn't feel up to the challenge mothering presents. Nestled in that doll is a still smaller one that denies the complexity and difficulty of mothering across the life stages – both those of the mother herself and of her daughter as well. Hidden within the smallest doll is a myth with a specific power and poison of its own that can shape-shift the landscape of the family as a whole and the sibling relationships within it. This is the myth that tells us that every mother loves each of her children equally and in the same way, denying the impact of personality and goodness of fit or even where a woman finds herself in life when her daughter is born.
These myths shape all mothers, loving or not. They get in the way of gaining a fuller understanding of how a mother's behaviors can help or hurt, as well as imposing a nearly impossible standard of perfection on every mother. Equally, these myths prevent the daughters of unloving mothers from giving voice to their experiences without feeling ashamed or guilty, making their journeys as women all the more difficult. Taken together, these myths are the foundation for one of our most potent cultural taboos and stand in the way of an open discussion of what happens when a mother doesn't or can't love the daughter she has borne and brought into the world.