In our culture, mothers are generally idealized or disrespected. It’s viewed as a very black or white issue. There’s no place for daughters to put their authentic, complicated feelings about their mothers, without having to suppress them entirely or accept the label of “ungrateful daughter.” From a patriarchal perspective, ANY critical examination of the mother/daughter relationship on the daughter’s part is equivalent to “mother blame.” This false equivalence has been an effective way to shame and silence children about their true experiences of their mothers and stalls their full individuation in our society.

There are few relationships quite as complicated as the relationship with our mothers.

One of the most problematic and common beliefs daughters can have is, “My mother gave me life. I owe her ________.” Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having genuine love, respect for one’s mother and genuine appreciation for all that she may have done for you. However, the feeling of “owing” your mother is something very different and a painful illusion that can bring an enormous price.

I hear from women all the time who feel this way and use it as a rationale to hold themselves back from what they desire, as a cause for feeling guilt or self-doubt, as a reason to tolerate poor treatment or to stay in a stuck place.

Children don’t “owe” their mothers. In this article I’ll explain why that’s the case and how this illusion of indebtedness keeps generations of women stuck.

I recently saw a video on Facebook that was geared towards mothers who are feeling stressed, sleep-deprived and unappreciated. At the end it said, “Look into the eyes of your child and know that you matter.” Line after line expounded upon how the mother is elevated in the eyes of the child, implying that that should be enough to get you through. The entire point of the video was that a mother need only look into her children’s eyes for validation.

I found it odd that it didn’t mention the support of friends, partners or communities to help women through tough times as mothers. It didn’t mention self-care. It didn’t help women to see themselves as inherently valid and important. It simply told mothers to look to one place for sense of value and meaning: the eyes of their children. 

At first glance, this can seem like a harmless video, with the intention of honoring the incessant work mothers do. It was “liked” by thousands of people. But I found this video disturbing for many reasons. It perpetuates the illusion to mothers, that the approval of one’s children should be compensation enough for the brutally incessant, thankless, isolating work of motherhood in the modern world. And it sets up the child for bearing the emotional burden of a mother’s struggles and for learning how to over-function as an emotional caretaker. It sets up the child to feel that she “owes” her mother a version of herself that protects her mother from her own pain. That belief is like a poison that can damage the daughter’s self-concept, self-esteem and the ability to form lasting, healthy relationships with others.

Unfortunately, one of the most common manifestations of the Mother Wound is a codependent, enmeshed relationship between mother and daughter. Portrayals like the one in the video I described perpetuate and reinforce this unhealthy enmeshment as normal “mother love”.

A child should not be expected to be her mother’s best friend, savior, mirror, therapist or sole reason for living.

It’s a mother’s responsibility, as an adult, to get the support she needs from other adults including communities, therapists, spouses, partners, institutions, etc. 

A mother’s well-being is not a child’s responsibility. 

A mother expecting emotional labor from her child makes her a hostage to her pain. Often if this pattern starts in childhood, it continues until the daughter is an adult, causing her to experience self-doubt, guilt, suppressed rage, imposter syndrome and problematic relationships, among other symptoms.

Our culture, with its hostility towards women as expressed in diminishing access to reproductive healthcare, the wage gap, lack of ample maternity leave, male violence against women, as well as other systemic barriers like institutional racism, all combine to isolate the mother and coerce the child to carry the burden of emotionally validating her mother in the absence of support from partners, adults, institutions and society in general.

That is a gap that a child can never fill. 

Children are asked to pick up the slack for the lack of respect and emotional support mothers are given in this culture. It tells mothers that their children should be enough of a reward and shames them when it doesn’t feel like enough.

Pain from our mothers gets passed down to us from two main sources: 

  1. The degree of inherited trauma or abuse that she may have experienced in her family of origin which she may unconsciously pass down to some degree.
  2. The cultural Mother Wound; the pain of being a woman in this culture and how that pain gets passed down through the generations.

The culmination of many factors may result in a child feeling like she “owes” her mother:

  • That natural loyalty that all children feel towards their mothers
  • Seeing the mother suffer without support while knowing her mother is necessary for her survival
  • The mother reinforcing the idea that the child is responsible for her wellbeing
  • The mother’s belief in being indebted due to her own history (she may have felt she owed her mother)
  • The mother’s lack of support from spouse/partner, family, friends, etc.

I recall one woman telling me years ago very matter-of-factly that in her culture, it’s considered normal that the parents sacrifice everything to have the children and then when the children are grown, they are then responsible for meeting all the needs and whims of the parents. It wasn’t about love. It was a transaction based in an atmosphere of deprivation. And everyone was miserable. The cycle of entitlement and deprivation continues.

An extreme but not uncommon example of this dynamic is mothers who confide in their children that they are contemplating suicide. I was shocked to learn how common this is, as I’ve heard from scores of women who describe their mother’s despair as a constant threat in the background of their childhood days. Some responded with a numbing out as a way to cope with it, others coped by becoming riddled with almost constant anxiety. One particular woman comes to mind, who described a memory of playing with her mother on the kitchen floor, then suddenly her mother seemed to “play dead.” A playful moment turned to terrifying when her mother refused to “wake up.” The mother “woke up” just as her panic was at fever pitch and pretended nothing was wrong. This woman explained how she sees in retrospect, that her cries for her mother may have been the only evidence that her mother had that she mattered, in the otherwise barren emotional landscape of her life. This woman described the impact of experiences like this as feeling a sense of dread when things are going well in her life, as though some terrifying moment could take it all away. 

For generations past, and for some today, being a parent meant providing food, shelter, clothing and education. Emotional needs were not seen as important as the physical needs. Children were commanded to respect their parents by major religions. Like objects or pets, “children were to be seen and not heard.” Issues like addictions, mental illness, financial struggles, abuse were simply not talked about. People believed that if you pretended they didn’t exist, kept them secret, then everything would be OK. We are beginning to realize that this is not true. These issues don’t “go away” when you pretend or try to forget. They are present in our everyday struggles.

A child’s natural development includes growing up and having their own separate, independent lives. For a daughter enmeshed with her mother, attempts at individuation can be a brutal battlefield for ownership over herself. It’s crucial that the daughter get support in de-bunking the distorted patriarchal logic that states that having your own separate life makes you a perpetrator of your mother, that separateness is equivalent to aggression, or that your boundaries are an attack. One must resist these distortions and get support from multiple sources to set in motion new, healthy patterns instead.

On my own journey as a recovering “parentified daughter,” I learned early the painful belief that, “I’m depriving my mother when I take care of myself.”

It has been a long journey of learning to:

  • de-couple my mother’s sense of entitlement from my own self-care
  • take up space without expecting abandonment
  • attract a romantic partner with a capacity for equal reciprocity
  • voice a clear No to people who expect silent complicity with my own subjugation, however subtle
  • no longer equate empowerment with loneliness

This work takes time, step by step, to build trust with the inner child and help her learn a new paradigm in which it’s safe to be real, safe to have needs, safe to say No, safe to have emotions, safe to celebrate oneself, and safe to be seen. It takes setting boundaries, learning self-care and allowing oneself to grieve.

So many of us have witnessed our mothers struggle, sacrifice themselves and suffer under all manner of oppressions. Children are naturally loyal to their mothers out of necessity for survival. But true respect is not possible when it is commanded or based on obligation, shame or emotional debt. 

“Owing” is not about respect. It’s about control. 

Ways that mothers can get the idea that their children “owe” them may include: 

  • Feeling deprived or not valued in other areas of their adult lives
  • Lack of insight about their own childhood history
  • Childhood histories that involved abuse, neglect or trauma with little or no therapy
  • Possible mental illness
  • The belief that mothers hold the power over their children absolutely

Mothers who reinforce this are often unaware that they are doing it. It’s important for daughters to get support and set healthy boundaries with their mothers.  

The staggering amount of love and physical and emotional output that a mother has to do needs to be given its due respect, awe, and sacred place in our society. But it will remain de-valued and relatively invisible as long as mothers play out the damaging dynamic of expecting their children to be their mirrors, saviors and reasons for living. And as long as society devalues women and induces children to pick up the tab.

We must become conscious of the ways in which patriarchy deprives mothers and how that deprivation is delivered upon the children. This is about freeing both mothers and daughters.

So much has been permitted under the belief that “I owe my mother.”

Emotional abuse, physical abuse, neglect, painful silence, other traumas.

So much has been repressed under the ache of “I owe my mother.” 

True desires, potential, dreams, inspiration, abundance, wealth and more have been bypassed and suppressed by women who were taught that their true expression injures those they love. And the emotionally deprived mothers who feed into this dynamic steal their daughters lifeforce and feed on it as though it were their own.

Anything obligatory is forced and not free. 

It’s not about true connection. It’s a transaction.

There is a whole new world beyond the illusion of “owing” where your life is your own, and where your needs and feelings are embraced, not shamed.

Your life belongs to you. You don’t owe your mother. 

Discouraging our ability to be confident in our separateness has been a tactic of the patriarchy to oppress women. I’m not talking about being separate in a cold, defensive way. But our separateness, as in being singular, whole and one-unto-yourself. Our separate personhood is a place of power we must cultivate and support each other in developing. It doesn’t have to be either/or. Separate is not equivalent to being exclusive or disconnected. The more we feel entitled to our own love and support, the stronger we can become and the more positive change we can bring about together.

It’s time to re-claim the holy impulse to be separate.

The taboo of the Mother Wound has long stalled the process of healing women individually and collectively. It’s important that we see the truth however uncomfortable, that healing the Mother Wound is NOT mother blame. It is an essential part of being a conscious, mature adult. In fact, healing the Mother Wound (and not passing it on to the next generation) is the ultimate expression of maturity and personal responsibility.

Points to contemplate for recovering from co-dependency with your mother:

  • Your mother is a grown adult who is responsible for her own choices and well-being.
  • Our job as daughters does not include protecting your mother from her own choices or experiences. That is her job to work through all that.
  • Trust your gut. If you feel like your boundaries are being crossed, say something.
  • You are not depriving your mother when you take care of yourself.
  • Adults cannot be abandoned. Only children can be abandoned. You cannot abandon another adult.
  • Your mother’s feelings in response to your choices, boundaries are hers to manage. Not your business.
  • Your mother’s needs are not more important than yours.
  • You can have compassion for your mother’s journey AND have firm boundaries with her.

Art Credits: “Thousand Acres of Peace” by Alaya Gadeh