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What is the Mother Wound?

Updated: Jan 9

“Our most basic instinct is not for survival but for family.” - Paul Pearsall


baby and mother

Many people would have you believe that all mothers enter into motherhood 100% capable of lovingly nurturing and caring for their children. 1, 2, 3 Magic Mommies! But this idea is nothing more than a myth, much like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Other common and equally misguided myths about mothers in our culture include:

  • “All mothers want what’s best for their children.”

  • “No one can love you as much as your mother loves you.”

  • “Mother love is the best love.”

  • “All mothers love their children.”

In reality, mothers the world over fall short of these romanticized notions about mothers all the time, some of course far more so than others. We’re just not talking about it. This blog post exists to help change this. If you find any of the below information about the mother wound helpful, please consider sharing this resource on your social media. You never know who needs it. And now for that helpful mother wound information I promised.


What is the mother wound?


The mother wound is exactly what you think it is: the psychological scar you carry with you from your mother. Per the dictionary, synonyms for wound include:

  • Pain

  • Trauma

  • Insult

  • Anguish

  • Injury

  • Harm

  • Torment

  • Hurt

  • Grief


Mother harm. Mother trauma. Mother anguish. Mother grief. However we choose to conceptualize our own individual mother wounds, what we mother wound survivors have in common is the lived experience of not receiving what we really needed from our mothers.


What are the signs of the mother wound?


While every unhealthy mother-child relationship is unique, the signs of the mother wound are surprisingly consistent and predictable. People who have the mother wound demonstrate at least one or more of the following signs:

  • Low self-worth.

  • Consistently feeling "not enough” or “too much.”

  • Finding children’s tantrums and crying very distressing.

  • An inability to fully rest or relax.

  • Sometimes inexplicable triggers to sights, sounds, smells, objects, people, body language, etc.

  • Feeling responsible for the happiness of others.

  • Negative self-talk.

  • Persistent feelings of guilt or shame.

  • Fear of abandonment.

  • Dismissing or invalidating your own feelings.

  • Dismissing or invalidating your own needs.

  • Negative body image.

  • Numbing out or dissociating from your feelings.

  • People-pleasing.

  • Opening up either too quickly or too slowly to new people.

  • History of unfulfilling or even abusive relationships.

  • Fear and avoidance of conflict.

  • Treatment-resistant depression, CPTSD, panic disorder or anxiety.

  • Unrelenting exhaustion or overwhelm.

  • Self-attenuation (i.e. “playing small”)

  • Addiction to alcohol, vaping, shopping, sex, etc.

  • Eating disorders: bingeing, excessive exercise, etc.


How does the mother wound impact how people relate to their mothers?


For some people who have the mother wound, their first signs of the mother wound show up in ways that are more directly connected to their mothers. Mother wound signs closely related to one’s mother include:

  • An ongoing desire to finally “win” Mother’s approval.

  • She rarely if ever apologizes.

  • Making excuses for her actions (e.g. “She’s from a different time” or “She went through trauma”).

  • Consistently feeling agitated, anxious, or stressed prior to and/or after spending time with her.

  • Dreading seeing her name on your phone.

  • Making personal life decisions on the basis of what she wants instead of what you want.

  • Moving to a different city, state, or even country to either consciously or subconsciously “get away” from her.

  • Going out of your way to avoid seeing her (e.g. taking on extra shifts at work, saying you’re busy even though you’re not, etc.)

  • The relationship is one-sided.

  • A deep sense of being unknown by your mother (e.g. your likes, dislikes, hobbies, interests, etc.).


How does the mother wound show up for parents?


How you parent and relate to your children is directly impacted by how your mother has parented and related to you. Thankfully awareness and recovery work make it possible to break the cycle. Signs of the mother wound specific to parents/caregivers include:

  • Lack of confidence in yourself as a parent/caregiver.

  • Taking your own feelings out on your child.

  • Being cut off by an adult child.

  • Wanting to parent differently than you were raised but repeatedly falling back on old patterns.

  • Catastrophizing (e.g. “If I let them do this at 3 they’ll be doing it at 25.”

  • The use of rewards and punishments (e.g. spanking, time-out, grounding, behavior charts, etc.)

  • Fear of telling your child “no.”

  • Expecting your child to make you feel loved, worthy, needed, appreciated, etc. (e.g. parentification).

  • Certain developmental stages, phases, or ages trigger you more than others.

  • “I sound just like my mother.”

  • Disconnection between you and your child.

  • Unrealistic expectations of your child.


How do people who have the mother wound describe their relationships with their mothers?


When you look back on your relationship with your mom, what words come to mind for you? Mother wound survivors often use one or more of the following to describe their relationships with their mothers:

  • Controlling

  • Critical

  • Violent

  • Non-existent

  • Enmeshed

  • Distant

  • Image-focused

  • Damaging

  • Hot and cold

  • Empty

  • Codependent

  • Volatile

  • One-sided

  • Superficial

  • Transactional

  • Lonely


Who can have the mother wound?


Anyone who’s ever had a mother—no matter how briefly—can have the mother wound. If you’ve ever had a mother—including a mother who relinquished you right after birth—you can have the mother wound. Mothers who cause the mother wound include:

  • Biological mothers

  • Adoptive mothers

  • Birth mothers

  • Stepmothers

  • Foster mothers

  • Grandmothers acting as mothers

  • Other family/friends acting as mothers

  • Legal guardians


What are the root causes of the mother wound?

What causes anyone to harm another person? The mother wound is no different. When we live in a society that devalues and exploits the majority while propping up and privileging the few, we really can’t be surprised that something as fundamental as the relationship between mothers and their children will suffer for it. Just to name a few, the underlying causes of the mother wound include:

  • Ageism

  • Capitalism

  • Meritocracy

  • Authoritarianism

  • Homophobia

  • Fascism

  • Patriarchy

  • White supremacy

  • Behaviorism

  • Ableism


What are moms who cause the mother wound like?

There’s no one kind of mom who causes the mother wound. Mothers who cause the mother wound are as varied as mothers who don’t. Having said that, mothers who cause their children to have the mother wound consistently engage in at least one or more of the following:

  • Guilt tripping

  • Verbal abuse

  • Name calling

  • Gaslighting

  • Homophobia

  • Fauxpologies

  • Favoritism

  • Emotional abuse

  • The silent treatment

  • Lying

  • Parentification

  • Manipulation

  • Hurting/killing/giving away pets

  • Physical abuse

  • Spanking

  • Forced affection

  • Slapping

  • Punishment

  • Hitting

  • Helicoptering

  • Beating

  • Breaking promises

  • Punching

  • Hair pulling

  • Body shaming

  • Pinching

  • Arm twisting

  • Playing the victim

  • DARVO

  • Sexual abuse

  • Blame-shifting

  • Transphobia

  • Economic abuse

  • Triangulation

  • Spiritual/religious abuse

  • Gossiping

  • Shaming

  • Boundary violations

  • Stonewalling

  • Intellectual abuse

  • Emotional neglect

  • Gifts with strings attached

  • Passive aggression

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