So many women talk about their relationships with their mothers—no matter how old they are. For some, their mother, from whom they have supposedly separated long ago, still occupies a central place in the psyche. She’s too close, she’s too much. She has advice, is nosy, and interferes. The daughter wants time away, she wants boundaries, and fights for her separation from her mother.

For others, the mother still occupies the psyche, but with a wrenching kind of longing—a mother that is biological and even sometimes present, but also a mother who is so self-involved as to be emotionally absent, or literally out of the picture. This kind of mother takes up space and energy as a nagging, missing piece, a ghost. Her image hovers, her memory, or perhaps a dream of how it could have been, should have been, but never is.

What kind of mother do you have?

My mother was a dream. I realize now, 10 years after her death, that I was always trying to get the dream to come true—to have her be warm and huggy, to have her want to know me, to visit me in my house, to know my children. To know me. It never happened. It left a yearning that I played out with men, it left a hole that I tried to fill in many ways.

My mother left me when I was four years old, and once a year appeared in the landscape of my life—I lived with her mother—only to disappear too soon and in a flurry of anger at her own mother, without seeming to notice how hard it was for me.

So many people—men and women—struggle with this kind of emptiness, the burn of anger in the pit of the stomach, the unanswered questions that can’t be asked: Why are you like this? Don’t you know how much I miss you and need you? Why don’t you love me?

Mothers who are neglectful, selfish, and abandoning do not set out to do these things—they are a result of her own problems, her own pain, and maybe even mental illness. It is hard for us as her child to see this fully, or to forgive it. It takes time and healing.

How to heal the Ghost Mother wound

  • Learn about your mother’s life—how she became the way she is—though talking with relatives, if she won’t talk to you directly, or by sitting down and hashing through history shown in photos and family albums.
  • Find adoptive mothers who will nurture you, and friends who understand your story.
  • Learn to mother yourself—though therapy, through having children of your own. They will teach you.
  • Write your story. Tell your story. Having witnesses to your story is a part of healing. Seeing compassion in the eyes of others shows you that you are worthy of it, and deserve it.
  • Practice forgiveness—first for others whom it may be easier to forgive. Walk in another’s moccasins. Work on being yourself and having a life you like and enjoy.
  • Learn to surround yourself with people who love and like you, and the beauty that makes you feel part of the web of life.