I Couldn’t Heal From My Mom Leaving Me Until I Became a Parent

I worked with a therapist to cope with this estrangement for 10 years, but it wasn't until I had my daughter that I was truly inspired to put in the work to become a better person and the mom I never had.

illustration of mother swinging child on beach with zipper over it
Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (2).

I have a vivid memory from childhood. I was 8, maybe 9 years old. My parents had recently divorced and my brother and I were living with our mom in the house we'd grown up in.

She hadn't been doing well. I didn't fully understand what was happening, but I knew that much. She was less present. Less likely to see us.

The night that stands out in memory, I was awakened by her tears. Creeping through the hallway, I peeked into the living room where I saw her, mostly undressed, burning pictures in a pot from the kitchen. She was sitting on the floor crying, and she had a bottle of something by her side.

All I could think about was the gun I'd found in her bedroom a few days prior. For reasons I didn't fully understand at the time, I was sure my mother was going to hurt herself that night. And so I stayed up, watching from the hallway, trying to figure out what I would do if she went for that gun.

I didn't sleep much after that. For decades, even after she was gone, the habit of staying up to watch out for my mother lingered.

When I was 13 years old, my dad took full custody of me. It happened quickly. A boiling point had occurred and it became clear there was nothing healthy about my remaining in that home. But I'll never forget how detached she was as my father threw the few belongings I would take with me into garbage bags. She didn't cry. She didn't fight for me. She almost seemed relieved to be rid of me.

We'd barely made it two blocks from my childhood home before my father had to pull over and fight to quell my sobs. "She… didn't… fight… for… me…." I choked. "She… doesn't… care…"

My Journey to Forgiveness

My mother didn't attempt to re-enter my life until I was in my mid-20s. It was the first sincere apology I'd ever received from her. The first time I actually felt like she truly wanted to know me.

I wasn't open to giving her what she wanted. After years of self-harm and time spent in therapy trying to heal, I had finally gotten to a healthy place. I was afraid that opening the door to the source of so much of my former pain might risk everything I'd worked toward.

I didn't hate her, but I also didn't trust her. And besides, she'd been out of my life longer than she'd been in it. I lived thousands of miles away and had built stability around myself brick by heavy brick.

I couldn't invite her into that life and give her the chance to wreck it all over again. I was surprised how deeply I felt about this years later, so I decided to speak with a professional to see if my feelings were common.

As it turns out, the earlier in life estrangement happens, the more damaging it can be. "It can impact personal development, anxiety and depression, and of course the adult relationships people get into," explains Wendy Walsh, Ph.D., a psychology professor, author, relationship expert, and radio host. "When that person is trying to have a sense of identity or is interacting with others, they are dealing with a black hole where their mother should be and a really dysfunctional model of love."

During our conversation, Dr. Walsh described three primary relationships that can heal attachment and abandonment issues. The first is the therapist-patient relationship. The second healing relationship comes in the form of a solid romantic relationship with someone who has their own secure attachment style—unfortunately, that isn't often the type of person those of us with abandonment issues are drawn to. The third relationship she mentioned is found in parenthood.

"When we hold our baby in our arms," she explained, "those of us with attachment issues look into our child's eyes and say, 'I will never leave you. I will never do to you what was done to me. Mommy will always come back.' And what we're doing is self-consoling through nurturing."

The Healing Power of Motherhood

Six years ago, I became Mom to a little girl. I know there were those who wondered if my resolve to keep my own mother out of my life might ease upon becoming a mother myself; if holding my first child in my arms might soften some of the anger I still harbored.

It turned out, they were both right and wrong. Becoming a mother did end up being one of the most healing parts of my journey. And much of my anger did disappear as I reflected more on all the things that had broken my mother before she ever broke me. I have a lot of compassion for her and the path she had to walk.

But I still don't have any desire to have her in my life.

She's a stranger to me. Not one I wish bad things for, but still a stranger; my only real memories of her are sad and painful. And now that I'm a mother myself, I know I'll never understand the choices she made.

Everything I do, I do for my little girl—this includes continuing to work on my own healing. I recently told my therapist this, with a shred of guilt, asking: "That's not how it's supposed to be, right? I'm supposed to be doing these things for myself, aren't I?"

But this therapist, who has seen me off and on for over 10 years now, only smiled and said, "It's okay. She's inspired you to do the work. You love her enough to want to be better."

My daughter and I have an amazing connection. She is happy and full of light. She trusts in our bond completely. And every day I delight in telling her that she is the most important person in my world. That I love her more than all the stars in the sky. That Mommy will always be here. That Mommy will never leave.

In saying those words, in repeating them again and again, in being the mom I always wished I'd had; I've found healing.

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