Being without a mother is special kind of club. Only those that share the experience understand the profound ache for once what was or could have been.

Mothers are lost for a myriad of reasons - be it childbirth itself, accident, illness, poverty, circumstances of family, culture, or fate, and the like.

Mothers, though physically present, can, also, go missing by way of grief, addiction, depression, subjugation, psychiatric issues, and life doing life. These moms, for whatever set of reasons, are unable to mother. I call their children "unmothered."

Being without a mom wears heavily on a soul. There is none of the expected nurturing, support, and guidance. You feel untethered and adrift without the emotional umbilicus of mother. Your world is slightly off its axis. There is something missing and that missing is mom.

For those oh-you-were-way-too-young-to-lose-your mother, sometimes a dad or a relative tries mightily to fill in the gap and other women step in and step up to offer motherly guidance and affection. And no matter now lovely and well-meaning they are and the myriad of kindnesses they heap upon you, it is still not enough. It can never be enough, because you want your mom -- the mom that you hold in your heart -- the mom that is supposed to be with you, right now, at this very moment.

This deep yearning can last a lifetime. You never feel quite right, quite whole. Something is always off. Not all of your life experiences match up with others. There is an unspoken language in those-folks-with-mothers club. You feel somewhat alien and sometimes, even, ashamed because of these differences. It feels so unfair. You are angry and hurt that you lost out on the very basic, most primal, and desperately coveted mother love.

For those who are unmothered, loving their moms can be complicated. These moms are not emotionally on the scene; they can be in and out the door. There are often adult concerns -- such as medical, legal, or financial issues -- that require you to grow up way too quickly. Frequently, you are the only adult in the room. There can be attendant craziness, high drama, and ongoing crises and emergencies. There can also be expansive relief -- as well as guilt and grief for feeling that way -- when this mom is no longer in your life.

The experience of being motherless and unmothered leaves its mark -- glaringly obvious or subtle and just-below-the-surface. These life experiences also impart ways of being to those who grow up, literally or metaphorically, without a mom.

Here are some of the struggles of the motherless and the unmothered along a continuum. We human beings are rarely all of one thing or totally one side of an equation. The following are broad strokes for your consideration. Pending your age and the type of non-mothering you experienced, you may find yourself somewhere on the spectrum or, perhaps, you have worked through it all and can see how far you have progressed.


You trust indiscriminately everyone and everything, or you trust very few, if any at all. Because of the loss of the stabilizing and connecting influences of your mom, your sense of attachment along with concomitant trust and safety have been compromised.

The ideal would be to

• learn discernment and distinction so that your choices are considered
• learn how to protect yourself from the unwanted and unnecessary
• learn how to create boundaries


You can be very helpless, hapless, scattered, and inconsistent. The grounding from mothering has by-passed you completely. You can unconsciously be stuck in childhood. You may expect a grown-up or someone-in-shining-armor-or-a-steel-apron to come in and make it all better. Or you may feel you are "off the hook" and it is acceptable for your life to be in tatters because you have no mother. Or your life may be an ongoing tantrum to your wretched loss.

Conversely, you may be uber-responsible. You are capable and running mission control with nary a misstep. You have spent years of your life cleaning up messes and taking care of what needs to be done. You are good at doing this, and, usually very good of doing this all by yourself. Don't worry about you; you can handle it all. Being in control has given you a sense of safety. It is hard for you to ask for help, admit vulnerability, or show any kind of weakness. You are exceedingly self-reliant and frequently stubborn.

Clearly, the optimum here would be

• grow up and take responsibility for your life
• learn to trust yourself
• learn to ask for help
• relax your need to control
• learn to accept your humanness
• forgive yourself for your mistakes


For some, there is precious little for you to crack a smile or find the humor in anything. Your life has been hard, upsetting, and disappointing. You are a serious person. In the extreme, you can be strident, inflexible, and rigid.

Others cope by finding the humor in almost everything. You can be the class clown, the smart-ass, or the wise-cracking one who can turn a room upside down with your well-timed comments. Your sarcasm is anger coming out sideways.

Further, the seriousness or more sarcastic side of your nature reflects your style in dealing with authority figures.

The more serious of the motherless and unmothered will do everything in their power to please authority figures. You want to make others happy and, by extension, happy with you. You want to be seen as the good person and receive approbation from those who rank above you.

The less serious and more comedic are likely to roll their eyes and make comments to authority figures. Their manner would suggest, "You're not the boss of me"; they are not upended or rattled by the higher-ups perception of them. Interestingly, they may also be the superlative employee or student.

For an easier ride through life, you might consider the following:

• learn to lighten up and laugh at yourself and the ironies of the world
• share your heartache with others
• adopt more of a middle ground position
• learn to express your anger in a more direct manner
• understand that you are not what you accomplish, but who you are
• accept yourself


The unmothered and motherless are often searching for a sense of home. You can psychologically feel adrift in the world. No place feels quite right. You can frequently be peripatetic as you connect and disconnect with people and places looking for some unrealized sense of home.

Possible solutions:

• Find the home within your heart. You will never go wanting.
• Maintain your significant relationships, no matter how distant or proximate they are.
• Understand that you can create a physical home with beauty, safety, and objects of memory wherever you live.
• You can create yearly rituals that anchor you; for example: a summer weekend at the beach with good friends; a holiday shopping adventure in a neighboring town; a Halloween party or a spring brunch; a ping pong tournament, etc.
• Look for ways to connect, i.e., book clubs, volunteer work, animal shelter, etc., and build relationships.
• Look for what is meaningful to you and focus your energies there.


It is difficult for the motherless and unmothered to soothe and comfort themselves. You are often excellent caretakers of others, but when it comes to self you can be discombobulated and seek to deal with your restless agitation via non-stop sleep, chronic activity, using substances or activities that distances you from your jangled feelings.

It’s time to practice:

• Make a list of what makes you feel good in a sense-oriented way. For example, is it a bubble bath, a scented candle, a walk in the woods, playing with flowers, taking a run, fixing the most perfect sandwich, drinking a cappuccino, writing in a journal, or baking bread? Then pull from this list when you are frazzled.
• Call a trusted friend. Go to a meeting. Share your feelings in a safe and appropriate way.
• Play with your pet.
• Make a list of what makes you feel safe and protected.
• Create a safe place or sanctuary within your home.
• Stop. No, really, stop, and take a breath. Stop and take a break.
• As one mom told me, the majority of her everyday family problems were alleviated with a good, hot meal and a good night’s sleep. It is basic mothering – and it works.


No matter how you lost your mom, the profound sense of abandonment can leave a wake of unresolved feelings that require inner work, deep introspection, and often professional help.

Here is the slippery slope:

If you are abandoned by your mom (for whatever reason), you can feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. You are not OK; you are not worthy. If you are abandoned and not worthy, your thinking can take you to that treacherous black hole where you are convinced you are unlovable. If you are unlovable, there will be no one in your life to love you. You will always be alone. You are forever abandoned. This is excruciatingly painful and horrible circular thinking.

What to do?

• Be brave and full of self-worth or, at the very least, act as if, and create a family of your heart. It is never too late to be connected -- first to yourself and then to others. It is never too late to learn the valuable lessons of love. It is never too late to give yourself the elixir of mother love than escaped you in your earlier years.

• Being unmothered and motherless teaches you -- and yes, often the hard way -- to trust yourself, to stand alone and claim your life, and to create your happiness without the anchor, cheering section, nurturing, and support of a mom. It is a process.

• That said, the motherless and unmothered wounds, when healed, give you an unparalleled wisdom and compassion that can help change the world.

• And for the record, the world is in desperate need of mother love to foster peace, understanding, and co-operation; to build bridges and share resources; and to create a world where children are safe, healthy, fed, and schooled. You just never realized that as a soul you signed up for the advance course in soul development and you are here, at this very moment in time, to make a profound difference in the well-being of the planet using every bit of your heart wisdom and experience. And we thank you in advance for making sure the mother love does not get lost in the global shuffle.

Author's Bio: 

Adele Ryan McDowell, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, writer, and teacher. She has been the director of an urban drug clinic, founder/director of a holistic, psychotherapeutic center; and responder to trauma and crisis, such as the Newtown shootings, Hurricane Katrina, and 9/11. Adele is the author of Balancing Act: Reflections, Meditations, and Coping Strategies for Today’s Fast-Paced Whirl. Adele’s is madly working on her next book, Making Peace with Suicide. You can learn more at