mother hunger by kelly mcdaniel

A woman stands at the fridge, staring into its depths. It’s late at night, and she can’t sleep. She isn’t hungry, not really. Instead, she feels kind of empty, and deeply tired. Perhaps she also feels a bit sad, but can’t figure out why. She closes the fridge and listlessly wanders over to the cupboard. There are cookies there – she grabs one, and feeling listless munches it on her way back to bed.

A man sits down at his desk, it’s the beginning of another workday. He eagerly begins, immersing himself totally in his work. Underneigth, he feels a deep sense of exhaustion – he was at the office until late the night before. He pushes those feelings down and carries on with his task, but a sense of unease lives eternally in his belly. He is looking forward to beers with his colleagues after work – anything to avoid being at home where he feels pressured by his wife to engage emotionally.

If you relate to these people, then you know the feeling. A quiet unrest, sometimes not so quiet. Perhaps for you, it is a silent scream inside of you wanting something more to fill you up. This is the feeling people experience when they suffer from something called Mother Hunger, named and explained by therapist and author Kelly McDaniel. A feeling inside that nothing will ever be enough to fulfil them, to love them sufficiently, or to fill up that void.

Gabor Mate talks about the ‘Hungry Ghost’ in his book about addiction. This is an apt description of Mother Hunger – it feels like there exists a hungry beast that nothing will satisfy. Perhaps you feed this internal gnawing sensation with work, with wine, with food, with love and relationships, or keeping busy, or even, shamefully, your children. But nothing satisfies. You simply can’t work enough, love enough or eat enough to fill this void.

Mother Hunger is a yearning

Mother Hunger is the powerful term that Kelly McDaniel has coined to describe this yearning. She asserts this is a deep and profound yearning for maternal love. In her groundbreaking book, Mother Hunger, she describes beautifully and hauntingly this experience of Mother Hunger. She also outlines its origins. Finally, a book that makes sense of my own experience, and names the experience I hear described over and over in my private therapy practice by men and women alike.

This was a difficult book to read. It is triggering for many as it outlines exactly how we end up injured with Mother Hunger. It touches this wound, and that can be excruciating, but also illuminating.

McDaniel describes that Mother Hunger is the result of missing out on sufficient nurturance, protection and guidance from our mothers as infants and young children. She says

For an infant, a mother’s body is the natural habitat that regulates breathing, body temperature, sleep rhythms and heartrate. Nature’s design is for her to stay close so that development goes smoothly. When an infant has a need, such as hunger pangs, natures design is for her to meet that need.

Kelly McDaniel in Mother Hunger

In our dominant culture, this need for maternal nurturance has been underappreciated – the science is catching up on the deep impact a lack of maternal attunement has on secure attachment and proper development. Simply put, secure attachment and attunement are the single biggest predictor of human success (not measured by money, prestige or position power) later in life. Maternal nurturance and attunement are necessary for proper development, and this process has been interrupted in many ways throughout human history. Trauma, war, famine, societal pressure, and the patriarchy have all contributed to a dismissal of the necessity of effective mothering.

The result? We are the most addicted, depressed, medicated and alienated cohort in human history (as Brene Brown speaks about in her work). This is a crisis, and the roots are in your first love, your first relationship: the relationship with your mother.

Healing begins with understanding

As with most things, the first step in healing this wound is to first understand what it is and how it came to be. This is the gift of learning about Mother Hunger. When you hear that your feelings are valid and make sense given this wound you have sustained, healing can begin. Calmness can wash over you as you finally stop the internal beating of yourself for behaviour that you want to stop. Your behaviour, however dysfunctional, can be explained and understood through this lens.

However, understanding alone is insufficient. Changing behaviour takes time, and in my experience, therapy. Unwinding the early loss of this attunement is a deep and often difficult process. McDaniel wonders if fully healing from a deep wound she calls third-degree Mother Hunger is even possible. That knowledge can be soothing to know, and perhaps disquieting. I believe that healing is possible, and it begins with understanding.

After that, uncovering this wound, grieving the early loss, and replacing these missing pieces with new internal nurturing, protective and guiding figures can do a lot for someone seeking to heal from Mother Hunger.

The important thing to know is this: you are not alone, and you do not need to suffer alone.