What Exactly Is Mother Hunger?

When you think of first relationships, you may imagine playground puppy love or your first romance in young adulthood. But for most people, the first relationship experienced is actually with their mother. From time spent in her womb to midnight feeding sessions, mothers are typically the first ones there to comfort and protect us early in life. And for women, the bond with a maternal figure can be even more intense. One study in The Journal of Neuroscience showed that mother-daughter relationships are the strongest of all bonds between parents and their children.


But not all relationships between moms and their daughters are rosy. Counselor and coach Rosjke Hasseldine explains that conflict is common in these relationships, though it's often dismissed as being unimportant or simply the result of hormone fluctuations (via Rosjke.com). At the root of this conflict, she says, is actually a much deeper "emotional starvation" and neglect of personal needs.

This starvation has now been given a proper term by author and counselor Kelly McDaniel on her website: mother hunger. And like any other type of hunger, it can have a ripple effect in other areas of life and well-being.

What does mother hunger really mean?

On her website, Kelly McDaniel describes mother hunger as "any achy loneliness that distorts [a woman's] self-concept and capacity for healthy relationships." This emptiness is the result of not getting at least one of three needs — nurturing, protection, and guidance — met by her mother during childhood. Mother hunger, she says, exists on a spectrum and doesn't look the same for everyone who experiences it. However, McDaniel discussed some common signs of mother hunger on the radio show "Behind Closed Doors" (via Triune Therapy Group), such as substance abuse or addiction, sex or love addiction, a pattern of unhealthy relationships, insecurity, and more.


Mother hunger is similar to "mommy issues" or "daddy issues," though it only describes the strained relationship between a mother and daughter. Still, "mommy issues" in women are similar to mother hunger, often manifesting as low self-worth, a tendency to have unhealthy relationships, depression, and anxiety (via Healthline).

One thing that sets mother hunger apart is its symptom of "pathological hope," another term coined by McDaniel. She described this symptom on "The Goop Podcast": "What I call pathological hope is the continually going back to the mother that we have, hoping for a different reaction, hoping for a different mom, hoping we will finally have the mom we want." This desire to get certain needs met by our mother but not being satisfied in the end triggers a "hunger" that is then fed with unhealthy habits or dysfunctional romantic relationships.


How to manage the pangs of mother hunger

Women who experience mother hunger may, for the first several decades of their lives, turn to damaging coping strategies — such as staying in toxic relationships – to cope with their feelings. But to truly overcome mother hunger, it's crucial to adopt healthy, self-loving behaviors.


If you've recognized that you're struggling with unsatiated mother hunger, Kelly McDaniel says on "The Goop Podcast" that the next step is to identify which of the three basic needs you weren't given as a child and find a healthy way to meet those needs as an adult. Growing Human(kind)ness also suggests allowing yourself to grieve the mother you wanted but didn't have and honor the uncomfortable feelings you may hold for your mother.

However, overcoming mother hunger can be easier said than done. If you're still struggling, or if you've learned to cope using harmful substances, disordered eating, or other habits that may be detrimental to your well-being, a doctor or therapist can offer the tools and resources needed to recover.


If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.