How To Find A Mother Figure When Your Mom Has a Mental Illness

My name is Ally Golden and I wrote my memoir, A Good Soldier, about my relationship with my mother, who suffered from Borderline Personality Disorder. Because of her disease, my mother and I never had a normal relationship. The love she gave was never without strings attached. Her affections depended on the amount of attention I paid to her and her mood on the given day. Our relationship was not all bad, I know what characterizes a good mom from her good moments: comforting me through the injustices of middle school friendships and advocating on my behalf to choral instructors. However, the intermittent tastes of good parenting only left me wanting more. For most of my life, I have tried to find a mother figure to fill in the gaps, and the following is what I learned.

Be forewarned!
If you are looking for someone to completely fill the void of an absent mother in your life, you need to adjust your expectations. No one will be able wholly adopt you into their family nor provide you the unconditional love that you crave. This is not because these potential mother figures don’t want to be there for you. There are just natural limits to how motherly this mentor can be to you: the number of hours in a day, finite emotional energy, lack of childhood bonding, and competing interpersonal relationships.

I have had an assortment of lovely women offer to be adopted mothers to me; they all want to mean it and even think that they mean it—but they just don’t. That being said, you can still find a collection of close, older mother figures and mentors to compensate for the lack of comfort or attention your biological mother gave you.

Qualities to look for.
Before you start your search for a mother figure, you should do a mental inventory of what is missing from your life that you want this individual to fill. This will be different for every person, but there tend to be certain prevailing themes. For instance, a good mother will be supportive. This characteristic is often missing in the relationships between a mentally ill parent and their child because the parent may be too busy managing their own mental disorder to pay attention to what is going on in their children’s lives.

Another salient characteristic you should look for is empathy. This one is almost a prerequisite. A mother figure would not even be able to understand your unique struggles—much less help you with them—without having a natural desire to understand and relate to people outside of kin. This trait is especially important if your mother had a mental illness, since oftentimes mentally ill parents fail to identify with their children’s problems. In fact, for many psychological disorders, lack of empathy is one of the symptoms that qualifies the mental illness.

You will also need mother figures with patience. Your wounds and trauma were forged over the decades of childhood and will likewise take time to heal. It is important that your potential mother figure has the right mindset. Your emotional wellbeing is not a pet project for them to take on and expect immediate improvements. It takes time to unlearn old habits and defense mechanisms. Only a mother figure with ceaseless patience will be able to provide consistent support.

Where to look.
Now that you understand what personality traits you want in a mother figure, you just need to know where to find her. This part is actually easier than most people anticipate. A compatible mother figure will share similar interests and you, so the best way to discover her is to pursue your own interests. You can join a book club, start going to yoga classes, take master classes at a local community college, network with people within your company, or take a pottery course. In doing so, you will have the chance to meet women organically and have a reason to see them on a regular basis. These activities are great ways to form relationships while growing as a person or fostering a new skill.

Everyone needs motherly guidance and encouragement throughout their lives. It is important for emotional health to love and be loved; no one truly outgrows this fundamental human need. If you believe that you are deficient in this department because of your emotionally distant mother, I would urge you to stop waiting for her to change and actively pursue other avenues—or people—to receive the support that you deserve.

Ally Golden is the author of A Good Soldier, a memoir on the emotional toll of growing up with a mentally ill parent. It is available on Amazon and other online bookstores. Ally frequently writes and speaks on the impacts of mental illness on family life. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Wall St. Journal, and the Atlantic. Ally is also an active volunteer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention where she witnesses firsthand the devastating influence mental illnesses can have on the loved ones of the afflicted. To learn more about Ally, visit her website.


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