It’s one thing to read a good book and want to share it – it’s another to be lucky enough to speak one-on-one with the author herself. In this podcast, we speak with Jasmin Lee Cori on her groundbreaking work, The Emotionally Absent Mother: How to Recognize and Heal the Invisible Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect. This book has been incredibly impactful in helping individuals from all walks of life understand how deeply childhood can be affected by parental dysfunction, in overt and subtle ways. Numerous members of the Makom branch of JITC have expressed that this book has been integral in clarifying the difference between family dysfunction and their experiences growing up as observant Jews.
Cori explains that childhood emotional neglect — a recent focus in psychology — describes the absence of pieces that children need to develop a healthy sense of self. Unlike physical neglect, children (and adults) who experience emotional neglect lack the emotional aspect of being parented well.
“The surprising part of this,” Cori says, “is that there are loving parents who try to do their job well, but are still missing the major pieces of parenting a child without emotionally neglecting them.” Many emotionally neglectful parents were themselves emotionally neglected as children; others come from their own family history of trauma.
The Jewish community in particular comes from a long line of generational trauma — one of the most recent upheavals being the Holocaust. Emotional dysregulation in response to such extreme tragedy is understandable; it also, however, comes at the price of affecting generations of children down the line.
Again, many emotionally neglectful parents do not intend to be neglectful — and in fact, consider themselves attentive. Yet their own emotional dysfunction naturally affects their parenting style. To continue the previous angle, some parents in the post-Holocaust period were, unfortunately, becoming parents for the second time in their lives. Some of those who lost their first families in the slaughter could not bring themselves to become emotionally attached to their second family for fear of loss. That is not to say that they did not love their children: however, emotional distancing was a protective measure against the fear of pain that might come with attachment.
The umbrella term for the dysfunction that leads to emotionally neglectful parenting is “insecure attachment.” One of the hallmarks of a secure relationship is the ability to rest: you can trust that the other person is going to be there for you, which allows you to be comfortable and lean into the relationship, affecting your sense of self. Insecure attachment styles do not invite rest. Some people are more self-sufficient and keep people at arm’s length because they don’t trust that their needs can or will be met by the care and kindness of other people; others form a clingier relationship dynamic where they need constant reassurance that they won’t be left behind and alone.
The Emotionally Absent Mother also highlights hallmarks of healthy parental relationships, in lieu of merely describing the absences in a dysfunctional one. One of the most poignant contrasts is the presence or absence of what Cori calls “Good Mother Messages.” These messages can be communicated through both speech and actions/expressions, and include comforts and truths such as I’m glad you’re here, and I’m glad you’re you. “It’s the experience of having someone delight in you,” Cori explains. She describes the feeling of successfully receiving these messages like walking into a room and being noticed by someone you love, and their face lighting up at the sight of you being there. More often than not, people who were raised emotionally neglected do not feel this — and in fact cannot comprehend such a reaction to their presence to be real or possible.
The ripple effects that emotional neglect has on other relationships — including sense of self — do make broaching the subject difficult. As with many heavy topics, self-honesty about the nature and depth of dysfunction can be distressing and triggering to people who have been so deeply hurt. Approaching the idea that one has been emotionally neglected — be it an exploration led by a support team, or an individual soul-search — can be painful in an entirely different way. Ironically, these discussions are best held in an environment where the individual feels secure: which is difficult to learn and/or accept given their upbringing. This is part of why self-parenting is often recommended as an option: to allow the adult parts of oneself to take on a parent-like role to one’s inner child.
At the time of The Emotionally Absent Mother’s publication, an estimated 38% of Americans lack secure attachments in their relationships: a shocking and heartbreaking statistic, which is unfortunately easy to see at large in Jewish circles. Insecurity is a very real reason that people leave communities, in search of a place that feels safer. Negative and toxic experiences with Judaism — in the home and outside of it — can push people away entirely. Woefully, the experiences themselves can become buried as the root cause of the pain, and that anger is sometimes projected onto Judaism in its entirety. Another common reaction is self-directed shame: that they couldn’t “measure up enough” to be supported the way they needed to by parents and/or mentoring figures, and that they are now tasked with reparenting themself. For many of our Makom members, this book has validated their pain, and offers hope for healing.
An uplifting note is the fact that Good Mother Messages are inherent in Judaism. G-d is often referred to as a parent, and Hashem’s feminine aspect — the Shechina — is quite focused on rest and love. The Shechina is the safest place in the world, yet those who have experienced trauma within a religious lifestyle don’t often feel at ease with the concept of a relationship with G-d. Although one might be surrounded by divine Good Mother Messages, an upbringing which presented a conflicting message — that G-d is a terrifying being, rather than a loving, nurturing one — can make reconnecting with the Shechina difficult.
That all being said, just because the divine Good Mother Messages have been blocked doesn’t mean that they have disappeared. Dysfunction is, perhaps, the result of the stoppage of divine Good Mother Messages: the pain of the Holocaust is a macro one, while individually toxic people are micro stoppages. While self-discovery and trust are lifelong endeavors, those elements are some of the most integral in the Jewish faith.