Relational Strivings This Emotional Life - PBS

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    Jessica Zucker, Ph.D.

Jessica Zucker, Ph.D.'s Bio

Dr. Zucker specializes in women’s health, postpartum mood disorders, and early parent-child bonding.

Relational Strivings


Although each participant narrated her own unique developmental unfolding, many of the women interviewed explained feeling that there was “never enough” love to be consumed, implicating early emotional starvation as a root cause of this seemingly unfillable internal space.  Early childhood attachment and bonding issues between mothers and daughters can have long-term relational implications. Tori explained, “I was feeling a little love needy.  And I recognized that I was never going to get too much love.  And I thought at that point, you know, nobody’s my happy machine, nobody’s ever going to give me enough love.”  A recovering drug addict with a family history of mental illness, Tori is not alone in her description of struggling with a lifelong urge to be metaphorically filled up by another.  Having felt obliquely attached to her mother and left to make meaning of many things on her own as a child, Tori shared with me about a seminal moment when she relationally gave up on getting her needs met by her mother.

And I think my mom, I’ve changed my expectations of her, right?  So now I expect her not to be, you know, the person that when I was a child she was; you can come here any time, I love you, dah, dah, dah, not like that, no.  I think her job doing that is done and now we can be friends and we can talk about things.

There is a sense of simultaneous hopelessness and constructed independence or self-assuredness that Tori embodies in an effort to stave off seemingly excruciating feelings.
The palpable relational tenuousness is further depicted as many of the women robustly reflected on their aspiration to please the people around them, to burrow into a space of maternal acceptance and love.  Elle, age 49, remembered:

I loved my mommy and I loved my daddy.  I’ve got the best parents in the whole world.  And basically I would do anything I could to please them.  What I’ve noticed is a lot of people in this business will do anything they can to get love and to get acceptance.  I would do anything that I could to keep love and to perpetuate that.  I was very liked.  I was a very loved child.

Elle’s candid expression of the need to be needed and the great length she will go in order to gain this attention reverberated throughout many of the interviews.  Erratic experiences of getting and not getting that which she strives for relationally is a breeding ground for trying that much harder to attain it, often resulting in pools of disappointment and confusion.  Emiko, age 21, described her mother’s changeable affect and their unsteady connection, describing a push-pull, love-hate dynamic.  “In a way she was overbearing, but at the same time she was – it was so weird.  She would like cling on – she was very possessive, very overprotected, but yet she was so– like she pushed me away at the same time.  You know, one of those.”

For Mackenzie, it was the lack of time she spent with her mother that left her desirous of more and created indelible space within which she filled in for the maternal absence.  “She did [understand me as a child].  She just didn’t have much time because she worked late nights and then sleep during the day, so – but I mean she did whatever she could when she had time.”  Inconsistent maternal attunement often results in a lack of regulatory functioning.  The push-pull, love-hate, and on and off again cycling within the mother-daughter bond precludes a sense of spacious thinking, potentially shutting down identity formation and interpersonal development.