What Is Mother Hunger? Understanding Complex Mother-Daughter Relationships

Many of us have complex relationships with our families. But the relationships between mothers and daughters can be particularly intense, especially when expectations, identity, gender, bonding, and trauma come into the mix.

In a recent "Red Table Talk" episode, author Jennette McCurdy — the former "iCarly" child star who made waves this summer when her debut memoir, "I'm Glad My Mom Died," hit the shelves — described her mother's controlling, abusive behavior, which included introducing calorie restriction and severe dieting at age 11, frequent verbal shaming and violence, and a lack of privacy and autonomy (which included McCurdy being subjected to body screenings in the shower).

During her "Red Table Talk" discussion, McCurdy spoke on the cultural emphasis and prestige mothers often have — and how it often prevents their children from reckoning with, or even identifying, abuse.

"With moms, there seems to be a need to keep them up on a pedestal, and I had my mom on that pedestal, and it was really detrimental to my own mental health," she said. It wasn't until her early 20s, when she was in therapy, that McCurdy was ready to acknowledge her mother was abusive.

Trauma therapist Kelly McDaniel, LPC, NCC, joined McCurdy and the hosts of "Red Table Talk," Jada Pinkett Smith, Willow Smith, and Adrienne Banfield Norris. She introduced her theory of "mother hunger" — a term McDaniel describes as a cancer that "invisibly eats away your insides, slowly digesting any strength, dignity, or agency you've gathered. Hunger pains need relief. Food, sex, romance, work, alcohol . . . something to numb the inner longing for love that's missing."

Let's talk about exactly what mother hunger means and what to do if you relate to the term.

What Is Mother Hunger?

McDaniel first developed the theory of "mother hunger" in her book "Ready to Heal" to describe the paradox of love, pain, and mother-daughter relationships. Later expanding on the term in her book "Mother Hunger," McDaniel identifies the three fundamentals of what mothers must provide their daughters: nurturing, protection, and guidance.

If any one of these three necessities is missing, McDaniel argues, the daughter will grow up with a distorted self-concept and injured capacity for healthy relationships.

But it's important to know that mother hunger isn't a diagnosis, nor does it mean your mother has maliciously denied you care. Even well-meaning mothers can often struggle to provide nurturing, protection, and guidance, especially when considering the conditions of class, socioeconomics, patriarchy, and other extreme stressors. Simply put, McDaniel says mothers can't give what they don't already have — or have never experienced themselves.

"Mother Hunger exists on a spectrum and names the invisible wound that emerges from missing comfort, or safety, or guidance from your mother," McDaniel writes. "But Mother Hunger isn't pathology or a disorder. It's an injury. An invisible wound that hides from awareness until you find a name."

In some cases, a mother doesn't provide any of the three necessary pillars. "Third-degree mother hunger" describes a mother who not only fails to provide the three pillars to her daughter but is also abusive. "Third-degree Mother Hunger feels like a sense of homelessness, a burning need for addiction, and a haunting confusion about your basic needs and desires," McDaniel says.

Mother hunger is often intergenerational, and it's not only impacted by own upbringing, but it also tends to play out in potential behavioral patterns and relationships you've carried into your adulthood.

What Should You Do About Mother Hunger?

If you relate to McDaniel's concept of mother hunger or McCurdy's story or simply need support and guidance on how to process your mother-daughter relationship, consider seeking professional help.

To process, acknowledge, or heal your mother hunger, find a qualified therapist. For guidance, check out POPSUGAR's in-depth explainer on finding the right therapist for you or speak with a trusted healthcare provider for a recommendation.

McDaniel recommends cultivating a sense of awareness around your mother hunger and finding a competent attachment-style-focused professional familiar with mother hunger. On her website, you can find a resource guide to trained professionals offering mother-hunger support.