We hear a lot about “daddy issues” with women. Generally speaking, the term describes women’s unhealthy relationship patterns after growing up with either an absent or negligent father.
We rarely talk about the reverse: Men can also have mommy issues.
Elvis Presley is often held up as the ultimate mama’s boy, a man who adored his mother, Gladys, and never quite got over her early death. One psychotherapist called Presley a “classic example of the mother/Madonna/whore split,” and Presley’s ex-wife, Priscilla Presley, recalled his intimacy issues after she gave birth in her memoir. The singer told her “he had never been able to make love to a woman who had a child.”
More recently, Alec Baldwin’s wife, Hilaria, suggested that the actor has some mommy issues: “Sometimes I’m his mommy,” the 39-year-old told Romper in June of her 65-year-old husband. “At the beginning of our relationship, everyone was like, ‘She must have daddy issues because she’s married to somebody older.’ But it’s actually the opposite.”
Therapists confirm that so-called mommy issues are just as common as daddy issues ― though many mental health experts believe the terms cheapen real issues springing from our childhoods.
“There is something demeaning and minimizing about using words like this,” said Ken Page, a New York-based psychotherapist and the host of the “Deeper Dating Podcast.”
“I think that if your partner tells you you have daddy issues or mommy issues, there’s a quality of minimization and criticism inherent in that,” he said. “And I think that you know, historically, very often it is women who are told by men who want to change their behavior that they have daddy issues.”
The reality is, if you’re human, you probably have mommy and/or daddy issues to work out in some form, Page said.
“It’s just like fear of intimacy being put out as this kind of pathology when we all have certain degrees of fear of intimacy,” he said. “If you’re breathing, you have some fear of intimacy because intimacy is one of the most precious and also one of the most challenging things in life.
“Similarly, if you’re breathing and human, you’ve got daddy ― or mommy ― issues,” he said. “A huge factor in how we behave in relationships is the quality of caretaking we received from our parents.”
That’s true “no matter how wonderful your parenting was, because your parents weren’t perfect, and neither are you,” Page said.
The psychotherapist noted that these kinds of issues don’t always originate from the opposite sex parent: You can be a man with daddy issues or a woman with mommy issues, too.
When we talk about daddy or mommy issues, we’re really just talking about attachment issues and family dynamics, according to marriage and family therapist Kati Morton.
Our attachment style ― whether anxiously attached, avoidantly attached or securely attached ― takes form in childhood based on how our parents or caregivers treat us. It’s the way we emotionally bond and relate to others in the context of close relationships.
“Essentially, the way our parents interact with us and respond to our needs helps us create a blueprint for our future relationships,” said Morton, who, besides being a practicing therapist, is the author of “Are u ok? A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health.”
Those blueprints can mean we struggle with intimacy, feel anxious when people get close, or have difficulty letting anyone know us.
Morton said it can also mean we use our future relationships to compensate for what we didn’t get as children.
“This could explain why we date older people, maybe wanting them to care for us in a way we weren’t ever cared for, or maybe we were always the responsible or parentified child, and we want a break from that role,” she said.
Whatever the cause or reaction, it all boils down to the way we were raised and what that taught us about relationships and connection.
Men Share What It’s Like To Have Mommy Issues
Men who admit to having what might be called “mommy issues” agree that the conversation needs to be much more nuanced.
Growing up with an overprotective mom, Nate Ahmad, a 26-year-old from Toronto, Canada, said he was very much coddled, and today, he still feels like he needs constant reassurance that he’s making the right life choices.
“It also seems to have manifested in my life in the form of needing constant reassurance about how my partner feels about me, if they love me, and if they still care about me,” Ahmad said.
“In the past, it resulted in me testing my partner’s love by doing things that probably were not the most healthy or kind of toxic, just to see how they respond, to get proof that they do care about me.”
He’s gotten better about testing in recent relationships, in part because he learned what he thought of as mommy issues were more like attachment issues. Those with anxious attachment styles, like Ahmad, need more reassurance about their relationships, often to the detriment of the relationship.
“My mom went back to work pretty quickly after she gave birth to me,” he said. “She was a great mom, but I think possibly there was a lack of attachment forming there compared to what you’d expect from a healthier attachment bond forming... I feel like that’s caused me to have my growing up being clingy.”
Today, Ahmad is working on creating healthier boundaries in his relationships and communicating his needs. He recognizes his attachment issues but doesn’t dwell on them.
“I don’t get hung up on like, ‘Oh, my mother’s the reason I’m like this, or my father’s the reason I’m like this,’” he said. “That can be consuming. So really, it’s about just reflecting, taking accountability for only the things you need to, and then just seeing where you can do better and start slowly.”
“I was angry with my mother for my entire 32 year naval career. Therapy helped me move past that, and in therapy, I learned that my dad was a part of my fear and anger, too ― it wasn’t just my mother.”
Leon Walker, a motivational speaker, said his issues with his mom run a little deeper. For half of his childhood, Walker said his mother was “loving, caring, supportive” and active in his life. His feelings toward her changed at 11 when his parents divorced.
“My parents split up, and I was sent to live with a caregiver who was a woman that I didn’t know,” Walker said. “The divorce caused me to not want to get married nor have kids. More than anything, the fact that my mother left my father made me feel like we were highly discarded.”
As a young man, Walker said he sided with his dad over his mom more times than not and defended men over women.
In relationships, Walker says he didn’t know how to hug, cuddle, listen to or love women. He said he struggled to receive nurturing or care from any of the women in his life and was classically avoidant, largely because of the treatment he received from his mom.
“My mom left me three times: When she divorced my dad in 1979 when she started doing drugs in 1985, and when she died in 2012,” he said.
“Being discarded by my mom taught me how it felt to be discarded, and I developed that trait as well: I learned how to ‘discard’ women like my mother discarded me,” he said
Walker has since learned that there was blame to go around regarding his treatment as a child. That lesson didn’t come easy.
“I was angry with my mother for my entire 32-year naval career,” he said. “Therapy helped me move past that, and in therapy, I learned that my dad was a part of my fear and anger, too ― it wasn’t just my mother.”
How To Work On And Rise Above Parental Issues
Our relationship with our primary caregivers is vital, and being abused, neglected, or having any unmet needs can set us up to look to others in our lives to fill those needs, Morton said.
Luckily, it’s possible to heal from attachment issues and stop acting out of our past experiences.
“Most of us grow up with some dysfunction in our families, so know that you are definitely not alone, and while we aren’t responsible for how we were raised, we are responsible for what we do now,” she said.
The first step is to recognize childhood trauma or unmet needs by our parents, Page said.
“Put them in words ― ‘I felt abandoned in my childhood,’ for instance ― so you understand why it makes sense that we feel that way given our history, but also why it makes sense that we feel this way in this current relationship,” he said.
The goal is to name your needs ― to yourself in your self-talk, to your partner so they understand you ― not to suppress those needs. Suppression of long unmet needs inevitably leads to people acting out in romantic relationships, Page said.
“So if things got heated at dinner, you could say something like: ’I’m feeling insecurity now, and I know it’s springing from me and an issue from my childhood. But I would just like to hear validation from you about XYZ. I would just like you to hold me or hold hands so I can remember that you love me. So I can get back to that feeling.’”
When it comes to these issues, Page said we need to take shame and guilt off the table as much as possible. “When we do that, we take off a certain amount of pressure for our partner, which makes it so much easier for that need to be met,” he said.
While attachment issues can certainly be worked on within a relationship, if you do happen to be single, Morton said you have a great opportunity to take some time between relationships, do some introspective work, and reflect on the unhealthy patterns in your life.
She added that therapy can immensely benefit these issues if you can financially swing it. (Here’s a helpful guide on how to find affordable counseling.)
“What you need to do is figure out what all of your failed relationships ― friendships and romantic ones ― have in common and figure out your role in them,” she said. “I know it’s hard, and making a behavioral change is difficult, but with the support of a therapist, it can and will get better. It is possible to heal from this.”