Mums without maternal support: Rethinking 'motherlessness' in mothering

Date of Award


Document Type



Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Arts and Humanities

First Supervisor

Irene Ngune

Second Supervisor

Bronwyn Harman



Mother-daughter relationships are considered one of the strongest, and most enduring, of all human ties, characterised by emotional closeness, caregiving, personal identification, and role modelling. Research literature also emphasises the consistent and ongoing nature of the relationship, underlining the well-being benefits of continuous maternal nurture and support for adult-daughters, particularly when they have children of their own. An underexamined area of research in this space relates to the experiences of adult daughters who find themselves lacking this specific source of support during their childrearing years. ‘Motherlessness’ in mothering is a new concept in research literature describing adult daughters who raise their children without their own, living, mothers’ support.

Aim of the Research:

To date, no literature has explored this phenomenon, therefore the overarching purpose of this thesis was to explore the meaning of ‘motherlessness’ for adult-daughters raising children in Australia. More specifically, the differing reasons why adult daughters may lack support from their own, living, mothers during their childrearing years, and also the impact and meaning of the absence of this specific source of support during the women’s childrearing lives.


A sequential explanatory, mixed methods phenomenological research design was utilised for this study. Specifically, Phase One of the project utilised an online, Australia wide quantitative survey, followed by in-depth qualitative interviews in Phase Two. The purpose of Phase One was to gain insight into the differing ways in which mothers interpret ‘motherlessness’ in their current mother roles, whilst Phase Two interviews were designed to gain a broader understanding of the experiences, impact, and meaning the absence of maternal support has on a daughter’s mother role. One hundred and fifty-six resident Australian adult-daughters experiencing ‘motherlessness’ took part in the Phase One quantitative survey, with a purposive sample of sixteen Phase One respondents selected for the Phase Two interview process. Phase One survey data were analysed descriptively and provided a clear understanding of the basic patterns and characteristics within the overall data set, whilst Phase Two interview data were analysed using thematic analysis and resulted in a range of themes relating to the impact and meaning of the ‘motherlessness’ experience overall. Findings from this thesis resulted in three journal articles, written in preparation for publication.


Article One utilised data from both phases of the mixed methods design to identify potential variables, or circumstances, that may increase the likelihood of adult daughters experiencing ‘motherlessness’ in their everyday mothering lives. Quantitative survey results demonstrated an absence of maternal support as meaningful to adult daughters and noted geographical distance and poor relationship quality as predominant reasons for support absence. Follow up qualitative interviews expanded the findings and highlighted five major themes: ‘reasons for support absence’, ‘mother-daughter relationship’, ‘current contact’, ‘support received’, and ‘redefining motherlessness’. Overall, poor emotional connection between mother and daughter, and a lack of maternal-line emotional availability were highlighted as key elements of maternal support absence.

Article Two utilised data from Phase Two of the project and focused on the qualitative exploration of the practical support concerns, and challenges, faced by adult daughters experiencing ‘motherlessness’ in their everyday childrearing lives. Four major themes were found: ‘the load of mothering’, ‘support providers’, ‘barriers to support mobilisation’, and ‘it takes a village’. Article Two demonstrated that, in the absence of having a mother to share their mothering loads, adult daughters experiencing ‘motherlessness’ could spread their support needs throughout a network of family and friends, although this process required additional cognitive responsibilities, and was often hindered by the influence of the ‘good mother’ ideal.

Article Three also utilised data from the second, qualitative, phase of the project to explore the personal impact, and meaning, of the absence of a supportive maternal presence for adult daughters raising children. Three major themes emerged including ‘managing matresence – the nurturing mother’, ‘mothering the mother – needing nurture’, and ‘mother nurture reflections’. Article Three highlighted the influence of maternal role-modelling when adult-daughters become mothers themselves, a recognition of the need for self-care in the absence of having a mother available, a deeper understanding of maternal mothers as women, and a greater acceptance of the current mother-daughter relationship.

Key Contributions:

Collectively, the findings of this thesis acknowledge the unique elements of maternal nurture and support emphasised through prior research, and theory, and highlight the absence of this unique source of support and nurture as meaningful to adult daughters raising children. Specifically, this thesis draws distinction to both practical and personal challenges adult- daughters, experiencing ‘motherlessness’, may face in their day-to-day mothering lives and the strategies they utilised to overcome them.

Implications for Practice:

Findings of this study will be beneficial in increasing professional sensitivity and awareness of the relevance, and meaning, of the absence of maternal support for adult daughters raising children, and as a practical guide for clinicians and other professionals working with adult-daughters experiencing ‘motherlessness’ in their everyday childrearing lives. Directions for future research are also discussed.



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