How Can You Miss Someone You’ve Never Known?

Phantom Loss

Ann Patchett’s main character in the novel The Dutch House asks, “How can I miss someone I’ve never known?” He is talking about not having met or known his mother. And yet, when the character’s father died, he really missed his mother. I surmise that most of us do not remember our birth mothers, but, yet, we miss them. Is that phantom loss, much like losing an arm, but believing it is still attached.

My initial, albeit cynical, thought would be we find comfort in the romantic make-belief: the relationship we would have liked to have had with our birth mother. The reality is we’ve probably watched too much television. We glom onto the warm embraces, the mothers who love us unconditionally, the mothers, who, according to Patchett, are the measure of our feeling safe.

Feeling Safe

In a way, that last part is close to being realistic.  Nancy Verrier, a licensed family therapist and author of Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child, opines that early needs are formed in children as a result of abandonment. The loss of safety is one of those developments. A friend, who adopted a child at nine months old, made biennial two-week trips overseas without her daughter; the child was too young to take along. On the day of departure, the child routinely screamed non-stop and held onto her mother’s leg, regardless where the mother went. Eventually, the adoptive parent had to have the child stay with her brother and sister-in-law the day before leaving. Clearly, the child thought her second mother, as well, was leaving her, and did not feel safe.

The opposite of make-belief is reality. We can wish for the traits of what someone represents. “A mother is a measure of safety” (Patchett); so, what we really miss is safety, warmth, reliability, consistency, calm, patience, forgiveness, and fierceness. We miss having someone who can supply these needs—.replaced by a good grandmother or adoptive parent, or, in the case of The Dutch House, a caring older sister. Perhaps the main character knew what ought to be; he was missing someone to meet his needs.

What do you think? I might have led you to believe that mothers can be replaced, as long as the needs are met. Oh, oh, that’s another topic.

My memoir is availabe on this site, if you’d like to read more.

A barren land with a purple flower growing


  1. Faith Rousso on 07/08/2020 at 9:36 pm

    I recently read Dutch House, and that quote also jumped at me. As an adoptee and an adoption professional, I understand the feelings of abandonment and attachment on both an intellectual and emotional level. I don’t believe adoption defines me; however, it is a part of who I am. I connected with my birth mom 25 years ago, and she didn’t want me to “ruin” her life. Her daughter called me a few months ago when “her mother” passed away and asked if I wanted to be at the funeral. I went. I cried. I was in in so much pain – this is a woman who was not nice to me, didn’t welcome me and I was so sad. I felt as though my story died with her.

  2. Marita Malone on 07/13/2020 at 6:26 pm

    Very compelling remark. When my birth mother died, I did not go to the funeral, but because she had lived in such a small village, I thought that instead of her passing being the intent of the funeral, her “long lost daughter” would have been the center of the mourners’ attention.

  3. Robert Hafetz on 10/19/2023 at 11:36 am

    Infants only a few days old can record long term memories. “Infants do not think but they do process emotions and long term memories are stored as affective schemas” (Geansbauer, 2002). An infant separated from its first mother will record a memory of that event. Memories of this nature are Further complicating the adoptive family system is a memory process that is common called preverbal memory representations and they have a unique quality that must be understood by adoptive parents. “Infant memories are recalled in adulthood the same way they were recorded at the time they occurred. It is difficult possibly impossible for children to map newly acquired verbal skills on to existing preverbal memory representations” (Richardson, R., & Hayne, H. 2007). An older adoptee who recalls an emotional memory will experience it the same way it was felt as an infant. Adoptees can have troubling memories that they cannot identify in words. This means that they cannot understand what they are feeling and without a vocabulary they cannot even ask for help. This leads to a cognitive /emotional disconnection. “Children fail to translate their preverbal memories into language”(Simcock, Hayne, 2002).

    • Marita Malone on 10/20/2023 at 10:03 pm

      What is your opinion of Nancy Verrier’s “The Primal Wound”? I know she has professionals that do not agree with her in several areas. I don’t know if you have read my book “My Mother My Daughter”, but she wrote the acknowledgement on the back cover. Perhaps you would find the book right up your “alley”?

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Marita Malone

Marita Malone, Ph.D., is a former assistant professor and a former special agent of the FBI. She was adopted from Germany after World War II. She is an author of several books, blogs, and articles: the memoir My Mother My Daughter, Managing Law Enforcement Change, and several articles and blogs on management, professional ethics, and adult adoptee issues. Dr. Malone authors the interactive website .