As an only child for the first nine years of my life, I had a rich and very detailed fantasy life, especially since I could read well by the age of 4. As unhappy as I was, I had imaginary landscapes to which I could escape; I could find myself on an island like Peter Pan’s Neverland where I would live with lots of puppies and Mother-free or perhaps in the root cellar of Little House on the Prairie. I believed in kabouters, the Dutch forest gnome, because my grandfather showed me the tiny footprints they left under the mushrooms in Dutch forests. I believed in the power of wishes and the things that made wishes come true like wishbones, four-leaf clovers, fallen eyelashes, dandelion puffballs, birthday candles, and shooting stars, and I wished hard and fervently every time that, somehow, my mother would love me and be nice to me. I even had a rabbit’s foot—which I now fervently hope was fake—which I would rub and stroke. You will not be surprised to learn that my wishes did not come true.
But I had companionship too. My dolls were great conversationalists and my imaginary friends were characters who stepped out of the pages of my books and into my childhood room. While long thought to be the sign of psychological disturbance by parents and professionals alike, many children have imaginary companions, as the work of Marjorie Taylor has shown, and, yes, the children do know that they’re “pretend.” The imaginary companion may play a slightly different role in the unloved daughter’s life, providing reassurance and respite, and allowing her to express feelings and thoughts that she can’t in the real-life household. Mine took my side when my mother belittled me, and helped me manage my feelings.
Research shows, in fact, that pre-school children who have relatively rich fantasy lives or are high in Fantasy Orientation enjoy certain developmental benefits pertaining to executive functioning and emotional regulation. So pretending may actually help you navigate the real world in unexpected ways, at least when you’re still just learning about the social world.
From a psychological point of view, one of the things children have to learn is to distinguish between fantasy beliefs—the existence of fairies, elves, Santa Claus, and the like—and those substantiated by reality. Interestingly, while you’d think that age would account for skepticism, that’s not what a research team discovered when they introduced a new fantastical creature, the Candy Witch, to a small sample of children. They didn’t have a photo of said Candy Witch but they had a doll that looked like her, and they explained her modus operandi: She swapped out Halloween candy for a toy on Halloween night. The older children who were visited by the Candy Witch, and who were high in Fantasy Orientation, actually believed in the Witch’s existence more than younger children and for longer.
But perhaps what matters equally is why a child indulges in fantasy.
The unloved child and the power of imagination
I did not know then, as I do now, that I wasn’t the only child who lived in a little world where solutions to real-life problems were largely magical. Bruno Bettelheim, largely and rightly discredited for his faux diagnosis of autism which blamed “refrigerator” mothers for the problem, nonetheless had great insight into the roles both fairytales and magic play in children’s psyches, permitting them to work through imaginatively the problems and hurts that aren’t addressed in the real world. The unedited fairytales—the Grimm Brothers’ versions cleaned things up, changing evil mothers to step-mothers—permitted children to face their darkest fears, such as abandonment (Hansel and Gretel were driven out by their biological parents) and a cruel and vindictive mother (Snow White), as well as the promise that things won’t always stay the same (Cinderella). The old fairy tales have been considerably cleaned up—it’s now evil stepmothers who mainly take the hit—but even the Disney versions offer up a sense of possibility to all children, especially those who are lonely or unloved in their families of origin.
Children’s fantasies aren’t always benign escapes, of course; their fears can become focused on the darkness glimpsed in an open closet or under a bed, a possible hiding place for ghoulies and ghosties/ And long-leggedy beasties/ And things that go bump in the night. In an unloved child’s world, these fears—of spiders, ghosts, or even the dark—may provide some kind of inside-out comfort, compared to the big things she’s really scared of like being unloved or abandoned.
But fantasy often plays a different role in the unloved daughter’s adult life. It’s another kind of magical thinking.
If only and the hope for a magic wand
The question that looms largest for the unloved child is “Why doesn’t my mother love me?” and the potential answers to that question fill her equally with dread and hopefulness. The first answer most will come to is “Because of me” which drowns her in self-blame and perhaps loathing but, then, squints at possibility which opens up to “I will change and then she will love me.” What the unloved daughter doesn’t realize is that her mother doesn’t love her for many reasons or no reason, all of which have nothing to do with the daughter herself and everything to do with her mother. Magical thinking, though, fuels the daughter’s quest to find the formula that will garner her mother’s love; it might be being more athletic or popular, being thinner or more feminine, more motivated and a star student. It’s a desperate effort to please which, alas, has the daughter pushing aside her own authentic thoughts and perceptions, needs and wants, and losing herself in the process.
Magical thinking, alas, doesn’t just get in the way of the daughter’s realistic appraisal of her relationship with her mother but keeps what I call “the core conflict” going. The core conflict is the tug-of-war between the daughter’s growing understanding of how she’s been wounded by her mother’s treatment, on the one hand, and her ongoing need for her mother’s love. How the core conflict works and impacts recovery is fully explained in my new book, Daughter Detox.
As long as the daughter continues to look for a magical solution, she remains emotionally and psychologically trapped in her childhood room, with only imaginary companions for comfort.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairytales. New York: Random House, 1976.
Taylor, Marjorie and Candice M. Mottweller, “Imaginary Companions: Pretending They’re Real but Knowing They’re not, “ American Journal of Play (Summer 2006), 47-54.
Pierucci, Jillia M, Christopher T. O’Brien, et al., “Fantasy orientation constructs and related executive function development in preschool: Developmental benefits to executive functions by being a fantasy-oriented child,” International Journal of Behavioral Development (2014), vol.38 (1), 62-69.
Woolley, Jacqueline D,, Elizabeth A. Boerger, and Arthur B. Markman, “A Visit from the Candy Witch; factors influencing young children’s belief in a novel fantastical being,” Developmental Science (2004), vol. 7 (4), 456-468.