“My Daughter Thinks Her Physical Defect Is Keeping Her From Finding Love”

My daughter was born with feet and ankles that are bigger than normal. Except for this defect, she is very well-structured, with medium height and slim weight. She is 25 years old, working for a prestigious IT company as a junior programmer. When she was younger, she dreamt of getting married. However, she has been disappointed once or twice, and I can see from her face that she has lost self-confidence and I think she is depressed. Unfortunately, she associates those disappointments with her defect. I have been encouraging her to focus on what she is good at (she can sing) and that people will follow suit and focus on that rather than her defect. She doesn’t seem to comprehend that. Please help me to help her. — Distressed mother in South Africa

It can be really painful for a parent watching his or her child suffer or feel down, and it’s natural, of course, to want to “fix” it (whatever “it” may be — a broken heart, depression, low self-esteem); I think these feelings are amplified when a child is in any way atypical — when he or she has any sort of disability or deformity or even simply looks different from his or her peers. But it’s important to remember that EVERYONE experiences disappointment and rejection, and the fact that your daughter, at 25, has experienced this once or twice recently is actually super normal and typical. And while she may attribute the disappointment and rejection to her physical “defect,” the truth is that it may have nothing to do with that at all.

My advice to you is to back off and let your daughter wade through these very normal experiences and feelings without too much input from you. I know the temptation is great to assure her she will find love, and that if she simply focuses on what she’s good at, others will follow suit. I know you just want to boost her self-confidence, and in my opinion the best way to do that is to let her figure this out herself. She’s 25, after all. You don’t mention anything atypical about her mental and emotional development, so she’s certainly old enough to function on her own. She doesn’t really need you to be too involved in her social or romantic life. Of course, keep an eye on her if you’re concerned that she’s depressed, but as long as the depression is temporary and low-grade and doesn’t interfere with lifestyle or ability to work or care for herself, it shouldn’t be anything to obsess over or worry too much about. (Naturally, if it seems the depression is getting worse or it drags on for a long time, talk to her about it and about how you can help her get help.)

Another reason you need to back off and let your daughter live her life is that you may be inadvertently projecting your own desires and wishes and expectations on her, which could be a real burden and be adding to her feelings of disappointment. She may really want to fall in love and get married, but she may also really not want to disappoint you. It can be hard sometimes, especially at your daughter’s age, distinguishing between what we want for ourselves and what we think our parents want for us. You say you want her to focus on what she’s good at (like singing), but I would encourage you to focus on what she’s already accomplished — the prestigious job at an IT company, for example, and not on what you might consider deficits (like how she’s not married yet… at 25).

Your daughter is still really young. She has her whole life ahead of her — a life that may include more than one big relationship and more than a couple heartbreaks. It may or may not include marriage, and she may decide that wishes and dreams she had when she was younger have or will change. That’s ok. It’s also ok if she makes mistakes as she goes back to dreams she had and then pushed aside for a while. It’s all ok! You need to trust in the foundation you gave her and accept that her physical differences are such a small part of who she is. As her world and life continue expanding, those differences are going to be relatively smaller and smaller, and the people who matter simply won’t care. And the people who care will, eventually, matter to her less and less.

Let go, Mama Bear. She’s going to be ok!

Ever since my brother passed away, both my mother and my SIL (my brother’s widow) feel regretful about the day he died and about what they said to him. My mom was the one who was with him, and she tried giving him mouth-to-mouth, but the doctor told her he died instantly so there was nothing she could have done. But since that day, they have been getting closer, and now I feel not only sad to have lost my brother, but also jealous of my SIL and as though I am losing my mother, too. I feel like my mother would rather have my SIL as a daughter. We used to be close and hang out all the time, but now she couldn’t care less what I’m up to. I told my mom and dad about my jealousy, and they said I don’t need to worry about it. They said that my SIL is lonely and her family doesn’t care about her, which is true — her mother only cares about money and looks, but it doesn’t make me any less jealous. By the way, I have autism with a learning disability. What should I do? — Jealous of SIL

I’m so sorry to hear about your brother! I know you are grieving and you’re sad. So is your mother, and so is your SIL — in some ways even more intensely, or at least differently, than you are. Losing a child is a unique pain that I don’t think any of us can fully fathom unless we’ve experienced it ourselves. And unexpectedly losing a young spouse whom you imagined spending decades with has to be equally gut-wrenching. It is natural that two women closest to your brother and probably most affected by his death are seeking comfort in the company of each other. I’m sorry you feel excluded by and jealous of that, but it’s encouraging that you can name your feelings, you know where they’re coming from, and you have compassion about what your mother and SIL are going through. I’m especially impressed by your empathy for your SIL who does not have a particularly caring mother herself.

As for what you can do, I would encourage you to continue naming your feelings and continue telling your mother that you are grieving too, you miss your one-on-one time with her, and it would mean a lot to have a standing date (maybe a Friday movie night or a Sunday dinner). I also think spending some one-on-one time with your SIL could help you both. You’ve all lost someone very important to you — someone with whom you each had a different relationship and for whom you will grieve a little differently. It sounds like your mother and SIL are also dealing with some feelings of guilt, which add another layer to their grieving process.

Sometimes people lose themselves in the grieving process, which is why it may feel like you’ve lost your mother. Your mother and SIL may feel equally lost in their grief and may feel most understood — and less lost — when they are in each other’s company. This is temporary. It may take a few months, but the fog and haze of grief will eventually begin to lift — for all of you — and you and your mother will find your way back to each other, probably becoming even closer than ever. Give it a little time and trust. Your brother died; the relationships of the loved ones he left behind did not and will not. I promise.


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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy​(AT)​dearwendy.com.


  1. Northern Star says:

    LW 1: Does your daughter look like a hobbit from the knees down, or is she simply a few shoe sizes bigger than you? You encourage her to focus on her singing voice “instead of her defects”? Criminy. Maybe she’s truly disfigured, and you’re right to pin her breakups on that issue—but something about this letter really rubs me the wrong way. It almost sounds like you’ve been drilling this “problem” into your daughter’s head since birth.

  2. LisforLeslie says:

    LW#2 – your mom is clinging to the person that was closest to your brother. This isn’t meant to push you away, it’s just part of her grieving process. At some point your SIL will start to date and move on with her life. Given her home life, she’ll likely be a part of your extended family for a long time, so be patient with both of them.

    Give your mom her space. Check in with her and let her know you’re there for her. You lost your brother and I’m sorry for that, but this is one of those situations where you have to give more than you take, if only for a short time.

  3. anonymousse says:

    LW1: I agree with Northern Star. Is this an actual birth defect, or is it just your opinion that her ankles and feet are big? I think you need to reflect on how you’ve commented on her body and stop trying to fix everything. As Wendy said, she’ll be fine.

    LW2: I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. If you haven’t, perhaps you should look into a grief counselor? It’s very normal for your mother and your SIL to get closer at this time, cause they are both trying to know your brother more, share their stories and share their grief. I know it’s hard, but try not to take it personally.

  4. Avatar photo meadowphoenix says:

    2) I think it’s really hard to deal with a big change, someone close to you dying, with another change, the dynamic between you and your mother. Especially since they are connected. It may be that your jealousy is stemming from the fact that it seems like you lost more than you thought you lost when your brother died. That can feel overwhelming.

    But….I think it might help you to go outside yourself a little bit. Instead of focusing on your mother and SIL’s new relationship, focus on how you can contribute to alleviating their grief. Not because you think it will bring your mom back to you, but because, it may shift your perspective if you think about what is happening in theirs.

  5. Avatar photo meadowphoenix says:

    1. I’m trying to imagine you telling your daughter she needs to sing to all her dates, lmao. or maybe you’re telling her she needs to schedule a recital to invite all the eligible bachelors to?

    Look, I’m unaware if there are any cultural components here, like if she will in fact be seen as lesser in SA if she’s not married yet (lord know there’s are many many areas of the US where that’s true), but I think either way, it’s going to serve your daughter best if she knows there’s at least one person who doesn’t care what she looks like or if she ever gets married. and I hope, because you are her mother, that you can ensure that that’s you.

    1. Oh my god, Saturday, I attended a wedding (friend’s with the groom) and the bride’s father gave a 10+ minute long, cringeworthy speech. The gist…

      He’s so happy his, IDK, 28 year old daughter is finally married because they thought this day would never come. They kept waiting and praying for it to happen. Oh, and they were worried at first because when she told them about this fellow, his first name was the same last name as one of our democratic president’s… they are “very” conservative.

      Everyone at my table was visibly uncomfortable.

      LW1, I agree with Meadowphoenix (and Wendy).

  6. LW #1 Leaving the cultural thing aside-and maybe it is a huge part of this,I do not know,I agree that mom needs to back off. I have a mother that is always making negative comments on my appearance and giving me unsolicited advice. Never mind that I am 60 and run a successful business involving choosing and selling fashion and style to my clients. It can be a real confidence killer and does not endear her to me. I am not knowing if you do this LW mom,but if you do,just stop.
    As someone who dresses many ladies of all ages,shapes and sizes-I can tell you that every woman ( sadly) is critical of her body. I hear size 2 teens point out non-existent saddlebags,large breasted women want small breasts and vice-versa people with a small roll act like they are the Michelin man etc.. Amazingly, most of these ladies have someone to love and or marry/live with them.
    Her particular issue can be covered by long dresses and skirts if she is really concerned about it. Anyone that is out to just fall in love with perfect body parts is not deep and good partner for the long haul anyway.
    The less said to her about the whole subject,the better.

  7. dinoceros says:

    LW2: Something important to remember about love is that it’s not a finite resource. A person can give another person more love and it doesn’t mean they have to take love from someone else. Your mom and SIL feel closer because of shared experiences, but you and your mom have the fact that you’re her kid and she raised you, and that’s something that she can never share with your SIL.

    What about if you make an effort to find things to do just with your mom? Or you find ways that the three of you can bond? A lot of people’s tendencies is to hope that the other people just stop being so close, but not only is that unlikely, but it also ignores the fact that the BEST solution is for everyone to have better relationships with each other.

    Also, I’m not sure how old you are, but one thing I’ve experienced as my friends have gotten older and married and had kids is that I’m not a lot of people’s #1 priority anymore. Back when I was younger, we treated our best friends like they were the most important people in the world. Now, I know that my friend’s husband and baby come first, but I’ve had to learn to understand that it doesn’t mean they don’t care about me too. It’s just a different relationship. If I were to focus on being sad or jealous, I’d probably have pushed them away and messed up the friendship I do have. Instead of just getting used to the fact that they have many loved ones and being happy that they have so much love in their life.

    1. dinoceros says:

      LW1: I agree with Wendy about letting your daughter figure it out. It would be a lot easier if your daughter had written in because all we know is the situation based on how you see it. If my mom wrote in about one of my issues, then I imagine she probably would have a different view of it than me.

      I will say that oftentimes parents give very well-meaning advice that isn’t very useful. The fact that your daughter can sing is great, but that particular skill probably has 0 impact on her dating life. So, trying to say, “Well, who cares about your feet — you can sing!” probably doesn’t really help as much as you want it to. People DO tend to make dating decisions based on appearance, but DO NOT tend to make them based on singing ability.

      That said, something that’s not super obvious, like feet, I think is probably less impactful than something that a person would see on someone’s face or upper body. I guess my question would be whether her issue is meeting people at all, getting dates, getting into relationships, or moving into a serious relationship? Having difficulty getting any dates is a very different situation from having boyfriends break up with you after like a year.

      Typically, when someone has something they are self-conscious about and they see it affecting their dating life, it’s often something unrelated. Or it’s their self-esteem. They feel bad and then start acting like someone who doesn’t like themselves, which is not attractive. If she’s feeling very bad about herself, counseling might be helpful.

  8. Distressed mum in South Africa says:

    Thank you Wendy. Your response means a lot to me. I appreciate your advice and those of other readers. I just want to state that, unlike the way some comments assume my position on this matter, I hardly, if ever, talk my daughter into marriage. I was stating marriage as a background of the change I observe about her confidence. Marriage had been her dream and it has nothing to do with culture. The feet and ankles are deformed and, again to put the readers into perspective, she cries about them and, when that happens, I always point to how beautiful she is rather than what her concerns are. That talk sometimes comes when she has just been disappointed. Encourage her to sing to the young men? (that one in funny!). No, I encourage her to sing because she sings very well, such that she once won a local district singing competition. My perspective is that focusing on what you are good at, rather than what you feel is not good, can boost your confidence.

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