Many daughters of mean mothers struggle with balancing societal expectations with their own need to protect themselves from maternal hurt. The obligation of filial piety – part and parcel of sacred mother love – can render a daughter speechless and filled with guilt. The vitriol heaped on Christina Crawford for her filial disloyalty when Mommie Dearest was published is simply the same theme writ large. Cultural pressures become even more complicated when the daughter becomes a mother herself and has to choose whether she wants to include her mother in her life as her child's grandmother – or not.
Not even therapy makes it easy to untangle what the culture tells us a daughter should feel for her mother from what she does feel. One woman confides that " I have more insight into how her life influenced who she is and I am able to understand that she has to own it or not because it's not mine to own. What gets in my way is that I can understand all the dynamics on an intellectual level, but it's a long way to owning it on an emotional level because of the damage the past has done to my spirit. It very much feels like I am stuck in a developmental stage. I am seeing lots of improvement with therapy, but the old wounds bleed when I am fatigued."
Protecting herself from maternal hurt may be further complicated by the taboos associated with cutting off ties to her mother. This is both a cultural stance and a therapeutic one. I know this first-hand because I've seen it in the eyes of strangers. The surprise on the face of the co-chair of the PTA committee when, in answer to her question, I told her that my daughter had never met my mother, or the way a doctor reassessed me after he questioned me about my mother's medical history and I answered that I didn't know, adding that I hadn't seen or spoken to her in more than fifteen years.
Cathy works as a bookkeeper in a small company, and is the mother of an eight-year-old girl whom she is raising with her second husband. She went fourteen years without speaking to her mother and only recently began to renew their relationship. Her disappointment is palpable when she tells me her story: " I was one of three girls, and the only one who had any problem with our mother. It's funny because I've always been the most successful of all of us – good at school and all that stuff as well as popular. From the time I was little, she would tell me that she was sure that the hospital had sent home the wrong baby, that they'd gotten the bracelets mixed up. She never had a nice thing to say about me and, finally, when I went off to college in another state—and I was the first person in my family to go to college – I made the break."
Cathy pauses, and continues, her voice low: " She never once called me in those years—not even when my daughter was born. I finally buckled to the family's pressure to let my mother back into my life and all I can say is that it's all too depressingly familiar. Nothing has changed. She criticizes everything about me just as she always did, except now it includes how I mother my child, treat my husband, and decorate my house. I thought the reconciliation would be mutual but it's clear to me now that I am not now and never was important to her."