READ EXCERPT: 'Mean Mothers' by Peg Streep

The daughter who is an only child has a special burden since she lacks a sibling to help her test her own vision of emotional reality. She's more likely to feel that she's at fault or responsible for her mother's behavior. As one woman told me, " I do think I would have been different if I'd had a sibling because I would have had a buffer who might have helped me either by sharing our experience and talking about it or distracting from the all consuming effect my mother had on me. " Another only child is Sarah, 52, an artist and writer who now lives in Wisconsin with her husband, two thousand miles away from where she grew up. She left home at the age of eighteen when she went off to college, and she's never gone back. "I had an exit strategy," she says dryly, "from the time I was little." She has no children, explaining that " I promised myself as a preteen that I'd never have kids until I could figure out how to raise them better than my mom raised me." Her early experiences sound nothing if not claustrophobic; her mother was smothering, controlling, and, at the same time, impossible to please. Both of her parents were the youngest of twelve siblings and her mother was raised largely by an older brother and sister because her own mother ignored her. Most of Sarah's earliest memories are of being controlled and restricted – being made to sit in a chair while her mother cooked and prepared dinner, and being told not to talk so as not to disturb her mother or "get in her way." Her mother didn't want her helping and, on the rare occasions she did, whatever she did would be criticized. " I felt as though I was always being observed," she says. If she didn't "clean her plate" at dinner, then the same plate went into the refrigerator where it would become Sarah's breakfast or lunch if necessary. "I felt as though I didn't really exist and I grew comfortable living under the radar," she tells me, " I had a rich fantasy life –complete with imaginary siblings, friends, and animal companions. When I was five, we moved to a new house and my mother threw out all my stuffed animals. I replaced them with imaginary ones and, later, with imaginary scenarios about how my parents weren't really my parents and that my real parents would come and get me someday." As she got older, she was often forbidden to play with other children and join in activities. This was explained, she tells me, as a way of protecting her, of making sure "she didn't get into trouble," as were all the restrictions and controls placed on her when she got older.

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