READ EXCERPT: 'Mean Mothers' by Peg Streep

Reading became a source of comfort and escape at an early age, and continued through her adolescence when she discovered science fiction and fantasy. But Sarah's father encouraged her to excel at school and that, she says, "saved me. I don't think my father was really aware of how my mother treated me – the house was her domain and having a job was his – but he did give me the support and inspiration that ultimately got me a scholarship to a great college and out of the house." Most confusing was how her mother was with others, in the outside world: "She could be flirtatious and outgoing, not at all like who she was with me, and it was very confusing. How could she be so nice in public and then so mean to me? It made me feel crazy. I remember once having someone over and my mother baked cookies – something she never did – and the way it all seemed so normal, as if she did this everyday the way another mother might, made it even crazier."

Sarah's father died when she was in her first year of college and she has, as she puts it, "moved on to an intentionally chosen family." When I ask her how her relationship to her mother shaped her, her thoughtful answer underscores how childhood experiences shape all of us in both obvious and subtle ways: " Looking back, when I grew up, some of my childhood ways of coping stayed with me, if sometimes in disguised form. When I was involved with the theatre, I worked on lighting, illuminating others but staying behind the scenes, out of the spotlight, under the radar myself. As an artist, I'm mainly an observer even now, separated from the world by a camera lens. But the rich interior dialogue I used to survive my childhood has still served me well."

Sometimes a sibling who shares a daughter's experience can be a source of comfort and validation. In her book The Sister Knot, Terri Apter writes: "The quarrels we each had, in very different ways, with our mother threatened to crush us; but together, taking these to each other, sharing our information, they became bearable. We could name our confusions." Distinguishing the talk between girlfriends and sisters, Apter notes, "For all the family complaints swapped between girlfriends, there are things one often isn't allowed to say. With my sister we could talk and complain, without ever worrying that we were being outrageously disloyal…. I knew I was safe from social exposure. My sister would never say to someone else, in mockery or disdain, 'She has the most awful mother.'" But sibling relationships can also be shaped by the dynamic between the unloving mother and her daughter, most particularly when a mother differentiates between her children, being loving and attentive to one but not to another; in many families, the dynamic will weaken sibling bonds. In other families, though, particularly when there is an age gap between siblings and an absence of mother love, a sibling may step into the breach and serve as both a safe haven and a touchstone for her sister's emotional development. Research confirms, in fact, that some of the most intense sibling bonds may be formed when a mother or father or both parents are consistently unavailable or unloving.

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