One woman, Ella, explained how this worked in her family: "My mother doesn't intend to be mean but she seems to be without the ability to empathize. Because the mother love she received was so limited, she never learned to be loving." Ella's mother was intimated by her daughter's strong sense of self and retaliated with a critical parenting style which continues to this day.
"I have spent years," Ella tells me, " trying to get my mother's voice out of my head – the voice that told me I was too fat when I was a teenager, the voice that tells me today that I am a lousy housekeeper, the voice that always reminds me that nothing about me or my life is perfect." Her mother's lack of emotional availability was largely hidden in her relationships with her two other children, each of whom had problems she could tend to and manage. In these relationships—with a daughter who showed early signs of bipolar disorder and a son who suffered from severe allergies—her role as a caretaker gave her a sense of comfort and confidence, while masking her deficiencies. With healthy, smart, and ambitious Ella, her mother was always critical and, often, cruel and insensitive.
Even so, throughout Ella's childhood and much of her early adulthood, her craving for her mother's attention never abated:
"When I was a kid, I would fake being sick just to get the kind of love my mother was capable of. Even as an adult, I needed her love as much as I always had as a child, and I did just about anything to please her. I'd try to ignore all the thoughtless and often mean comments she would make – that's how much I needed her. Only now – as my own daughters reach the end of their teens – am I learning, with the help of a therapist, to set healthy boundaries with my mother." Cultural norms – backed up by the Judeo-Christian tradition -require us to honor our mothers and fathers and, above all, speak no ill of them. These cultural strictures affect all daughters, including those raised by essentially loving, if occasionally imperfect, mothers. They can get in the way of the work a daughter needs to do when she moves from one stage of her own development to another – from adolescence to young adulthood and then into adulthood and motherhood, for example – and must confront the task of seeing her mother wholly and realistically. Our cultural unwillingness to challenge the idealization of motherhood combined with the injunction against criticizing our own mother can leave any daughter unable to take the next necessary step in her evolving relationship to her mother. As Christina Robb notes in This Changes Everything, " Mothers and daughters in good relationships learn to see, hear, and love each other as they are, and not as approximations of an ideal or stereotype, negative or positive."
For the daughters of mean mothers, the concept of mother love – instinctual, inviolable, sacred, unconditional – has a different kind of chokehold.
I learned early on that discussing my mother frankly could be an uncomfortable experience for me and whoever was listening. I remember a college friend insisting that my mother couldn't have meant all the things she said to me simply because she had given birth to me. Other daughters of mean mothers, some of whom stay in contact with their mothers and others who have broken all ties with them, have had similar experiences.