READ EXCERPT: 'Mean Mothers' by Peg Streep

The myth of mother love makes it harder for daughters to confront their histories, even when the line between meanness and abuse is crossed. Terri, now the mother of four, had a mother who was both mean and unstable, and abused her emotionally and physically. Terri tells me that coming home from school was always fraught: which mother would greet her – the smiling one or the angry crazy one? One day, when she was five or six, after serving her lunch, her mother came in and yanked her comfort blanket from her hands. Big scissors in her hands, her mother taunted her: " Big girls aren't scared to sleep without a blankie. How can you be a big girl with a blankie?" Terri's blanket was her solace; her place of safety. Slowly her mother cut her blanket in two and threw one piece into the trash, saying " I'll show you what a big girl is. A big girl watches me cut up her blankie and doesn't cry. A big girl thanks her mother for helping her grow up."

Each day, Terri comes home to a smaller and smaller piece of the blanket until it is finally gone. Years later—long after she has had four children of her own – Terri tells the story to a friend, the mother of three children. The friend insists that Terri is making too much of the incident, and that there was no malice on her mother's part. Her mother must simply have been trying to make Terri become more independent. Her friend just doesn't get it because her assumptions about mothers and the unconditional love they bear their children override her common sense.

In the court of mother-daughter conflict, it's usually the daughter who's on trial.

The cultural myth of absolute mother love combined with the real-world power of a mother to inform her child's universe often create a terrible conflict within the daughter herself. Precisely because a child is dependent on her mother not just for her physical needs but for the emotional cues that inform her sense of self, the pain caused by her mother's ambivalence or meanness co-exists with her need for her mother's love and attention. In a loving, securely attached relationship between a mother and child, power isn't an issue. With insecure attachment – whether avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized -the mother always has the advantage and there is fertile opportunity for the abuse of maternal power. Barraged by constant and cruel criticism, a daughter may actually become more dependent on her mother than ever, precisely because her mother's words communicate a single lesson: You are not good enough to survive without me. Others, like myself, may simply find themselves asking a single question: "What 's wrong with me that my mother doesn't love me?" Some daughters internalize their mothers' words and actions and, long after childhood, will seek out other relationships – with friends and lovers alike – which echo the maternal one, no matter how much pain it has caused. "I see now, " Sheila confided, " that all the relationships I had with men during my twenties and thirties were all about my mother. I backed away from her but filled the hole she left in me with the same kind of cruelty and uncaring. It took years of therapy to understand why I was choosing the men I did. When I finally understood, I was able to make new choices – and, parenthetically, broke off all relations with her." For many daughters of mean mothers, myself included, this is a familiar story, if a confusing one.

Why would daughters of unloving mothers seek out relationships in later life which replicate the pain of their childhood experiences? This paradox is explained by Thomas Lewis, M.D. and his co-authors in their book A General Theory of Love. The developing human brain is actively shaped by the quality of attachment and relatedness we experience during infancy and childhood. They write: " Love and the lack of it change the young brain forever. The central nervous system was once thought to unfold into maturity in accordance with the instructions in its DNA . . . . But as we now know, most of the nervous system (including the limbic brain) needs exposure to crucial experiences to drive its growth. . . . The lack of an attuned mother is a nonevent for a reptile and a shattering injury to the fragile limbic brain of a mammal."

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