READ EXCERPT: 'Mean Mothers' by Peg Streep

We learn about love not because we are told about it but because we experience it on a neurological level. The infant/child's experiences with her mother (and father) forge connections among the cells in the higher brain. The human brain is designed to be adaptive and it wires itself to adapt best to the environment in which it finds itself. This biological adaptability – which affects both the brain's structure and its chemical systems – can work for or against a child's well-being. With secure attachment to a parent or parents, we learn that "love means protection, caretaking, loyalty" and we know this because our brain " automatically narrows crowded confusion into a few regular prototypes." With insecure attachments, "a child unwittingly memorizes the precise lesson of that troubled relationship: that love is suffocation, that anger is terrifying, that dependence is humiliating, or one of a million crippling variations." Put more simply, if a child has a bullying parent, she unconsciously adapts to living in a bullying world and adopts behaviors appropriate to it. This unconscious knowledge propels daughters to seek out the familiar negative later in life and, for these daughters, this unhealthy comfort zone will make disengaging from the destructive maternal legacy even harder to accomplish. A few daughters recount that, even as children, they were able to understand they'd done nothing to elicit their mother's behavior. While this understanding insulates these daughters to a degree, it still does little to assuage their feelings of emotional loss and deprivation or to help them forge healthy connections later in life. Seen from the vantage point of relational psychology—which echoes the findings of other scientific approaches but with a different vocabulary – what a daughter learns from this primary relationship will stream out into her future life and relationships. As Irene Stiver observed, when a child's expressions of thoughts and feelings aren't heard or responded to, when she feels that who she is has no impact on the important people in her life, when she is powerless to change these relationships, when there is no one to share her pain, there are profound and potentially lasting consequences. Most important, Stiver writes, "Growing up in dysfunctional families, children learn how to stay out of relationships while behaving as if they are in relationships." Ellen was the only biological child in her family, with an adopted older brother and sister. Her father was loving but detached and, while he knew about his wife's cruelty to Ellen, he did little to stop it. Now the mother of a young daughter and son herself, she says "I understood from a young age that there was nothing I could do to satisfy my mother. She was totally self-absorbed, a narcissist, and she was never able to see me as anything but a projection of herself. And the anger, meanness, and disappointment which began inside of her simply radiated out towards me. She herself was the daughter of a hypercritical and dominating father, and a docile mother who did little to protect her from her father's cruelty. She was different with my adopted siblings precisely because they didn't reflect on her in the same way. In my case, the biological tie was a negative." But, Ellen adds, " Knowing what was going on didn't stop me from hurting. It took me years to achieve any sense of emotional balance and connection."

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