READ EXCERPT: 'Mean Mothers' by Peg Streep

Some daughters will wrestle with how, among siblings, they alone are singled out. Gillian was the eldest child, the only girl among three brothers. But her mother identified her most closely with her father, a man who had abandoned his wife and children. Her mother's anger at her ex-husband focused on Gillian and her own disappointments were fueled by the bright future she foresaw for her academically gifted daughter.

The daughters of mean mothers tell me of experiences very different from those women whose mothers were merely unable to parent with grace, ease, or any kind of sureness. Recent memoirs by adult daughters, such as Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle and Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, testify in abundance that mothers who appear to fail every conventional test of motherhood but who lack cruelty or mean intention can, in fact, be loving mothers despite their obvious shortcomings.

Unlike their mean counterparts, less than perfect mothers sometimes can face what they lack with both grace and intelligence. When I ask my friend Jane, the daughter of actor Bert Lahr and the mother of an adult daughter herself, whether her own mother – a former Ziegfeld Follies girl who, given her own self-absorption and love of social life, was probably as unsuited to motherhood by her nature and personality as any woman could be – was mean, Jane's answer is categorical: "Absolutely not."

Her mother Mildred came from a background that might have hobbled anyone less ambitious and insistent: she was one of four children abandoned by their father when she was two, by her mother at four, and, after she failed to be adopted, raised by her grandparents. "What was extraordinary about Mom," Jane tells me, " is that she knew both that nurturing was important and that she couldn't nurture. But if she couldn't nurture, what she could do was manage and manage she did. She created a household full of people – the nanny, the cook, the cleaning lady – who were kind and loving and who supported me and my brother. She knew education was important and she sent us to schools, camps, and lessons that cultivated our individuality." Even if her own experience during childhood had lacked love and nurturing, she did know what her children needed and, as a mother did what she could to make up the difference.

Unfortunately, not every mother with an emotionally deficient chlldhood will have that amount of insight into the problem.

During all of my twenties and some of my thirties, my relationship with my mother was like a wound that wouldn't heal. I continued to struggle with it, even with therapy—breaking off all contact for weeks, months, or years, and, then, going back to the well one more time, peeling off whatever scab had managed to form. It didn't occur to me until years later that never once did my mother initiate a reconciliation and I now understand why: she was relieved by my absence. From her point of view, I was the mirror that reflected her greatest fear and failure: her own unloving nature as my mother. Keeping that secret was, I believe, more important to her than I was .

What I wanted from her is easier to see: I still wanted her love but by then I wanted, in equal measure, her admission that she was wrong not to love me. In the end, neither would be forthcoming.

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