READ EXCERPT: 'Mean Mothers' by Peg Streep

Ella married the man who would become the father of her daughters at the age of 22 but waited more than a decade to have children: " We both had difficult childhoods and knew we needed to make some conscious changes so as not to repeat the mistakes we felt our parents had made. I felt very strongly about it—I knew I could handle the baby phase because I adored babies and, as a young girl, had used babysitting as an escape and a chance to shine in the eyes of others who appreciated me. But my mother's controlling way of parenting was so ingrained in me that I knew I would need help raising my own children. I knew what I wanted to accomplish – the values I wanted to instill – but I just didn't know how to do it on a daily basis."

Ella and her husband joined a local group that taught parenting classes and, in time, they became class leaders themselves until they thought they were ready: " When each of my daughters was born, I instinctively knew each was a gift passing through me. I did not own them, nor did they reflect on me. I made mistakes along the way as I raised them but, unlike my mother, I made a conscious decision to apologize when I was wrong. I learned what my mother never learned: that the real power was in giving up control, in encouraging not criticizing. I learned that if I gave my children love that wasn't dependent on outcomes, they would feel safe and confident enough to learn and to make mistakes." But even as Ella evolved as a mother, her mother's relationship to her remained mired in the same patterns; Ella's new psychological growth absolutely co-existed with old conflicts.

For a few women, their mothers' behavior provided the template for everything they would never do to their own daughters, without providing them with a model for what they should give them. Lynn writes me in an email that " I deliberately focused on every need in me that my mother left unmet, and concentrated on how I could meet that need in my own child. With the help of a therapist over many years, I understood how my sense of self had been abraded by my mother's refusal to listen to me or to consider my observations valuable. I have always honored my daughter as an individual in her own right, separate from me –something my mother could never accomplish." Another woman whose mother was emotionally absent during her childhood and adolescence and who is now the mother to two daughters ages 21 and 23, describes how close she and her daughters are, and how different it is from her relationship to her own mother, and goes on to say, " But my parenting skills came naturally. It is not something I worked at, read about, consciously worked on. I liked my daughters, I respected them, and I wanted to be with them more than anyone else." I too felt that my experience as a child gave me an inner compass as a mother; I knew what not to do. And because my mother had never listened to me, I became, with my daughter at least, an attuned and attentive listener.

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