Growing up, I thought I was alone— the only girl born on the planet whose mother didn't love her. Mothers in books were nothing like mine and the moms on television – it was the late 1950s and early 1960s – were women who wore aprons and served dinner with smiles on their faces and love in their hearts. I envied my friends for the mothers they had. I wanted to be Lynne whose mother was both thoughtful and attentive, and who bought her first kitten heels as a surprise when we were in sixth grade or Beth whose mother told funny stories and let us make messy cupcakes in her kitchen. Even Roz's mother, who was born in Europe like mine and more formal than the born-in-America moms, was kind and loving. It happened over forty years ago but I still remember how she stroked Roz's hair, absent-mindedly and contentedly, as they stood side-by-side in their hallway, saying goodbye to me after a study date.
I watched strangers, daughters and mothers in the supermarket aisles or taking a walk together—and was all the more bewildered. What made my mother and me so different?
Why didn't my mother love me the way she was supposed to? Whose fault was it? Hers or mine?
My mother's physical control waned as I grew taller but she had power nonetheless. I still couldn't understand what it was about me that made me, in her eyes at least, so eminently unlovable. I wavered between thinking I had done nothing to deserve her treatment and not being quite so sure – a testament, I now know but didn't then, to nothing more than the centrality of the mother sun to a daughter's world. The parent of a child, as Deborah Tannen has written, has the power not only to create the world the child lives in but the ability to dictate how that world is to be interpreted. Seen from that point of view, one of the lasting and important legacies of a mean mother is a wellspring of self-doubt. The other, explained by adaptive behavior, is a need to replicate the relationship she has to her mother with other people, regardless of how unhappy it makes her.
When I was sixteen, I read Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving. I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw what he had to say about a mother's love: " Mother's love is bliss, is peace, it need not be acquired, it need not be deserved." I read on, astonished that the simple act of giving birth should be enough to spark a love truer than any other.
Unconditional love: I finally had a word for what I was missing.
It took me many years to understand that for the unloving mother and unloved daughter alike, our idea of unconditional love is a two-edged sword.
Stories of mean mothers make women uncomfortable.