READ EXCERPT: 'Mean Mothers' by Peg Streep

I understand this with greater clarity when I tell people what I'm working on. " Was your mother mean?" my hair colorist asks me. She's twenty-eight, a child of divorce, and fiercely loyal to the mother who raised her alone, whom she counts among her best friends. I often talk about my own daughter who's off at college but this is the first time I've ever mentioned my project or my mother. After I've answered, her response is downright hostile: "Why would you want to dig all that up now? She must have done something right because you turned out okay, didn't you? " From the other end of the spectrum, a friend – a psychologist who specializes in mother-daughter relationships and the divorced mother of a twenty-three year old daughter– sends me an email that's more like a cheer than anything else: "Good for you – this is courageous. You're telling the story no one else wants to tell. It's about time."

Women's reactions betray the power of cultural taboos. I give a small dinner party in my new home in Vermont and one of my guests, a fellow Baby-Boomer who raised three children and is now a doting grandmother, looks frankly skeptical when I tell her about the book and responds, slowly and deliberately: " I don't think it's fair to talk about those things. My mother did what she could." My other guest is a woman in her early seventies who raised four now-grown children and is long divorced. She seems delighted to be able to talk about her mother who, she says categorically, " was the most unloving and critical person I ever met. She never missed an opportunity to make me feel bad about myself, no matter how kind or loving I tried to be." When I ask her whether she ever confronted her mother, she looks at me, nonplussed: " Of course not. She was my mother, after all."

Mother love is a sacred concept in our culture and, like all things sacred, it has a mythology of its own.

There isn't any room in our ideal of "mother"— that essential multi-tasker and nurturer, the one made up in equal parts of a pastel-tinted Madonna cradling her baby, the smell of freshly baked cookies in the oven, self-sacrifice, and Hallmark verse—for the mother who doesn't love her child. As Western fairy tales make clear, cruel or uncaring mothers are never biological mothers but interlopers or stepmothers instead. "Real" mothers neither hate nor envy; it's Rapunzel's jealous stepmother who locks her in the tower, just as Cinderella's rapacious one would consign her to a life of servitude.

Today, we prefer to think of mothering as instinctual and automatic – even though mothering, for our species at least, is very much learned behavior and definitions of what constitutes good mothering are no more than cultural constructs. Our insistence on maternal instinct flies both in the face of human history as well as the history of child-rearing practices. It doesn't take into account the extraordinarily widespread practice of abandoning children from the time of the Greeks right up through the Renaissance, the hundreds of thousands of foundlings left in hospitals established for that very purpose throughout the "civilized" world, or the practice of wet-nursing which resulted in the deaths of literally millions of infants, for example.

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