READ EXCERPT: 'Mean Mothers' by Peg Streep

Even researchers are taken aback when their findings subvert some of our most cherished notions about mothers and daughters. Carol Ryff, Pamela Schmutte, and Young Hyang Lee looked at how parents were affected by their adult children's achievements and success. To their astonishment, the researchers discovered that mothers who perceived their daughters' achievements as surpassing their own reported lower well-being; to indicate their surprise, the researchers put the word "lower" in italics! Simply put, their daughters' successes made them feel lousy about themselves. Most notably this was not true of fathers – with either sons or daughters – nor, for that matter, of mothers when the more successful child was a son. In their separate study, therapists Karen Fite and Nikola Trumbo observed "maternal resentment toward or envy of their daughters' successes."

Cultural expectations set up a dynamic which, by refusing to allow any maternal ambivalence, effectively traps the mother who has difficulty connecting to or loving the daughter she has borne. For a mother to concede that she doesn't love the child she brought into the world unconditionally or at all is to admit to the greatest of failures as a woman and a person; it is both unthinkable and "unnatural" at once. Nancy Friday, in My Mother/My Self, astutely observed that the myth – that mothers always love their children – is so controlling that the woman who can be honest about everything else will not be able to admit that she does not love or like her daughter.

In a similar vein, Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of The Mother Dance, recounts how, after reading Rozsicka Parker's book Mother Love, Mother Hate, she discusses the possibility of mother hate with her husband, a therapist, who states categorically that she needs to delete the word from her book since, in all his years of practice, he's never heard a mother talk about hating her children. Lerner herself ends up waxing mystical, if illogical, in the face of all she knows about mother hate and love, writing " Still, beneath whatever negative emotions or distance we feel, the bond between the mother and child is so deep and mysterious that even hate cannot permanently dismantle it." Her words betray the myth at work.

But not all mothers love, unconditionally or otherwise. For the mother who doesn't, the cultural myths of unconditional love and maternal instinct require her to hide and deny her feelings at all costs, even if she cannot always help herself from expressing them in words or gestures. There's no room in the mother myth for the mother who resents all the attention her infant or toddler needs, or who chafes at the necessary loss of freedom and self-focus the transition into motherhood usually entails. In her book You're Wearing That!, an examination of mothers and adult daughters, Deborah Tannen rightly observes that "love gives and it takes away; it makes you more than you were before but it also makes you less." Acknowledging that motherhood, like all adult choices, is a trade-off, Tannen writes, " In reality, though, many women, even those who genuinely want the children they have, may not foresee, or may not be all that happy about, the ways their children will limit them."

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