READ EXCERPT: 'Mean Mothers' by Peg Streep

What may be a temporary period of unhappiness for a loving mother can become a virtual prison sentence for an unloving one. She may find herself envying her daughter— for her looks, for her choices, for the future ahead of her. Her own insecurities and inadequacies may be magnified by what she sees in her child, during both the daughter's childhood and, later, adulthood. The denial made necessary by the myth makes resolution of the conflict virtually impossible.

Since the myths of motherhood are cultural constructs – and evolve along with culture's mores – the burden they place on the unloving mother may vary from generation to generation. It's probably not an accident that many of the adult daughters interviewed for this book were the children of women who gave birth in the years following World War II – the 1950s and early 1960s—when the popular wisdom pertaining to both the "good" mother and motherhood had a specificity of its own. Experts of the time – echoed in both popular magazines and doctors' advice – saw motherhood as a fulfillment of both biological and personal destiny. A "healthy" woman had children; a "happy" and "fulfilled" woman was a mother.

Out of these decades came the vision of mother as above all empathic, catering to all her child's needs with consummate care. The flip side – a much darker one – was that if anything were to go awry with her child, none other than Mother was to blame, a view promulgated both in books and the popular press. Psychoanalyst René Spitz actually went so far as to categorize the "psycho-toxic diseases of infancy," maintaining that each and every problem associated with childhood had its origin in a maternal disorder. According to Spitz, even colic was caused by a mother's "primary anxious over-permissiveness." That says it all.

The model of the good mother as the sacrificial mother who denies her own needs and desires for the sake of her children came out of the same wellspring.

Then as now, the chokehold of the mother myths results in denial, both conscious and not. It's not just mothers who will deny the dynamic; other family members, including fathers, will also feel the same pressure. Some mothers will simply deny what they've said to or about their daughters, even in the presence of witnesses, or insist that the punishment, whether it is verbal or physical, was deserved. Others will plead that their words and gestures have been misunderstood or that they acted as they did for their daughters' "good." Hyper-criticality or even cruelty are explained away in terms of behavior or example.

In the cultural house of mirrors, there are many ways of avoiding the truth and, almost universally, the truth stays a tightly held secret. A mother who is mean to her daughter may be able to be loving to a son – who doesn't pose the same kind of threat to her own sense of self – or to another one of her own daughters who doesn't seem to be a competitor in the same way or whose personality is simply a better fit. The dynamic is complicated and fearsome, most particularly for the daughter who is singled out. In an entirely different sense, it is fearsome for the mother as well.

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