The unconditional love of a mother isn't a luxury that all children enjoy. In Peg Streep's new book, she explores the darker side of the mother and child relationship with stories of strained relationships fraught with tension, anger, and ambivalence.
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Chapter One: The Myth of Mother Love
I was no older than three or four when I knew my mother didn't love me. Of course, the way in which I knew this was different from how I would know and understand it at other times in my life, but I knew it nonetheless. I knew it first by the way she stiffened when I tried to sit in her lap or touch her arm, and how she turned her face away when I kissed her. She wasn't like the people who loved me – my father, my grandfather, my great-aunt, or even my teachers – whose faces softened with pleasure when I drew near.
Later, I knew that who I was – a round-faced curly-haired girl full of energy and curiosity – was enough to irritate or infuriate her. "Stop skipping!" she'd say when we walked together, dropping my hand in punishment, as though my joy was an affront to her. I would slow down, chastened by her sharp voice, instantly lonely but reassured by the clatter of her high heels on the pavement that she was still there. She was the bullet I couldn't dodge, and the gunfire could come from anywhere and nowhere. It might be a stranger telling her she had a pretty child, inadvertently setting off a tirade as sudden and violent as a summer storm. She would begin with a defense of her own beauty that would build into a hurricane of complaints, gathering energy as it went, each new thought more saturated with anger than the one before, all directed at me. The seeds of her rage and disappointment could blossom in a bewildering instant.
I knew, more than anything, that her power was enormous and that the light of her sun was what I needed. But that light could burn, flicker, or disappear for any or no reason. Yet, as a small child, I loved and needed her, and wanted desperately to please her, as much as I feared her.
When I was a little girl, I learned to tiptoe through her shadows and found sunshine in the real world and that of my imagination. Before he died, my father was a safe haven, since she largely hid both her anger and meanness toward me when he was home. I hoarded the attention I got from my teachers, my babysitter, the woman who cleaned our apartment, the mothers of my friends, and tucked it away, deep inside.
I drew the stories in books up around my shoulders for comfort, my thumb in my mouth. I called myself Eloise and was happiest living vicariously in the blissfully motherless Plaza Hotel, with a loving nanny, a turtle, and a dog named Weenie. I pretended that I was Jo March with a mother named Marmie, and the boy who owned Ole Yeller and the girl who rode Flicka. I saw myself living in that little house on the prairie, all safe and warm, with the pumpkins big enough to sit on in the dry cellar. I mothered my dolls the way I longed to be mothered; I told them stories, cuddled them, and made sure they were safe.
I mothered myself by imagining that I'd been handed to the wrong mother at the hospital somehow and that the mother to whom I really belonged would come and find me—knowing, all along, that the mother I had was the one I'd been born to. I could see my mother's reflection in my face, just as easily as I could see, standing on a chair in the bathroom, the red outlines her hands left on my back when her anger left her speechless.
As I got older, my mother's menace diminished, though not her meanness or the mystery of her rage. With the birth of my brother when I was nine, I saw that my mother could love a child who wasn't me.
Try as I might, I couldn't puzzle it out; what was it about me that made her so angry? Why didn't she love me? When I asked her just that, as I would time and again over the course of many years, her answer was always the same and maddeningly indirect: "Every mother loves her child, Peggy." I knew it to be a lie, but I didn't yet see then that she lied to protect herself, not me.
There was no reconciling the mother I knew – the one who literally shook with fury and missed no opportunity to wound or criticize me – with the charming and beautiful woman who went out into the world in the highest of heels, shining jewelry on her hands and neck, not a hair out of place. She flirted with everyone – even my girlfriends and later my boyfriends – and they pronounced her delightful. Her secret—and mine –was closely held; who would believe me if I told? And so I didn't. But she was all I had left when I was fifteen and the two men who had loved me– my father and my grandfather – died within three months of each other.
By then, the struggle between us took a different shape. She could still hurt me – I never forgot the moment she told the first boy I loved that despite my pretty outside, I was rotten inside – but she couldn't scare me. I watched how she acted with her own mother, a dance set to a melody of jealousy and competition. Slowly – very slowly – I had my first inkling that how she treated me might have nothing at all to do with who I was.
I was younger, smarter, better educated than she, and I began to realize she was afraid of me and the truths I told. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I had a countdown of the days before college – it was more than 1000 – and that made my life trapped under her roof seem almost temporary and gave me the illusion of imminent freedom.
But I still wanted her love as much as I wanted to be able to answer the question I couldn't answer as a child: why didn't she love me?
I know the answer now and that knowledge absolutely co-exists with a terrible longing for the mother love I never had and never will have.
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.
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.
We talk about mother love as though it were a universal and absolute truth and, perhaps, this has nothing to do with motherhood at all. If Erich Fromm's idealized, if wishful, thinking about unconditional, instinctual love is a shorthand summary of what we hold to be the "truth" about motherhood, it probably also testifies to our deep psychological need for a love without strings or complications.
We want desperately to believe that every mother falls in love with her baby at first sight and that the complexity of relationship, so evident elsewhere as part of the human condition, is totally absent from the connection between mother and child. This ideal is so ingrained in our culture that, until relatively recently, even science held that pregnancy and childbearing were a protection against maternal unhappiness or depression – rather than potential causes of them. In 2005, Brooke Shields' frank depiction of her struggle with postpartum depression – after years of trying to conceive a child – was newsworthy for that very reason: how could a famously beautiful mother with an equally beautiful daughter possibly be made so miserable by motherhood?
Our culture understands motherhood to be one of the most fulfilling roles of a woman's life, if not the apex of fulfillment. Of all the roles we play, parenting is considered to be the one which promises the greatest personal and social rewards. There's little scientific evidence, however, to support this cultural trope; in fact, the preponderance of the evidence absolutely negates it. A major study reported in 2005 by Ranae J. Evenson and Robin W. Simon confirmed what other studies had found before: unlike other adult roles such as marriage and employment, parenthood did not appear to confer any mental health advantage. To the contrary, childless adults were far less likely to suffer from depression than their peers with children. In addition, they discovered that mothers with minor children were the group most likely to be depressed, a finding they attributed to the emotional benefits of parenting being "cancelled or exceeded" by the emotional costs associated with the role. Not surprisingly, single parents were more likely to be depressed than their married peers, because of decreased economic and social resources. Fathers were less likely to be depressed than mothers, unless another factor was added in, such as unemployment. Most important, the incidence of depression increased depending on the mother's experience of parenting, which the researchers categorized in the following way: the demands and normative expectations associated with the role; the perception of her ability to satisfy the role expectation; her self-evaluation as a parent; the quality of her relationship to her child or children; the stressfulness of the role; the availability of social and economic resources; the emotional gratification and sense of purpose and meaning derived from motherhood. It's extraordinary that of the seven measures of the experience of parenthood, only one – social and economic resources – doesn't have to do with the idea of motherhood. Unlike all the other relationships each and every one of us has in our lives – sometimes messy, fractious, or in need of "work" – the mother/child relationship is also supposed to be both beatific and instant. The concept of "bonding" – despite its lack of scientific basis – has become a contemporary cornerstone of "good" mothering, a way of guaranteeing that every single supposed seed of instinctual nurturance in the new mother will burst into flower. What would accomplish this miracle of nature? Just some quiet moments right after birth – the so-called "critical" moments – with the infant pressed against her mother's flesh.
Popular books on parenting and, even more specifically, mothering have given further ballast to the idea of "instinctual" mother love, while reinforcing the notion that the mother's ability to "bond" instantly with her child at birth is both a reliable predictor of the child's future ability to thrive and a mother's ability to parent. No less an authority than Dr. Spock, who presided over the rules of parenting beginning at the end of World War II, began to promote the idea of instant "bonding" by the mid-1970s. "Rooming-in" as well as breastfeeding became obligatory for any women who aspired to be a "good" mother.
There is no room in our contemporary ideal for ambivalence or emotional discomfort; our insistence on the breadth and depth of absolute mother love is itself absolute, except perhaps in the contemporary chat rooms of the Internet where the mothers of newborns and small children, cloaked in anonymity, express their frustrations to total strangers. Even loving mothers sometimes find themselves hobbled by the burden unconditional love imposes. As Lila confided, speaking of her sixteen-year-old daughter," I feel guilty when Sarah disappoints or angers me because, at those moments – and just for the briefest moment – I do love her less and it makes me feel awful." The vocabulary of mother love in our culture is supposed to be absolute.
It's been suggested, in fact, that our cultural enthronement of idealized mothering combined with an intolerance for any maternal ambivalence becomes a problem for every mother, whether she is loving or not. In fact, Rozsika Parker has suggested that in denying those experiences in motherhood which inevitably evoke maternal ambivalence, we also miss the possibility that feelings of ambivalence can be a creative source for the mother to attain new understanding of her child. It is, as she writes, " the troubling co-existence of love and hate that propels a mother into thinking what goes on between herself and her child." It's probably not an accident that Adrienne Rich's groundbreaking book, Of Woman Born, begins with a reflection of that ambivalence which every woman feels at one point or another in her life as a mother but is forced to deny, because of guilt or anxiety: "My children cause me the most exquisite suffering of which I have any experience. It is the suffering of ambivalence: the murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness." As Anne Roiphe writes in Fruitful, "Every mother knows, even if she cannot consciously admit it, that she doesn't always love her child and the desire to be free of the baby rises, hardly acknowledged, there at the edge of the mind, in the bad dream, the excessive anxiety, the overprotectiveness that disguises angry wishes."
Mother love is also assumed to arc seamlessly through all the stages of life the child and the mother experience—denying that the parenting skills required for a toddler and a teenager are indeed very different. Our dependence on "the instinct" of mother love refuses to take into account communication skills or personality even though what experts call "goodness of fit" is a component in every mother-child relationship (and every father-child relationship as well.)
There's no room in this view for conflict. Yet, as Laurence Steinberg has written, the coincidence of certain life stages – a daughter's adolescence and her mother's entry into midlife, for example – can often provoke a crisis for the mother, one with deep and far-reaching implications. Similarly, the potential conflict between an adult daughter's choices and those her mother made is rarely addressed. Our ideal of motherhood steadfastly denies competition or jealousy, despite evidence to the contrary.
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."
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.
The conflict can spread out from the mother-daughter dyad to envelope the husband and father. Some fathers will become rescuers – the knight in shining armor the daughter needs to hold her own against her mother – while others will become complicit, either ignoring or denying the mother-daughter dynamic. In other families, particularly those in which the burden of childrearing is assumed to be the mother's, a father will simply defer to his wife's assessment of their daughter. Divorce further complicates matters for the mother who already has a weak or non-existent foundation of love for her child.
The power of the mother- love myth affects daughters in myriad ways, one of which is reflected in the reluctance of the daughters of mean mothers to come forward and talk. One woman, the mother of ten-year-old twins, declined to talk about her mother from whom she is long estranged for fear it would make her sound whiny or self-indulgent. Another was afraid to talk outside of a therapeutic environment, fearing the pain she knew she would experience. One woman pulled out after we spoke because she felt guilty, while another was convinced by her older sister that it was "unseemly" for her to talk about their mother, even though they both share the same vision of her as withheld and self-absorbed.
With one exception, all the women I interviewed requested that I use a pseudonym and change details of their lives to further assure that they couldn't be recognized for fear that family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues would think less of them. In some cases, to further disguise them, I have given a single woman more than one name so that the thread of her story in these pages won't reveal her identity. A girlfriend who is also a writer sends me a list of her close friends who might possibly agree to be interviewed and then, just a few hours later, emails back:" On reflection, I don't think you should approach these women because I'm not sure they actually recognize that their mothers are mean to them. I've witnessed some pretty awful stuff first-hand but that doesn't mean they see it that way."
The myth of mother love requires a daughter to maintain her silence.
Diane, a married woman who chose not to have children, sums it up this way: " I don't feel good talking about my mother because I'm afraid people will think I'm exaggerating the things she said to me and still says, for that matter. The few times I've tried talking to a girlfriend about her, I felt that somehow that friend ended up thinking less of me because of how I criticized her. Besides, my mother is super-careful about what she says to me in front of other people so complaining makes me sound crazy or worse. I swear it took my husband a few years to catch onto what was really going on. He adores his mother so it was natural for him to make excuses for mine, at the beginning at least. He knows now and he's totally with me on that. But other people? Well, no."
Many daughters of mean mothers struggle with balancing societal expectations with their own need to protect themselves from maternal hurt. The obligation of filial piety – part and parcel of sacred mother love – can render a daughter speechless and filled with guilt. The vitriol heaped on Christina Crawford for her filial disloyalty when Mommie Dearest was published is simply the same theme writ large. Cultural pressures become even more complicated when the daughter becomes a mother herself and has to choose whether she wants to include her mother in her life as her child's grandmother – or not.
Not even therapy makes it easy to untangle what the culture tells us a daughter should feel for her mother from what she does feel. One woman confides that " I have more insight into how her life influenced who she is and I am able to understand that she has to own it or not because it's not mine to own. What gets in my way is that I can understand all the dynamics on an intellectual level, but it's a long way to owning it on an emotional level because of the damage the past has done to my spirit. It very much feels like I am stuck in a developmental stage. I am seeing lots of improvement with therapy, but the old wounds bleed when I am fatigued."
Protecting herself from maternal hurt may be further complicated by the taboos associated with cutting off ties to her mother. This is both a cultural stance and a therapeutic one. I know this first-hand because I've seen it in the eyes of strangers. The surprise on the face of the co-chair of the PTA committee when, in answer to her question, I told her that my daughter had never met my mother, or the way a doctor reassessed me after he questioned me about my mother's medical history and I answered that I didn't know, adding that I hadn't seen or spoken to her in more than fifteen years.
Cathy works as a bookkeeper in a small company, and is the mother of an eight-year-old girl whom she is raising with her second husband. She went fourteen years without speaking to her mother and only recently began to renew their relationship. Her disappointment is palpable when she tells me her story: " I was one of three girls, and the only one who had any problem with our mother. It's funny because I've always been the most successful of all of us – good at school and all that stuff as well as popular. From the time I was little, she would tell me that she was sure that the hospital had sent home the wrong baby, that they'd gotten the bracelets mixed up. She never had a nice thing to say about me and, finally, when I went off to college in another state—and I was the first person in my family to go to college – I made the break."
Cathy pauses, and continues, her voice low: " She never once called me in those years—not even when my daughter was born. I finally buckled to the family's pressure to let my mother back into my life and all I can say is that it's all too depressingly familiar. Nothing has changed. She criticizes everything about me just as she always did, except now it includes how I mother my child, treat my husband, and decorate my house. I thought the reconciliation would be mutual but it's clear to me now that I am not now and never was important to her."
Cathy has not decided what do to about their relationship but she is clear about one thing: "This has nothing to do with me. I didn't really get that when I was a child but now, looking past the hurt, I realize that I have done nothing to deserve her or her treatment. It's her problem."
Therapists, it should be said, generally also adhere to seeing maternal cut-off as the choice of last resort. Many therapists believe that resolution or healthy attachment needs to be accomplished within the mother-daughter relationship, not outside of it. While some therapists will advise their patients to go on a temporary break, few will ever initiate the recommendation that a patient break with her mother. Even self-help books tend to advocate that daughters be "fair" in their assessment of their mothers; as one writer puts it," The danger lies in tipping too far, either toward blaming the mother or toward dismissing the daughter's suffering. An important task of a wounded daughter is to see the mother-child relationship from both sides."
But for some daughters – myself included – "divorcing" my mother was the only way I could move forward into a healthy future.
Most daughters who've broken with their mothers acknowledge that this is less a "solution" than a life-saving strategy which only offers partial healing. Whether the separation from a mother's ability to hurt and inability to love occurs because of "divorce" or death, the result falls very short of perfect. Terri's mother died when she was eighteen, ending what had been both a reign of terror and emotional deprivation. But even the abrupt ending wasn't really an ending at all. Her voice low but insistent, Terri tells me," There is always a hole in me that needs to be filled, and can't be. Not the love of my four kids or my husband of twenty-odd years, or my friends fills it. It's always there, like a tear or a hole in fabric. You can put threads in to repair the weave – the threads of other relationships – but the hole is still there."
I know precisely what she means: I will go to my grave, still grieving the mother love I never had and wishing just as hard that I had been born to someone else.
The daughter who is an only child has a special burden since she lacks a sibling to help her test her own vision of emotional reality. She's more likely to feel that she's at fault or responsible for her mother's behavior. As one woman told me, " I do think I would have been different if I'd had a sibling because I would have had a buffer who might have helped me either by sharing our experience and talking about it or distracting from the all consuming effect my mother had on me. " Another only child is Sarah, 52, an artist and writer who now lives in Wisconsin with her husband, two thousand miles away from where she grew up. She left home at the age of eighteen when she went off to college, and she's never gone back. "I had an exit strategy," she says dryly, "from the time I was little." She has no children, explaining that " I promised myself as a preteen that I'd never have kids until I could figure out how to raise them better than my mom raised me." Her early experiences sound nothing if not claustrophobic; her mother was smothering, controlling, and, at the same time, impossible to please. Both of her parents were the youngest of twelve siblings and her mother was raised largely by an older brother and sister because her own mother ignored her. Most of Sarah's earliest memories are of being controlled and restricted – being made to sit in a chair while her mother cooked and prepared dinner, and being told not to talk so as not to disturb her mother or "get in her way." Her mother didn't want her helping and, on the rare occasions she did, whatever she did would be criticized. " I felt as though I was always being observed," she says. If she didn't "clean her plate" at dinner, then the same plate went into the refrigerator where it would become Sarah's breakfast or lunch if necessary. "I felt as though I didn't really exist and I grew comfortable living under the radar," she tells me, " I had a rich fantasy life –complete with imaginary siblings, friends, and animal companions. When I was five, we moved to a new house and my mother threw out all my stuffed animals. I replaced them with imaginary ones and, later, with imaginary scenarios about how my parents weren't really my parents and that my real parents would come and get me someday." As she got older, she was often forbidden to play with other children and join in activities. This was explained, she tells me, as a way of protecting her, of making sure "she didn't get into trouble," as were all the restrictions and controls placed on her when she got older.
Reading became a source of comfort and escape at an early age, and continued through her adolescence when she discovered science fiction and fantasy. But Sarah's father encouraged her to excel at school and that, she says, "saved me. I don't think my father was really aware of how my mother treated me – the house was her domain and having a job was his – but he did give me the support and inspiration that ultimately got me a scholarship to a great college and out of the house." Most confusing was how her mother was with others, in the outside world: "She could be flirtatious and outgoing, not at all like who she was with me, and it was very confusing. How could she be so nice in public and then so mean to me? It made me feel crazy. I remember once having someone over and my mother baked cookies – something she never did – and the way it all seemed so normal, as if she did this everyday the way another mother might, made it even crazier."
Sarah's father died when she was in her first year of college and she has, as she puts it, "moved on to an intentionally chosen family." When I ask her how her relationship to her mother shaped her, her thoughtful answer underscores how childhood experiences shape all of us in both obvious and subtle ways: " Looking back, when I grew up, some of my childhood ways of coping stayed with me, if sometimes in disguised form. When I was involved with the theatre, I worked on lighting, illuminating others but staying behind the scenes, out of the spotlight, under the radar myself. As an artist, I'm mainly an observer even now, separated from the world by a camera lens. But the rich interior dialogue I used to survive my childhood has still served me well."
Sometimes a sibling who shares a daughter's experience can be a source of comfort and validation. In her book The Sister Knot, Terri Apter writes: "The quarrels we each had, in very different ways, with our mother threatened to crush us; but together, taking these to each other, sharing our information, they became bearable. We could name our confusions." Distinguishing the talk between girlfriends and sisters, Apter notes, "For all the family complaints swapped between girlfriends, there are things one often isn't allowed to say. With my sister we could talk and complain, without ever worrying that we were being outrageously disloyal…. I knew I was safe from social exposure. My sister would never say to someone else, in mockery or disdain, 'She has the most awful mother.'" But sibling relationships can also be shaped by the dynamic between the unloving mother and her daughter, most particularly when a mother differentiates between her children, being loving and attentive to one but not to another; in many families, the dynamic will weaken sibling bonds. In other families, though, particularly when there is an age gap between siblings and an absence of mother love, a sibling may step into the breach and serve as both a safe haven and a touchstone for her sister's emotional development. Research confirms, in fact, that some of the most intense sibling bonds may be formed when a mother or father or both parents are consistently unavailable or unloving.
Mean mothers are often the daughters of mean or highly ambivalent mothers, as my own mother was – a negative bond passed on from generation to generation, without acknowledgement or analysis. Over the past forty years, attachment theory –which started with the observation of monkey mothers and their offspring, and then expanded to human mothers and infants – has offered a reliable explanation for why some families will engender a mother line of pain. "Ghosts in the nursery" was the phrase Dr. Selma Fraiberg coined in the 1970s to describe how generation after generation of women were bound to repeat the same patterns of maternal behavior, no matter how sincerely they wanted to mother their children differently from their own mothers. As Fraiberg wrote, "While none has been issued an invitation, the ghosts take up residence and conduct the rehearsal of a family tragedy from a tattered script." Patterns of relationship in families are tenacious precisely because they are establish both on a behavioral and physical level; research on the development of the brain during infancy and childhood, and the formation of the self, has both confirmed the basic tenets of attachment theory and expanded its implications. By studying infant interactions with their mothers in a tightly controlled laboratory setting, Mary Ainsworth was able to categorize the type of relationship a child enjoyed with her mother or primary caregiver as either "securely attached" or "insecurely attached." The model used, the so-called "strange situation," was relatively simple, and her results have been duplicated in hundreds of studies since. The mother and infant arrive in the lab together. Within a short period of time, the mother departs, leaving the baby with an adult who, while caring, is nonetheless a stranger to the child. What happened when the mother returned was the focus of Ainsworth's study.
As she expected, the majority of children acted like the baby monkeys she'd studied; they were distressed by their mothers' absence and were immediately comforted when they returned. These children rushed to their mothers, literally flung themselves into their mothers' arms and looked into their eyes, reestablishing both physical and psychological contact. But to Ainsworth's surprise, some children didn't behave in this way. Some seemed uncomfortable when their mothers were with them, showed little distress when their mothers left, and derived no comfort when they returned. Others showed no emotion when their mothers left and, upon their return, avoided all contact with them. The first group of children were those Ainsworth labeled "securely attached." Their mothers were women who were attuned to their children's needs and were capable of responding to those emotional and physical needs on a consistent basis. Seen through the lens of brain development, Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed. explain that attachment is a system of the inner brain that evolved to keep human children safe because of the length of time it takes to reach maturity. Attachment has three effects: first, it enables the child to seek proximity to the parent; second, to go to the parent for comfort in times of distress; and third, to internalize the relationship with the mother as an internal model of a secure base. It is this "secure base" which will serve as a template for friendships and relationships in adult life.
The other group of children – those who didn't exhibit the kind of behavior expected – were categorized as "insecurely attached." Insecure attachments can be avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized in nature. Children of mothers who are repeatedly unavailable or repeatedly rejecting demonstrate avoidant behavior and adapt avoiding physical and emotional closeness with them. Children of mothers who are only sometimes available and who aren't reliably attuned adapt by being ambivalently attached. Because they don't know what to expect – is she going to be the nice mommy or the yelling one? – these children develop anxiety and insecurity about the maternal relationship and, as adults, a sense of all relationships as being essentially unreliable.
The last category of insecure attachment is the most problematic. When a child's needs are unmet and she finds her mother's behavior frightening or chaotic, she may develop a disorganized attachment. Disorganized attachment is most closely associated with parents who are physically or emotionally abusive, and it is the type of attachment which engenders the most conflict within the child and is most destructive to the formation of self. As Daniel Siegel writes, " In this situation, the child is 'stuck' because there is an impulse to turn toward the very source of terror from which he or she is attempting to escape." This impulse explains those horrible instances of child abuse when a child is injured by his or her mother but, in pain, still calls out for "Mommy."
Mary Ainsworth's work was expanded by her student Mary Main whose research confirmed why there were ghosts in the nursery: Using the Adult Attachment Interview, an adult's recollection of how she was treated during childhood accurately predicted how she would relate to her own children. The way parents made sense of their own early childhood experiences, revealed both in the content of their answers and the coherence of their life narratives, is the factor which most accurately predicts their own children's security of attachment. Without intervention – either through therapy or a relationship in which new patterns of emotional connection could be established – insecurely attached children would grow up to be insecurely attached adults who would, in turn, end up raising insecurely attached children themselves. The patterns continued, despite differences in temperament and other personality factors.
The securely attached daughter will become a securely attached woman who is emotionally available, perceptive and responsive. The insecure-avoidant daughter will become an emotionally unavailable adult, unperceptive, unresponsive and rejecting. The insecure-ambivalent daughter will become an unreliable mother—sometimes there for her child, sometimes not. She will be unlikely to recognize her child's boundaries and her behavior will often be felt as intrusive by her child. Children with disorganized attachment – who have incorporated what one researcher called "fright without resolution—are likely to parent in the same way. The daughters of mean mothers I've interviewed all describe relationships which fall within the continuum of insecure attachments; all of them confirm that their mothers' mothers were, to one degree or another, incapable of consistent and attuned mothering as well.
One woman, Ella, explained how this worked in her family: "My mother doesn't intend to be mean but she seems to be without the ability to empathize. Because the mother love she received was so limited, she never learned to be loving." Ella's mother was intimated by her daughter's strong sense of self and retaliated with a critical parenting style which continues to this day.
"I have spent years," Ella tells me, " trying to get my mother's voice out of my head – the voice that told me I was too fat when I was a teenager, the voice that tells me today that I am a lousy housekeeper, the voice that always reminds me that nothing about me or my life is perfect." Her mother's lack of emotional availability was largely hidden in her relationships with her two other children, each of whom had problems she could tend to and manage. In these relationships—with a daughter who showed early signs of bipolar disorder and a son who suffered from severe allergies—her role as a caretaker gave her a sense of comfort and confidence, while masking her deficiencies. With healthy, smart, and ambitious Ella, her mother was always critical and, often, cruel and insensitive.
Even so, throughout Ella's childhood and much of her early adulthood, her craving for her mother's attention never abated:
"When I was a kid, I would fake being sick just to get the kind of love my mother was capable of. Even as an adult, I needed her love as much as I always had as a child, and I did just about anything to please her. I'd try to ignore all the thoughtless and often mean comments she would make – that's how much I needed her. Only now – as my own daughters reach the end of their teens – am I learning, with the help of a therapist, to set healthy boundaries with my mother." Cultural norms – backed up by the Judeo-Christian tradition -require us to honor our mothers and fathers and, above all, speak no ill of them. These cultural strictures affect all daughters, including those raised by essentially loving, if occasionally imperfect, mothers. They can get in the way of the work a daughter needs to do when she moves from one stage of her own development to another – from adolescence to young adulthood and then into adulthood and motherhood, for example – and must confront the task of seeing her mother wholly and realistically. Our cultural unwillingness to challenge the idealization of motherhood combined with the injunction against criticizing our own mother can leave any daughter unable to take the next necessary step in her evolving relationship to her mother. As Christina Robb notes in This Changes Everything, " Mothers and daughters in good relationships learn to see, hear, and love each other as they are, and not as approximations of an ideal or stereotype, negative or positive."
For the daughters of mean mothers, the concept of mother love – instinctual, inviolable, sacred, unconditional – has a different kind of chokehold.
I learned early on that discussing my mother frankly could be an uncomfortable experience for me and whoever was listening. I remember a college friend insisting that my mother couldn't have meant all the things she said to me simply because she had given birth to me. Other daughters of mean mothers, some of whom stay in contact with their mothers and others who have broken all ties with them, have had similar experiences.
The myth of mother love makes it harder for daughters to confront their histories, even when the line between meanness and abuse is crossed. Terri, now the mother of four, had a mother who was both mean and unstable, and abused her emotionally and physically. Terri tells me that coming home from school was always fraught: which mother would greet her – the smiling one or the angry crazy one? One day, when she was five or six, after serving her lunch, her mother came in and yanked her comfort blanket from her hands. Big scissors in her hands, her mother taunted her: " Big girls aren't scared to sleep without a blankie. How can you be a big girl with a blankie?" Terri's blanket was her solace; her place of safety. Slowly her mother cut her blanket in two and threw one piece into the trash, saying " I'll show you what a big girl is. A big girl watches me cut up her blankie and doesn't cry. A big girl thanks her mother for helping her grow up."
Each day, Terri comes home to a smaller and smaller piece of the blanket until it is finally gone. Years later—long after she has had four children of her own – Terri tells the story to a friend, the mother of three children. The friend insists that Terri is making too much of the incident, and that there was no malice on her mother's part. Her mother must simply have been trying to make Terri become more independent. Her friend just doesn't get it because her assumptions about mothers and the unconditional love they bear their children override her common sense.
In the court of mother-daughter conflict, it's usually the daughter who's on trial.
The cultural myth of absolute mother love combined with the real-world power of a mother to inform her child's universe often create a terrible conflict within the daughter herself. Precisely because a child is dependent on her mother not just for her physical needs but for the emotional cues that inform her sense of self, the pain caused by her mother's ambivalence or meanness co-exists with her need for her mother's love and attention. In a loving, securely attached relationship between a mother and child, power isn't an issue. With insecure attachment – whether avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized -the mother always has the advantage and there is fertile opportunity for the abuse of maternal power. Barraged by constant and cruel criticism, a daughter may actually become more dependent on her mother than ever, precisely because her mother's words communicate a single lesson: You are not good enough to survive without me. Others, like myself, may simply find themselves asking a single question: "What 's wrong with me that my mother doesn't love me?" Some daughters internalize their mothers' words and actions and, long after childhood, will seek out other relationships – with friends and lovers alike – which echo the maternal one, no matter how much pain it has caused. "I see now, " Sheila confided, " that all the relationships I had with men during my twenties and thirties were all about my mother. I backed away from her but filled the hole she left in me with the same kind of cruelty and uncaring. It took years of therapy to understand why I was choosing the men I did. When I finally understood, I was able to make new choices – and, parenthetically, broke off all relations with her." For many daughters of mean mothers, myself included, this is a familiar story, if a confusing one.
Why would daughters of unloving mothers seek out relationships in later life which replicate the pain of their childhood experiences? This paradox is explained by Thomas Lewis, M.D. and his co-authors in their book A General Theory of Love. The developing human brain is actively shaped by the quality of attachment and relatedness we experience during infancy and childhood. They write: " Love and the lack of it change the young brain forever. The central nervous system was once thought to unfold into maturity in accordance with the instructions in its DNA . . . . But as we now know, most of the nervous system (including the limbic brain) needs exposure to crucial experiences to drive its growth. . . . The lack of an attuned mother is a nonevent for a reptile and a shattering injury to the fragile limbic brain of a mammal."
We learn about love not because we are told about it but because we experience it on a neurological level. The infant/child's experiences with her mother (and father) forge connections among the cells in the higher brain. The human brain is designed to be adaptive and it wires itself to adapt best to the environment in which it finds itself. This biological adaptability – which affects both the brain's structure and its chemical systems – can work for or against a child's well-being. With secure attachment to a parent or parents, we learn that "love means protection, caretaking, loyalty" and we know this because our brain " automatically narrows crowded confusion into a few regular prototypes." With insecure attachments, "a child unwittingly memorizes the precise lesson of that troubled relationship: that love is suffocation, that anger is terrifying, that dependence is humiliating, or one of a million crippling variations." Put more simply, if a child has a bullying parent, she unconsciously adapts to living in a bullying world and adopts behaviors appropriate to it. This unconscious knowledge propels daughters to seek out the familiar negative later in life and, for these daughters, this unhealthy comfort zone will make disengaging from the destructive maternal legacy even harder to accomplish. A few daughters recount that, even as children, they were able to understand they'd done nothing to elicit their mother's behavior. While this understanding insulates these daughters to a degree, it still does little to assuage their feelings of emotional loss and deprivation or to help them forge healthy connections later in life. Seen from the vantage point of relational psychology—which echoes the findings of other scientific approaches but with a different vocabulary – what a daughter learns from this primary relationship will stream out into her future life and relationships. As Irene Stiver observed, when a child's expressions of thoughts and feelings aren't heard or responded to, when she feels that who she is has no impact on the important people in her life, when she is powerless to change these relationships, when there is no one to share her pain, there are profound and potentially lasting consequences. Most important, Stiver writes, "Growing up in dysfunctional families, children learn how to stay out of relationships while behaving as if they are in relationships." Ellen was the only biological child in her family, with an adopted older brother and sister. Her father was loving but detached and, while he knew about his wife's cruelty to Ellen, he did little to stop it. Now the mother of a young daughter and son herself, she says "I understood from a young age that there was nothing I could do to satisfy my mother. She was totally self-absorbed, a narcissist, and she was never able to see me as anything but a projection of herself. And the anger, meanness, and disappointment which began inside of her simply radiated out towards me. She herself was the daughter of a hypercritical and dominating father, and a docile mother who did little to protect her from her father's cruelty. She was different with my adopted siblings precisely because they didn't reflect on her in the same way. In my case, the biological tie was a negative." But, Ellen adds, " Knowing what was going on didn't stop me from hurting. It took me years to achieve any sense of emotional balance and connection."
Some daughters will wrestle with how, among siblings, they alone are singled out. Gillian was the eldest child, the only girl among three brothers. But her mother identified her most closely with her father, a man who had abandoned his wife and children. Her mother's anger at her ex-husband focused on Gillian and her own disappointments were fueled by the bright future she foresaw for her academically gifted daughter.
The daughters of mean mothers tell me of experiences very different from those women whose mothers were merely unable to parent with grace, ease, or any kind of sureness. Recent memoirs by adult daughters, such as Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle and Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, testify in abundance that mothers who appear to fail every conventional test of motherhood but who lack cruelty or mean intention can, in fact, be loving mothers despite their obvious shortcomings.
Unlike their mean counterparts, less than perfect mothers sometimes can face what they lack with both grace and intelligence. When I ask my friend Jane, the daughter of actor Bert Lahr and the mother of an adult daughter herself, whether her own mother – a former Ziegfeld Follies girl who, given her own self-absorption and love of social life, was probably as unsuited to motherhood by her nature and personality as any woman could be – was mean, Jane's answer is categorical: "Absolutely not."
Her mother Mildred came from a background that might have hobbled anyone less ambitious and insistent: she was one of four children abandoned by their father when she was two, by her mother at four, and, after she failed to be adopted, raised by her grandparents. "What was extraordinary about Mom," Jane tells me, " is that she knew both that nurturing was important and that she couldn't nurture. But if she couldn't nurture, what she could do was manage and manage she did. She created a household full of people – the nanny, the cook, the cleaning lady – who were kind and loving and who supported me and my brother. She knew education was important and she sent us to schools, camps, and lessons that cultivated our individuality." Even if her own experience during childhood had lacked love and nurturing, she did know what her children needed and, as a mother did what she could to make up the difference.
Unfortunately, not every mother with an emotionally deficient chlldhood will have that amount of insight into the problem.
During all of my twenties and some of my thirties, my relationship with my mother was like a wound that wouldn't heal. I continued to struggle with it, even with therapy—breaking off all contact for weeks, months, or years, and, then, going back to the well one more time, peeling off whatever scab had managed to form. It didn't occur to me until years later that never once did my mother initiate a reconciliation and I now understand why: she was relieved by my absence. From her point of view, I was the mirror that reflected her greatest fear and failure: her own unloving nature as my mother. Keeping that secret was, I believe, more important to her than I was .
What I wanted from her is easier to see: I still wanted her love but by then I wanted, in equal measure, her admission that she was wrong not to love me. In the end, neither would be forthcoming.
My struggle was hardly unique. Other women confirm behaviors which testify to the depth of the hunger for mother-love when it is withheld or absent. As denizens of a culture dominated by the mother myths, the child within each and everyone of us longs for that perfect mother, the one who is always available, understanding, supportive. But the securely attached daughter of a loving mother can regain her foothold after her mother's occasional misstep; the insecurely attached daughter can't. Ambivalence reigns supreme. Mixed in with the anger and the hurt is, almost always, a measure of hopefulness that her mother will become the mother she longs for and needs.
The journey of the daughter of a mean or unloving mother is different in kind from those of daughters who, from the very beginning, have understood and grown from their connection to their mothers. The influence of any mother on her daughter during the formative years of childhood through early adulthood can hardly be overstated, and perhaps the influence of the unloving mother is an even more powerfully destructive force than that of a loving mother is a constructive one.
The mother's relationship to her daughter not only forms the earliest, if not the primary, foundation for how the daughter formulates her sense of self but is the basic template for her understanding of how relationships work in the world. In this sense, each individual's definition of love and emotional connection is learned during infancy and childhood. Adaptive behavior learned in childhood – dealing with an emotionally unreliable mother, for example – will absolutely carry over into adulthood without intervention, either in the form of therapy or some other relationship which offers a daughter (or a son) "earned" security or another way of connecting. As we've already seen, for many daughters, this will lead them to seek out relationships with other partners that actually echo the maternal one. Aside from relationship, the question that looms largest is:
"Can I mother differently than my own mother?" Nearly all daughters I interviewed the choice of whether or not to have children with caution, if not real hesitation.
If, as Hope Edelman has so eloquently observed, daughters who lose their mothers early in their lives, may experience a new upsurge of grief when they become mothers and may have difficulty mothering without a maternal guide, then daughters of mean mothers face a task which, in some ways, is even more difficult. If motherless daughters face the task of mothering without a map, then the daughters of mean mothers are both motherless and mother-burdened at once. They must consciously discard the maternal model as well as the behaviors they learned and internalized in their childhoods. They must learn how to mother from scratch. And only some of them will fully succeed.
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.
Yet not every story is a success story, as Barbara confides: "My mother did nothing for me and, so, I did everything for my daughter so that her childhood, unlike mine, would be 'perfect.' I didn't realize that in my effort to give her everything I needed when I was a child and didn't get, I completely lost sight of her. I was controlling and smothering her. It took the crisis of her adolescence and her full-fledged rebellion to make me realize I needed help in mothering her." These stories are particularly important because they permit us to look past the myths of mother love, with their simplistic formulae of this most complicated and important relationship. The stories of mean mothers aren't always the most uplifting of narratives but they have lessons to teach all of us nonetheless. In their own way, they cast a new and important light on the topography of the mother-daughter relationship.
That Tattered Script
When Hollywood tackles the mother-daughter relationship, even a difficult one, a happy ending is never out of sight. Even troubled mother-daughter stories – think Terms of Endearment, Postcards from the Edge, Anywhere but Here, Tumbleweeds – always end on bright notes of love and reconciliation. In real life, it doesn't always happen that way but, even so, it's so damn hard to give up on that idea of unconditional love, that bit of leftover paradise in an otherwise uncertain world.
One morning in February of 2001, my phone rang. I picked up to hear my brother's voice. "Mom is dying," he said, " I thought you might want to come see her." At that point, I hadn't seen or spoken to my mother for over ten years; in fact, I didn't know she'd even been ill.
"Has she asked for me?" I asked. There was silence, and then he cleared his throat. "No," he said, " she hasn't." "Has she ever mentioned me in the last months or years?" I asked. There was another pause and then the word "No." There was another pause and then he said, " I thought you might want to come to see her anyway. She's floating in and out of consciousness and it doesn't look like she's going to be able to hang on much longer." I thanked him for his call, wished him luck, and told him I'd get back to him.
I called friends, relatives, and my therapist and the verdict was unanimous: I should go. I owed it to her, the logic went, because she'd given me life and, besides, seeing her again and saying goodbye would give me "closure." My therapist – a woman I genuinely admired – was absolutely categorical, telling me I might never forgive myself if I didn't go. Closure, she said, was too important. The possible scene she described – one of final reconciliation and declarations of mutual love – brought me to tears in her office even though, back in cool winter air on the way to my car, it seemed more theatre than anything else.
My closest friends stressed that by performing this last act of filial duty, I would feel good about myself. Even if my mother had behaved badly through the years, through this gesture, I would prove once and for all that, in the most important ways, I was nothing like her.
Everyone was helpful, kind, and said what they did because they wanted me to be happy with my choice. I know each of them meant well. But not one of them had had a childhood or a parent like mine and, in the end, I understood that they didn't understand at all.
The scene I saw in my mind's eye was not what Hollywood or even my therapist envisioned. I saw myself standing by her bed, talking and, just like every other conversation I had ever had with her, she would be incapable of hearing me. Perhaps this time she wouldn't hear me for a different reason but the scene would be painfully familiar nonetheless. I would stand there, tears in my eyes, and ask her that same question she'd never been able to answer – "Why didn't you love me? "—and this time her silence would stretch out into eternity. And the little girl in me, once again, would be there – hoping and praying with all of her heart – that this time, Mommy would love me.
I didn't go and I have never regretted it. I ignored everyone's advice and chose for myself with full understanding of the implications and the costs.
This is, I know, a story no one wants to hear. But it is a story that needs to be heard along with the stories of forgiveness, of reconciliation, and others which lie somewhere in-between. Each of these stories, in its own way, testifies to what can happen when a mother can't love her daughter in the way she needs to be loved.
The myth of mother love pervades our thinking about family and other relationships in ways both simple and complex. It's not a single myth but one that is more like the largest of those nesting dolls, each of which, when pulled part, reveals a smaller doll within it. It's a fitting metaphor since those Russian dolls are called Matryoshkas or "mothers," and symbolize motherhood as all embracing; the smiling face on the largest doll tells us that motherhood brings only satisfaction and joy. Within the largest doll is the myth of absolute love, free of all and any emotional ambivalence which in turn holds the myth of mother as fully empathic, sacrificial, and without needs of her own. Within that myth is yet another that tells us that mothering is instinctual and that all females are nurturing, which both implies that every woman should be a mother and can be a good one, while marginalizing the anxiety and guilt even a loving mother feels when she doesn't feel up to the challenge mothering presents. Nestled in that doll is a still smaller one that denies the complexity and difficulty of mothering across the life stages – both those of the mother herself and of her daughter as well. Hidden within the smallest doll is a myth with a specific power and poison of its own that can shape-shift the landscape of the family as a whole and the sibling relationships within it. This is the myth that tells us that every mother loves each of her children equally and in the same way, denying the impact of personality and goodness of fit or even where a woman finds herself in life when her daughter is born.
These myths shape all mothers, loving or not. They get in the way of gaining a fuller understanding of how a mother's behaviors can help or hurt, as well as imposing a nearly impossible standard of perfection on every mother. Equally, these myths prevent the daughters of unloving mothers from giving voice to their experiences without feeling ashamed or guilty, making their journeys as women all the more difficult. Taken together, these myths are the foundation for one of our most potent cultural taboos and stand in the way of an open discussion of what happens when a mother doesn't or can't love the daughter she has borne and brought into the world.
It's my hope that this book will help change all that. The point-of-view presented in these pages is that of daughters, not their mothers. And while the book is deliberately one-sided so that stories of daughters can occupy center-stage and that their experiences can be illuminated in fullness, I've also tried hard not to demonize the women who were unloving or mean and I hope that I've succeeded. Calling a mother "mean", as I sometimes have on these pages, is obviously not a clinical description but underscores the mother's refusal to acknowledge or accept responsibility for her treatment of her child and change her behavior, even if confronted. By not responding to her daughter's complaints and observations, a mother undermines both the reality of her child's experience and her sense of self. In most cases, I've deliberately excluded stories of mothers who seemed to suffer from a definable mental illness.
Importantly, it's worth noting that I am neither a psychotherapist nor a social researcher so the stories in this book occupy a different place than they would if I were either. They don't constitute a survey or a scientific sample but are meant to illustrate by way of story, what science tells us about this most important relationship.
Almost every woman I've spoken to or interviewed has asked me the same question: Would I write this book if my mother were still alive? The answer is "yes" because there is nothing in these pages I wouldn't have said to her face. But at the same time, it's important to remember that these mothers, including mine, were daughters too. As Adrienne Rich so acutely observed, " It is hard to write about my own mother. Whatever I do write, it is my story I am telling, my version of the past. If she were to tell her own story other landscapes would be revealed. But in my landscape or hers, there would be old, smoldering patches of deep-burning anger."