Thursday, March 30, 2017
Why are some mothers so viciously cruel to their daughters?
From the petulant stamp of her foot to the way she shouted at me and the fury that glittered in her eyes, it was obvious that I had provoked yet another angry outburst.
But I was not an adult dealing with a toddler’s fractious tantrum. Rather, I was the child and the person in front of me was my mother. A mother who clearly didn’t relish the role, and, I am convinced, would have been much happier with a different child.
For many millions of mothers and daughters, last Sunday — Mother’s Day — was a day to cherish the bond they share, an opportunity for daughters to thank the women who have nurtured and supported them through childhood and beyond.
Dr Terri Apter never felt she successfully managed to please her mother, leaving her with low self-esteem
But spare a thought for those women who will have struggled to buy a card bearing the message ‘To the best mum ever’. Those of us whose mothers are, or were, women who perhaps should never have had children and who simply weren’t cut out for the job. For they do exist, and always have.
Recently, writer Angela Levin gave a heart-wrenching account of having a mother who was cruel and indifferent towards her. Angela recalled how her mother often said she wished she’d called her ‘Devil’ because she had never given her a ‘moment’s pleasure’. As a child, her mother banned her from reading the books she loved; one day without warning she got rid of Angela’s beloved childhood pet labrador retriever.
Her mother criticised her friends and boyfriends, and told Angela when she was pregnant that she hoped the new baby would be like Angela so she would understand what she’d had to put up with.
Angela’s mother was never violent — my mother would occasionally dispense ‘well-deserved’ spankings across my legs and I also remember the pain when she yanked my pigtails hard — but like hers, mine could be cutting, cruel and relentlessly critical.
Recently, writer Angela Levin (pictured) gave a heart-wrenching account of having a mother who was cruel and indifferent towards her
Angela’s piece clearly touched a nerve. Scores of readers, mainly women, wrote in after it was published detailing their own, often heartbreaking, experiences.
Angela also reported that on the day the article was published, 24,000 people visited the website myhorridparent.com that she and a psychologist friend have set up to support those in a similar situation.
I’m not surprised. When I wrote about my mother, Julia, for a magazine some years ago, I was astonished by the numbers of emails and letters I received afterwards.
Of those who have written to me over the past few weeks — mothers and grandmothers themselves — many described how a toxic relationship with their mother had permeated through their lives.
Many of them were the children of mothers who really didn’t see themselves as having a choice in the matter. A generation or two ago, it was assumed that a woman would marry and have children.
Writer Angela Levin described her mother as a a 'cruel and horrid woman'
To choose not to was seen as peculiar, condemning those rare mavericks to a life of suspicion where society viewed them as something of an oddity.
Recent statistics show women in their mid-40s are almost twice as likely to be childless as their parents’ generation. One in five women born in 1969 is childless today, compared with one in nine born in 1942.
Leaving aside those who arrived at this point not through choice but with pain and disappointment, it still leaves a significant number of women who accepted motherhood wasn’t for them — that they’d be happier and more fulfilled childless.
How many women, I wonder, would have spared their children a life of suffering had they been able to make such a choice? For make no mistake, a reluctant, bitter, resentful mother is terribly damaging to a child, and the effects can last a lifetime.
Take Cy, a grandmother from Worcestershire, who wrote below:
Angela Levin aged two with her mother. Angela recalled how her mother often said she wished she’d called her ‘Devil’ because she had never given her a ‘moment’s pleasure’
‘Angela’s story made me cry. I am nearly 69 and am still suffering from depression after being brought up by a similar mother.
‘She died aged 95, 15 years ago, and I always said I had spent over 50 years trying to please her, but never managed it.’
Susan, 64, a mother of three and a retired bank manager from Devon, recalled when her mother Jean died. ‘At my mother’s funeral in 1997, the minister read out the eulogy that my mother had written herself. I wasn’t mentioned. After she died I had a complete crisis of confidence.’
I know only too well that the impact of growing up with a woman like this — what I term a ‘difficult’ mother — lasts beyond childhood.
My mother’s violent and unpredictable outbursts continued until her death from cancer when I was in my early 20s. I was terrified that we’d be estranged when she died and rang her every day during her last illness. Despite this filial devotion I never did feel that I had managed to please her.
Angela Levin aged three wearing the dress she left home in. As a child, Angela's mother banned her from reading the books she loved; one day without warning she got rid of her beloved childhood pet labrador retriever
My legacy was a long shadow of self-suspicion, what some might call low self-esteem. I can be sensitive to criticism, don’t expect people to find me likeable and feel it’s my role to placate others.
However, it is thanks to my mother that I began my career as a psychologist, a subject I pursued because I wanted to understand why people behave as they do.
While arguments between mothers and daughters are normal, especially during the teenage years, most mothers are eager to understand and meet their child’s needs. However, in 20 per cent of cases, something very different happens.
Retired nurse Lesley Mould (pictured), 66, from Berkshire, explained: ‘My mother might have loathed me, but I tried so hard to gain her approval. As a little girl I’d buy her ornaments I thought she’d like'
I have identified five types of difficult mother: controlling, angry, narcissistic, envious and emotionally unavailable — though most difficult mothers may display all traits to a greater or lesser degree.
The controlling mother’s need to control a child is more important than a child’s need to discover its own preferences and thoughts.
The underlying message is that a child’s choices and desires are bad, defective or dangerous.
While it’s impossible to assess a relationship without a proper consultation, some details in the letters written to the Mail do build a picture.
Cy, for example, recalled how her mother wanted control over her social life. ‘My mother never wanted me to go anywhere without her or have friends of my own. Any friend was a “bad influence” and wasn’t allowed in the house.
Lesley Mould and her mother Marion. Marion was isolated, bringing up Lesley and her younger brother with domestic help, but without an emotional support network of family and friends
‘She always told me that no one would want to marry me as apparently I was sulky and not good looking. If I put on make-up, she would say: “Who do you think is going to look at you?” ’
There is the narcissist mother, one who is totally self-involved. Narcissism is often used to describe a big ego, but in psychological terms a narcissist has a very fragile ego and needs constant reassurance. This mother demands adoration and compliance.
This was certainly my experience. My mother was an ambitious and successful — yet very insecure — pioneering medical scientist.
Eventually I learned the secret to handling her was to constantly remind her how brilliant and accomplished she was, that her outstanding talents weren’t being recognised by others.
My older sister refused to play this game and they were estranged when my mother died. An envious mother resents her child’s positive development. She betrays the most basic terms of the parent-child emotional contract, which is to take pleasure in seeing her child thrive.
Lesley Mould and her mother Marion. Lesley said: 'While I do still feel the effects of my mother’s anger — for example, the self-flagellation I experience when I forget something, just as she would scold me when I failed to take a phone message properly — they are outweighed by the positives in my life'
Since envy is one of the most unpleasant feelings in the human register of emotions, both for the person who envies and for the person who is envied, an envious mother is almost always unaware of her envy.
She disguises it from herself with a range of other explanations for her displeasure: ‘You think too much of yourself,’ she accuses or ‘Your hopes are too high; you’re headed for disappointment’.
It is confusing to a child when she offers her achievements as a gift to her mother, and then finds that these threaten or offend her.
Teacher and writer Anne Wilson, 69, a mother of one from Surrey, wrote in to describe her own mother in this all too familiar way.
‘If I talked about having done well in tests at school, my mother told me I was boasting, and if I produced any artwork at home, I was told not to show off. Nothing of mine was kept or displayed.
Anne Wilson aged four with her mother Barbara.
Anne Wilson aged six months, third from left, with mother Barbara, taking second place in Fleetwood's Silver Lining baby show in 1947
‘Later, when I began to take an interest in my appearance, she would ask me: “Who do you think is going to look at you?” Any blossoming self-confidence was always firmly quashed.’
The angry mother repeatedly uses anger to control her family. It doesn’t have to be constant to have an impact.
My mother’s outbursts happened no more than five times a month, yet it seemed that her anger dominated my whole life.
Reader Eleanor, 75, a mother from Hampshire, wrote in describing how her mother was ‘angry, controlling and self-obsessed.
‘She could not understand how someone as perfectly wonderful as she was could have produced such poor quality children’.
Her letter reminded me of how I struggled to learn to tell the time as a girl. My mother wasn’t concerned with how this made me feel — she just couldn’t understand how any child of hers could struggle with something so basic.
Finally, there’s emotional neglect. The epitome of not being there for a child is not physical absence, but emotional absence.
More chilling than coldness, more nerve-racking than anger, emotional absence deprives a child of a basic sense of self. There is no resonance, no responsiveness.
Anne Wilson aged 21 and her mother Barbara going to a wedding in 1968
Many of the women who wrote in applauded Angela for breaking the taboo in speaking out about her mother. The stories were especially poignant because many were sharing their true feelings about their mothers for only the first time in their 60s and 70s.
But there is good reason to fear admitting that your mother made your life hell and that you didn’t like her and may not have even loved her.
The good mother myth is so strong that a person is often condemned for speaking out about it. I have been accused of being a misogynist for focusing on mothers in this way, especially in an age when fathers can take on equal responsibilities at home.
But I don’t believe this is just another example of blaming a mother for everything.
While fathers and grandparents, siblings, friends, neighbours and teachers all have the potential to shape a child, the mother-child bond is often called a foundational relationship for good reason.
There is no getting away from the special impact a mother is likely to have on a child. Our early inter-actions with our primary care giver — who tends to be our mother, in spite of all the social change there has been — shape the circuits of our infant brain, circuits that are used to understand and manage our own emotions.
Long after the complex structures that form our social and emotional brains have developed, we continue to seek responsiveness from a mother. We seldom cease to care what a mother thinks of us.
Anne Wilson pictured (left) two years ago and (right) three years ago with her son. She said: ‘I didn’t fully understand how unkind my mother had always been. Then I had a son and experienced motherhood for myself. What a revelation. I discovered parenthood to be about wanting the very best for your children, which was so different from my mother’s attitude’
When we see how our sense of self is developed in relationship with her, it’s also possible to see why, when she is difficult, daughters may feel we are losing our minds.
All this begs the question: why are some mothers like this?
Psychologists used to think that mothers were innately jealous of their daughters’ youth and beauty, a constant reminder of their own fading bloom, but this theory has been debunked.
For some, the reasons will be circumstantial. Many of the women who wrote in to the Mail were born in the Forties and Fifties. Their mothers had endured the stress and privations of the war years. Some had made hasty marriages.
It was also a time when women were expected to focus their lives on the home, to set aside personal ambitions to bring up families —though this was not the case for my mother, who was able to continue her research career.
For other mothers there may be an envy of opportunities they never had. Anne Wilson, for example, believes her mother Barbara, who came from a deprived background, ‘resented me having a nice home, a decent education and the possibility of opportunities in life that she never had.
‘One of her favourite sayings was: “I didn’t have that so why should you.”
Dr Apter photographed at Newnham College, Cambridge. In her book Difficult Mothers: Understanding And Overcoming Their Power, she has identified five types of difficult mother: controlling, angry, narcissistic, envious and emotionally unavailable
But while women’s lives are not as narrowly defined as they used to be — there’s no longer the social pressure to have children if you don’t want to — I believe the proportion of difficult mothers remains roughly constant.
Some women take out their own misery and frustration on their children.
Retired nurse Lesley Mould, 66, from Berkshire, explained: ‘My mother might have loathed me, but I tried so hard to gain her approval. As a little girl I’d buy her ornaments I thought she’d like.
‘As an adult, whenever she needed me, I would drop everything to be there for her. All my attempts were to no avail.’
Lesley’s father was a company executive and the family spent long periods living abroad while he travelled.
Her mother Marion was isolated, bringing up Lesley and her younger brother with domestic help, but without an emotional support network of family and friends.
But such relationships do not necessarily end in a daughter’s defeat. I have found these women often acquire skills in the process of dealing with a difficult mother. These skills include patience, diplomacy and tolerance.
While I do still feel the effects of my mother’s anger — for example, the self-flagellation I experience when I forget something, just as she would scold me when I failed to take a phone message properly — they are outweighed by the positives in my life.
I have a strong marriage and my daughters, who are in their 30s, are wonderful mothers.
One of the fears of growing up with a difficult mother is that you will be one yourself. In fact, starting a family can be the first time a woman realises the way her mother treated her is not ‘normal’.
As Anne Wilson put it: ‘I didn’t fully understand how unkind my mother had always been. Then I had a son and experienced motherhood for myself.
‘What a revelation. I discovered parenthood to be about wanting the very best for your children, which was so different from my mother’s attitude.’
But just having the insight to acknowledge what your mother is like is often enough to break the cycle. It can make you a particularly responsive and loving parent.
A common theme was the love they share with their children.
My daughters and I are very close and they tell me I was a good mother to them. Mother’s Day for me is now an occasion for joy, as I hope it is for everyone else
Some of the names have been changed.