“Mean Mothers” and Their Daughters

Peg Streep, author of Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt (2009), blasts three myths about motherhood via the following statements (Psychology Today):

  1. Motherhood is not instinctual.
  2. Motherhood is not unconditional.
  3. The maternal bond is not instantaneous and universal.

Rather than focusing on the most extreme cases, e.g., mothers who are psychopaths, Streep looks instead at “the more subtle forms of psychological damage inflicted by mothers on their unappreciated daughters—and offers help and support to those women who were forced to suffer a parent’s cruelty and neglect.”

In one blog post Streep lists eight toxic patterns in mother-daughter relationships. They’re provided below with direct excerpted quotes:

1. Dismissive–“Human offspring are hardwired to need and seek proximity to their mothers, and therein lies the problem: the daughter’s need for her mother’s attention and love isn’t diminished by the mother’s dismissal.”

2. Controlling–“These mothers micromanage their daughters, actively refuse to acknowledge the validity of their words or choices, and instill a sense of insecurity and helplessness in their offspring. Most of this behavior is done under the guise of being for the child’s ‘own good’; the message is, effectively, that the daughter is inadequate, cannot be trusted to exercise good judgment, and would simply flounder and fail without her mother’s guidance.”

3. Unavailable–“These behaviors can include lack of physical contact (no hugging, no comforting); unresponsiveness to a child’s cries or displays of emotion, and her articulated needs as she gets older; and, of course, literal abandonment.”

4. Enmeshed–“These women are classic ‘stage mothers’ and live through their children’s achievements.”

5. Combative–“Included in this group are the mothers who actively denigrate their daughters, are hypercritical, intensely jealous of, or competitive with their offspring.”

6. Unreliable–“This is, in many ways, the hardest behavior for a daughter to cope with, because she never knows if the ‘good mommy’ or the ‘bad mommy’ will show up.”

7. Self-involved–“This mother sees her daughter—if she sees her at all—as an extension of herself and nothing more.”

8. Role-reversed–“Anecdotally, this is the pattern of maternal interaction I hear about the least—the scenario in which the daughter, even at a young age, becomes the helper, the caretaker, or even ‘the mother’ to her own mother.”

Below, the seven common wounds seen in daughters, per Streep (Psychology Today):

1. Lack of confidence

2. Lack of trust

3. Difficulty setting boundaries

4. Difficulty seeing the self accurately

5. Making avoidance the default position

        6. Being overly sensitive

        7. Replicating the Mother bond in relationships

It’s not all dismal. In Mean Mothers Streep offers significant encouragement and hope for daughters who wish to work through the related issues:

…I would certainly trade in my childhood experiences with [my mother] in a heartbeat. But I—and you, for that matter—are more than the sum of the parts our mothers, loving or not, bequeathed us. The process of confrontation—of feeling the pain of not being loved or known—and of becoming conscious of how we were mothered offers an unloved daughter possibilities of growth another experience might not have yielded.

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