By Bunmi Sofola
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. Most ‘Mother’s Day’, daughters are eager not only to buy ‘To the best mum ever’ cards, they plaster their wa1ls on socia1 media with how wonderful their mothers are. “But spare a thought for those women who will have struggled to buy a card bearing any endearing messages for their mums,” says Abigail sadly.
She gave a heart-wrenching account of having a mother who was cruel and indifferent towards her. She recalled how her mother often said she wished she’d ca1led her ‘Devil’ because she’d never given her a ‘moment of pleasure.’ According to her: “As a child, my mother banned me from reading the books I loved. One day, without warning, she gave away my beloved puppy given to me by a cousin because the poor thing was fouling up the house. She criticised my friends and boyfriend, and when I became pregnant, she said she hoped the baby would be like me so I would understand what she’d had to put up with.
“My mother was never violent, but she would occasiona1ly dispense ‘well-deserved’ spankings across my legs and I a1so remember the pain when she yanked my tightly plaited hair hard – she could be cutting, cruel and relentlessly critica1. Over the years, in the course of my profession as a psychologist, many of my clients have described how a toxic relationship with their mother had permeated through their lives. Many of them were children of mothers who rea1ly 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. To choose not to was seen as peculiar, condemning those mavericks to a life of suspicion where society viewed them as something of an oddity.
Continues Abigail: “I know only too well that the impact of growing up with a woman like my mum – what 1 term a ‘difficult’ mother – lasts beyond childhood. My mother’s violent and unpredictable outbursts continued until her death from cancer when 1 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. 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’s thanks to my mother that I began my career as a psychologist, a subject I pursued because I wanted to understand why people behave the way they do. And after decades of observing family dynamics, I estimate about one in five mothers has a toxic relationship with her daughter.” She then identified five types of difficult mothers: 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. For instance, one of my clients 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.” She said “Any friend was a ‘bad’ influence and wasn’t allowed to the house. 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?’
“The narcissist mother 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 ambitions and successful chartered accountant – yet very insecure. 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 enstranged 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. 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 accused or ‘Your hopes are too high: you’re headed for disappointment.’
“It’s confusing to a child when she offers her achievements as a gift to her mother, and then finds that these threaten or offend her. 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. 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 squashed.”
The million-dollar question is; why are some mothers like this? According to Abigail: “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 mothers 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 make success of her career.
One of the fears of growing up with a difficult mother is that you will be one yourself. Only I discovered parenthood to be about wanting the very best for your children, which was so different from my mother’s attitude. And 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.”