Sunday 22 April 2018

Mean mothers: My joy was an affront to my mum

The bond between mothers and daughters is meant to be the strongest, but a new book shows that it isn't always present. Sally O'Regan reports

Sally O' Regan

Peg Streep says she was no more than three or four years old when she knew that her mother didn't love her. On that devastating note, American writer Streep opens her thought-provoking new book Mean Mothers. It is, she says, the story that no one wants to hear. Maternal love is one of society's sacred cows. And the bond between mother and child is supposed to be pure.

This is why tales of extreme child abuse at the hands of a mother seem so shocking, so unnatural. But it can be easier to write off a physically abusive mother as an evil anomaly than accept that they are at the rather extreme end of a much larger number of mothers who indulge in hurtful behaviour.

Psychologist Rachel Harris has specialised in family therapy and parenting education for more than 30 years. "Sadly, after years in practice, I have to report that there are more mean mothers than most of us would like to admit," she says. "There's a continuum from horribly abusive mothers to motherly saints, but there are plenty of mothers in the middle range who are unable to love or who say mean things to their daughters."

In other words, few of us, hopefully, can relate to the notoriously abusive childhood Christina Crawford says she suffered at the hands of her movie star mother Joan. As chronicled in her memoir Mommie Dearest -- and portrayed chillingly by Faye Dunaway in the 1981 movie of that name -- Joan's monstrosity climaxes with the attempted strangling of her daughter.

Neither is it suggested that the occasional maternal criticism some might be familiar with -- "you're not going out dressed like that" -- constitutes a bad mother.

The mean-mother behaviour Streep writes of is much more insidious. With her own mother, it was the absence of an affectionate word or gesture during her entire childhood. Streep's mother would admonish her for skipping as they walked down the street, "as though my joy was an affront to her". She told Streep's first boyfriend that while her daughter was pretty on the outside, she was rotten inside.

The isolation Streep felt as a child was compounded by the fact that her bruises were emotional.

"There was no reconciling the mother I knew -- the one who literally shook with fury and missed no opportunity to wound or criticise me -- with the charming and beautiful woman who went out into the world in the highest of heels, shining jewellery on her hands and neck, not a hair out of place," she says.

"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? So I didn't."

Now a mother of an adult daughter of her own, and after years of therapy, Streep became interested in how other women have coped with the legacy of having a mother who made them feel unlovable.

Cathy, a bookkeeper who now has an eight-year-old daughter, spoke of how her mother would tell her that she was sure the hospital had sent her home with the wrong baby.

Sarah, an artist and writer who now lives 2,000 miles away from where she grew up, decided as a young girl that she would never have children until she could figure out how to raise them better than her mother raised her.

Her mother refused to acknowledge her presence, making her sit in a chair in silence every evening until dinner was ready. When the family moved house when she was five, Sarah's mother threw out all her stuffed animals, rather than pack them.

"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," she told Streep.

While many of the women Streep spoke to weren't obviously neglected -- they had warm clothes and enough to eat -- emotional neglect is a common thread.

Eleanor, now a therapist in her 50s, says the best word she could use to describe her mother's treatment of her was "indifference". The only question she ever asked her when she got home from school was what she had for her lunch.

"The predominant feeling between us was emptiness, which made me feel that I didn't really matter or, worse, that I didn't really exist," says Eleanor.

On the other hand, there were mothers whose overbearing and overcritical attentions suffocated their daughters. Jane, now an architect like her father (something her mother thinks unladylike), says her mother still refers to the day Jane got engaged "as 'the worst day of her life' for no other reason than that the man I was engaged to and later married didn't fit in to her vision precisely".

Landscape gardener Gwen was a very pretty child and believes that her mother, who never felt attractive, was jealous of the attention she received.

At the age of 99 and living in a nursing home, Gwen's mother is still making her criticisms felt. "I came to visit and she introduced me to another little old lady, who was so wonderful, and my mother said: 'This is my daughter Gwendolyn -- her hair always looks terrible.' The other poor woman just didn't know what to say."

While Streep is careful not to excuse emotionally abusive behaviour, she does point to research that shows many 'mean mothers' are daughters of women who showed no attachment to their children.

Eliza is 38 and the mother of a 19-year-old daughter. Her mother and grandmother were both distant to their children, but it has made Eliza all the more determined to mother her daughter differently. "I decided early on that I was going to be more affectionate, emotionally available and closely connected to my daughter," she told Streep.

Mothers do not, as Streep says, "operate in a cultural vacuum". Even in the developed world, she argues, there can be a subconsciously higher value placed on boy children than girls.

The comprehensive Gallup Poll has been compiling statistics about American society since 1941 and each year has asked this exact question: "Suppose you could only have one child: would you prefer a girl or a boy?" In 2007, 37pc preferred a boy, 28pc a girl, and 35pc said they had no preference.

These results have barely shifted in 66 years. But most of all, says Streep, the tales of 'mean mothers' show that the notion that all mothers automatically bond with their children is a myth.

Even where post-natal depression is not the issue, some mothers don't become maternal just by the simple virtue of giving birth. Daughters, in particular, can push their buttons in the way that sons can't. Jealousy and resentment are huge issues in some mother-daughter relationships.

So where are the good fathers in all this? Streep devotes a chapter to them under the title Heroes and Co-Conspirators. Her own father embodied this dichotomy: "He rescued me in important ways", teaching her the value of education and taking her away from her mother's hypercritical eye from time to time.

"On Sundays, he'd drive me to church school and pick me up after, when, away from my naturally thin mother's watchful eye (she always had the two of us on a diet), we'd steal off to the bakery to indulge in another-wise forbidden treat," Streep remembers warmly.

But there was a limit to his protection: an overweight, balding man, he adored Streep's beautiful mother. As Streep entered adolescence and began to stand up for herself, he would actively side with her mother.

Another take on the father who distances himself from a mother-daughter conflict comes from Dr Linda Nielsen. In the book Embracing Your Father, she identifies 'maternal gatekeeping', where a mother keeps a father away from a meaningful relationship with his children because she believes it to be her territory.

But surely siblings are bonded through their common experience of going unloved? Not necessarily, says Streep.

Her own brother's arrival only left her more isolated than ever: "With the birth of my brother when I was nine, I saw that my mother could love a child who wasn't me."

Some of the women she spoke to tell warmly of the special bond they had with their siblings. Psychologists refer to the 'Hansel and Gretel' relationship, in which siblings become each other's caretaker in the event of parental cruelty.

But this is only one outcome. Elizabeth, now 50, and her younger sister were both treated badly by their mother as children. They coped with it differently: one becoming rebellious; the other being the 'good girl', and it drove them apart.

Jody tells how she was born about a decade after her two older sisters. Her mother wanted little to do with her unplanned daughter, and her older sisters, far from filling in as surrogate mothers, teased her with comments such as: "Jody, why don't you go play in traffic?"

Even if Jody's sisters had treated her more kindly, Streep argues that a woman who has not had a loving mother will always feel the absence of it in her life. Therapy will help, and she firmly believes that a mind can be rewired to accept that it wasn't you, the child, who was unlovable.

Streep got to the age of 39 when she made the decision to cut off all contact with her mother, who has never changed and at that stage, believes Streep, never would. Years later, when her brother called to say their mother was dying, Streep decided not to go to see her. "I didn't go and I have never regretted it," she says, now 60.

While closure is the buzzword in therapy circles, some mothers, it seems, are incapable of giving it.

Gwen tells of how her mother told her she loved her one day towards the end of her life: "I was so taken aback -- my mother neither hugged me nor did she ever really talk to me -- that I turned and, without thinking or censoring myself, said: 'Excuse me?'

"She looked at me and said, 'Your brother told me I was supposed to say that'."

Mean Mothers by Peg Streep is published by HarperCollins and is available from

Irish Independent

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