Off the Couch

Thoughts about the therapeutic process, and the dynamics of client-therapist interactions.

Are you turning into your mother?

Does behaving like your mother make you your mother?

Eliza* was trying to get her struggling three year old daughter into her stroller when, to her horror, she heard herself saying words she had vowed never to utter - phrases her mother had used throughout Eliza's childhood. Despite all of her efforts to parent her own children very differently, Eliza found that those familiar sentences were the first to come into her brain and out of her mouth when she and her daughter were engaged in a difficult struggle.

Once it was a girl's dream to be just like her mom. Now it's more like every woman's nightmare. Yet it happens to us all. Like Eliza we hear our mother's words leaving our own mouths, or we look in a mirror and catch a glimpse of a familiar expression - not our own - and, as we get older, we see surprising reflections of our mother stare back at us every time we wash our face or brush our teeth.

How does this happen? These days I cannot think of a single client who wants to follow in her mother's footsteps. Oh yes, I do have some young women who hope to marry, have children, and live the kind of lives their mothers do; but few, at least in my practice, want to be like their mothers. And yet almost every one of them has at one time or another expressed the sensation that they were becoming their mothers! What makes this happen?

Part of the answer can be found in contemporary neuroscience. According to the research coming out of this field, we are programmed to develop through interactions with others. This is why early parental behavior has such an impact on our psyches - parents and siblings are the main people that most infants and toddlers interact with. This internal programming is also one of the reasons we can change over the course of our lives - interactions with friends, teachers, other relatives and lovers can all teach our brain new patterns, which can alter our relationships and our sense of self.

So what makes us suddenly "regress" to behaviors that look and sound like Mom? According to neuroscientists, our neurons seek familiar paths, especially when are in a stressful situation (like trying to get a toddler into a stroller or trying to get an adolescent to study!) Daniel Siegel (1) explains it with this image: You are at a park and there is a lake with ducks that you want to feed. To get to the lake you have to walk through a field of high grass, and as you do, the grass bends under your feet creating a path. When you come back, you naturally walk along the path you have just created. The next person to go down to the lake goes along your path, and comes back the same way; and the next and the next.

Siegel says that our neurons work the same way, that is, they tend to flow in an established pattern. We can change those paths; but in certain situations, like when we go home for a holiday, familiar interactions cause the neurons to quickly re-align on old paths (like "the Thanksgiving Effect" described by Hara Estroff Morano in her terrific PT article on siblings). This is also what happens when we hear ourselves using those familiar phrases from childhood, sentences we promised ourselves we would never say to our own children.

It of course does not explain why we see our mother's face looking at us from our own mirror. That may be to some extent the result of genetics - as we get older we look more like the mother we remember from our own childhood. But that's not all there is to it. Nancy Chodorow (2), whose book "Reproduction of Motherhood" was an early feminist- psychoanalytic exploration of mother-daughter relationships, says girls have a difficult developmental task to accomplish: they have to separate from and identify with their mothers at the same time. Many of us struggle with this process throughout our lives and, if we're lucky, we get a chance to re-work some of our attitude towards those very traits we've criticized for years.

For example, when I was young and my family teased me about being like my mother (who I did not resemble physically), I felt criticized and resentful. I wanted to be different from her, to have my own personality, separate from hers, and besides, I did not like the things they were commenting on (for example, my bossiness!). But today I am grateful to her for having passed onto me numerous characteristics, including her love of books and her interest in writing, her empathy for others, and her incredible stores of energy. (I only wish she had had better housekeeping genes for me to inherit.)


It may well turn out that some of the behavior we have historically blamed on our parents actually has a genetic base. Data is coming in that there are biological and chemical predeterminants of many of our personality characteristics as well as for a number of psychological disorders previously considered caused by poor parenting (for example, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, anorexia, alcohol and drug addictions).

But does this mean that we are trapped, doomed to repeat our parents' failings? Are our children doomed to develop the same neuroses and difficulties with which we suffered?

Of course we like to think that the answer to these questions is "no." Psychotherapy is clearly one indicator that we can change these old patterns.

Here are some ideas that might help as you work on this - and as you help your own daughters do the same work with you.

1. You may sound and act like your mother, but you are not your mother. Almost all daughters sound and act like their mothers at some time and in some way. Whether you are biologically related or not, you will have picked up some of your mother's characteristic ways of interacting with the world. But you have also interacted with many other people who have also affected who you are. Even if you share genetic material, you are not your mother's clone. You may be similar, but you are not the same. So when you say something that sounds like her, it does not have the exact same meaning as it did when she said it.

2. Your children are not you. If you remember this tiny but crucial fact, you will also realize that your children will have different responses to your behavior than you did to your mother's! When my mother told me to comb my hair, I wanted to cut it off or make it more tangled. But years later her granddaughter took the same comment as a loving communication! It simply did not have the same meaning for her as it did for me.

3. Sometimes your children will sound more like your mother than you do! The hardest thing for most of us to remember at these times is that they are not who they sound like! And the second hardest is not to react as you did when your mother said the same thing in the same way! You have not suddenly become the child you once were, even if your neurons want you to believe that you have. And your child has not become your parent!

4. Tiny alterations in your behavior can make more difference than you might imagine. Eliza discovered this as she tried to find another way to respond to her daughter's efforts to declare her independence from the stroller. She laughed as she told me. "I just told her I knew she didn't like it, but she had to get in and that we'd go outside right away. She fussed, but I didn't argue with her or try to convince her that it was going to be okay. We got outside and within a minute or two she was calm again."

So what's the bottom line? It's completely normal to sound and act like your parents, no matter how hard you have tried to be different. It doesn't mean you have become them. You may not want to continue a particular behavior - especially if it is hurtful or unkind - but you might also discover that, from an adult's point of view, what they did wasn't all bad or all wrong. You can shift something just a little bit and make the outcome different from your experience. Although we may feel like we're being just like our parents, a slight shift in how we deal with these struggles they are handled might be enough to make a big difference in the outcome. But don't think this will put you above criticism. Your kids will still need to point out what you have done wrong - it's part of growing up.

*names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy of individuals and families

References:

1. Daniel Siegel. The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. Guilford Press, 2001.

2. Nancy Chodorow. The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender. University of California Press, 1999.

 

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F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist, teacher, and author in private practice in New York City.

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