Susan Forward, Ph.D.

Susan Forward Ph.D.

Mothers Who Can't Love

How to Be a Good Mother When You Didn’t Have One

Can you be a nurturing mom, if your own mom wasn’t? The answer is, yes.

Posted Sep 13, 2013

My mother used to flirt outrageously with all my boyfriends. When a date arrived to pick me up, she would change into a slinky dress, swipe on red lipstick and sit down with us, suggestively crossing her legs. She would invite my boyfriends to golf with her and invite herself to dinner with us.

My mother was powerfully insecure and self-absorbed with an insatiable need for admiration and a grandiose sense of her own importance. She constantly criticized me and undermined my confidence in order to build her own self-esteem.  I tried hard to please her but I could never do enough. Her actions both enraged and bewildered me. Who was this woman? Was she my mother or my rival? 

Because of my mother’s inability to be a consistently loving and supportive parent instead of a rival, there were times when I wondered, as many women do, if I would be any different. After all, I didn’t have a great role model to follow. Could I be a good mother? The answer is, yes. I am not my mother, and you are not your mother. Rest assured there is a loving parent inside of you.  Let me help you find her.

Finding a new role model

Your mother may have failed to help build your confidence and make you feel safe but most likely you had other loving role models in your life, perhaps a grandmother, a teacher, or a friend’s mom. Draw upon your experiences with them to help advise you as a mother. And, remember, your own nurturing instincts are good. You can trust them. But when you need guidance embrace the opportunity to learn from your peers.  Observe mothers around you and take note of how the good ones relate to their children. Be protective but not smothering. Encourage your child for trying, not just for succeeding. And, when disciplining, take privileges away without assaulting your child’s dignity or value.

Learning from experience

You can learn from the painful memories of your past. Did you have a narcissistic mother like mine who sought constant attention and always criticized you? What can you take away from her behavior? Don’t upstage your child. Don’t take credit for their successes. Learn to enjoy your daughter’s triumphs as a compliment to you. And, if you feel a competitive urge, acknowledge your feelings so you can learn from them and avoid repeating a painful pattern.

An enmeshed mother, who always looks to her daughter to fulfill a need for companionship and to give her a meaningful identity, often creates an emotional prison for her child. Similarly, control freaks govern over their children, masquerading their dominance as a loving gesture. Evaluate your helicopter mom tendencies to consistently hover. You might be teaching your child that it’s not safe to trust her own judgment. Allow her to make mistakes and to learn from those mistakes, and give her the space she needs to grow. And, if you’re relying heavily on your child to bring you happiness, evaluate your own relationships. Work on strengthening your personal life to diminish this dependency.

Don’t be afraid to say, “I’m sorry!”

A good mother is not expected to be perfect and self-sacrificing to the point of martyrdom. You have your own emotional baggage, your own scars, and your own needs. You might find yourself acting like a control freak, being overly critical or yelling at your child when you’re stressed out. It’s all part of learning to be a mother, and it won't have a lasting effect on your child’s confidence and growth as long as the majority of the time you nourish her self-respect, confidence, and safety. Another powerful parenting tool: Saying you’re sorry. By acknowledging your mistakes, you are showing your child that you can be vulnerable and you are willing to apologize when necessary so she knows she isn’t to blame.

Get help when you need it

Children often put their mother’s happiness ahead of their own. They try to fix problems and inevitably blame themselves for their parent’s sadness.  A child who has to mother her own mother is often wise beyond her years but in reality she has been robbed of her childhood. These children often turn into rescuers and doormats as adults and put another’s needs in front of their own. But you can find the courage to change your life and help both yourself and your child. If you struggle with depression, or if you are at risk of alcohol or drug addition, you are not doomed. Seek professional help and take matters in your own hands so your child won’t have to.

Through the years I have been able to forge a wonderful relationship full of mutual love, respect and fun with my own daughter, Wendy. With determination and some good therapy, I was able to soothe the hurt, confusion and anger that festered inside of me to become a caring and protective mother. If I can do it, you can too.


About the Author

Susan Forward, Ph.D.
Susan Forward, Ph.D., is a therapist, consultant, and author of Mothers Who Can't Love

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