“Even now, it’s hard to use the word ‘jealous’ about my mother. The idea that a mother would be, could be, jealous of her own kid paints a picture of a monster. Better cruel or uncaring than jealous, I’d say. It’s just so damning.”
Those are the words of a woman now in her fifties and a mother herself but they don’t surprise me. Talking about maternal jealousy is perhaps the ultimate taboo, inimical to all we hold dear about motherhood and want to believe about mother love, especially that of a mother for her daughter.
While maternal jealousy is a freighted topic, it’s not a rarity. Even daughters who enjoy relatively close, if sometimes turbulent, relationships to their mothers report that rivalry, if not jealousy per se, can animate their conversations. This is what one woman emailed: “I’d hesitate to use the word ‘jealousy.’ But there’s no question that my mom is competitive with me. I think the fact that I live in a bigger house than the one I grew up in bothers her a lot and that my kids have opportunities that I and my brothers didn’t. She can be snide. But is she jealous? Maybe a bit.”
We like to think of mothers as being universally pleased by and proud of their daughters’ accomplishments, beaming as their offspring shine, but the research shows that it’s just not true. For example, a study by Carol Ryff and others found that while mothers reported feeling better about themselves when their sons’ achievements surpassed their own, they actually felt worse about themselves when their daughters did better or achieved more. Fathers, by the way, didn’t respond that way to either high-achieving sons or daughters.
The intensity of the mother-daughter connection is hard to overstate. Is comparison—and hence ambivalence or even envy—inevitable when the emotional connection of the mother to her child is weak or missing? If I’m honest with myself, is it my deep, deep love for my daughter that stops the seedlings of envy—her manner and style, her flat belly, her youth, her whole life ahead of her— from sprouting and taking hold? In his study of mothers and adolescent daughters, Laurence Steinberg noted that for some mothers, their daughters’ blossoming could provoke a midlife crisis that highlighted their own disappointments.
Consider for a moment that in the original version of Snow White published by the Brothers Grimm, it was her mother—yes, the one who longed for a beautiful child and gave birth to her—who was jealous of her daughter’s beauty and became her nemesis. One wonders if this version they published was judged to be too harsh or perhaps too uncomfortably true but we do know that for the next edition, the threatened and threatening mother became a stepmother instead
Our cultural discomfort with a mother’s jealousy might well be fed by another stream: how uneasy we are with female rivalry generally. Yes, the word frenemy has been kicking around since the 1950s but that doesn’t mean that we’re open about discussing how much female jealousy and envy is out there. That’s exactly what Susan Shapiro Barash was surprised by when she started surveying and interviewing women for her book Tripping the Prom Queen. What did she discover? That there are few among us who can resist sticking our clogs, sneaks, flip-flops or stilettos out as the prom queen prances by. This too is not exactly new; after all, Greek mythology attributed the start of the Trojan war to a beauty contest among the goddesses, with a hapless mortal making his pick. Still, myths aside, we like to think of ourselves as welcoming and kind, not scheming and jealous. And, if we’re not, we’re certainly not going to talk about it publicly unless we’re getting paid big bucks to do it on a Housewives show.
That code of silence and secrecy makes a mother’s jealousy all the more toxic since it’s impossible for her to admit her feelings on so many levels. For that reason, her jealousy of her daughter will never be expressed directly but always in convoluted and indirect ways which make it all the more toxic and harder for a daughter to deal with. Jealousy and anger are highly personal in a very specific sense because these emotions reflect the self, not the object of the emotions. Because these feelings are self-referential, the more self-involved or narcissistic the mother is, the more likely it is that she will be jealous or envious. As Peter Salovey and Alexander Rothman write: “We are not envious of just anyone’s random attributes that we have not attained ourselves…. Rather, envy and jealousy are more likely to be felt in domains that are especially important to how we define ourselves—that ‘hit us where we live.’”
Each jealous mother will have her own domains, the territory she believes is rightly hers, and each daughter’s battle—while similar in shape—will take place on different grounds. The word rivalry, by the way, comes from the Latin meaning “rights to the same stream.” In Laura’s case, her mother’s jealousy was piqued by her daughter’s closeness to her father: “I was an adult before I recognized the pattern. Anything positive that occurred between my dad and me was followed by days of my mother’s scorn, heaping criticism on my every flaw, and berating me. I didn’t get what set her off until I married and my husband figured it out.”
The domains can be beauty or looks (as it was in my family), academic standing, social grace and popularity, wit or humor, money, or just about anything else that matters to the jealous mother’s definition of self. But the attacks—given the onus on jealousy generally and maternal envy specifically—will always be indirect. “Mom was terribly insecure—my father always belittled her—and she went after me anytime I succeeded. She said my good grades showed that the school had no standards because I was lazy and that they meant nothing because I was coasting. When I made friends, she accused me of putting them above family and said I was disloyal. When I proved to be popular with boys, she said it was because I was a slut and easy. It was horrible. I cut her out of my life when I left home.”
The scars left by this kind of maternal abuse run deep. Even though a daughter will feel responsible—as if there must be something she can do to please her mother—there really isn’t, although she’s unlikely to understand that until she’s an adult and, even then, she may still feel culpable. The kind of belittlement and disparagement a daughter may experience leaves a wellspring of self-doubt and emotional bewilderment. After all, Mom is supposed to be in your court, isn’t she? The experience is terribly isolating, especially given the onus on maternal jealousy: in whom can you confide? Would they believe you? Daughters need their mothers’ love even when and especially when it’s withheld and accusing their mothers of envy may make them feel disloyal and small. It’s a terrible conundrum.
Even when a daughter reaches adulthood and is out of her mother’s sphere of influence in many senses, maternal jealousy remains difficult, if not impossible, to address since a mother is very, very unlikely to own up to her feelings. The green-eyed monster, alas, doesn’t just diminish the daughter in these exchanges. It is an equal opportunity toxin, poisoning and maiming the mother as well.
But, as always, I am hopeful that by shining light on these patterns and taking them out of the cupboard where dirty secrets are kept, we can begin to have an open and fruitful discussion about the complexity and depth of the mother-daughter relationship. Perhaps, then, we can begin to talk about jealousy among and between all women, especially mothers and daughters, and begin a mutual journey of healing.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2015
Ryff, Carol D., Pamela S. Schmutte, and Young Hyun Lee, “How Children Turn Out: Implications for Parental Self-Evaluation,” in The Parental Experience in Midlife. Ed. Carol D. Ryff and Marsha Mailick Seltzer. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.)
Barash, Susan Shapiro. Tripping the Prom Queen:The Truth about Women and Rivalry. St Martin’s Press, 2006.
Steinberg, Laurence. Crossing Paths: How Your Child’s Adolescence Triggers Your Own Crisis. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1994.
Salovey, Peter and Alexander Rothman, "Envy and Jealousy," in The Psychology of Jealousy and Envy. New York: Guildford Press, 1994.