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8 Toxic Patterns in Mother-Daughter Relationships

Despite the commonalities, there are differences.

Key points

  • Despite what we're told, women aren't hardwired to love their offspring. Evolution has equipped the child with a need for maternal attention.
  • About half of us "hit the lottery" and end up with a great or "good enough" mother. The rest have unattuned mothers.
  • Unattuned mothers present their toxicity in various ways, but have one trait in common: lack of empathy for their children.
Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock
Source: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

It’s true enough that all daughters of unloving and unattuned mothers have common experiences. The lack of maternal warmth and validation warps their sense of self, makes them lack confidence in or be wary of close emotional connection, and shapes them in ways that are both seen and unseen.

What are they missing? I will quote Judith Viorst because her description of what an attuned mother communicates through gaze, gesture, and word is pitch-perfect:

“You are what you are. You are what you are feeling. Allowing us to believe in our own reality. Persuading us that it is safe to expose our early fragile beginning-to-grow true self.”

The unloved daughter hears something very different and takes away another lesson entirely. Unlike the daughter of an attuned mother who grows in reflected light, the unloved daughter is diminished by the connection.

Yet, despite the broad strokes of this shared and painful experience, the pattern of connection—how the mother interacts with her daughter—varies significantly from one pair to another. These different behaviors affect daughters in specific ways. I’ve compiled a list of these patterns, drawn from my own experiences and those of the many daughters I’ve spoken to over the years since I first began researching Mean Mothers. Since I’m neither a therapist nor a psychologist, the names I’ve given them aren’t scientific but chosen for clarity. Yet differentiating these patterns in broad terms can help daughters recognize, understand, sort through, and ultimately begin to manage these very problematic and painful interactions. These behaviors aren’t mutually exclusive, of course; my own mother was dismissive, combative, unreliable, and self-involved by turns.

1. Dismissive.

“My mother ignored me,” Gwen, 47, confides. “If I did something that I thought would make her proud, she would either dismiss it as insignificant or undercut it in some other way. And I believed her for the longest time.” Daughters raised by dismissive mothers doubt the validity of their own emotional needs. They feel unworthy of attention and experience deep, gut-wrenching self-doubt, all the while feeling intense longing for love and validation.

Here’s how one daughter described it:

“My mother literally didn’t listen to me or hear me. She’d ask if I were hungry and if I said I wasn’t, she’d put food in front of me as if I’d said nothing. She would ask what I wanted to do over the weekend or summer, ignore my answer, and then make plans for me. What clothes did I want? The same thing. But that wasn’t the central part: she never asked me how I was feeling or what I was thinking. She made it clear that I was largely irrelevant to her.”

Dismissive behavior, as reported by daughters, occurs across a spectrum, and can become combative if the mother actively and aggressively turns dismissal into rejection. Human offspring are hardwired to need and seek proximity to their mothers, and therein lies the problem: the daughter’s need for her mother’s attention and love isn’t diminished by the mother’s dismissal. In fact, from my own personal experience, I know that it can amp up the need, thrusting the daughter into an active pattern of demand (“Why don’t you care about me/ love me, Mom?” or “Why do you ignore me?”) or a plan to “fix” the situation (“I’ll get all A’s in school or win a prize, and then she’ll love me for sure!”). The response, alas, is inevitably the mother’s further withdrawal, often accompanied by complete denial about what took place.

2. Controlling.

In many ways, this is another form of the dismissive interaction although it presents very differently; the key link is that the controlling mother doesn’t acknowledge her daughter any more than the dismissive one does. These mothers micromanage their daughters, actively refuse to acknowledge the validity of their words or choices, and instill a sense of insecurity and helplessness in their offspring. Most of this behavior is done under the guise of being for the child’s “own good;” the message is, effectively, that the daughter is inadequate, cannot be trusted to exercise good judgment, and would simply flounder and fail without her mother’s guidance.

3. Unavailable.

Emotionally unavailable mothers, those who actively withdraw at a daughter’s approach or who withhold love from one child while granting it to another, inflict a different kind of damage. Be mindful that all children are hardwired to rely on their mothers, thanks to evolution.

“My mother wasn’t mean,” one daughter writes. “But she was emotionally disconnected from me and still is.” These behaviors can include lack of physical contact (no hugging, no comforting); unresponsiveness to a child’s cries or displays of emotion, and her articulated needs as she gets older; and, of course, literal abandonment.

Literal abandonment leaves its own special scars, especially in a culture that believes in the automatic nature of mother love and instinctual behavior. In addition to being excruciatingly painful, it is also bewildering.

That was true for Eileen, 39, who has sorted through many of these issues and, as a mother herself, now has limited contact with her mother. Eileen’s parents divorced when she was four and she lived with her mother until she was six when her mother decided that her father was the “appropriate” parent after all. It was devastating for the 6-year-old, particularly since her father remarried and had already had a first child in his new marriage. There would be two more. But the big question for Eileen was this: “I could never understand why my Mom didn’t want to be around. I felt a huge part was missing in my life and that only my Mom could fill it.”

All of these behaviors leave daughters emotionally hungry and sometimes desperately needy. The luckiest daughters will find another family member—a father, a grandparent, an aunt, or an uncle—to step into the emotional breach which helps but doesn’t heal; many don’t. These insecurely attached daughters often become clingy in adult relationships, needing constant reassurance, from friends and lovers alike.

4. Enmeshed.

While the first two types of behaviors describe mothers who distance themselves from their children, enmeshment is the opposite: these mothers do not acknowledge any kind of boundary between them, their definition of self, and their children. In this case, the daughter’s need for love and attention facilitates a maternal chokehold, exploiting human nature in the service of another goal. These women are classic “stage mothers” and live through their children’s achievements, which they both demand and encourage; while they have a long history—the mothers of Gypsy Rose Lee, Judy Garland, and Frances Farmer come immediately to mind—they now have especial renown (and no shame) thanks to reality television. Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, should be required reading for any daughter who grew up with a mother like this.

While the daughter of a dismissive or unavailable mother “disappears” because of inattention and under-parenting, the enmeshed daughter’s sense of self is swallowed whole. Untangling enmeshment—the term alone conveys the difficulty—is another road entirely because of the absence of boundaries. A healthy and attuned maternal relationship offers security and freedom to roam at once—the infant is released from her mother’s arms to crawl, the adolescent counseled but listened to and respected—and this pattern does not. That’s all missing in the enmeshed relationship.

5. Combative.

“Open” warfare characterizes this kind of interaction, though I have put “open” in quotation marks for a reason. These mothers never acknowledge their behaviors, and they are usually quite careful about displaying them in public. Included in this group are the mothers who actively denigrate their daughters, are hypercritical, intensely jealous of, or competitive with their offspring. Yes, this is mean mother territory; the mother takes advantage of the power play. I know—the words “power play” and “mother” seem incongruous combined in a single sentence—but I leave you in the capable hands of Deborah Tannen, with a quotation I use often because I simply can’t phrase it better or with her authority:

“This, in the end, may be the crux of a parent’s power over a child: not only to create the world the child lives in but also to dictate how that world is to be interpreted.”

A child is no match for this warrior queen and, more dangerously, will internalize the messages communicated by her. Many daughters report that the pain of feeling responsible somehow—the belief that they “made’ their mothers react, or that they are unworthy—is as crippling as the lack of maternal love. Blame and shame were usually this mother’s weapons of choice.

The combative mother uses verbal and emotional abuse to “win” but can resort to physical force as well. She rationalizes her behaviors as being necessary because of defects in her daughter’s character or behavior. This is dangerous territory.

6. Unreliable.

This is, in many ways, the hardest behavior for a daughter to cope with because she never knows if the “good mommy” or the “bad mommy” will show up. All children form mental images of what relationships in the real world look like based on their connections to their mothers; these daughters understand emotional connection to be fraught, precarious, and even dangerous. In an interview for my book, Mean Mothers, “Jeanne” (a pseudonym) said:

“I trace my own lack of self-confidence back to my mother. She was emotionally unreliable—horribly critical of me one day, dismissive the next, and then, out of nowhere, smiling and fussing over me. I now realize that the smiley mom thing usually happened in front of other people who were her audience. Anyway, I never knew what to expect. She could be intolerably present, inexplicably absent, and then playing a part. I assumed I’d done something to make her treat me the way she did. Now, I know she did what she felt like, without any thought of me, but I still hear her voice in my head especially when life gets difficult or I feel insecure.”

7. Self-involved.

Call her a narcissist if you wish. This mother sees her daughter—if she sees her at all—as an extension of herself and nothing more. Unlike the enmeshed mother who is intently and smotheringly focused on her child, this mother carefully controls her involvement as it suits her own self-reflection. A power player, she’s incapable of empathy; instead, very concerned with appearances and the opinions of others. Her emotional connection to her daughter is superficial—although she would fiercely deny that if you asked—because her focus is on herself. The tactics she uses to manipulate and control her daughter permit her to self-aggrandize and feel good about herself.

These mothers often look great from the outside—they are usually attractive and charming when you meet them, take great care of their homes, and may have admirable talents and careers—which serves to confuse and isolate the unloved daughter even more. It is, alas, easier to recognize that you are playing the role of Cinderella (and it was an evil mom, not a stepmother until the Grimm Brothers cleaned up the tale) when you are living in the cellar and everyone knows your mother is a hag.

8. Role-reversed.

Anecdotally, this is the pattern of maternal interaction I hear about the least—the scenario in which the daughter, even at a young age, becomes the helper, the caretaker, or even “the mother” to her own mother. Sometimes, this pattern emerges when the mother has children very young and more of them than she can actually handle. That was true for Jenna, now in her late thirties, who reported:

"By the time my Mom was 26, she had four kids, little money, and no support. I was the oldest and by the time I was five, I was her helper. I learned to cook, do laundry, and clean. As I got older, the dynamic stayed the same, only more so. She called me her 'rock' but she never paid attention to me, just to my younger siblings. Now that I’m an adult, she still doesn’t mother me but acts more like a very critical, older friend. I think she robbed me of my childhood.”

More famously, but in the same vein, Mary Karr’s memoir The Liar’s Club depicts both Mary and her older sister stepping in to mother themselves or their mother.

Daughters of alcoholic mothers or those who suffer from untreated depression may also find themselves in the caretaker role, regardless of their age. That may include mothering not just their mothers but their siblings, as well. There are “fragile” mothers who also interact in this way, claiming health or other issues. Ironically, these mothers may love their daughters but lack the capacity to act on their feelings. While these behaviors are hurtful, with therapy or intervention, many daughters report reconciliation in adulthood as well as understanding.

Copyright 2015 Monika Kocladja/Used with permission.
Source: Copyright 2015 Monika Kocladja/Used with permission.

A Few Thoughts

Despite what we prefer to believe, the female of our species isn’t hardwired to love her offspring; it is the child, not the mother, whom evolution has equipped with a powerful need as an aid to survival. It’s estimated that half of us, plus or minus, hit the jackpot and have mothers who range from “great” to “good enough.” This is not to say that these mothers are “perfect”—human beings, by definition, make mistakes—or that they don’t sometimes, at one moment or another, exhibit any of these kinds of interaction. It happens, but it doesn’t constitute a pattern.

But for those of us who didn’t fare as well in the lottery, there is hope and healing. To those who have trouble understanding, please listen and don’t put these daughters on trial because they challenge what you would like to believe about mothering and motherhood.

Please exhibit the trait these mothers lack. It’s called empathy.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2015

Facebook image: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

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