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When Your Mother Is Too Close for Comfort

The absence of boundaries creates problems for a daughter's healthy development.

Ian Battaligia/Unsplash
Source: Ian Battaligia/Unsplash

When we try to imagine what it’s like to grow up with a mother who doesn’t love you or meet your emotional needs, we’re likely to imagine someone cold, dismissive, and perhaps cruel. Pop culture has enshrined her as the stepmother in Snow White asking, “Who’s the fairest of them all?” or Joan Crawford screaming, “No more wire hangers!” as a terrified Christina cowers. There’s no question that this is sometimes what emotional neglect looks like, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t its only face.

Paradoxically, since neglect is about not taking care of what is in your care and, more importantly, not seeing what the person (or the object) needs, neglect only requires blindness. As a result, it can be accompanied by a flurry of maternal activity and even over-involvement, as opposed to the kind of emotional abuse characterized by paying no attention (such as ignoring or dismissing the child) or just focusing on criticism.

Sometimes neglect is deeply involved, manipulative, and participatory. I know that seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. Emotional neglect can take other forms, which always involve an utter lack of boundaries; there are other variables, but the absence of boundaries is a constant.

Boundaries are vital to all healthy forms of connection

Understanding boundaries is particularly important since there is a relatively new cultural mythology pertaining to the mother-daughter relationship that will confuse the daughter who has a mother literally breathing down her neck, and that’s the casting of the mother-daughter pair as BFFs. Here’s what one daughter, now 40, wrote to me about her mother:

“I feel conflicted about how to deal with my mother because she just doesn’t get how horribly intrusive she is. She always offers unsolicited advice on everything she thinks I’m doing wrong and reprimands and corrects me in front of my kids. But even worse is her habit of constantly oversharing. She and my dad divorced years ago, and I don’t know why she thinks I’m her go-to for every date she has. Honestly, my mother has absolutely no idea who I am; to her, I am just a projection.”

The “best friends forever” model is, I believe, a dangerous one, allowing mothers to abnegate their roles as separate from their offspring and, most importantly, believing that theirs is a relationship of equals. The bottom line is clear: No matter how close you might be as mother and daughter, you are never equals. This is an important psychological truth. I’m neither a psychologist nor a therapist, but at the end of the day, this comes down to common sense as well as psychology.

The child as an extension of the self: a specific kind of emotional neglect

Different types of mothering depend on the absence of healthy boundaries, and each has a different deleterious effect on the child’s development. Mothers high in narcissistic traits or who are controlling by nature only see their children as extensions of themselves and demand that they act according to the rules they set forth; the children become revolving planets around a maternal sun and learn from an early age to define themselves by what their mothers see, as “Becca’s” recollection below makes clear. She is now 35 and has very little to do with her mother.

“You were in or out of favor depending on how closely you fulfilled her expectations of you. She pitted my older sister against me, and me against my younger brother; we all vied for her attention and praise. Rebellion wasn’t an option unless you were willing to be dressed down, shamed, and basically scapegoated by everyone. I got to college and hadn’t a clue to who I was or what I liked or thought; for eighteen years, I looked to my mother to define me. I thought love was a transaction, something you earned by doing. I was lucky to end up in a counselor’s office because I just couldn’t hack it, and the next ten years of my life were about finding who I was when my mother wasn’t looking. I moved across the country and see my mother and my family of origin once a year at most, and talk now and again. She still sees me as she always has—someone who reflects well or badly on her.”

Daughters of narcissistic mothers are often detached from their own feelings and thoughts and, as adults, are attracted to lovers and friends who treat them as their mothers did; they continue to see love as “earned” and transactional.

Daughters of controlling mothers don’t do a lot better. They tend not to see themselves clearly and have trouble with owning their feelings and thoughts; because they lack a true sense of self, they attribute their successes to luck or chance and their failures to character flaws. Because they lack self-esteem, they are attracted to those who control them; staying in this familiar emotional space, without boundaries, provides them with a sense of security.

The attuned and loving mother teaches her child that she is separate but that she can depend on her mother to understand and support her; the existence of boundaries encourages the child to see herself wholly. She’s not required to “fit in” as the child of a narcissistic or controlling parent is; she is free to explore simply being herself.

The role-reversed or parentified child: another instance

In this case, it’s not just emotional and psychological boundaries that are trespassed but traditional ones, so that the child is burdened with responsibilities far beyond her ken and ends up “mothering” her mother. The irony here is that these mothers may love their daughters dearly but simply can’t step up to the plate and be the adult, and they damage their children in highly specific ways. These daughters may feel bitter and angry at having been “robbed” of their childhoods, but they are usually also very conflicted because they feel compassion for their mothers. That was the case for “Ellie” who had a brother two years younger:

“My childhood ended when I was almost 11, the day my father died in a car accident. My mother fell apart pretty much literally. She’d always been easily overwhelmed, but she kind of mentally took to her bed and appointed me as the person who would do the caretaking. She refused to get help too. My brother was 9, and he took care of himself while I cooked and cleaned. When she started dating, I became her confessor. No surprise that my brother ended up derailing and got involved with drugs, and I left home at 18. Now that I’m a mom myself, I resent her even more, to be honest. She failed us both. I love her, but I’m also angry, and she still looks to me to fix things and take care of her.”

Mind you, Ellie’s experience is very overt, because it was triggered by her father’s death, but role-reversal can happen in more subtle ways, and it can take the daughter years to realize that the maternal behavior she’s normalized is neither normal nor healthy. Role-reversal often happens in large families when there are just too many kids for a mother to cope with; it’s often the eldest daughter who’s tapped to do the mothering.

Parentified daughters often shy away from intimate relationships as adults; they have trouble distinguishing someone’s legitimate demands on them from suffocating or encroaching behaviors. The rifts between the parentified daughter and her mother are sometimes healed by mutual understanding, especially if the mother comes to the table prepared to admit her shortcomings.

Enmeshment: a case unto itself

The classic example of the enmeshed mother is the stage mother who looks to cash in on her child’s talents, looks, and opportunities, but you don’t need to be a star-in-the-making to have an enmeshed mother. These daughters suffer a great deal of emotional confusion because while their mothers do love them, the nature of that love disappears them from view; the emotional connection is intense and suffocating and doesn’t allow for independence of any kind.

The daughter subjugates her own wants and needs to those of her mother in both conscious and unconscious ways. Vivian Gornick’s powerful and raw memoir, Fierce Attachments, captures the tug-of-war in the daughter’s heart which is truly a battle royal:

“…She doesn’t know I take her anxiety personally, feel annihilated by her depression. How can she know this? She doesn’t even know I’m there. Were I to tell her that it’s death to me, her not knowing that I’m there, she’d stare at me out of her eyes crowding up with puzzled desolation, this young girl of seventy-seven, and she would cry angrily, ‘You don’t understand. You have never understood.’”

Enmeshed daughters may feel alternating waves of guilt, anger, and compassion for their mothers; sometimes, they are able to salvage parts of the relationship by asserting their independence and setting strict boundaries, but not always. With an impaired sense of self, she often can’t see how to save herself without wounding her mother. The problem here is dealing with her mother’s ability to make her disappear into thin air.

How close is too close?

Each member of the mother-daughter dyad has to own her own space, thoughts, and emotions, and for that to happen, there must be boundaries each woman respects. It sounds simple, but given the complexity of this relationship, it’s not always possible.

The ideas in this post are drawn from the research and interviews for my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2019

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


Gornick, Vivian. Fierce Attachments, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005.