Sunday, March 14, 2010

Mean Mothers

Spare a thought on Mother's Day for those with a more complicated, and not entirely positive, relationship with their mum. (As per movie star Joan Crawford and her adopted daughter Christina, pictured left, whose disastrous relationship was chronicled in Christina's memoir, Mommy Dearest).
From yesterday's Weekend magazine in the Irish Independent.

Peg Streep says she was no more than three or four years old when she knew that her mother didn’t love her.

On that devastating note, American writer Streep opens her thought-provoking new book Mean Mothers. It is, she says, the story that no-one wants to hear. Maternal love is one of society’s sacred cows. The bond between mother and child is supposed to be pure and unconditional.

This is why occasional tales of extreme child abuse at the hands of a mother seem so shocking, so unnatural.

But it can be easier to write off a physically or sexually abusive mother as an evil anomaly than to accept that they are at the rather extreme end of a much larger number of mothers who indulge in hurtful behaviour.

Psychologist Rachel Harris has specialised in family therapy and parenting education for over 30 years. “Sadly, after years in practice, I have to report that there are more mean mothers than most of us would like to admit,” she says. “There’s a continuum from horribly abusive mothers to motherly saints, but there are plenty of mothers in the middle range who are unable to love or who say mean things to their daughters.”

In other words few of us, hopefully, can relate to the notoriously abusive childhood Christina Crawford says she suffered at the hands of her movie star mother Joan. As chronicled in her memoir Mommy Dearest – and portrayed chillingly by Faye Dunaway in the 1981 movie of that name – Joan Crawford’s monstrosity climaxes with the attempted strangling of her daughter.

Neither does it suggest that the occasional maternal criticism some might be familiar with – “You’re not going out dressed like that, are you?” – constitutes a bad mother.

The ‘mean mother’ behaviour Streep writes of is much more insidious. With her own mother, it was the absolute absence of an affectionate word or gesture during her entire childhood. Streep’s mother would admonish her for skipping as they walked down the street, “as though my joy was an affront to her”. She told Streep’s first boyfriend that while her daughter was pretty on the outside, she was rotten inside.
The isolation Streep felt as a child was compounded by the fact that her bruises were emotional, not physical.

“There was no reconciling the mother I knew – the one who literally shook with fury and missed no opportunity to wound or criticise me – with the charming and beautiful woman who went out into the world in the highest of heels, shining jewellery on her hands and neck, not a hair out of place,” she says.

“She flirted with everyone – even my girlfriends and later my boyfriends – and they pronounced her delightful. Her secret, and mine, was closely held; who would believe me if I told? So I didn’t.”

Now a mother of an adult daughter of her own and after years of therapy, Streep became interested in how other women have coped with the legacy of having a mother who made them feel unlovable.

Cathy, a book-keeper who now has her own 8-year-old daughter, spoke of how from when she was very little her mother would tell her that she was sure that the hospital had sent her home with the wrong baby. Sarah, an artist and writer who now lives 2,000 miles away from where she grew up, decided as a young girl that she would never have children until she could figure out how to raise them better than her mother raised her.

Her mother refused to acknowledge her presence, making her sit in a chair in silence every evening until dinner was ready. When the family moved house when she was five, Sarah’s mother threw out all her stuffed animals rather than pack them up.
“I replaced them with imaginary ones and, later, with imaginary scenarios about how my parents weren’t really my parents and that my real parents would come and get me someday,” she told Streep.

While many of the women Streep spoke to weren’t obviously neglected – they had warm clothes and enough to eat – emotional neglect is a common thread.
Eleanor, now a therapist in her 50s, says that the best word she could use to describe her mother’s treatment of her was “indifference”. The only question she ever asked Eleanor when she got home from school each day was what she had for her lunch.

“The predominant feeling between us was emptiness, which made me feel that I didn’t really matter or, worse, that I didn’t really exist,” says Eleanor.

On the other hand, there were mothers whose overbearing and overcritical attentions literally suffocated their daughters. Jane, now an architect like her father (something her mother thinks unladylike), says her mother still refers to the day Jane got engaged as “‘the worst day of her life’ for no other reason than that the man I was engaged to and later married didn’t fit in to her vision precisely”.
Landscape gardener Gwen was a very pretty child and believes that her mother, who never felt attractive, was jealous of the attention she received.

At the age of 99 and living in a nursing home, Gwen’s mother is still making her criticisms felt. “I came to visit and she introduced me to another little old lady who was so wonderful and my mother said, ‘This is my daughter Gwendolyn – her hair always looks terrible.’ The other poor woman just didn’t know what to say.”
While Streep is careful not to excuse emotionally abusive behaviour, she does point to research that many ‘mean mothers’ are themselves daughters of women who showed no attachment to their children.

Eliza is 38 and the mother of a 19-year-old girl. Her mother and grandmother were both distant to their children but it has made Eliza all the more determined to mother her girl differently. “I decided early on that I was going to be more affectionate, emotionally available, and closely connected to my daughter,” she told Streep.

Neither do mothers, as Streep says, “operate in a cultural vacuum”. Even in the developed world, she argues, there can be a subconsciously higher value placed on boy children than girls. The comprehensive Gallup Poll has been compiling statistics about American society since 1941 and each year has asked this exact question:
“Suppose you could only have one child: would you prefer a girl or a boy?” In 2007, 37 per cent preferred a boy, 28 per cent a girl, and 35 per cent said they had no preference.

These results have barely shifted in 66 years – that is to say that there has NEVER been an overall preference for a girl.

But most of all, says Streep, the tales of ‘mean mothers’ she has uncovered shows that the notion that all mothers automatically bond with their children is a myth. Even where post-natal depression is not the issue, some mothers don’t become maternal just by the simple virtue of giving birth. They come to motherhood with their own personalities and baggage. Daughters in particular, made in their own image, can push their buttons in the way that sons can’t. Jealousy and resentment are huge issues in some mother-daughter relationships.

So where are the good fathers in all this? Streep devotes a chapter to them under the title: ‘Heroes and Co-Conspirators’. Her own father embodied this dichotomy. He was Streep’s hero as a child, “he rescued me in important ways”, teaching her the value of education and taking her away from her mother’s hypercritical eye from time to time.

“On Sundays, he’d drive me to church school and pick me up after, when, away from my naturally thin mother’s watchful eye (she always had the two of us on a diet), we’d steal off to the bakery to indulge in anotherwise forbidden treat,” Streep remembers warmly.

But there was a limit to his protection: an overweight, balding man, he adored Streep’s beautiful mother. As Streep entered adolescence and began to stand up for herself, he would actively side with her mother.

Another take on the father who distances himself from a mother-daughter conflict comes from Dr Linda Nielsen. In the book Embracing Your Father, she identifies ‘maternal gatekeeping’ where a mother keeps a father away from a meaningful relationship with his children because she believes it to be her territory, even in situations where the father might actually be better equipped to be a loving caregiver.

But while parents might be quixotic creatures, surely siblings are bonded through their common experience of going unloved? Not necessarily says Streep. Her own brother’s arrival only left her more isolated than ever: “With the birth of my brother when I was nine, I saw that my mother could love a child who wasn’t me.”

Some of the women she spoke to in Mean Mothers speak warmly of the special bond they had with their siblings. Psychologists refer to the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ relationship in which siblings become each other’s caretakers in the event of parental cruelty or neglect. But this is only one outcome. Elizabeth, now 50, and her younger sister were both treated badly by their mother as children. They coped with it differently, one becoming wild and rebellious, the other trying to gain approval by being the ‘good girl’ and it drove them apart.

Even more poignantly, Jody tells how she was born about a decade after her two older sisters. Her mother wanted little to do with her unplanned daughter and her older sisters, far from filling in as surrogate mothers teased her with comments like, “Jody, why don’t you go play in traffic?”

Even had Jody’s sisters treated her more kindly, Streep argues that a woman who has not had a loving mother will always feel the absence of it in her life. Therapy will help, and she firmly believes that a mind can be rewired to accept that it wasn’t you, the child, who was unlovable – it was she, the mum, who couldn’t love.
Streep got to the age of 39 when she made the momentous decision to cut off all contact with her mother who has never changed, and at that stage believes Streep, never would. Years later when her brother called to say their mother was dying, Streep made the decision not to go see her. “I didn’t go and I have never regretted it,” she says, now 60.

While closure is the buzzword in therapy circles some mothers, it seems, are incapable of giving it. Gwen, mentioned earlier in this article, tells of how her mother told her she loved her one day towards the end of her life.

“I was so taken aback – my mother never hugged me nor did she ever really talk to me – that I turned and, without thinking or censoring myself, said, ‘Excuse me?’” recalls Gwen.

“She looked at me and said, ‘Your brother told me I was supposed to say that’.”

• Mean Mothers by Peg Streep is published by HarperCollins and is available for import from

The daughter and wife of the late TV mogul Aaron Spelling have been estranged since Tori split with her first husband and eloped with her second, Dean McDermott. Later that year, 2006, Aaron died – which Tori has claimed she learned via text message from a friend.
The feud between Candy and Tori has since escalated into a series of very public and hurtful ripostes, traded on TV shows, Twitter and celebrity mags. Candy posted an open letter to her daughter on her website earlier this summer saying she wanted to work things out, “in private”.

Keeping the press out of your business is difficult enough without your mother letting them in for a look-see. Jen and Nancy fell out when Nancy spoke about her daughter on a tabloid TV show in 1996 and then tried to make amends by… er… writing a book about their relationship.
It took the breakdown of Jen’s marriage to Brad Pitt (Nancy wasn’t invited to the wedding) for the pair to get back on speaking terms a decade later. Jennifer said this year that “It’s ok. Things are now fine between us.” Although she did add that her mother had since moved from California (where Jen lives) to Colorado so perhaps distance makes the heart grow fonder.

This split was sparked by Meg getting engaged to Dennis Quaid in 1989. Mom didn’t approve as Quaid had a cocaine habit at the time.
Quaid overcame the habit and has come and gone from Ryan’s life, but mother and daughter are still estranged. Meg’s father Harry Hyra has called on her to mend bridges calling Susan “a good mother”, as has Susan’s second husband, who went on record to say: “There’s an element to Meg that is quite shocking. It is all steel and determination and ruthlessness.”
Sounds like there might be two of them in it.

Despite occasional reports of reconciliations, Drew said this year that she currently has “no contact” with the mother from whom she became legally ‘emancipated’ as a 15-year-old.
Jaid probably didn’t help the ET child star stay on the straight and narrow when she took a pre-teen Drew to clubs like Studio 54. Drew, of course, began messing with drink and drugs and ended up in rehab at the age of 13.


  1. Very interesting . As a mother of 4 I cannot imagine emotional neglecting my kids even if they drive me crazy sometimes ! My mother lost her husband at the age of 42 he was 45 . She had her tenth baby 2 months later . I really don,t think there has ever been a greater mother .my father was the demonstrve one but I remember clearly how that all changed the day he died ! I only hope I am half as good a mother as she is .

  2. Maternal neglect does seem to go against the grain and is always more shocking than a bad father, somehow, because women are *supposed* to have a primal nurturing nature. I, too, am blessed with a loving mother so am delighted not to be able to relate personally to the experiences of the women above.
    Your mum sounds like an amazing woman - can't imagine what a horrible situation she found herself in when her husband died.
    And I'm sure your kids love you as much as you love your mum! Happy belated Mother's Day!

  3. A little aside from this, I just read an interesting comment in Nini Rodgers' "Ireland, Slavery and Anti-Slavery", pointing out that in early societies with high mortality rates it was very common for one parent to die, and then remarry. That's why we inherited stories like Hansel and Gretel – the murderous step mother jealous of the children of the first wife - because it was a genuine concern for centuries. Thought that was interesting, if a little irrelevant here, sorry :P Great article!