I realised I was just like my mum and went into therapy."
"For the first few years of parenting, I thought good parents were strict and shouty and smacking was OK."
"When I was in antenatal group the health visitor asked, 'What is your biggest fear?' and I said, 'To become my mum.'"
These are all comments from people on Mumsnet, the parenting website, showing that the old adage that we all turn into our parents still strikes fear into the hearts of many. But is it true that we're doomed to repeat their mistakes? Or can a difficult parent actually teach you things that an ideal parent can't?
A new book, Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power, by the psychologist and Cambridge fellow Terri Apter, says that a difficult parent does have a huge impact on whom we become, but we aren't necessarily doomed to repeat their mistakes. Having a difficult parent can give you characteristics and skills that a child with a happy upbringing might not have.
"You inherit patterns of behaviour from parents, but these aren't set in stone. Reflecting on what was difficult about your maternal relationship will help you to prevent copying their behaviour in later life," she explains.
"People talk about 'internalised voices', this punitive, berating voice, saying things like: 'No one cares what you think,' 'You are stupid,' or 'You always say the wrong thing.' You can learn to engage with that punitive inner voice and you can be cowed or amused by it; you don't have to believe what it says."
Difficult Mothers is based on case studies collected over 10 years, a review of journals on the subject and Apter's difficulties with her own mother. "It was very constrained; she was angry and controlling. I always had to be on the lookout for her anger and I was always on the alert to try not to reveal things that might upset her, and to placate her when they did."
Apter identifies five categories of difficut mother: the angry mother, the controlling mother, the narcissistic mother, the envious mother and the emotionally unavailable mother. She is careful to caution that only around 20 per cent of mothers will fall into these categories – the rest are just normal, flawed humans – but if your parent does fit one of these types, it can have a profound effect on whom you become.
A child's brain development from birth to three years of age is particularly crucial. A mother will normally respond to and mirror her child's feelings. She will look into the child's eyes and try to get to know him or her. This process of responding to a baby's signals is called "attunement". The psychiatrist Thomas Lewis once remarked, "The absence of attunement... inflicts a shattering injury to the socially hungry." Apter agrees: "The worst bit is having that brain not develop – that is the real killer."
If a mother has postnatal depression it can mean she does not attune to her baby and doesn't give him or her enough stimulation. Apter classes this within the "emotionally unavailable" category. If you are withdrawn, or you think no one cares about what you think and feel, it might be the result of this lack of stimulation. "Once you recognise this, you can try to be more sensitive to positive responses from other people," Apter says. You might also have some highly developed life skills. "If you had to help your mother from a young age, you might have learnt that you can comfort and be a source of support to others and might also have developed a great deal of competence through helping others in the family."
Having an "angry" mother – as Apter did – might make you want to withdraw from any relationship when there is conflict in adult life. "That can be a problem and result in you only having short-term relationships," Apter says. On the other hand, she points out that you will probably be very diplomatic, and have a thick skin.
An over-protective mother might show signs of the "controlling" or "envy" groups, Apter says. "She might say, 'You can't do things without me there to pull the strings,' or 'You will mess up if I'm not in control,' or the other aspect might be 'I feel anxious and diminished and I need you to feel that alongside me, because I can't bear to see you feeling stronger than I am.'"
According to Apter, children of a controlling mother can find it hard to know what they really want, because they are used to their mother telling them how they should feel. A child of an envious parent might feel they should not seek to achieve success. "They subconsciously think, 'If I am successful and happy and independent, it will destroy the people I love,'"
On the plus side, a controlling mother can make you very disciplined from an early age. "If your mother's controlling personality drives you to excel, there are pluses in that," Apter says. "You might gain more skills than your peers and be a high achiever." An envious mother might also teach you some valuable lessons: "Sometimes you learn you have to ignore other people's negativity or doubts to get what you want," Apter says.
A "narcissistic" mother can also rear high-achieving children, according to Apter. "It might be that you learn to be high achieving but also very modest – that's a great skill," she says. This is developed by responding to a mother who "might want the child to shine because they are part of her but also resent anyone who outshines her". So their son or daughter might be keen to tout the success of others while never bragging about their own talents.
Ultimately, who you are, and how you go on to treat your own children, is not a fixed pattern, Apter says. "I am not saying you will be a certain way, but take time to assess whether this legacy from your parents impedes you. " If you identify any of the traits Apter describes, she recommends that you take one situation at a time, and realise that the maternal voice in your head "won't really kill you or threaten you"; in fact, it could be the key to your success.Reuse content