All about my mother

From the emotionally distant to the overbearing, difficult mothers can cast a shadow over our whole lives. But they can also be the key to our success

"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 [sic] and smacking was OK."

"When I was in antenatal group the HV [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 is still striking 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. In fact, having a difficult parent can give you some important 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, but this isn't as easy as it might sound. Some people take years to rid themselves of the of their parents' influence.

"People talk about 'internalised voices', this punitive, berating voice. They might describe themselves as 'haunted' or 'shadowed' by the voice of a mother telling them they will get things wrong, 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 also inspired by 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. It wasn't spontaneous and it wasn't comfortable. Toward the end of her life she had cast out my sister and that gave me a sense of how fragile this relationship was."

Apter identifies five categories of difficult 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 may be a non-event for a reptile, but it 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 when you were young, but this isn't set in stone. "Once you recognise this, you can try to be more sensitive to positive responses from others," Apter says. "When people are friendly, think about responding positively back."

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," Apter says.

Having an "angry" mother – as Apter and her sister 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, developed from protecting yourself against other people's anger.

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.' Although an envious mother will never clearly admit her jealousy."

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,'" Apter says. "You have to try to focus on whether you feel this anxiety or paralysis when you think about what you want. You can fill in the blank and attend to what you are thinking or feeling, just pause, wait and keep it in mind. Also, try it out and see it isn't catastrophic to do what you want."

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. "You know people who are very independent and self-directed with a sort of edge? They may have had to act in the face of others' envy." A "narcissistic" mother can also rear high-achieving children. "It might be that you learn to be high achieving but also very modest – that's a great skill," says Apter. 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 child 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.

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