Mummy, dearest?: The pitfalls of life with a difficult mother

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It's Mother's Day tomorrow... but behind the cards and flowers lurks an uncomfortable truth: many mums have complicated, damaging relationships with their offspring. Here, a leading psychologist examines the pitfalls of life with a difficult mother

Who has a difficult mother?

I pose the question to a group of teenage girls, who raise their hands high. Grown women, too, nod knowingly, while adding, "I hope I don't turn out to be like her". Teenage boys and men are, of course, less absorbed with wondering how to be different from their mum. None the less, their highly charged love and empathy with her can make them uneasy about regulating closeness and distance.

In a sense, difficult mothers are the norm. Our need for a mother's attention, appreciation and understanding is great; our expectations are high. We tend to be critical of responses that are not precisely what we hope for. Her shortcomings – the endless reminders to be careful; her compulsive checking-up whether you have your keys as you head out the door, when you forgot them only once, two years ago; her inability to read an instruction manual – irritate and embarrass us, because we retain our idealisation of the powerful nurturer of infancy.

But psychologically speaking, a difficult mother is a great deal more than a person with whom we have difficulties from time to time. A truly difficult mother is one who presents her child with a profound dilemma: "Either develop complex and constricting coping mechanisms to maintain a relationship with me, at great cost to your own outlook, imagination and values, or suffer ridicule, disapproval, or rejection."

A difficult mother presents challenges that a difficult father or other relative does not. That's because, starting in the earliest days of life, a child's relationship with her or his mother is the foundation of a sense of self. Through maternal attachment, we begin to learn who we are and what we feel and to acquire the ability to interact with others. The process continues with a mother's ongoing capacity to acknowledge her developing child as a person with independent thoughts and feelings.

A difficult mother, however, uses a son's or daughter's continuing need for responsiveness to control or manipulate the child. The repeated threat of ridicule, disapproval or rejection is experienced as a choice between life and death. Children of difficult mothers, like others who experience difficulties growing up, can show great resilience. But such a child will face extra tasks in establishing a comfortable sense of self-worth and in trusting others.

Difficult mothers should be distinguished from abusive mothers, whose children can exhibit abnormalities in brain development that can impair the ability to regulate emotions, engage in social interaction and organise memories. Difficult mothers are capable of engaging with a child – but they set fixed conditions on their love and approval and appreciation.

My own research on mothers and teenagers, and on mid-life development, shows that many children of difficult mothers become generally high-functioning adults. Difficult mothers may be good-enough mothers, able to support normal development within a wide range. Yet in all stages of life, children of difficult mothers struggle with self-doubt, on the one hand, and close relationships, on the other, or project dissatisfaction and doubt on to people who love them.

The difficult mother imposes her dilemma harshly – with unpredictable and ferocious anger, punitive inflexibility, rigid expectations and expressions of neediness that take priority over a child's needs. Envy may compound the mix. Sure, many mothers show anger, inflexibility, neediness and elements of envy from time to time. But it's the routine use of such behaviours that distinguishes difficult mothers and sets up a coercive relationship.

A child does not have the option to say to a mother, I don't care whether you think I'm bad, or, I am not frightened by the prospect of your leaving me. A primitive panic at rejection lasts long after the infant's physical helplessness comes to an end.

Children are therefore likely to work hard to adopt special strategies to protect themselves from a mother's rejection. The particular strategies a difficult mother imposes on a child are ruled by fear, anxiety and confusion. And each mother's particular brand of difficult shapes the strategies that a child develops.

Unpredictable and Ferocious Anger

"Everyone shouts," Lois protests when her 17-year-old daughter Margot reveals to me that she has to "take a deep breath before I face Mum". Margot's eyes are bright with alarm at her own courage. "She complains I never eat breakfast. Well, I can't, because I come downstairs and she's there and that puts a knot in my stomach. I can't feel hungry till I'm a few streets away from the house."

"So I have a short fuse," Lois cedes. "Since when does shouting kill you? Besides, if she respected my wishes, I wouldn't shout. She makes life difficult for herself, but she knows I love her."

Difficult mothers may love their children, but the inability to control the inevitable frustrations of day-to-day life or long-term disappointments can create a disorganised volatility and obliviousness to a child's experience that overpower the love a child can take in. Margot, at 17, is hollow-eyed and anxious, her nails bitten to the quick. Her social and academic interests are limited; she craves a simple world, safe from her mother's tantrums.

In my research, I found that even independent adults in their forties are haunted by memories of maternal anger. Those who as children experience chaotic storms imagine endless scenarios involving threatening circumstances. "When I walk home from school, I open the door and think what to say if she's mad because my room isn't clean enough," Margot explains. "Or maybe she'll be mad because I was supposed to be home five minutes ago. Or maybe some friend I'm not supposed to be seeing phoned the landline. Or maybe, she'll be in a good mood and I can just relax."

Children like Margot inhabit an exhausting emotional world, hedged with dangers that make them anxious and cautious. Others acquire a set of routines to placate a mother with signs of affection or a constant stream of compliments, or by always being available to do her bidding. Sometimes they assume a sweet or ingratiating persona, trying to waylay the rage they fear may be lurking beneath every greeting and smile.

Their aim in personal interactions is to please and placate, rather than to genuinely engage. They may be primed to respond with compliance to outbursts or even hints of anger in others; they may assume that others are behaving appropriately in expressing anger towards them. In some cases, they may even be attracted to people whose anger is easily aroused – because they associate that behaviour with attachment and authority.

Inflexibility and Rigid Expectations

"My mum always sets a gold standard," says 25-year-old Craig. "My dad said that's what drove him to leave. So I always knew this gold standard had a dark side – like, would I have to leave, too? I see pictures of myself as a boy, doing ordinary boy things, but what I remember is wondering whether I could figure out what I needed to be for her, and whether I could be that. She said I was her golden boy, with stars in his eyes, and that she knew I would always be loyal and brave. I'm not any of those things, not now, not ever. 'Stars in my eyes' – what a load of rubbish."

A recently discharged serviceman, Craig is trying to make sense of having pursued a career for which he never felt anything but dread. Any other career possibilities were silenced by his mother's pride. Even as he seeks support from the person he still loves most, he finds her inflexible. "She'll wave her hands and jump about and say, 'You can't stay in my house,' and things like that whenever I try to say what I'm feeling. It's clear I have a choice: be her brave boy or get my arse out of here."

Inflexibility is destructive when incorporated into the structure of mother-child interaction so that the mother is the sole authority on the legitimacy of the child's experiences. It usually arises from a mother's narcissistic investment in a child's trajectory, a need to have a high-achieving child or one with a particular set of skills. A child's independent interests seem a betrayal.

To accommodate maternal inflexibility, a daughter (or son) may suppress her real thoughts, real feelings, even her own sense of self as a person with independent desires and needs. Choices are irrelevant because acting on her own preferences threatens the maternal relationship. Why even identify one's own desires?

Lying is a common strategy children invoke to resist maternal inflexibility. They see it as a way of preserving their real self, without engaging in useless fights. They construct false stories about themselves to retain some control over their lives.

But all too often lying then becomes a general coping strategy. Teachers and even peers identify such children as flaky or unreliable. Still, they may come to believe that lying is necessary to any relationship. The underlying assumption is, "To be accepted or loved, or just to get by, I have to disguise myself."

While some offspring suppress their thoughts and feelings or retreat into silence in the face of a mother's inflexibility, some find other listeners – a father, sibling, friend, or lover – and develop self-reflection and expression through such close connections. But there remains a profound betrayal: "Why does my mother, whose responses mean so much, refuse to listen to me?" For some, the answer is to aim to meet a mother's ideal, propelled by the assumption that "I will be loved only if I am perfect". But like Craig, others relinquish the goal of perfection – and with it all goals, and all hope of being loved.

Need, Seduction and Resentment

Just as devastating as chaotic anger and inflexibility is the inability to engage with a child as someone with highly charged needs of her own. A mother may use unhappiness or incapacity to pose the following dilemma: "Either develop strategies to meet my needs or I'll be utterly disappointed in you." Children commonly respond by achieving early-maturing competence to compensate for a mother's demanding helplessness.

Sarah Ann, at 15, took over the care of her younger sister and half sisters and brothers while her mother, most likely suffering from depression, came to respond to every child's request with, "This is just too much for me". Her mother showered Sarah Ann with praise that was more coercive than appreciative: "You're so reliable. You're my angel. Everyone can always depend on you."

Children who take on adult roles may appear mature and controlled, but they feel helpless and frightened. Their competence is achieved at the cost of youthful curiosity and exploration. I first met Sarah Ann in my study of mid-life women, when she was working to overcome the fear that she would lose everything she had and destroy everyone she loved if she gave in to her urge to travel. She remembered being the mini-mother, checking that her brother did his homework and her mother was settled, while "the person I could have been was dying inside. I had to let that reckless teenage girl die; otherwise, my mum would despise the daughter she called her angel."

Some mothers, like Sarah Ann's, use praise to coerce a child into meeting her needs; others use seduction. As a child, Jon saw his mother as confident and compelling. "I thought everyone who met her loved her. She'd say, 'See how he looked at me? He couldn't take his eyes off me.' I picked up that that's what she needed to believe. And I learnt to tell her everyone loved her, and that I was the luckiest guy because I had her as my mum."

When he started dating and spent time away from home, she engaged in pitiful self-abuse: "I'm just an old, useless woman. I look in the mirror and I don't know how you can bear to see me. I hope my organs are ageing as quickly as my face, so I won't live to get much older." The implicit message – "Show me you adore me and put me first or I'll die" – overwhelmed Jon. "The idea of her being sad was like falling into a pit. I just decided I would prop her up." Now 37, Jon is watching his second marriage fall apart. "I can't get my wife to see that when mum needs me, I have to see her."

Envy

Envy is one of the most confusing and disturbing maternal emotions a child can face. Sometimes a child's joy or delight can spark a mother's resentment. Or a child's success is greeted with cold suspicion. Since envy is usually directed towards someone with whom we (negatively) compare ourselves, daughters are more likely to be the object of a mother's envy than are sons, more likely to elicit an invidious, "Why didn't I have what she has?"

Tess, age 14, tries to measure up by getting great grades, although her 11-year-old sister is mum's favourite. Doing well is not enough; she has to be a prominent prize-winner. Tess recognises the bind her mother imposes: "You must shine for me in your achievements at school, and put aside all your other interests, or you will not be worthy of my love." Yet, when Tess succeeds, her mother's envy kicks in. "If you think you're better than everyone else in this house, you can leave" and "You need to learn some humility if you're going to sit at this table," her mother taunts her.

It's no surprise that Tess is ambivalent about achievement, which promises approval but delivers rejection. A likely outcome is that she will be driven to achieve throughout adulthood – but obtain more anxiety than pleasure from her achievements.

There is no single template for a difficult mother. Sometimes one sibling finds a mother difficult and another does not. One sibling can trigger a mother's inflexibility or anger or dependence, while another evokes protectiveness and empathy. A mother may demand subservience from a daughter but not from a son; she may pressure one child to conform to her ambitious expectations, but allow another to go her own way. Gender, personality and birth order all moderate the complex, interactive maternal bond.

To add to the complexity, mothers themselves undergo change and growth. A woman may be high functioning as mother to a four-year-old who remains compliant and eager to please, but difficult to a 14-year-old exercising a teen's capacity for criticism and opposition – and yet mellow to a 40-year-old, when her anxieties about a child's independence or difference may have finally been resolved. Even so, a mother's evolution does not necessarily release her child from debilitating strategies developed to cope with her. Even a mother's death cannot abolish the history of a child's self.

Most children, as they grow, engage in a healthy resistance to the covert terms imposed by a difficult mother. Resistance comes in many forms. There's persuasion, sometimes expressed in arguments aimed to make a mother "see me and accept me as I am". But by definition, a difficult mother does not engage with her child's perspective or modify expectations in line with a child's changing needs. She will usually punish resistance.

Sometimes understanding a mother's perspective eases a child's anger and confusion. But the effort to understand is itself exhausting and debilitating.

Another path to resistance is containment, involving efforts to understand that the difficulties a mother poses will not always be posed by others. Even with clinical help, it can take a great deal of work for a grown child to separate experiences with a difficult mother from expectations about interactions with others.

Clinical help may also prevent the child from seeking out friends, lovers and mentors who share her mother's difficult traits. Such associates may feel comfortable in the sense of being familiar, or present the opportunity to try again to tame the difficult mother. Nevertheless, they keep a child bound to a toxic legacy.

Complete release from the habits of thought and response patterns comes only from understanding ourselves and our history, how being forced to placate a difficult mother has shaped our fears, self-doubt and dissatisfaction. Then we can begin to cope with our fears and dissatisfactions on their own terms.

Difficult mothers: A survival guide

Reposition the fear

A mother's anger is likely to have controlled and frightened you at many stages of your life, particularly in childhood, but you can reshape your response. Instead of reacting to her anger by thinking, "What can I do to placate her?" understand that the anger is her problem. You may offer to help her understand her problem and deal with it, but it is not up to you to manage her emotions.

Silence self-doubt

When you understand the possible consequences of a difficult mother – such as self-doubt and anxious expectations that others will disapprove of you – catch hold of the "shadow voices" telling you that you don't measure up. Notice them and identify them as legacies of a difficult mother; then you can challenge them and put them to rest.

Particularise her power

Children of a difficult mother often come to expect that others will also try to coerce them. Value those people who listen as you speak your mind and who encourage you to identify your own preferences and desires. This will remind you that close relationships can be different from your first primary relationship with your mother. Remember, some people fall into the pattern of forging difficult relationships because these feel familiar and "comfortable".

Call her bluff

Dealing with a difficult mother is exhausting, but it can make you strong. You value the ability to negotiate within a relationship – and know the danger of a refusal to negotiate. A difficult mother tries to give you no choice. But in fact you always do have a choice. Understand your point of no return, the point at which you will not give in, and call her bluff. You may find that the relationship continues after all.

Dr Terri Apter is a psychologist, writer and senior tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge. Her most recent book in 'The Sister Knot'

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