I’m getting tired of listening to people talk about the relationship with their mother being “toxic.” I’ve come across enough cases and watched the dynamics between the two to understand that this is a real phenomenon but we need to stop pinning random descriptions on people or situations spewed out by the press. It’s like calling someone schizophrenic who is in two minds about something or who is behaving in a way we consider to be out of the normal range. These labels are heavy duty and damaging. No wonder the American psychiatrists are reminded of the Goldwater rule when they diagnose the 45th President from afar.
Most mothers drive their daughters crazy at time and vice versa because the relationship is one of the most fraught there is. According to Deborah Tannen in her book “You’re Not Wearing That”, interactive patterns of communication between the two are riddled with misunderstandings. We can all relate to that. Mum says something she considers to be caring i.e., ‘A dress would look better on you,’ and daughter hears, ‘You’re putting on weight.’
In fact any comment about a daughter’s appearance even if said in the spirit of love can be heard as painful criticism. The relationship swings between boiling anger through to adoration much like a love affair.
Daughters will say no matter how hard they try to please they end up feeling like a failure because of some small, albeit well intended remark yet mothers see it as trying to be helpful. After all, they only want the best for their daughters. Women talk a lot about everything so there is more opportunity to say and hear things that are going to be taken in a wrong way. Although most sons love their mothers, their communication and behaviours are less emotionally driven and of course there is no competition. Mothers see their daughters as a reflection on them although most would not admit it. In turn, daughters desperately want their mother’s approval which is why the relationship balances on a pin a lot of the time.
So where does the toxic label come in? Experts have many things to say on this. Mothers who dismiss or undermine their daughters by not understanding their insecurities and feelings can trigger deep seated problems with self-esteem from an early age. It’s hard enough being female in this age of body consciousness. I’ve no time for the Kardashian types but Kim has done women a favour by baring cellulite on her curvaceous bottom and look at the outpouring of negativity she received.
Being micro-managed by mothers, especially these days is an issue raised by daughters who say they feel helpless to manage their own lives. The maternal response is, “I’m just trying to help darling.” I’ve been guilty of this with my own daughters until each in turn responded by cutting me out of the family picture. If I go too far I get “Sent to Coventry.”
Emotional disconnection is another reason cited for the development of a toxic relationship. We all need hugs and validation but when the primary caregiver, and here I want to remind readers that I am including adoptive mothers, foster mothers, grandmothers and guardians, withholds that affection either because they are incapable of showing it or use it as a form of punishment then this really is damaging. Mothers who suffer periods of depression may well find themselves unable to bond with their child, post natally or later but they need medical help rather than be subject to a rant on somebody’s blog.
My daughters talk about their need for boundaries, especially now they are late twenties and early thirties. Boundaries need to be respected the moment a daughter rushes to her room to write Dear Diary and locks it away under the floorboards. Surely that’s saying something that maybe at fourteen she doesn’t fully understand. When mothers experience boundaries being erected to keep them out, they feel rejected and this can trigger an angry response. ‘But I thought we were friends?’
Well, even friends don’t share everything and as I was told many years ago, ‘Your children are not your friends. You are the parent and you have a job to do. Guidance, support and as they get older, being there but never, ever interfering.’
For someone who has spent a life time helping others I found this difficult. Surely a caring mother isn’t going to see her daughter get together with an unsuitable partner? Surely her role is to point out his flaws and get her away from him even if it does mean going to Mongolia to achieve it? No. She, the daughter, has to work things out for herself because only that way will she learn and unless such a relationship is a deliberate protest to your values then so be it. I can say all of this comfortably because I was guilty of all these behaviours. It gets down to a matter of trust. Do you trust your daughter to do the right thing? Helicoptering shows you don’t.
In 1978, Christina Crawford exposed her mother, Joan Crawford as a cruel, manipulative, unloving and I guess toxic, mother in her memoir, “Mommy Dearest.” Some didn’t believe it was possible she was talking about The Joan Crawford they loved and admired because they never saw that side of her. As more women begin to understand the wounds caused by controlling and critical mothers, the more they will be able to correct the mistakes in parenting their own daughters. The only caveat to that is history and behaviour can repeat itself unless there is a greater self -awareness.
Many of the women I counsel have low self-esteem and when we delve further we find there has been a difficult relationship with their mother. For those who were not brought up by birth mothers, it is the unending pain caused by abandonment that poisons the unhealed wound.
As mothers we are a target for all sorts of attacks from the psychobabble world. Some we must accept and take on board but please remember we are human too. We may well have had issues with our own mothers and fervently vow never to be like them then are shocked when some of the criticisms levelled at us include, “You’re just like your mother.”
I’ll be writing more posts on this fascinating and at times exasperating relationship.
My new book, The Future Can’t Wait, tracks the breakdown of a relationship between a mother who believes she’s doing all the right things and a daughter who thinks otherwise. The result is extreme.
Published by Urbane Publications, September 2017