Mother, Damned-est

By Terri Apter,

Most people think their mom was difficult, but some mothers put their children
in a bind that actually warps their development.

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 Mom. Nonetheless, 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 idealization 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 ability 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 exhibit abnormalities in braindevelopmentthat can impair the ability to regulate emotions, engage in social interaction, and organize memories. Difficult mothers arecapable 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 midlife 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 onto 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 behaviors 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 17-year-old Margot reveals to me that she has to “take a deep breath before I face Mom.” 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 two blocks 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 inability to control the inevitable frustrations of day-to-day life or long-term disappointments can create a disorganized 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.

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