5 Signs of a Mother

5 Signs of a Mother

At least once or twice a week, I get a message from a mother of an adult daughter—usually someone who has been cut out of that adult child’s life—accusing me of aiding and abetting estrangement because my work “blames” mothers. This isn’t true, of course; while I believe estrangement has to be on the table after every other effort to set boundaries fails with an abusive parent, I do not believe it is a “solution” in any sense. I also believe in holding parents accountable for how they treat their children: that is not the same as “blaming.”

But It is true that the word “toxic” gets tossed around with the same frequency as “narcissist”—a catchall so overused that it’s in danger of losing its meaning—so it’s definitely worthwhile to explore the difference between “tension” in the relationship and what actually is abusive, damaging, or “toxic.”

Let’s begin with the obvious: Mothering well is hard work and it’s particularly difficult because the best skillset changes over time. The very skills that allow you to mother well when your child is young—your ability to impose order on chaos, to corral your kid or kids into a waiting automobile, your own need for order and control—may actually not stand you in good stead when you’re mothering a preteen who needs to spread her wings and doesn’t want to hear your plan but for you to listen to hers. In the long term, good mothering requires not just patience, but flexibility and the ability to pivot when you need to. For some of us, that will be a challenge, requiring vigilance and conscious effort.

Personality matters too—what the experts call “goodness of fit”—and there’s no question that it’s easier to mother well when that “fit” is present. The example I always use is of the mother who needs peace and quiet and is easily flustered by challenges, and her firstborn is like just that too; that makes attentive and attuned parenting easier. But if her second child is rambunctious, an explorer, and always pushing the emotional envelope, parenting that child may be harder and may create tension between mother and child. It falls on the mother to learn to manage that tension productively and to regulate her emotions so she can do the work of helping her daughter to self-regulate. This can be admittedly difficult and takes conscious awareness.

As experts know, there are predictable moments in the arc of a child’s development and the mother-daughter relationship that can hold greater potential for tension. Broadly speaking, they are often the times at which the daughter asserts her independence, starts trying on ideas about who she is for size, and, yes, may push back against both your expectations and your vision of her. Most generally, these stages include the toddler years, pre-adolescence and adolescence, and young and older adulthood, but they can happen at any time.

Marital expert John Gottman has pointed out that it’s not whether couples disagree or argue, since they all do, but it’s how they argue that matters; the same thing can be said of tension between mothers and daughters. It’s not whether tension occurs, it’s how it is managed.

As daughters mature, areas of tension may increase as they make choices their mothers may not necessarily agree with. (We are not talking about self-destructive or dangerous choices, which are another matter; these are choices that may run counter to a mother’s dreams and wishes for her child or her own rigidity about what’s “right.”)

How a mother approaches the task of mothering—her parenting style—directly affects whether tension is tolerated, resolved, or escalated. Some styles guarantee the building of a war room.

As formulated by Diana Baumrind and expanded by Eleanor E. Macoby and John A. Martin, there are four distinct parenting styles. We’ll start with the one that produces the best results: authoritative parenting. This mother sets reasonable expectations for her daughter’s behaviors, is warm and responsive, and uses reasoning rather than coercion or punishment to guide her child’s behavior. While the daughter feels supported, she is nonetheless permitted to make mistakes without the fear of blaming or shaming. This parent’s open style of communication—along with listening—permits areas of tension to be discussed and de-escalated.

On the opposite end is the permissive or indulgent style: these mothers don’t enforce rules, demand little of their daughters, and don’t confront so tension never gets addressed. While this might sound idyllic if you had a controlling or hypercritical mother, children actually need maternal guidance, goals, and healthy criticism. The problem here is that the child may feel tension because she needs and wants a parent, not a girlfriend or cheerleader, but there’s no way of getting it. Her emotional needs remain unmet and, yes, this is damaging and even toxic.

Then there’s the “my-way-or-the-highway” style, which is called authoritarian: it’s all about control and brooks no discussion. This mother has her own view of who her daughter needs to be and how she must behave and there are rules and regulations to follow because only one person is in charge. Daughters raised in this way can end up being obedient and often high-achieving and proficient, if totally clueless about who they actually are and at risk for being aggressive or controlling themselves. Since the authoritarian style is about power and control, tension isn’t tolerated and it’s not hard for this parent to become verbally abusive if a child rebels or resists; there is an available off-ramp into damage and toxicity.

And, finally, we cross over into true toxic territory with the neglectful or rejecting style. The tension is about the lack of connection and the child’s need for it; this style can be both damaging to the child and toxic.

Since I am neither a psychologist nor a therapist, these common signs are drawn from research and interviews for my books, especially Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming your Life. This list isn’t all-inclusive, of course.

1. Control and punishment as a response to tension. This can begin in adolescence when a mother reacts to disagreement by shutting a daughter down. The bottom line? “Think differently or act in ways I don’t prescribe and you will spend your life in your room.” This may continue with an adult, albeit in a different form.

2. An absence of give-and-take (and presence of a hard line). Your mother refuses to listen to why you are making a decision or the choice you make as an adult is derided. You are either stonewalled, put down, or told the choice is stupid.

3. Actions and choices are framed as evidence of character flaws. Tension escalates as the mother takes the position that the decision or action is based in the daughter’s flawed nature; the message is not just disparaging but robs the daughter of any sense of agency. Parents with an authoritarian style, as well as those who see their children as extensions of themselves, will escalate in this way.

4. Disagreement is labeled “disrespect.” Cultural norms are invoked as a force shield as the mother takes the position that brooking disagreement is a violation of the commandment that tells you to “honor” your parents. This is a form of blame-shifting and, in this script, your mother becomes the victim. Nothing could be further from the truth.

5. The mother demands acquiescence or threatens ostracism. Perhaps the last stop on the “my way or highway” road, this pre-emptive strike on a mother’s part is supposed to resolve the problem but, alas, may end in estrangement initiated by an adult daughter.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2022.

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