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All women become like their mothers, so says Ocscar Wilde
June 13, 2012 10:48 AM   Subscribe

How can I have a better relationship with my daughter than I had with my mother?

I am the mother. My own mother and I have semi-strained relationship. We are fine if I keep things limited to phone calls and the occasional weekend visit, but anything longer than a few days, and I become stressed and unable to deal with her.

My mother has always been prone to drama and she had undiagnosed post-partum depression after having my youngest sibling and serious anxiety issues. Both of these have only grown in intensity as her children have all grown.

For example, when I was a child, she would constantly threaten to leave and she never did. I knew how messed up this was even as it happened and eventually had to help my younger siblings process this. She also yelled. All the time. About everything. She was an incredibly angry person when I was younger, and I know it's because she felt trapped being home alone and outnumbered by small children and absolutely no help (my dad was completely useless as a parent when we were small, and my parents had 1950s gender role things going on with domestic work where my other did 90% of that in addition to 90% of the child rearing until we were all in elementary school). I suppose I could go so far as to say my childhood was an emotionally abusive one.

My mother is also incredibly needy and emotionally unavailable to me in the ways I need her to be. I have always had to somewhat mother her., which makes a sort of twisted sense considering when she was a child, she had to mother her younger siblings because my grandparents were shift workers. My grandfather would leave for his job in the afternoon before my grandmother would be home from her job, so my mother would have to cook dinner and babysit her younger siblings from an incredibly young age. My grandfather was also an alcoholic, and my grandmother had anxiety to the point she never learned to drive because it made her too nervous to do so. So my mother's own upbringing was at best a moderately neglectful situation where she never truly got to be a kid. And I have a lot of sympathy for that.

But she passed all those on to me. And in some ways she still very much behaves like a child that I use the same techniques to calm her down that I use for my older child. I acknowledge and appreciate that she was sick, in the sense that she had depression and anxiety that greatly impacted her life and she never sought treatment for either (stigma at the time she had them). But I also feel robbed of a good relationship with her because of it. And whenever I try to get something from her by way of emotional support I am met with, "I don't know what you want me to do about it," "I don't know what to tell you," and, "I can't fix it," and this complete sense of helplessness on her part --- not in the sense that she can do something about it, but in the sense that she doesn't understand I need her to tell me, "It will be okay," or "You're doing the best you can." She issues no emotional support and turns everything back on herself. She never asks me how I am doing but will go on for thirty minutes about my brother's relationship troubles or my sister's job troubles or her own problems with other family members. I long ago gave up trying to expect she will give those things to me. And it makes me sad. I just want my mother to be, well, my mother. And I know she won't be. With my younger siblings, it is different. My brother drives her crazy because he is so much like her and she is always worried for him. One of my sisters is so incredibly close to her that she had my mother attend the birth of her own child whereas when I had my mother come for two days after the birth of my daughter, I would have been better off if she had never come. So I know my siblings have a different experience of her as a mother that some of the things I say to her has them saying, "What?" I just don't think they remember, or that I did such a good job looking out for them that they were protected from a lot of what I went through.

I don't want this for my own daughter. I want her to be able to count on me, and I want to support her and love her and be helpful to her. I want her to be able to feel she can always come to me, no matter how old she gets. And I don't want her to have to mother me until I am an incredibly old woman.

But I'm worried that I will turn into my mother, and I really don't want to. How can I avoid this? Is it really inevitable that it will just happen? What steps do I take to keep myself from repeating this pattern? I am a reader, so any good books on this I would appreciate in addition to advice.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is one of those questions where I just want to reach through the internet and give you a big hug. The fact that you worry and want to manage this is evidence that you will do fine. My own mom had a very abusive mother, and my mom is the most loving and kind parent I know. Sometimes you are able to learn by the mistakes of others.

Things you can do to make sure you don't fall into your mom's traps include building a support network, cultivating a relationship with your partner where you don't do 90% of the work and giving yourself some time to yourself. Its better to slip away for a few hours on Saturday and be a happy mom than to be present 100% of the time and be miserable. Make other mom friends, and build a structure that helps you be a complete person.

The book Loving the Little Years is a good one. When expecting my daughter, I went to the public library and they had a great selection, that might be a good place to start. I've found that many of the parenting books are not necessarily re-readable.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 11:03 AM on June 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


My mother is also incredibly needy and emotionally unavailable to me in the ways I need her to be. I have always had to somewhat mother her., which makes a sort of twisted sense considering when she was a child, she had to mother her younger siblings because my grandparents were shift workers....So my mother's own upbringing was at best a moderately neglectful situation where she never truly got to be a kid. And I have a lot of sympathy for that.

But she passed all those on to me. And in some ways she still very much behaves like a child that I use the same techniques to calm her down that I use for my older child.


Please read this book: The Drama of the Gifted Child. It describes the very dynamic that you grew up in, and how that dynamic is passed on.

The short answer is, be mindful of the ways in which you mother inappropriately witheld her love from you as a way to require you to meet her needs, and make an honest effort to understand that your daughter's job is not to meet yours, and to love your daughter unconditionally.

Therapy is something that can help with this.
posted by gauche at 11:23 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Your words demonstrate that you are a thoughtful, self-aware, loving parent. Your commitment to remain vigilant and to seek out parenting resources will take you far.

I know it's not the same as hearing it from your mother, but I feel very confident in saying it:

You are doing the best you can - and your best is pretty darn good. It will be more than okay. You're doing the right thing and you're going to do great.
posted by Ausamor at 11:45 AM on June 13, 2012


I can sympathise - I've also had a difficult relationship with my own mother, and some of what you wrote about having to meet her emotional needs whilst growing up felt painfully familiar.

-I think the best approach to this is to learn how to be emotionally healthy yourself - check that your friendships, your job, your marriage reflect a life that is at least "ok" for you. If things get tough, work out sensible coping methods.
My mother did not pass the "good role model test" sometimes because she stayed in a job she hated, had a miserable marriage and complained about her friends behind their backs. So be aware that your daughter does not only see how you treat her, but also how you treat yourself, and how you treat others. Your actions show her how adults and women (should) behave, and most daughters will tend to copy their mothers.

-If you don't already, find out about assertive behaviours and make sure you are using them yourself. If your daughter is assertive with you, make sure you listen to her requests.
One of the biggest troubles I ever had with my Mom was that she didn't do what I asked her to, or stop annoying behaviours when I asked her to. She has, I believe, got no sense of boundaries - I am just an extension of her- and a poor grasp on assertiveness; so she tries to get her own way by being manipulative instead. As a result, I felt like there was no point even asking her to meet my needs - I just became resentful instead.

-"Check" how your daughter is going in her life compared to her "average" classmates.
Anyone could have known that something was wrong with me- I had a terrible rebellious phase, used to cry at school and was constantly the target for any school bully. Talk to the teachers about your daughters emotional development - friends, boyfriends (eventually), does she concentrate in class, what is her attitude like etc - I am sure if you look for it, you will see if something is not right. That is your clue to lift your game or get yourself or your daughter some help from a therapist. Perhaps another parent at the school or colleague whose daughters are older than yours could act as a guide to what to expect/what they did?

Disclaimer: I am not (and never have been) a parent, or a psychologist. I am not saying you are/ever were anywhere near as bad as my parents were, I 'm just using them as examples.

Hope it all works out well and sorry for the thesis!!
posted by EatMyHat at 11:47 AM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


We do tend to recreate our family of origin, no matter how much we say or think we won't.

You are correct when you say your mom passed down her childhood experiences to you. Being a mother in the fifties with no support was stressful no doubt, but the fact that her father was an alcoholic and her mother was unavailable was worse. Her needs were not met. Her "love tank" was not filled.

when I was a child, she would constantly threaten to leave and she never did. I knew how messed up this was even as it happened and eventually had to help my younger siblings process this. She also yelled. All the time. About everything. She was an incredibly angry person when I was younger,


...will go on for thirty minutes about my brother's relationship troubles or my sister's job troubles or her own problems with other family members

My brother drives her crazy because he is so much like her and she is always worried for him. One of my sisters is so incredibly close to her that she had my mother attend the birth of her own child whereas when I had my mother come for two days after the birth of my daughter


Your mom sounds codependent. You could be codependent. Codependency is passed down generation after generation. It devestates families.

Your mom is who she is and you cannot change her. One of the best things you can do is to stop expecting her to be someone she is not. Not in an angry way. Not in a victim way but in an understanding way. She is not equipped. She is not going to become the nuturing mom you always wanted. You are an adult now with a child. You are going to drive yourself mad if you decide to give all of this power to your mom. I used to do the same thing and then I finally figured out that I have to do it for myself and look to people who are emotionally whole to give me support.

The best thing you can do for yourself and your daughter is to get therapy and make sure your mental health is good. How is your self-esteem? How is your support system? Do you ever experience rage like your mother did? Do you suffer from depression or anxiety? Look at the co-dependency entry on Wikipedia and read the characteristics. Do some reading. Love is a Choice is a great book. There are references to Chrisianity but they are infrequent and it is not offensive to this non-Christian, non-believer. I highly reccomend it.
posted by Fairchild at 11:51 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I watched my own mother battle valiantly not to become just like her mother. In some ways she succeeded, and in some very large ways she failed. Spectacularly. In particular, once her own mother passed away, and the interaction with my grandmother ceased, my mother backslid horrendously.

I raised this with my therapist, again in the interests of not wanting to turn into my mother. Her observation was that framing it as a "not like her" sends conflicting messages. She urged me not to focus on being "not like her" but to frame it in positive terms instead. So don't think about your mother and your relationship with her. Think about your daughter, and how you want to be reliable, supportive, nurturing. Stay positive.

If you are not in therapy, please consider it. The perspective of an outsider can be very insightful in these kind of family issues.
posted by ambrosia at 12:46 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


My above response was typed out in five minutes while I was at work.

I missed the part where you said you were a reader. I'm sorry I advised, "do some reading." I did not mean to sound flip.

I love parenting books and have read dozens of them. Parenting books are great but they are useless if you are not emotionally stable, have anger, have unresolved anger, depression, anxiety, self-esteem problems, shame, excessive guilt, compulsions, addictions, etc. You can read them until the cows come home and nothing will change. We can read all of this wonderful parenting advice, and talk about it and believe it. It's very difficult to implement if we are in a bad emotional place or have unresolved issues.

If you remember nothing else, remember respect. Treat your kid with respect and understanding. Apologize when you make mistakes. Love yourself so you can love your kid. This is so easy to say and I don't know the answers but if you are in a place where you don't like yourself too much or have emotional pain, do the work (therapy) to fix that. Be light. Be easy. Show your child that life doesn't have to be hard.

In the above book I mentioned (Love is a Choice by Dr. Robert Hemfelt, Dr. Frank Minirth and Paul Meier M.D.) there is a section what a healthy family looks like and what a codependent family looks like. According to the authors, a healthy family consists of sane, balanced parents. No depression, no mental illness, no extreme frustration with either life in general of some element of it. If depression was a part of their past, they've dealt with it adequately. Non-addicted parents (alcohol, drugs, shopping, eating disorders, workaholism, rageaholism, etc.). Mature parents. Self-sufficient, able to deal with life. Parents with a positive comfortable self-image. Parents who can relate appropriately to God. In the best case scenario, God is central to family structure. Parents committed to maintaining a happy marriage.
posted by Fairchild at 3:01 PM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I would like to write something longer, but for now...please read these two previous questions on similar issues. Lots of good advice and perspective.

What makes a mom a good mom? What does it feel like to have a good mom?

Ensuring I never scream, "Tina, bring me the ax!"

You're not your mother. You're free to invent your mothering. You're going to make mistakes, like every other mother out there, and self-forgiveness and sincere apologies will go a long way toward making those mistakes hurt less. If you are wondering how to be a better, more effective, more whatever mother, then you're already ahead of your own experience as a daughter. Please believe that the balance of what you do is going to be good for your particular child because you only need to be good enough--not perfect--for her. I give you a hug. I wish you luck.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:14 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Dance of Intimacy is a very good book for understanding family stress points and diseased family structures. She also wrote the Dance of Anger, which works with much the same ideas but focuses on anger.

One thing which worked for my grandmother, who wanted to not be physically abusive (she was physically and emotionally abused), was to identify people who she thought were good parents, to spend time with them, and to try to imitate them.

My mom (daughter of said grandmother) raised me with "consequences" instead of "punishments". The best example I can give is when I was in my pre-teens and decided I didn't want to do chores. Mom gave me a very basic explanation of the social contract (we all do somethings for each other so others will do some things for us) and then told me that if I wasn't doing my chores, then I was stepping outside of the social contract, which meant I had to meet all of my own needs (not literally). So I needed to do my own cooking, dishes, and laundry (our three house chores). I decided I wanted to eat pb&j every meal, since I could eat it off of a napkin and only use a knife - barely any dishes! I was so smart!! Mom bought me the supplies (like I said, not literally all my own needs) and I began my Smartest Plan Evah!!!! She proceeded to cook all of my favorite foods, which I had to watch her and my brother eat... while I had pb&j. *criez* I'm proud of myself for holding out three days, but as an adult I can't deny the deep effect this had on my understanding of how societies and groups should work.

One other piece is to try to be gentle and loving toward yourself in the same way that you want to be gentle and loving and present for your daughter. This includes understanding if sometimes you don't act well - that's an opportunity to apologize to your daughter and work out something which works better, which gives her the opportunity to learn how to negotiate boundaries with others, and the importance of honest apologies.

I also work with clients who are very emotionally fragile, so in a way I'm a kind of parent.

The first thing I try to do with each of them is to really listen and try to figure out where they're coming from; since a lot of my clients have delusions, this sometimes includes figuring out the meaning of delusional beliefs, like "Are there monsters in the attic?" being an expression of fear and helplessness.

The second thing I do is focus on the positive a lot. When I see something they're doing that I like, I say so. With some of my client's that's, "You scrubbed your skin really well, and your clothing is really clean! Good job!" With others it's, "I really enjoyed spending time with you today." It should be specific to the person, something they're working on, and something I want to see more of. Whenever I start to feel like they're intentionally trying to make my life difficult, I try to take a step back and focus on the positive instead, and often the problem is me!

Even when I'm giving feedback on things I don't like, I try to keep the focus positive. So, in a case where I'm being insulted, for example, I'll say, "Saying those things to me is inappropriate. I'm leaving (in your case it might be 'you need to go and calm down on that chair, now')." And then when they're calmed down, I bring it up again and say, "I really don't like it when you insult me, but I understand you are angry. How can you tell me what you're angry about without insulting me?" That way you're not shutting down the (legitimate and out of conscious control) emotions, but you are setting standards for controlling how you BEHAVE without demonizing how you FEEL. I got a full grown adult from almost violent assault to visibly bringing himself under control using this method, but part of the trick is you remaining calm in the moment and freaking out later! Out of sight!

I also try to focus on small improvements. So instead of saying, "You need to have your room clean ALWAYS starting NOW," I'll say, "Wet clothing piled in the closet is a mold hazard. All clothing needs to be dry and stored hanging up or in drawers". That way there is a reason, and a small, reasonable goal. Once that becomes "normal," then you add in always doing the next thing. And so on, and so forth. Always small steps, always lots of praise, always gentle understanding of failure with firm restating of the goal.

And remember to love yourself and praise yourself when you succeed! You can do it!
posted by Deoridhe at 9:53 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Someone close to me who has a tough relationship with her mom and an alcoholic grandfather found it very useful to read about children of alcoholics and understand how many of her mom's behaviors were typical coping mechanisms of children of alcoholics. This kind of stuff can get passed down through generations even when the alcoholic is more than a generation removed. In any case, you might find Al-Anon or reading about these issues helpful. Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:25 AM on June 14, 2012


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