Ensuring I never scream, "Tina, bring me the ax!"
August 24, 2009 2:21 PM   Subscribe

Avoiding Mommie Dearest: How to raise a healthy, happy daughter when your own relationship with your mother was less than ideal?

We're expecting our first child in January and just learned that "it" is a "she." The good news is that she's healthy and on track, and dearly wanted by both mother and father. However, as a first time mother with my own troubled mother/daughter relationship, the news of her gender has sent me into a panic. I want to enjoy the fact that I'll be having a daughter, but all I can do now is worry that I'll continue a vicious cycle of guilt, judgement, sarcasm, and dishonesty that still plagues my relationship with my mother (and grandmother). My goal, along with my partner, is to raise a resilient, happy, intelligent, compassionate, curious, and independent woman, while also allowing her to be whomever it is she's meant to be.

Can other women who had difficult mothers (or men who have raised daughters) pass along some wisdom or resources on how to foster a healthy, loving relationship with a daughter? FWIW I have a therapist and plan to discuss this topic in depth, but appreciate the thoughts of fellow AskMefites.

I've seen this thread: http://ask.metafilter.com/104513/Novels-about-women-and-their-crazy-moms but am hoping for something more about "breaking the cycle" when it comes to parenting your own child.
posted by thenewbrunette to Human Relations (20 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Ooh! Ooh! I can't recommend Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child enough.
posted by selfmedicating at 2:29 PM on August 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

Every day, review your day's interaction with your child in your head. If you see something you don't like, try to work on that tomorrow. If you think everything's fine, sanity-check your behavior with friends and family once in a while. If you think everything you're doing is fine but your child is going out of their way to willfully make you miserable, realize that you're the problem, if only because your perspective is skewed, and start asking friends and family (or a therapist) for specific advise on how to deal with your child's behavior in that area.

I hope that's the good advice I think it is, because it's what I'm doing to break my cycle. If anyone wants to consider this a sanity-check for me and send me advice, memail please.
posted by davejay at 2:51 PM on August 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm not a mom, but I am a daughter with an at-times-difficult mother/daughter relationship. I think the fact that you're even asking this question puts you way ahead of the parenting game, and that if you focus on loving and encouraging your daughter, and making sure she has the freedom, support, and guidance she needs, you guys will be fine.

Congratulations! I'm sure you'll make a wonderful mother.
posted by odayoday at 2:55 PM on August 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

My mother had a difficult mother, so I am the third generation in this equation. She was very conscious of the fact that she didn't want to be like her mother, and by being mindful of that, she succeeded.

From my perspective (as the grandchild of the difficult mother), one of the things that made my mother able to "break the cycle" was the fact that parenting was a conversation in our house. If Dad thought Mom was being unreasonable (or vice versa) he'd say so, and she'd listen. Sometimes, the result was that she'd say "You're right" and apologize to me or my sister for whatever it was that she'd said, and sometimes, after they talked it through it would be Dad who would say "You're right" and recognize that whatever my mother was trying to impart was important, though it often had been recast and rephrased in a less harsh light by the time that conversation was over.

The origin of much of my grandmother's difficult behavior was in her desire to live vicariously through her daughters. She wanted my mother and her sisters to be people they weren't. My mother has a little bit of this, too (I am not the kind of person who needs tablecloths or silver plated flatware, and yet I have them, because my mother thinks I ought to, for example), but she has always made sure that she has her own pursuits that are separate from ours, which goes a long way toward alleviating this desire. She's generally very good at being proud of us without needing us to do well for her to feel good about herself.

She also never, ever said anything out of meanness or spite to us. Not once. Not ever. She never spoke in anger (which is not the same thing as exasperation). Had my grandmother been able to do that, I think my mother's entire family would have been much happier.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:57 PM on August 24, 2009 [7 favorites]

The advice so far is good.

Do your best to have the resources available so that you can take a break if you need one.
posted by kathrineg at 3:09 PM on August 24, 2009

I think you become a great mom by educating yourself about your own childhood and taking care not to repeat the behaviors.

I'm sure my mother believed she loved me deeply, even when she was yelling for the ax - so good intention isn't always enough!

I think you have to communicate with your partner about parenting and check-in with him on things as you all grow together. With practice, care, and time... the cycles your mother mimicked from her mother in her relationship with you might seem like a distant memory, like something you saw in a movie once. In the future, when it becomes ingrained within you to relate differently with your own daughter, I bet you'll be happy you put in the effort way back when.

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if learning about how your childhood shaped you helps how you relate to your partner, too.

Good luck creating the mother-daughter relationship you dreamed about when you were young. I know you did that, btw. I know you dreamed about what the perfect mom might be like, because I did, too. Don't ever forget to Be Her. Hold that image in your heart, and then share it with your daughter.

Congratulations on becoming a Mother!


Extra stuff - YMMV.

Maybe this thread to start: http://ask.metafilter.com/128441/Walking-on-eggshells

Maybe this book: http://www.amazon.com/Understanding-Borderline-Mother-Unpredictable-Relationship/dp/0765702886

And this one: http://www.amazon.com/Motherless-Daughters-Legacy-Loss-Second/dp/0738210269/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1251152409&sr=1-1

This: http://www.amazon.com/Motherless-Mothers-Losing-Mother-Shapes/dp/0060532467/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1251152484&sr=1-3

FWIW, my brother continues on with the mom even though I haven't talked to her in over ten years. He has a wife and a new son. I know that for them, the drama continues.... It is sad to hear about the latest trouble when I can find the courage to have a phone conversation with the poor man. Breaks my heart, and I worry for my nephew.


And upon preview, what ocherdraco says!!
posted by jbenben at 3:32 PM on August 24, 2009

Sorry! I meant...

and this
posted by jbenben at 3:37 PM on August 24, 2009

Also, as a contrasting view to my own experience, I worked for a woman who had a horrible relationship with her mother, and went on to have a horrible relationship with her daughter. From my perspective as her assistant, what seemed to be the most corrosive aspect of the second generation relationship was that the woman I worked for blamed everything on her horrible upbringing. All her flaws would be waved away because she blamed it on her mother, and never took responsibility for herself. Rather than seeing it as her responsibility to not repeat that relationship for her own daughter, she seemed instead to see it as everyone else's responsibility to pity her and pay attention to her because she had been treated poorly as a child.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:38 PM on August 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Just be aware that at some point you will likely share some parenting characteristics with your mother...this doesn't mean you have failed. Remain vigilant. Face it, you intimately know of no other way to mother so it'll take work.
posted by teg4rvn at 3:51 PM on August 24, 2009

Best answer: My mother was in the same position that you were, thirty years ago, only she was very certain she was having a boy until the day she didn't. She panicked. Nonetheless, we are, and have always been, extremely close.

Whether it's because she wanted to be careful about our relationship, or she would have done these things with a boy anyway, I recommend these techniques she used.

* She always spoke to me as if I were a grownup. Of course, that didn't mean that she wouldn't say "Because I said so and I'm your mother," "This family is not a democracy" and that kind of thing. But she encouraged my questions about the world and about our lives; she was always interested in what I had to say.

* She put books in my chunky little hands as soon as my eyes focused.

* She never tried to tell me that my appearance affected my worth as a person. I won't tell you that she didn't give me a hard time about my weight, or my terrible dress sense, because she did, but she always told me it was part of being "grownup" -- not part of my identity and worth as a woman.

* She spent time with me because she enjoyed it. And today I spend time with her because I enjoy that.

Trust in your love for your baby. Whenever in doubt, be gentle, and you will be fine.

Furthermore, you are not your mother. My mother did not inherit my grandmother's borderline personality disorder, and you did not inherit whatever it is that made your mother poisonous to you. Remember, you have no curse.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:53 PM on August 24, 2009 [9 favorites]

You didn't get the mother you wanted or needed. This is not your fault. It doesn't guarantee that you won't make some of the same mistakes--to parent is to be human--but it does give you permission to reinvent what mothering can be *for you and your particular daughter.*

In addition to seeking generic mother-daughter relationship strategies, observe your daughter, figure out her temperament and then work with it. She may be a cuddler or maybe she'll be more self-contained--it's a crapshoot. But rather than ascribing her behaviors to your own actions, respect that they are *her* way of expressing herself and adapt accordingly. Strive to understand her on her own terms, rather than as an externalization of your desires, perceived failures, actions or inactions.

Love her as a person. Treat her as a loved and valued human being. Worry about getting through the first year (and especially the first few months) before you worry about what you might do one day that puts her on the psychiatrist's couch.

P.S. Congratulations!
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:10 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Whenever in doubt, be gentle, and you will be fine." -- Oh, Countess Elena, this is lovely advice--thank you.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:12 PM on August 24, 2009

Honestly, I think the fact that you're concerned and thinking about it *now* is half the battle. My mom had a strained relationship with her mother, and was super-nervous about passing that on to me. I'm pleased to report that my mom and I have a great, healthy relationship. The thing that's most important to me is that my mom was always honest and open with me. I feel comfortable talking to her about anything, which means the lines of communication are always open.
posted by radioamy at 6:02 PM on August 24, 2009

I don't want to sound like I am somehow questioning the validity of your question here but you sound like you are a fairly resilient, happy, intelligent, compassionate, curious, and independent woman despite the upbringing you had with your mother. Maybe your daughter is going to turn out to be who she is meant to be despite how you raise her too.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:21 PM on August 24, 2009

I wish I had particular advice for you, but I just want to say the following: my mother had a lot of trouble with her own mother, and when I was born I think she was very much where you are now. But our relationship is and has always been absolutely wonderful. So don't worry, it's doable.
posted by you're a kitty! at 6:22 PM on August 24, 2009

Best answer: My wife and I have this posted on our refridgerator:

On Children
Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let our bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

The poem itself probably hasn't helped my wife maintain a completely distinct relationship with our young daughter as she has with her mother (and her grandmother with her mother, and so on). The poem, however, is indicative of everything we have done to ensure that we take our own relationships with our parents at face value, learn from that, and not repeat all of their mistakes (or try to claim all of their successes).

The best path that we've come to (because it is a wife-husband effort) is to remain mindful, bear authority but seek peace, never refuse each other's advice, and continually seek to understand what our daughter feels she needs and why. I'm optimistic that you can do this beautifully.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:06 PM on August 24, 2009 [8 favorites]

Nthing the excellent advice above, esp about treating your child as a separate person. I'm have a hell on wheels mother who blamed me for everything that went wrong, including her getting Alzheimers, so you know she's not open to change. I waited a very long time to have children as I was afraid I'd still react like her and/or not be able to control my temper if the kidlet was a screamer. She was and I did fine although it was exhausting at times. I did take the odd 10 minute time out just to decompress, fleeing to a spot where I couldn't hear the screaming, and learned that both of us benefited from having a group hug with her teddy bear when we both were on the verge of meltdown and there was no one else around to leave her with. DD#1 is what a friend of mine said was one of those children who gets beaten if the parents are not mature. Shocked me totally, but he did have a point as she's a lot like my mum and would scream for an hour to get her way (didn't work.) She was also a very stubborn child; we tried to channel that into constructive things instead of getting into power struggles. I've always talked to DD#1, never at her, always asked her what she thought/wanted, etc., but gave her guided, not open ended, choices until she was mature. The only real prob we have is that she loves her grandmother dearly; it's natural, but it grates on me so I bite my tongue and let it slide. Just 2cents from the quiet jam in the sandwich who's survived double hurricanes. Of course, I love DD#1 completely, and, looking at that red faced, heels dug in, bellowing little creature just melted me most days. That's daft, but true.
posted by x46 at 10:32 PM on August 24, 2009

Best answer: Something that has been very good for me in creating new patterns of interpersonal behaviour in my life is having a mentor. Not something official, but just one or two close friends who seem to be doing it right, who I can go to for advice or get ideas from, or just observe different patterns of interaction than what I grew up with.

In my case, I don't have children, but I wasn't especially well set up for a variety of interpersonal relationships by my parents. Looking to my friends who have successful relationships has provided some good stuff, like recognizing that not all good relationships are good all the time, that fighting is not in and of itself indicative of a bad relationship, that kind of thing.

Interestingly, my main relationship mentor is a mother who has found the same to be true for parenting. She joined a play group when her first child was about 2 months old, and that group of parents meets once a week with all their children and has for years. She's told me that it's really helped to see the different ways that mothers are with their children, to see other people's little mistakes that *don't* turn into disaster, and to have a group of people who are going through what she's going through who she can turn to for advice or comfort or just as a sounding board.

Her advice would be that if you can find a mom/play group, join it. If you can't, think about starting one. It's taken a huge amount of stress off of her over the years, and really put into perspective what it takes to be a good parent.
posted by carmen at 6:19 AM on August 25, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so much to all who have responded. It's a testament to MeFi that I feel worlds better this morning reading all of your great insights!
posted by thenewbrunette at 6:52 AM on August 25, 2009

Best answer: I could have written your question when I was pregnant with my first child, a daughter.

Like Carmen, I had a mentor, who had raised two daughters into fantastic women (one of them is an Iraq war poet!) This mentor of mine is a therapist, and when I confided my terror she told me that just as some families have downward spirals, into alcoholism and abuse, others have upward spirals.

I could choose the upward spiral.

She also told me about D. W. Winnicott's notion of the good-enough mother. It dovetails with another excellent piece of parenting advice: "Don't just do something; stand there." (Or indeed with Countess Elena's wonderful "Whenever in doubt, be gentle, and you will be fine.")

I also highly recommend Haim Ginott's Between Parent and Child and How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk, by his students Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. What they all taught me is that my children need my presence. They need me to show up and pay attention and maintain state and be respectful of them, not as tiny cute pets but as time-shifted adults; my equals or betters, visiting from the future.

They do not, actually, need me to be a perfectly enlightened human being. That's lucky, because I'm not. They just need their mom. Which I am.

When I was pregnant with my second child I was thrilled to learn that it was another daughter.
posted by rdc at 9:38 AM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

« Older Help me research the underemployment reporting...   |   Car loan and CarMax Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.