Monday, August 8, 2011

Mean Mothers | Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt

I just finished Peg Streep's book, "Mean Mothers, Overcoming a Legacy of Hurt" and have mixed reviews about its content. Although many profound & poignant passages were contained, much of what she wrote was so generalized and simplified. I think her point at the beginning of the book on page 34 that she's "deliberately excluded stories of mothers who seemed to suffer from a definable mental illness" (which includes personality disorders) was a injustice as a "mean mother" cannot be 'mean' to the extent described without having a mental illness.

Being 'mean' to the point of damaging your child cannot occur without a mental illness. These mean mothers and their problems that are thrust upon their child throughout life are not normal. Even a mother who has bouts of lacking confidence, frustration, insecurity, etc would NOT be 'mean' through an entire child's life. Streep is off-base ignoring the fact that these mothers have mental issues. Yes, she talked about the 'mean mothers' backgrounds or their selfish qualities, but that is not enough-- a mean mother who damages her child has pathological and psychological (mental) issues.

She alludes to "broken" mothers at one point, saying "a healthy mother is wired to respond to the love an infant offers, but if she is broken, she can't always do it, and things get very screwed up." If a mother is "mean" and "broken", can't one conclude that the mother is not of sound mind? Therefore, aren't these mothers who are creating a "legacy of hurt", mothers who are mentally ill ? She also states on page 193 that "if there is a single common attribute to be attributed to the unloving mothers we've met in these pages it's their lack of awareness, their inability to be conscious of the effect and the import of their words and gestures on their daughter's development, and, for most of them, their incapacity or refusal to take responsibility for their actions." First of all, this is not one single common attribute. She listed three; however all three of these qualities relates to low emotional intelligence. Previously, I analyzed The Borderline & Emotional Intelligence as well as The Narcissist & Emotional Intelligence.

Another note is that because she's covering such a broad topic ("mean mothers"), having an account of only a handful of people is not sufficient. If she was covering BPD mothers with a few personal stories, then narcissistic mothers with a few stories, then bipolar mothers with a few stories, then histrionic mothers with a few stories, etc-- each of those few stories would be enough to back up the sub-topic. But having only a few stories to back up the "mean mothers" topic is not sufficient.

Starting around page 50, Streep begins to describe "beyond the mother myths: real women" which from the descriptions that were presented, these mothers appear to be highly narcissistic and witch like. She describes the annoyed and angry mother that is unavailable for her daughter during times of need (sleepless girl: page 51), the controlling mother (forcing naps, what to wear, who to marry: page 53), the lack of an authentic relationship with the mother (fraudulent: pages 54-55), and not allowing affection into the relationship (no hugs: page 63). These mothers are not exhibiting healthy, happy, and respectful behaviors-- they may be real women but they are not normal women. These mothers are exhibiting dysfunctional behaviors typical of mental illness.

Peg Streep didn't allude to if she thought her mother was mentally ill or if her mother had been diagnosed with a mental disorder, but from what Streep described, her mother fit the framework of a not only a narcissist but a borderline mother. She comments about how her mother didn't have "it in her to love, so in the end she lived her life with what she had inside her. I think she was simply an unhappy person all her life, and I was the easiest one for her to take things out on" (page 176). This "unhappy" person could be described as "depressed" , or in other words, experiencing depression (mental disorder).

On another topic, the sections about fathers and then siblings were much too generalized and didn't delve into step & half brothers / sisters, broken families, ready-made families, step fathers, and how the mother chooses / works these fathers pathologically against the children. I have three fathers, each has been used in some shape-or-form by my mother, depending on her agenda. My mother used the first father to escape a living situation. I was born into this escape. Once she was done with him, she married her high-school sweetheart, and father #1 was erased from the photo and baby albums. Then father #2 was attempted to be erased when father #3 came into the picture. Father #2 became what Streep describes on pages 93-94 where he never really asks about my life in any sense, was emotionally unavailable, and showed absolute loyalty to my step-mother. Father #3 was the one described on page 95 who was weak and never stepped in to protect me from my mother's wrath. I found little with which to relate in these father and siblings sections, especially the siblings section where our family was torn-apart and destroyed by divorces, re-marriages, and Parental Alienation Syndrome.

I think if she went more into depth about "overcoming the legacy of hurt" as her title suggests, the book would be more effective. She went into great depth into analysis of the mother due to cultural or generational elements and then covered the siblings & fathers in a very generalized / vanilla approach, and only touching on how to over-come. I would have liked more stories from women who overcame the legacy of hurt... more stories from more women from more varied types of 'mean mother' experiences rather than generalized descriptions of the 'mean mother' herself. She touches on the hole or void that a lack of mother-love leaves again around page 163. I thoroughly enjoyed these passages and her conclusion that "each story of healing is unique, though the broad outlines of daughters' stories often share much in common". That validation-- reading about others who have walked the same path as yourself-- is so very healing and results in such peace-of-mind. This validation is immeasurable.

Another section that covers the ability to overcome the legacy of hurt is when Streep discusses bringing a child into the world. Her words resonated with me as I felt the many feelings she experienced when I had my child. She reiterated what I've had family and friends remind me of my entire life, "you aren't your mother" (page 169). My mother treated me as if I was an extension of herself, and I disliked that VERY MUCH-- so much, that at a very young age, I would ask my grandparents if I was like my mother. And they would very kindly and delicately tell me that I am my own person, distinctive and separate from my mother. Since I had a child, I have always viewed her as her own person as Streep did with hers (page 184), "From the moment she was born, I tried to see my daughter whole-- not as a reflection or an extension of me or my hopes and dreams but herself". I couldn't have said that any better.

Streep chose no-contact with her mother due to her pregnancy, and I applaud her for that as her mother was a 'known danger'. She wanted to "undo what generation after generation of mothers" in her family had done to their daughters. My estrangement (Little Women 2004) happened years before I got pregnant but I did have an epiphany once my child was born where I realized the profound finality of the estrangement as I realized the depth and breadth of what had transpired. I had a baby, my mother was not informed and included with the pregnancy & birth, and I am not allowing my mother to inflict emotional / mental damage to her as she did to my brother & me.

Streep also speaks of how much she loves her daughter and how she thought "my mother must have loved me" (page 170). I never had that thought; however, I contemplated how much I love my child and how much I want her to have the best, experience everything, and be protected / shielded from negative aspects of life... which led me to the thoughts of what my mother put me through and how in the world could she do that to her children! The answer is simple: mental illness. Again, the question of whether Streep's mother was mentally ill, but regardless, Streep cut off contact with her mother and vowed not "make her mistakes". I am not sure that "mistakes" is the correct word for what our mothers put us through. A mistake is more like yelling out of frustration every once in awhile or not being patient with your child during trying times... but for consistent and constant events that ultimately effect the adult child of the mother are more than mere "mistakes".

Streep presents another topic that I want to expand upon on this blog which is how people can't fathom that a mother is **that** bad. Therefore, as a child, people don't realize the abuse (mother is sticky sweet to the public and a witch behind closed doors) and as an adult, people can't imagine the stories are actually not exaggerated or contrived (people feel the mother should be given credit for doing the best she could regardless). Streep talks of how daughters of mean mothers are silenced because of this syndrome, and thus, the "myth of mother love requires the daughter to maintain her silence" page 13. She describes how Diane doesn't feel good talking about her mother because she's afraid people will think she's exaggerating. I completely understand this point, have felt the same way, and empathize with Diane. Streep continues with how "complaining makes me sound crazy or worse". Later in the book, she states that in the court of mother -daughter conflict, it's usually the daughter who is on trial (page 24) and thus an additional reason the daughter is not given the credibility or consideration like the mother. I also agree with that point. The mother is the elder, the mother is the one who is supposed to be nurturing, protective, and maternal, and the child is supposed to be learning from this adult. The burden of proof lies with the child.

I liked how she effectively and efficiently defined and discussed the attachment theory (page 46). I also really enjoyed reading about the EARNED attachment (page 48), which I think defines where I have come from. She describes how making sense of childhood experiences and understanding how those experiences affected development, one can move from an "insecure" to "secure" functioning of the mind. I am able to tell coherent stories of childhood (as evidenced by this blog) and put events into meaningful contexts and to reflect on those experiences (even the negative ones). I have spent decades searching, making sense of, and trying to understand my childhood and beyond. My experiences have made me stronger and made me the person I am today. As Streep concludes on page 198, "If I could speak to my mother one more time, I'd say this: 'You didn't mean to, but you made me stronger and more aware than I might otherwise have been'" which I have the same conclusion with what I have experience with my mother and Dad.

In contrast, my brother's way of dealing with his experiences has not been with trying to understand or come to terms. He has claims not to remember childhood experiences, offers little detail, and has little sense of how the past has contributed to the present (other than to blame and be the victim). He, in turn, has not been successful with relationships, has been clinically depressed, and has struggled through out life. He exhibits insecure attachment which has not been turned into earned attachment.

I would have liked to read more about estrangement and the "taboos associated with cutting off ties to her mother" as Streep mentioned (page 14) but doesn't expand much except with an anecdotal paragraph and a story of Cathy (page 15) who went back to speaking to their mothers after 14 years only to subject herself to the same exact conditions that led to the estrangement in the first place. My 5 year on / off cycles with my mother revealed the same results which ultimately led to the permanent estrangement starting in 2004. She does mention "divorcing" her mother as a "lifesaving strategy" which leads to one of the most heart-felt and chilling statements in the entire book (page 16), "There is always a hole in me that needs to be filled and can't be. Not the love of four kids or my husband of twenty-odd years or my friends fills it. It's always there, like a tear or a hole in fabric. You can put threads in to repair the weave--the threads of other relationships-- but the hole is still there." And thus, the reason I purchased this book.

One of the most powerful moments in the book is when Streep gets the call from her brother that her mother is dying (page 31), the comment from him that he thought she might want to come see her, and the decision Streep makes. I was on the edge of my seat, wondering what decision Streep would make. Recently, my mother has been very ill and heading to kidney failure and possibly a limited life span-- thus these considerations have run through my head. What would I do if I got that call? I haven't seen her in 7 years at this point. Why would we communicate on her death-bed if we don't communicate on a normal day? Why would communicating on her final days change anything that has transpired, the actions she has taken, or the actions I have taken? Ultimately, Streep's decision and her feelings about her decision mirror what I concluded to do. Powerful passages that, as Streep says, "testifies to what can happen when a mother can't love her daughter in the way she needs to be loved" (page 33).

The ending of the book is very strong. She really hits home with a statement after the birth of her child, "my own history didn't disappear, but it did lose its power over me" (page 180). Possibly the fact that she cut her mother out of her life at this same time might have given her this sense of relief? But I do know that being estranged from my mother and then having a child really allowed me to 'see' what is so very precious and important in life. The birth of my child really put life into perspective, allowed me to see my past experiences through different eyes, and permitted me to give someone so much that I never had. Having this unconditional love of a child compounded with the love of my husband allowed me to accept the past, leave the past in the past, and be content with where my life is right this second. Streep states on page 181, "Yet it opens the door for a woman to overcome a bad past or escape the fate of repeating it by way of the psychological work she has accomplished in understanding, putting into perspective, and rendering coherent her past, especially her experience of being mothered. " Amen.


  1. Couldn't have said it better myself! You hit the nail on the head. XXOO

  2. Thank you CT :)) xoxo's back to you!

  3. Wow, I found this post very interesting. I recently saw a therapist who specialized in attachment theory, as I was very inspired myself by the concept of "earned-secure" attachment that I too feel I have accomplished as an adult.

    Unfortunately, I found the therapist to be incredibly generalizing and invalidating about my experiences, as well as avoiding the topic of mental illness almost entirely. She constantly implied or said outright that all of my issues with my mother came down to misunderstandings and miscommunications and that my life as an adult was my responsibility and I shouldn't blame my failures on my mother. This of course completely ignores the insidious manipulation and emotional terrorism inflicted by those with personality disorders. She also used jargon that seems to echo the quotes you have used from Streep's book. I wonder if the Mean Mothers book is a bible of sorts for those in that field of psychology?

    As the "no-good" child of a BPD, I have constantly questioned whether it really was all me and it was true that I didn't have a good grip on reality and was over-reacting to everything. Needless to say I left the session feeling terribly shaken and questioning my own sanity. Luckily, I made some calls and found a therapist who specializes in treating adult children of personality disorders. The difference was like night and day from the first phone conversation! Personally, I feel that diminishing and marginalizing the experiences of adult children of mental illness is dangerous, especially in the role of a mental health professional. It scares me to think how many women in the field are in denial about their own trauma like Peg Streep, especially when both of our mothers studied psychology, worked as youth counselors, (mine worked for a suicide crisis center) and diagnosed others in their family with mental illnesses to distract from their own. My mother always pointed the finger at my clearly crazy paternal grandmother as the one who had BPD and who I was "exactly like". My obviously BPD grandmother also happened to study sociology and worked as a social worker for many years.

    I am so grateful for brave people like you who have the courage to speak the truth. I believe it will only be through the bravery of the wounded to heal and speak their truth that humanity can truly heal. You have given me validation and courage and I thank you. :)