March 5, 2010

Mean Mothers & I'm Not One of Them

I picked up Mean Mothers (Peg Streep) because I was interested in reading one author's definition and exposition on what she views is a "mean mother." Naturally, I'm curious as to whether or not I might in some way fit the bill.

I am a temperamental woman and have had my bouts with Depression and dysfunction.  I'm known at times to have a sharp tongue and to withdraw, to turn a cold shoulder or mother with a heavy hand.

But even considering all my flaws, I in no way think I'm categorically a "mean mother." The mothers Streep describes in her book are jealous, dismissive, competitive, undermining, discouraging, insulting, and in every other way emotionally absent, oppressive, and/or abusive.  On the whole, they derive their satisfaction from seeing their daughters in pain, or failing.

If anything, Mean Mothers reassures me I am NOT a mean mother, that I do possess an abundance of those critical elements that define a mother as healthy and effective: love, emotional affection, physical affection, encouragement, respect, willingness to communicate, acceptance.

What's jarring, though, is the accounts given by the daughters interviewed for the book.  It seems more often than not, the mean mothers in question were entirely unaware they were awful.  The daughters spent most of their lives (literally, as most of the interviewees were between 50 and 60 years of age) feeling unloved, and by the time they offered their perspectives on their horrible childhoods, the damage had been done and the mothers had passed on.  Their respective repulsive histories of their family lives were written, never to be edited or improved.

There is such a terrible permanence in family dysfunction.  Not only can the pain never be taken back, but it carries on down the following generations, often morphing into deeper and more complex dysfunctions.  It seems the family grows more and more fragmented and wounded and detached.

I realize this is not always the case.  With every generation, there is an opportunity for learning, healing, and redemption.  Is it too naive, too sentimental to depend heavily on these hopes?  Would holding out and pressing forward for growth in love and understanding be too much a rejection of the harsh truths of the individual parental psyche and the dysfunctional collective of the family?  MUST one plow through the violence of emotions in order to find the peace and edification?

It's a good thing I don't intend to utilize Mean Mothers as a guide to personal betterment, or a manual of "what not to do."  Rather, I'm taking note of just how bad mothers can actually be, giving thanks for the upbringing I had, and rededicating to the labor of love I've got in front of me.


  1. I wrote this big ol' long response to this but the bottom line is... I thought my mother was a mean mother, my daughter thinks I am a mean mother... but really it is all in perception. My mom having lived in another culture and time had only what she knew and little resources to help raise my sister and I. I, on the other hand, having had much more than her but having been raised with my mother's culture but living in the states, I have raised my daughter differently, more spoiled but nonetheless she thinks I am a mean mother... when she becomes a mother, who knows but her children will nonetheless think she is a mean mother... at the age of 35, I know my mom was not a mean mother but in fact a mother whose goal was to guide me to be the best I can be and a person society will accept. And that is my goal for my daughter as well... but this day and age I don't believe there is a problem with mean mothers... but rather a problem with mothers who are more like a friend than a parent...
    Having a teenage daughter makes me appreciate my mom a whole lot, LOL!!

  2. I am the adult daughter of a Mean Mother, though really the fact is she is a dangerous, damaging person. Mean doesn't scratch the surface.

    She was a woman that thought a baby would be a fun toy but was jealous of the attention I received.

    I grew up listening to a constant stream of abuse... "You are worthless. You ruined my life. I wish you had never been born." All ills that came my way were my own fault including molestation and abuse at the hands of her second husband.

    I moved out but constantly tried to make her love me. Thinking if I was just better, smarter, tried harder.. I could win her over. But all attempts failed and left me feeling less worthy. After a very large incident I cut off contact when I was 17.

    At 34, with children of my own, I will not ever seek to "repair" our relationship because it is not possible. Some people are just too damaged to love others. And sometimes you have to know when to protect your heart from those individuals and just move on.

  3. Anonymous...You know, the author had a specific reason for calling the book "MEAN Mothers," but I wouldn't exactly say that's the word she meant. I agree, most daughters think their mothers are/were "mean," but I can say from my own experience, too, "mean" can define anything that challenges a daughter's independence. The teenaged me thought my mother was mean. The adult me would back my mother up if I were to parent me. ;)

  4. Venus...Tragically, your personal experience is exactly the kind I read about in this book. (Have you read it?) It really is bewildering that women can somehow become so lost (or are simply that way by nature) in parenting. Who knows how/why this happens, but it's got to be one of the worst travesties on earth.

    As far as reconciliation, I read several instances where the daughters chose to never reconcile with their mothers, and other instances where they may have tried on their mothers' deathbeds, only to be given one last cruel rejection. Just astounding. An example of that sort of terminal hatred...a memoir: "Her Last Death Bed," by Susanna Sonnenberg. It's on my reading list.

    I'm sorry you have such a painful past. Even though I can't even imagine the lingering things you live with, I do try to understand somewhat, by reading about experiences like yours. (hugs)