British psychologist busts myths on good and bad mothers, offering us a different paradigm to understand why our moms are the way they are. What kind of a mother do you have?” asks Dr Terri Apter, psychologist, writer and tutor at Newnham College, Cambridge on the phone from her office in Cambridge, UK. In her new book, Difficult Mothers, Apter explores how mothers can influence our behaviour and offers tips on how to deal with controlling, angry, hypercritical, and emotionally unavailable ones. “I had a difficult mother, but I learnt to deal with her outbursts. I would dread to fail to please her. A mother-child love can be a huge emotional thing. A good relationship with a mother is a buffer against inevitable disappointments,” says Apter, whose last book, The Sister Knot, was a finalist for Books for a Better Life Award 2008.
Research led Apter to discover that 20 per cent of parent/child relationships are characterised by difficult relationships. According to data from larger studies focusing on attachment, the percentage of difficult relationships is higher – closer to 30 per cent. “I looked at outlying cases, but the number of individuals who have these difficult experiences is high, and too often they are silenced by the cultural idealisation of mother’s love. A child does not need a perfect mother. It’s helpful for a child to realise that even in close relationships there is conflict,” she says.
The Indian mother syndrome
“We all know of the Indian mother syndrome,” says Apter. “She needs to oversee everything her child does in order to be a success and a credit to the family. The successes of the child belong to her rather than an expression of what it wants to do. She will not listen to what her child wants, but will only be guided by what she wants for her child.” Yet, says Apter, this kind of behaviour – which falls under the controlling mother category – is not culture specific. Control is expressed in different ways in different cultures. She gives the example of the controlling mothers who learn not to be controlling in Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 film Bend it like Beckham. Both, the British and the Indian moms have fixed ideas of what’s best for their daughters, “but the Indian mom learns to listen to her daughter and allow her daughter to express her own needs,” explains Apter.
The problem with idealising motherhood
“Idealising a mother is a way of saying that she should be allloving and always available. The other side to this idealisation is demonisation, when we believe that a mother who is not always loving or attentive or kind is a bad mother,” says Apter. Once again, these idealisations follow different norms depending on the culture, even if certain qualities are universally agreed upon.
Apter offers a different model. “Instead of thinking in terms of good and bad mothers, it is more psychologically apt to think in terms of good-enough mothers and difficult mothers.” “A good-enough mother is a mother with whom a child finds more comfort than pain,” says Apter, whereas a difficult mother “is someone, who presents her child with a dilemma.
It’s like, she wants to maintain a relationship with the child on her own terms, or else the child would suffer ridicule, disapproval or rejection.” Apter describes some of the difficult mothers and the dilemmas they unwittingly pose to their children, and how to deal with them effectively.
A narcissistic mother’s dilemma, says Dr Terri Apter is, “Either submit to my needs or be the target for my disappointment and derision.” If you have lived with a narcissistic mother, then you are likely to have adapted either by some form of appeasement or by rebellion. This mother feels her kids need to be worthy of being her kids. She craves attention and love. Children often placate a narcissistic mother’s fury and selfdoubt; or, they shore up her belief in her superiority; or, they lay their own hard-won successes before her as tributes.
Deal with it
Becoming a proxy for her is a difficult double act. You have to shine, but you cannot outshine her. You have to take centrestage, but you cannot ignore her. Always make a list of your own victories and don’t let anyone take your high moments away from you.
The central dilemma of an angry mother is, “Respect my anger and see it as justified. If you try to protect yourself against it, then the relationship will become even more difficult.” Sons and daughters who describe a parent’s anger as unpredictable, feel constantly wrong-footed and constrained; yet, they also feel angry themselves, and wish their anger had power to do damage. A child can be overshadowed by unnecessary stress and fear. They may constantly placate others, or they may withdraw themselves from every conflict, because they expect every expression of difference or displeasure to escalate.
Deal with it
It’s important to realise that some of the management strategies we adopt may be beneficial to dealing with other people and some may inhibit us. Children who deal with an angry mom need to be diplomatic, but not too pleasing; that would make them fake.
Emotionally negligent mother
This is the modern-day mother, who maybe highly successful and busy, or she maybe going through her own emotional trauma. The dilemma posed by emotional neglect is, “Accept that I cannot respond to you, or see me destroyed by your demands.” A son or daughter who has experienced this kind of difficult relationship may think that their role is to regulate other people’s emotions, protect them from despair, and see their own needs as unimportant. In this situation, the child becomes the nurturer, and is more grown-up.
Deal with it
Living with ‘difficult’ people can help us become better at dealing with others, but it’s all too easy to allow an emotionally unavailable mother to take over huge amounts of your time and energy. Start to question some of the ways you behave and create new experiences where you don’t have to be the comforter.
This type of mother likes to take control of everything. A child’s experience of such a mother is less about love and care, and more about rage, suspicion and criticism. Some controlling mothers believe that to raise a child to thrive in their culture, they must take control of them. This may lead her to become the “tiger mother” who pushes them to excel; or it may lead her to be the over-protective mother who shields her child from all outside influences. Children of controlling parents can become distrustful of their own needs and opinions. Even simple independent decisions can fill them with anxiety. They also learn to lie – to say what the controlling mother wants to hear – in order to keep her happy.
Deal with it
Sharing your worries will help you identify how difficult the relationship was and how it has affected you. However, going back to basics and identifying what you want and what you think in all areas of your life will help too. Take time to listen to yourself
A jealous mother presents the dilemma, “I will love you only if you do not develop skills and talents that threaten me.” This mother doesn’t like her child’s confidence and is trying to put her down constantly. Mother’s envy is a common trait but needs to be dealt with. Sons and daughters of an envious mother may see success as dangerous to close relationships. As children, they are often confused as to what is expected. Inevitably, they receive mixed messages. They try to please her by meeting her standards, only to discover she is angry at them for meeting these standards. Once they realise the underlying patterns, they may find ways of becoming high achievers, but they try to hide from others the extent of their abilities and successes.
Deal with it
There’s a good side – your mother’s dissatisfaction may make you a high achiever. But don’t let her damage your selfesteem or make you seek constant approval.