Be the Mother They Will Remember!! Dealing with the legacy of an unloving Mother.

Written by Dr. Carole Stephens

How do you cope with the stresses of life when you’ve never had “warm fuzzies?”

In her 2014 article, Dreading Mother’s Day? 5 Strategies to Deal with that Sunday, Peg Streep, the noted expert on “mean mothers” and author of Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt (William Morrow, 2014) tells us what we can to do and how to cope if we’ve had a mother who was unloving and didn’t know how to be nurturing.

Streep tells of one woman who described her experience of Mother’s Day as “worse than Christmas. Way worse.” The woman called it the holiday of hypocrisy since it’s the day she forgets everything hurtful thing her mother ever said or did and collapses under the pressure of “filial duty” and sends flowers anyway. And every year her mother complains” about them.

She tells of another woman who says that buying a card is paralyzing. “Number 1 Mom?  Um, no. I end up buying a blank card with a benign image and then scribble something that doesn’t totally compromise my integrity. And I end up feeling guilty, too.”

“It hurts, plain and simple,” says another. “It’s a day of loss. Just a painful reminder of the love and support I never got. It’s been many years but I remember the horrible emotional turmoil I used to feel on Mother’s Day and the confusion about what to do: Call? Send a gift? Crawl into bed and pray for Monday?  All my friends, of course, were off feting their mothers.”

The psychological effects of having an unloving mother appear on the continuum of what psychologists call attachment and the experience of having had such a mother can have a great impact on one’s life (Bowlby, 1958). Healthy attachment to a parent or caregiver in early life facilitates a person’s ability to develop basic trust in their caregivers and self.

Research suggests that “the healthy mother produces children who will grow up to be adults whose anxieties are tranquilized by proximity to others: the securely attached individual” (Kramer & Roberts, 1996). Children with optimal attachment, sow the seeds of good citizenship, generosity and cooperativeness based on self-confidence.

So what do children do whose mothers did not form secure attachments and were unloving? “For daughters (and sons) whose mothers are unloving, unsupportive, emotionally absent or actively critical and dismissive, there’s real pain on the second Sunday in May,” according to Streep.

“We celebrate those of you who will be celebrating loving mothers and those who did their best, and those mothers among you who look forward to the day,” she says, “but let’s acknowledge the fact that all mothers aren’t loving and that, yes, sometimes Mother’s Day hurts.”

For those of you for whom the day is less than cheery, Streep shares the following strategies to help you through, unvetted by science, but proved through experience.

  1. Be good to yourself
  2. Don’t Believe the Hype!
  3. Understand your ambivalence
  4. Anticipate your emotions
  5. Set boundaries

And remember: The day after Mother’s Day, thank goodness, is Monday!

Dr. Carole Stephens is an Organizational Behaviorist expert specializing in organizational conflict resolution and workplace communications. Follow Dr. Stephens on Twitter @WorkplaceDr.

Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother.
International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 1-23.
“Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt” Peg Streep 1st ed., William Morrow 2014
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