Chapter One: The Myth of Mother Love
I was no older than three or four when I knew my mother didn't love me. Of course, the way in which I knew this was different from how I would know and understand it at other times in my life, but I knew it nonetheless. I knew it first by the way she stiffened when I tried to sit in her lap or touch her arm, and how she turned her face away when I kissed her. She wasn't like the people who loved me – my father, my grandfather, my great-aunt, or even my teachers – whose faces softened with pleasure when I drew near.
Later, I knew that who I was – a round-faced curly-haired girl full of energy and curiosity – was enough to irritate or infuriate her. "Stop skipping!" she'd say when we walked together, dropping my hand in punishment, as though my joy was an affront to her. I would slow down, chastened by her sharp voice, instantly lonely but reassured by the clatter of her high heels on the pavement that she was still there. She was the bullet I couldn't dodge, and the gunfire could come from anywhere and nowhere. It might be a stranger telling her she had a pretty child, inadvertently setting off a tirade as sudden and violent as a summer storm. She would begin with a defense of her own beauty that would build into a hurricane of complaints, gathering energy as it went, each new thought more saturated with anger than the one before, all directed at me. The seeds of her rage and disappointment could blossom in a bewildering instant.
I knew, more than anything, that her power was enormous and that the light of her sun was what I needed. But that light could burn, flicker, or disappear for any or no reason. Yet, as a small child, I loved and needed her, and wanted desperately to please her, as much as I feared her.
When I was a little girl, I learned to tiptoe through her shadows and found sunshine in the real world and that of my imagination. Before he died, my father was a safe haven, since she largely hid both her anger and meanness toward me when he was home. I hoarded the attention I got from my teachers, my babysitter, the woman who cleaned our apartment, the mothers of my friends, and tucked it away, deep inside.
I drew the stories in books up around my shoulders for comfort, my thumb in my mouth. I called myself Eloise and was happiest living vicariously in the blissfully motherless Plaza Hotel, with a loving nanny, a turtle, and a dog named Weenie. I pretended that I was Jo March with a mother named Marmie, and the boy who owned Ole Yeller and the girl who rode Flicka. I saw myself living in that little house on the prairie, all safe and warm, with the pumpkins big enough to sit on in the dry cellar. I mothered my dolls the way I longed to be mothered; I told them stories, cuddled them, and made sure they were safe.
I mothered myself by imagining that I'd been handed to the wrong mother at the hospital somehow and that the mother to whom I really belonged would come and find me—knowing, all along, that the mother I had was the one I'd been born to. I could see my mother's reflection in my face, just as easily as I could see, standing on a chair in the bathroom, the red outlines her hands left on my back when her anger left her speechless.
As I got older, my mother's menace diminished, though not her meanness or the mystery of her rage. With the birth of my brother when I was nine, I saw that my mother could love a child who wasn't me.
Try as I might, I couldn't puzzle it out; what was it about me that made her so angry? Why didn't she love me? When I asked her just that, as I would time and again over the course of many years, her answer was always the same and maddeningly indirect: "Every mother loves her child, Peggy." I knew it to be a lie, but I didn't yet see then that she lied to protect herself, not me.
There was no reconciling the mother I knew – the one who literally shook with fury and missed no opportunity to wound or criticize me – with the charming and beautiful woman who went out into the world in the highest of heels, shining jewelry on her hands and neck, not a hair out of place. She flirted with everyone – even my girlfriends and later my boyfriends – and they pronounced her delightful. Her secret—and mine –was closely held; who would believe me if I told? And so I didn't. But she was all I had left when I was fifteen and the two men who had loved me– my father and my grandfather – died within three months of each other.
By then, the struggle between us took a different shape. She could still hurt me – I never forgot the moment she told the first boy I loved that despite my pretty outside, I was rotten inside – but she couldn't scare me. I watched how she acted with her own mother, a dance set to a melody of jealousy and competition. Slowly – very slowly – I had my first inkling that how she treated me might have nothing at all to do with who I was.
I was younger, smarter, better educated than she, and I began to realize she was afraid of me and the truths I told. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I had a countdown of the days before college – it was more than 1000 – and that made my life trapped under her roof seem almost temporary and gave me the illusion of imminent freedom.
But I still wanted her love as much as I wanted to be able to answer the question I couldn't answer as a child: why didn't she love me?
I know the answer now and that knowledge absolutely co-exists with a terrible longing for the mother love I never had and never will have. Growing up, I thought I was alone— the only girl born on the planet whose mother didn't love her. Mothers in books were nothing like mine and the moms on television – it was the late 1950s and early 1960s – were women who wore aprons and served dinner with smiles on their faces and love in their hearts. I envied my friends for the mothers they had. I wanted to be Lynne whose mother was both thoughtful and attentive, and who bought her first kitten heels as a surprise when we were in sixth grade or Beth whose mother told funny stories and let us make messy cupcakes in her kitchen. Even Roz's mother, who was born in Europe like mine and more formal than the born-in-America moms, was kind and loving. It happened over forty years ago but I still remember how she stroked Roz's hair, absent-mindedly and contentedly, as they stood side-by-side in their hallway, saying goodbye to me after a study date.
I watched strangers, daughters and mothers in the supermarket aisles or taking a walk together—and was all the more bewildered. What made my mother and me so different?
Why didn't my mother love me the way she was supposed to? Whose fault was it? Hers or mine?
My mother's physical control waned as I grew taller but she had power nonetheless. I still couldn't understand what it was about me that made me, in her eyes at least, so eminently unlovable. I wavered between thinking I had done nothing to deserve her treatment and not being quite so sure – a testament, I now know but didn't then, to nothing more than the centrality of the mother sun to a daughter's world. The parent of a child, as Deborah Tannen has written, has the power not only to create the world the child lives in but the ability to dictate how that world is to be interpreted. Seen from that point of view, one of the lasting and important legacies of a mean mother is a wellspring of self-doubt. The other, explained by adaptive behavior, is a need to replicate the relationship she has to her mother with other people, regardless of how unhappy it makes her.
When I was sixteen, I read Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving. I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw what he had to say about a mother's love: " Mother's love is bliss, is peace, it need not be acquired, it need not be deserved." I read on, astonished that the simple act of giving birth should be enough to spark a love truer than any other.
Unconditional love: I finally had a word for what I was missing.
It took me many years to understand that for the unloving mother and unloved daughter alike, our idea of unconditional love is a two-edged sword.
Stories of mean mothers make women uncomfortable
I understand this with greater clarity when I tell people what I'm working on. " Was your mother mean?" my hair colorist asks me. She's twenty-eight, a child of divorce, and fiercely loyal to the mother who raised her alone, whom she counts among her best friends. I often talk about my own daughter who's off at college but this is the first time I've ever mentioned my project or my mother. After I've answered, her response is downright hostile: "Why would you want to dig all that up now? She must have done something right because you turned out okay, didn't you? " From the other end of the spectrum, a friend – a psychologist who specializes in mother-daughter relationships and the divorced mother of a twenty-three year old daughter– sends me an email that's more like a cheer than anything else: "Good for you – this is courageous. You're telling the story no one else wants to tell. It's about time."
Women's reactions betray the power of cultural taboos. I give a small dinner party in my new home in Vermont and one of my guests, a fellow Baby-Boomer who raised three children and is now a doting grandmother, looks frankly skeptical when I tell her about the book and responds, slowly and deliberately: " I don't think it's fair to talk about those things. My mother did what she could." My other guest is a woman in her early seventies who raised four now-grown children and is long divorced. She seems delighted to be able to talk about her mother who, she says categorically, " was the most unloving and critical person I ever met. She never missed an opportunity to make me feel bad about myself, no matter how kind or loving I tried to be." When I ask her whether she ever confronted her mother, she looks at me, nonplussed: " Of course not. She was my mother, after all."
Mother love is a sacred concept in our culture and, like all things sacred, it has a mythology of its own.
There isn't any room in our ideal of "mother"— that essential multi-tasker and nurturer, the one made up in equal parts of a pastel-tinted Madonna cradling her baby, the smell of freshly baked cookies in the oven, self-sacrifice, and Hallmark verse—for the mother who doesn't love her child. As Western fairy tales make clear, cruel or uncaring mothers are never biological mothers but interlopers or stepmothers instead. "Real" mothers neither hate nor envy; it's Rapunzel's jealous stepmother who locks her in the tower, just as Cinderella's rapacious one would consign her to a life of servitude.
Today, we prefer to think of mothering as instinctual and automatic – even though mothering, for our species at least, is very much learned behavior and definitions of what constitutes good mothering are no more than cultural constructs. Our insistence on maternal instinct flies both in the face of human history as well as the history of child-rearing practices. It doesn't take into account the extraordinarily widespread practice of abandoning children from the time of the Greeks right up through the Renaissance, the hundreds of thousands of foundlings left in hospitals established for that very purpose throughout the "civilized" world, or the practice of wet-nursing which resulted in the deaths of literally millions of infants, for example.
We talk about mother love as though it were a universal and absolute truth and, perhaps, this has nothing to do with motherhood at all. If Erich Fromm's idealized, if wishful, thinking about unconditional, instinctual love is a shorthand summary of what we hold to be the "truth" about motherhood, it probably also testifies to our deep psychological need for a love without strings or complications.
We want desperately to believe that every mother falls in love with her baby at first sight and that the complexity of relationship, so evident elsewhere as part of the human condition, is totally absent from the connection between mother and child. This ideal is so ingrained in our culture that, until relatively recently, even science held that pregnancy and childbearing were a protection against maternal unhappiness or depression – rather than potential causes of them. In 2005, Brooke Shields' frank depiction of her struggle with postpartum depression – after years of trying to conceive a child – was newsworthy for that very reason: how could a famously beautiful mother with an equally beautiful daughter possibly be made so miserable by motherhood?
Our culture understands motherhood to be one of the most fulfilling roles of a woman's life, if not the apex of fulfillment. Of all the roles we play, parenting is considered to be the one which promises the greatest personal and social rewards. There's little scientific evidence, however, to support this cultural trope; in fact, the preponderance of the evidence absolutely negates it. A major study reported in 2005 by Ranae J. Evenson and Robin W. Simon confirmed what other studies had found before: unlike other adult roles such as marriage and employment, parenthood did not appear to confe