Mom, I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Want to Be Like You

picking an apple from treeWhen I think about individuation, I think about the struggle to differentiate from ones parents and develop ones own, unique voice. In describing the variety of ways children differentiate, we often neglect the experiences of children who have unconscious wishes to be different from their parents. When this desire is out of awareness, the feelings that fuel the need to be so totally other may unconsciously affect behaviors and relationships.

I am going to describe my work with Nancy, who was not initially aware that she was ruled by her wishes to be nothing like her mother. Nancy came to see me because she was having difficulty with her adolescent daughters.

Nancy arrived at my office for our first session. She was an attractive woman of 38, smartly dressed, poised, and professional looking. When she sat down, her grown-up worldly demeanor changed to that of a sad little girl and she sobbed: “I dont know what to do,” she said. “I love my kids, but they hate me. I went shopping with my 13-year-old Franny, and when I was trying to help her pick out a skirt, she yelled at me, ‘Youre so stupid! You have no idea whats nice!I tell them they cant treat me this way. Jane, my 15-year-old, just laughs and tells me Im being silly. This is so awful. I would never talk to my mother like that. My husband gets angry at me because of how I let them treat me. But I can’t seem to get them to listen to me or stop them from being so mean.”

Nancys upset contrasted starkly with the immediate impression I had of her as a self-contained, calm person. I wondered about this discrepancy and how to make sense of it, and hoped that as we worked together, it would begin to make sense.

Nancy began by describing herself: “My life is really good. Im a partner at a law firm. I work in corporate law and I love my work. I’ve been married for 17 years to my college sweetheart. Hes a freelance graphic artist. Im the primary breadwinner and I work a lot of hours. But Jack is around with the kids. Hes much stricter than I am, and they mostly listen to him. We sometimes fight about them because I think he can be too strict and he thinks I dont set enough limits. But were mostly OK.”

I soon learned that Nancy mostly existed in two different self states: the independent, successful, competent professional and the scared, mistreated, confused mother. To make sense of these very different ways of engaging the world, I thought it would be useful to explore Nancys early relationships. How did such different ways of being emerge?

Nancy grew up with a mother she described as very loving: “I think what she liked best was being with me. She loved to play with me. My brother Pete was four years older and he was closer to my father. Mom never worked and depended entirely on my father, who was a high school principal. She had no friends of her own, and their social life revolved around the school and my fathers friends who were involved with education. She didn’t like to be social. I guess she was meek, also depressed and anxious. But she was the best mommy. I got upset in school a lot because the kids would tease me for wearing glasses or my ugly shoes or they would just be mean. She always reassured me and made me feel I was OK. We still talk a lot on the phone, and she is still my ‘go-to’ person when I get upset about something.”

Nancy and I spent a long time exploring her relationship to her mother. Her relationship with her children was strikingly different. “I would never upset my mother,” she said. “I always respected her and relied on her totally to make me feel good when something bothered me. My kids only want things from me. They don’t need much comfort.”

Since Nancys public and social self was so different from her mothers, I wondered out loud, “Do you think there is a difference in the way you think about your ‘mommymother and the way you think or feel about your mother as a woman in the world?”

Nancys eyes looked like they doubled in size. She was silent, and then tears began to flow. “I don’t like to think about it,” she said. “But I sort of knew that I didn’t want to be like my mother. I couldnt stand how dependent she was on my father for everything and how scared she always seemed to be when his colleagues came to our house. I could never tell her how clueless she was about style and the things she picked for me. She worried about money, and I couldnt bear upsetting her by telling her I wanted nicer things and that I was ashamed. I needed her love so badly. We never got angry with each other; we still don’t.”

In addition to working with Nancy on her fears about getting upset with her mother, we began to explore how intolerable it was for her to get upset or angry with everybody, including her children: “I’m very good at keeping people happy. I can’t stand when people are unhappy. I’m a good diplomat and negotiator, especially at work. But that doesn’t work so well with my children.”

One day, Nancy came to the session full of feelings about how she had just been treated by Jane: “I know weve been talking about how I hate getting upset with the kids, not just their getting upset with me. Last night, Jane got home 45 minutes past her curfew. When she came in, it was hard, but I grounded her for a week. She laughed! I could feel myself starting to cry. I tried to remember what we have been talking about. I tried to think: What am I feeling now? What are these tears? I could tell I was scared, anxious about something. I need her to love me. But then it hit me: I was angry.”

“What was it like to recognize your anger?” I wondered.

“It frightened me,” she replied. “How can I be angry at my children? Ive been working so hard to get them to treat me better and love me. How can this possibly be a good thing?”

Nancy’s recognition of her fear of feeling and expressing her anger opened up a new and difficult area for exploration. In spite of her wish to protect herself from experiencing such intolerable and unwanted feelings, once the knowledge of her anger and fear was expressed, it was difficult to ignore.

Nancy and I have been talking about feelings toward her mother that she has never allowed herself to feel. One day, while describing how Franny got angry at her for not letting her buy the newest, most popular brand of jeans, Nancy began to talk about how she never got angry at her mother for those ugly glasses, clunky shoes, and cheap clothes. “I don’t know if I’m madder at Franny or my mother,” she said. “The fact is, I mostly say yes to Franny’s expensive requests and she gets furious at me even though she gets almost everything she wants. I’m just the opposite of my mother. Maybe I’m letting the girls get whatever they want because I couldn’t even ask for what I wanted. Mom always comforted me and said how sorry she was that I was picked on and teased, but I never was free to tell her that the problem was the clothes and stuff she made me wear and she somehow never took any responsibility for it. … What’s wrong with me? How can I be angry with her when she loved me so much? But I do feel angry and I don’t want to feel this way. How ungrateful can I be?”

It has been difficult for Nancy to consider that she can have both angry and loving feelings toward her mother. She is also trying to accept that Jane and Franny may have both angry and loving feelings toward her: “I always thought my mother would stop loving me if I got angry at her. Maybe I can start to believe that they love me even though they are angry with me! That would be such a relief.”

Gradually, Nancy is becoming aware of how much she has hidden her negative feelings toward her mother from herself. She is just beginning to acknowledge her lack of respect for her scared, antisocial mother: “I know I have never wanted to be meek or dependent or as socially inept as she is. I worked very hard to make myself the total opposite. I’m so independent of my husband, I make lots of money. I have lots of friends. In college, I did some drugs and was a little promiscuous. My mother would die if she knew. Maybe I did it just to prove to myself that I was nothing like her.”

I believe that Nancy’s increasing awareness of her unconscious feelings toward her mother is improving her relationship with her children. With her acceptance that there can be angry feelings that don’t wipe out the loving feelings, she has become more able to withstand her children’s negativity and be less anxious about setting limits. Nancy’s need to be different from her mother has diminished. She has noticed that in addition to an increased tolerance for her children’s anger, she is more emotionally available to them. Nancy is becoming more integrated. She has less need to keep her competent, contained, professional self separate from her emotional and hurt self. I suspect this will lead the way for the family to be comfortable with a wider range of feelings such as empathy, dependence, interdependence, hurt, love, and anger.

Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 6 comments
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  • Heathley

    Heathley

    May 22nd, 2014 at 2:20 PM

    Thankfully I have never had those serious mom issues that so many other women seen to struggle with.

    My mom stayed at home and cared for all of us instead of having a career. I guess you could say that the home was the career she had, and I hope that she was happy with that.

    I knew from early on that that wasn’t what I wanted for myself but it helped in that I knew she wanted more for me too. There was never that conflict that brewed among us about upsetting one another because I knew that we loved and respected each other too much for any of that.

    She wanted what was best for me and I know that I wanted that for her too. It was as simple as that really.

  • Germaine

    Germaine

    May 23rd, 2014 at 3:43 AM

    I get the sense that with Nancy she has this guilt about having been away from her daughters a lot during their early years and that she wants to firge something new with them now that they are older, but that in some ways the girls are pulling away from her because she hasn’t been there at other times when they needed her. They could have the sense that maybe she only wants to be with them when it is convenient for her and so they are punishing her as a result and telling her in ways not always verbal that that role is unacceptable to them. There could be a whole lot of dynamics that need to be cut through in this family to get all of them back into what a loving and caring home should be.

  • rebekah

    rebekah

    May 23rd, 2014 at 10:57 AM

    It’s great to want to learn more about who you really are and become your own person but that doesn’t mean that you then get to dismiss those hwo raised you and cared for you.
    I am all for learning about your own interests and who you are but just because you aren’t the same as your parents doesn’t mean that they don’t love you and continue to want the best for you

  • Greg

    Greg

    May 24th, 2014 at 6:02 AM

    Don’t you think that women probably struggle with this a whole lot more than men do? I think that the relationships between fathers and their children are overall less complicated than the ones that mothers can have with their kids.

  • Virginia

    Virginia

    May 26th, 2014 at 4:56 AM

    I really hope that this person is able to work all of these things out with her daughters because this relationship between a mom and her children is one of the most special ones aorund and to have that messed up is such a shame.
    So they don’t wnat to be like her, big deal. None of us really want to have to walk in the shadows of someone else do we?
    What we need to perpetuate though is love for one another and build a respect and a love that will not be torn down.
    I hope that the issues that all of them have are ones that are fixable, because this is a critical age when the girls will need their mom amd it sounds like she needs them too.

  • abigail a

    abigail a

    May 28th, 2014 at 3:15 PM

    I just want to know if this is what I am going to be like in 10 years or so. I have never read so many things lately that are so down on moms and the way that people were raised. Were we all just raised by these mothers that were so terrible to us or is this just our way of trying to compenstae for what we are doing in our own lives? personally I want to take responsibility for my own actions and not always have to try to find a way to point the finger at someone else for things that we are doing.
    Look I know that there are people who have had a rough childhood, I get that, but that does not have to be the end all and be all. We are grown ups, we can rise above all of that, and we should just forgive our moms for what we perceive that they have done to us and move on.

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