When Trying to Be ‘Anything but My Mother’ Backfires

Mother supports and smiles at young toddler son outside by treesMany women have wished for a perfect mother, to be a perfect mother, or both. Sally describes her mother as someone who was emotionally and physically absent, who verbally abused her, whose rages were frightening, and who preferred her older sister. Sally has a 2-year-old son, Scott, who she is determined will never have to experience the kind of mothering she endured. In fact, Sally is unwavering in her dedication to being the exact opposite of her mother. Sally is clear: “I have to be a perfect mother.”

When she came to see me, Sally’s drive to be a perfect mother wasn’t working. She was depressed and anxious. With utmost certainty, she expressed her belief that she was a bad mother:

“I can’t do anything right. I can’t get Scott on a good sleep schedule. I try to feed him before bedtime and that doesn’t help. I read to him, sing to him, lie down with him. Sometimes he sleeps for a while, sometimes he doesn’t. I can’t get it right. My husband Frank can put him to sleep without it being a big deal. Scott also will eat anything Frank gives him. But with me, I try to find something he will really like and he is very, very picky. I make him two or three things until I find something he likes. I simply don’t know how to mother. Absolutely, I’m a bad mother.”

Sally was crying and agitated as she expressed her extreme upset:

“I decided not to work because I thought a good mother needed to be with her child, especially in the early years. We spend the whole day together. I try to concentrate on him totally, to really be present. But he isn’t so happy and he gets cranky. I try to build with him, read to him; I take him to the playground. He cries a lot. I get upset, even angry. I try so hard, but he just doesn’t respond well. I think and think and think: ‘What am I doing wrong?’ My sister comes to visit and he is sweet and smiley with her. He’s great with Frank, too. This proves to me it’s me. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I try so hard not to be anything like my mother. I force myself to be the ‘not my mother’ kind of mother. It’s not working. I’m angry and anxious, like my mother was. And sometimes I even feel like running away from Scott. I can’t believe I’m this terrible.”

Sally radiated helplessness. She had designed a model of motherhood in her head that was created to wipe out mothering behaviors associated with her experience of how she was mothered. This kind of negative model—what not to do and who not to be—leaves little room to develop what kind of mother Sally wants to be. It is a model based on a child’s needs and ignores that mothers have legitimate needs too. If there is no room for Sally to have her own needs in her relationship with Scott, she is bound to develop feelings of anger and resentment and turn into her own “bad” mother.

Sally needed help recognizing that her model of the perfect mother led to a self-fulfilling prophecy: It created the conditions that recreate her mother’s behaviors and made her feel like a bad mother.

Internalization of and Attachment to a Bad Mother

There is a paradox in Sally’s struggle to rid herself of her mother’s influence on her mothering. While she rejects her mother’s mothering, her strong attachment (consciously and unconsciously) to her mother can best be seen in the omnipresence of her mother in her mind. Even though Sally believes she is rejecting her mother by carrying the message “I’m not my mother” around in her mind, in fact she has internalized her mother, even if it is in negative form. This attachment has unconscious meanings to Sally. It helps to form her sense of identity—“not my mother.” If she were to separate and individuate from her mother and let go of this internal attachment, who would she be? Sally struggled with the question: “If I am not my mother, who am I?”

The perfect mother of Sally’s model has no needs and therefore no need to think about her own feelings, wishes, and desires. If Sally’s only focus is to be fully available, totally attuned, always knowing what her child wanted and how to provide it, how could there be room to focus on and develop herself? Without developing an identity as a multifaceted person, separate and individuated from her mother, it is unlikely Sally could have the internal resources and self-esteem to provide for enough of Scott’s needs. This contributed to Sally’s anxiety and interfered with her ability to be a “good enough” mother.

After a good deal of talking and exploration, Sally could recognize that her need to be a perfect mother was not rational and was creating severe anxiety. Nevertheless, it was difficult to give up the wish to be the opposite of her mother. Sally and I tried to examine what her unconscious need to hold onto her mother might be about. I asked Sally if she was aware of her mother’s omnipresence in her life. She responded with intense emotion and sounded defensive:

“Of course she’s totally running and ruining my life, just like she always did. But what choice do I have? It feels like I have to stay on top of making sure I will never be like her.”

I replied: “I understand how crucial it feels that you never mother Scott the way you were mothered. But I wonder, even if it seems absurd, if you could allow yourself to imagine how not always having your mother on your mind might in some way be positive for you?”

Sally looked shocked and replied angrily, “How could you even suggest that such a thing could be imaginable? I have to have her there as a constant reminder of how to lead my life. What would I do without that guideline? Where would I be?”

I pointed out that “these are important issues you’re raising. What would it be like if your life were absent of these guides? Where would you be?”

Sally responded with silence and angry looks. Then an angry reply from Sally: “Where do you think I’d be? Nowhere. You think it’s easy living a one-note life? But the thought of easing up on being vigilant about my mothering scares me to death.”

“What are you scared of?”

“Obviously, I’m scared that I’ll turn Scott into me.”

“What does that mean?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe he’ll be an unhappy, angry child like me, like I was, like I am.”

Over time, as we continued to work together, Sally became increasingly able to talk about her relationship with Scott and see parallels to her relationship with her mother. She was better able to tolerate her feelings and became able to speak about her terror and loneliness as a child. Several years into our work, Sally began to sob:

“I’m so scared. How could I know how to be a mother? I was always so frightened as a child. It was scary when my mother would become so cold and emotionally absent. It was even more terrifying when she would forget to pick me up at school or leave for days at a time and not tell me. I’d wake up in the morning and she’d be gone. My father would act as if it was no big deal, but I never felt sure she’d come back. Maybe I could do that to Scott.”

Sally’s emotional realization that she has been using the bad mother in her mind to give herself a mother, even a bad one, opened up many feelings about loneliness and need. Awareness of this intense need opened up space for her to feel other needs in her life.

I wanted to help Sally understand that by always having her mother in mind, she could finally feel she was in control of her mother rather than the other way around. I suggested:

“Do you suppose that you’re not only afraid that you could abandon Scott but also terrified that you will feel abandoned if you don’t have your mother with you? You have managed to keep her with you 24/7, quite the opposite of her lack of presence with you growing up. If you think of it, you have come up with a creative way to have your mother so you don’t have to feel lonely and terrified of her absence as you did when you were a child. But while this was great when you were a child, it’s not working for you as a person or a mother who needs to feel good about herself.”

“Wow, this is a lot to take in. I want to fight you and shout, ‘No, I need my mother in my head for Scott, not for me.’ ” Sally began to cry softly: “I think you’re right. I need my mother for me. I never had her.” Then she began to sob: “I never had a mother. I want a mother.”

Sally’s emotional realization that she has been using the bad mother in her mind to give herself a mother, even a bad one, opened up many feelings about loneliness and need. Awareness of this intense need opened up space for her to feel other needs in her life. She especially began to appreciate her need to expand her life beyond a total focus on Scott. She began to talk about her relationship with Frank and began to turn to him for more help and intimacy.

Sally and I continue to work on her developing a sense of who she is in the world and what she wants. As she becomes increasingly comfortable with discovering her wishes and desires, her relationship with her son has become less fraught with anxiety and tension. Sometimes, Sally can smile and admit she now has some good stuff to give to her son. She is finding that the more she feels like a good enough mother, the more Scott responds to her in positive and loving ways. She can’t yet say it full out, and it usually sounds like a whisper, but I have heard Sally say, “I think I may be okay as a mom.”

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

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, Individuation Topic Expert Contributor

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.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Meg

    November 14th, 2016 at 7:38 AM

    So thankful that I had a mother growing up whom I would love to be able to emulate, but I recognize that not everyone in life has been that fortunate. The sad thing is that most of us only know to repeat the things that we saw and did as we were growing up so when it is behavior that you may not like it can still be a difficult pattern to break from.

  • emme

    November 14th, 2016 at 10:16 AM

    Why not try both? Find some of the good things that you admired about her and strive to be like that while cutting out the parts that maybe are not quite as appealing to you as a parent or even as a person?

  • Rusty

    November 14th, 2016 at 2:34 PM

    Men can have these same feelings only abut their dads. Well I guess they could about their mothers too but I think that with guys it would be more about was the man who was in my life and played this role someone that I would like to be like or I would like to have my kids get to know.

    The same struggles are always going to be there for you if you had any kind of a strained relationship with either one of your parents.

  • Lee W

    November 15th, 2016 at 9:01 AM

    Those of us who are mothers often have a hard time balancing our own needs with those of the other people in our lives. We know how to be the perfect care giver to everyone but us.

  • Arden

    November 15th, 2016 at 2:32 PM

    It sort of feels to me like those who go around thinking like this are always going to be those people who try to blame everything that has ever happened in their lives on something that their parents did.

    I guess that you can legitimately do that for a while but there will come a time when you just have to get over it. It happened and it wasn’t great, but you are grown up now so move on.

    I am one of those who has lived like this so I think that I can say it with certainty. But I worked through all my issues and now I choose to leave the past in the past and just be the best person that I can be on a daily basis.

    There are some days that I succeed and some where I don’t and on those days you just dust yourself off and try again.

  • kiersten

    November 16th, 2016 at 3:08 PM

    Well I think that the most important thing is to just be content with being yourself. If that ends up being like your mother, is that always so bad? And if it winds up not being like your mother, then hey that’s probably good that she encouraged you t become your own self. Don’t just automatically assume that it is always going to end up as something bad.

  • Ava

    November 17th, 2016 at 10:35 AM

    Why all the bad rap always on the moms of the world? There are some terrific moms out there but those are the ones who are always getting overlooked!

  • rosa

    November 18th, 2016 at 11:26 AM

    So life hands you lemons, make some lemonade. You should get to the point where you can take something away from the experience, and focus on what you could in the end learn from it and not just on how it is impacting you in a way that you dislike. Even bad times can bring good, useful lessons.

  • chad

    November 19th, 2016 at 8:39 AM

    There are certain times though that we will go too far in the opposite direction and this can eventually be just as harmful.

  • sondra

    November 21st, 2016 at 3:18 PM

    It all can feel so self defeating at times.
    You are trying so hard to not do something that in the end that is exactly what you wind up doing anyway.

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