Many 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.”
“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.
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