I was taught that the mother daughter relationship was sacred. That – despite the constant outpouring of negative emotion counted in unnecessary tears and brutal backlash – the father was the source of all problems. Always. At 23 I made the conscious decision to cure all my family associated pain. So, like most only children raised in a strict private school landscape, I incessantly talked about, moaned over, and critically analyzed my relationship with my father. I may barely be able to pay my bills but I know my Freud, dammit.
And then, when I was finally feeling a muted sense of stability, my therapist uttered those dreaded words, “I don’t think your father is the problem. I think it’s your mother.” I gasped. Literally. I wanted to pounce at him and strangle him with all my delusional might. How dare he question the one thing I thought I understood! I left the office in shock. The next week was brutal. The following three weeks were no easier. I got angry with myself, with my mother, with past therapists, with everything that touched me. I felt the foundation underneath me crumble because of one mere sentence. One sentence and all this pain? Well then, he must be right.
One early morning, I rather heavy shipment arrived on my doorstep. I hurriedly tore apart the package and found a book. The title? Mother’s Who Can’t Love. You couldn’t ask for better timing.
By Dr. Susan Forward’s Mother’s Who Can’t Love: A Healing Guide To Daughters is new therapeutic guide targeted at that unmentionable subject plaguing our minds, our dreams, and (undoubtedly) our phone bills. Utilizing mother-centric archetypes discovered through her practice, it is Dr. Forwards intention to help and heal those daughters “subjected to years of criticism, competition, role-reversal, smothering control, emotional neglect and abuse, these daughters are plagued by anxiety and depression, relationship problems, lack of confidence and difficulties with trust. They doubt their worth, and even their ability to love.” What a daunting task.
In the midst of a mid-twenties crisis, I excitedly jumped on the opportunity to speak with Dr. Forward, relaying to her my years of therapy, my new mother associated revelations and my urgency to sever all ties. Mother’s Who Can’t Love is a book a lifetime in the making, although it wasn’t until her own mother passed that she “felt free to write this book.” She continued by noting that there is an imbedded fear within the female gender that “if you become a woman you wont be loved by your mother.” Subsequently, women remain entangled in a mother-daughter union that is neither beneficial nor encouraging. And yet – despite the glaring abuse – women condone this relation because “there is nothing harder than severing ties with your mother.”
Boy oh boy can I relate.
Never relying on alienating and exclusive personal anecdotes, Dr. Forward’s poignant book advocates a lifetime in which a women do not feel “trapped,” women who will no longer continue to be “wounded by [their] mother.” Upon conclusion of the book I felt ecstatically numb – not numb from sadness or disbelief, but numb from epiphany. I may not be the most extreme case study in regard to harmful mother daughter relationships, but I have often sacrificed my own happiness for the sake of my mother’s – whether or not it was asked of me.
“The response has been marvelous validating,” Dr. Forward exclaimed when asked about how Mother’s Who Can’t Love is been received by the public. And rightfully so. I may now only speak to my mother 2 times a day, but compared to the 12 phone call daily routine that always led to endless bickering, I am seeing a great and gradual change in both of us. That’s all I can ask for: baby steps for two grown adults.
DO YOU HAVE A TOXIC MOTHER?
Take the quiz below to find out.
Does your mother regularly… (answer yes or no):
• Demean or criticize you?
• Make you a scapegoat?
• Take credit when things go well, and blame you when they go wrong?
• Treat you as if you’re incapable of making your own decisions?
• Turn on the charm for other people, but turn cold when she’s alone with you?
• Try to upstage you?
• Flirt with your significant other?
• Try to live out her life through you?
• Call, e-mail, text, and schedule herself into your life so much that you feel smothered?
• Tell you or imply that you are the reason for her depression, lack of success, or unfulfilled life?
• Tell you or imply that she can’t cope without you (and only your help will do)?
• Use money or the promise of money to manipulate you?
• Threaten to make your life difficult if you don’t do what she wants?
• Ignore or discount your feelings and wants?
“Yes” answers are clear indications that your mother is crossing, or has crossed, the boundary that separates loving mothers from unloving ones. These behaviors are probably not new, and chances are they have been going on for most of your life. You’ll see that clearly if you put a simple “Did she” in front of each of the questions above, and think about what was going on when you were little.
The next list will give you a sense of how your relationship with your mother has affected you.
Do you… (answer yes or no):
• Wonder if your mother loves you—and feel ashamed that she may not?
• Feel responsible for the happiness of everyone but yourself?
• Believe that your mother’s needs, wants, and expectations of you are more important than your
• Believe that love is something you have to earn?
• Believe that no matter what you do for your mother, it won’t be enough?
• Believe that you must protect her, even from the knowledge that she’s hurting you?
• Feel guilty and believe you’re a bad person if you don’t comply with the wishes of other people, especially your mother?
• Hide the details of your life and feelings from your mother, because you know she’ll find a way to use your truths against you?
• Find yourself constantly chasing approval?
• Feel scared, guilty, and small, no matter how much you accomplish?
• Wonder if there’s something wrong with you that will keep you from being able to find a partner who loves you?
• Feel afraid to have children (if you want them) because they’ll turn out “messed up, like me”?
All these feelings and beliefs are legacies of the mother wound, and they, too, have their roots in childhood. But even if you answered “yes” to every one of these questions, please be assured that you’re not doomed or irreparably damaged. There are many changes you can put into practice immediately to improve your life, your self-image, and your relationships.
For continued guidance and support, including the ability to identify what type of toxic mother you might have (the Severely Narcissistic Mother, the Overly Enmeshed Mother, the Control Freak, a Mother Who Needs Mothering, or a Mother Who Neglects, Betrays, and Batters), pick up a copy of Mother’s Who Can’t Love, where Susan Forward provides the tools you need to finally free yourself from the painful legacy of growing up with an unloving mother.