Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power

Long-term misery caused by problematic maternal behaviour gives Janine Spencer pause for thought

September 27, 2012

When Dickens' Miss Havisham is berating Estella, the child she brought up, for being cold, Estella replies, "You should know. I am what you have made me. Take all the praise, take all the blame, take all the success, take all the failure; in short, take me."

Mothers whose controlling, angry, envious or narcissistic relationships with their children and the effects these have on young lives are a popular topic in literature. In Difficult Mothers, Terri Apter discusses the real-life dynamics of problematic mother-child relationships and explores why some mothers have such a powerful hold over their children long into adulthood. She reports the results of an extensive survey of mothers and makes suggestions for ways in which destructive bonds can be broken.

Some of the women described here exert enormous control over their children's lives. Their influence is so malign that it makes the reader wonder how much they are difficult mothers and how much they are simply difficult people full stop. Many of the behaviours that Apter describes seem to be the result of borderline personality disorders that would manifest themselves in all of a woman's relationships rather than exclusively with her children. For many others, however, these behavioural traits seem to appear as a result of becoming a mother.

Many of the instances of problematic mother-child relationships reveal the good intentions behind what appears to the rest of the world (and especially to children) as suffocating and restrictive parenting. The fear of putting children in danger, exposing them to the wrong social influences or failing to educate them properly can have far-reaching consequences.

Some of the narcissistic mothers that Apter describes, on the other hand, act only for their own advantage, with no consideration for their child. In such circumstances, the term "difficult mother" is a euphemism for child abuser. These extremely difficult mothers are not as rare as might be hoped. Apter presents the results of a study in which 20 per cent of the sample reported having difficult mothers and 6 per cent describe behaviour that could be classified as narcissistic. This is a potentially significant finding, given that narcissistic personality disorder is present in less than 1 per cent of the general population. I would have loved to read more on this study and its implications.

I also found it difficult to incorporate other types of problematic parenting into Apter's conception of difficult mothers. So-called tiger mothers, who impose a harsh regime of work and discipline on their children, would fit many people's intuitive "difficult mother" criteria. When children can develop self-esteem only through academic or musical achievement, it is usually found that their self-esteem is much lower than that of their non-tiger-mothered peers. And are tiger mothers really any different from the "pageant mothers" who fulfil their lost dreams by parading their daughters around dressed as reimagined and glamorised versions of their younger selves?

An interesting issue raised in Difficult Mothers is how mothers may be difficult with only one of their children. Apter discusses sibling order, temperament and external factors that may influence this. While it is difficult to believe that highly narcissistic mothers are particularly selective in their narcissism, the idea that mothers can exercise different levels of control with their children according to their age, gender or personality is very plausible. Nevertheless, whether a child is the subject of a mother's attack or the passive observer of it, the constant exposure to fear changes them. The way in which two children might react to bad mothering is like a bottle falling to the floor. It may break cleanly leaving few sharp edges, or it may shatter into a thousand shards.

Apter certainly left me pondering the type of mother I have, and the type of mother I have become. Perhaps for this reason alone, Difficult Mothers should be compulsory reading in pregnancy.

Difficult Mothers: Understanding and Overcoming Their Power

By Terri Apter

W. W. Norton, 240pp, £16.99

ISBN 9780393081022

Published 15 June 2012

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