While the dismissive mother makes her daughter feel invisible by withholding the validation and attention essential to her child’s inner growth, the controlling mother does much the same thing, although it looks very different on the surface. Here’s what Ella, now 48, had to say about her childhood: “My mother was widely admired in our community for how perfect her life looked: a tended-to house, gorgeous garden, and an outwardly successful child. That would be me: the all A-student, the cheerleader, the beautifully turned out little girl. But I wasn’t allowed to make a single decision growing up. Not one. Not my clothes, not my friends, not even the college I went to. And you know what? I didn’t realize I was being controlled until I fell apart at the age of 30 when my marriage imploded and I looked inside and there was nothing there.”
The controlling mother deprives her daughter of her own voice; her ability to choose for herself and to learn from her mistakes; and, most important, to be seen for who she is, instead of a projection of her mother’s needs and wants. While the dismissive mother has little involvement in her daughter’s life, the controlling mother throws herself into every aspect of it, and the messages she communicates are always the same: “Without me, you are nothing.” “If I weren’t here to do for you, you would fail at every step.” “It’s my way or the highway.”
While she may be a perfectionist—needing everything in her life, including her children, to be “just so”—the controlling mother is often deeply insecure, afraid of making mistakes and looking “less than” in the eyes of others. She sees her children as an extension of herself, not as individuals in their own right, and is determined that they reflect well on her. And when they don’t, she takes immediate action. “If you didn’t fall into line, you got scapegoated,” Marnie, 44, tells me in an email. “My mother encouraged us to tattle on each other as a way gaining favor with her because the more you pleased her, the better she treated you. My older sister dared to rebel against her and, boy, did she ever pay for it! I didn’t have the courage to but I wish I had. My sister left at 18 and never looked back. She is a personal success and I’m still struggling.”
It’s a pity that “helicopter” parenting has crept into the contemporary discussion because I think it sounds more benign than the word “controlling” and it really isn’t.
The controlling mother—no matter what you call her—actually believes that she’s doing the right thing by her child and she usually has a list of rationalizations (aka as “explanations” from her point of view) to justify her behavior; in that way, she’s like the hypercritical or combative mother who also believes she’s disciplining or inspiring her wayward child.
The controlling mother teaches a child that love comes with strings attached and that if you fail or disappoint, no one will love you.
Whether the daughter goes with the program—doing what she can to fulfill her mother’s expectations and working overtime at pleasing—or rebels, here are some common aspects of the damage this kind of mothering inflicts:
1. Inability to see the self clearly
These daughters tend to attribute whatever success they achievement to “luck” (as opposed to having earned it) and setbacks to their own weaknesses or flaws. Even as young adults or older ones, they often find it hard to distinguish their own needs and wants from those of other people, including their mothers’.
2. Someone who’s drawn to other controlling people
Studies show that we all tend to gravitate toward others who are like our parents which is just dandy if your mother and father were loving and attuned, and not a very good thing if your mother is controlling. Because these daughters don’t have a clear sense of self, they often choose friends, lovers and spouses, and even bosses who set the rules and tell them what to do. This is what Joanne recounted: “I was overwhelmed by adulthood—both the independence and possibility of falling flat on my face. The guy I married was a tyrant like my mother, although I didn’t see that at the time. I was dodging being myself and taking responsibility for my life.”
3. A woman easily manipulated by her need to please
This daughter often emerges into adulthood desperately wanting to be loved for who she is and to be seen in fullness but her need to please other people often thwarts real connection because she’s unable to set healthy boundaries. In some relationships, she feels used and like a doormat because she’s being taken advantage of; in others, she walls herself off because she’s afraid of disappointing and wants to avoid being hurt.
4. A person who, because she can’t manage negative emotion, is stuck
Rough patches in life—disagreements or arguments, setbacks or problems—are exceedingly difficult for these daughters since they weren’t able to cultivate any kind of resilience in childhood. Their fear of failure is often paralyzing and when something does go wrong, they often go down for the count emotionally.
A daughter’s reclaiming her own voice is the first step toward a happier and more fulfilling life.
Photograph by Sagar Dani. Copyright free. Unsplash.com