Perhaps the most freighted of all observations about unloving mothers are those that pertain to jealousy. Stories that feature maternal jealousy as part of their plot lines are especially hard for people to hear which is why the Grimm Brothers took the original folktale that became Snow White and handily changed her jealous mother—yes, the very woman who’d longed to bring her into existence– into a stepmother instead.
Yet jealousy and envy are often part of a toxic maternal relationship, if usually unacknowledged. Research on relatively healthy mother-daughter relationships shows, by the way, that mothers aren’t universally happy when their daughters’ achievements surpass their own. In fact, a study by Carol D. Ryff and others showed that while mothers felt better about themselves when their sons were high-achievers, they actually felt worse when their daughters were. Comparisons between mothers and daughters seem inevitable, starting from that first moment when everyone leans over the crib and asks whom the baby most resembles so shouldn’t we begin to acknowledge that, sometimes, those comparisons might contain the seeds of something much more toxic?
My mother was a great beauty in the day but very insecure about her intelligence. She never went to college and hadn’t done particularly well in high school. I looked like my dad and so she felt fine being the swan to my duckling but how well I did in school really bothered her. She took it personally, somehow, as if my ability were an affront to her. She was late to my high school graduation, and didn’t show for my college one. She derides me every chance she gets and it’s debilitating.
Seeing the daughter as a rival
Psychologists have posited that people envy others when something that matters to them or is essential to their definition of self is involved. In that way, it’s highly personal. For example, I’m not likely to envy a ballerina’s success or an investment banker’s meteoric rise or a sculptor’s enormous popularity but I might feel a twinge of two thinking about another writer. (Just for the record, having been raised by a mother who was envious of everyone and everything, including me, jealousy and envy aren’t among my vices. I am happy for other people when they succeed.)
The domains in which maternal rivalry play out vary from family to family. It might be looks, intelligence, talent, attention, opportunity, or even happiness. Given the onus on a mother’s admission of jealousy, it’s really unlikely that she’ll actually admit it to herself, much less to her daughter. Not surprisingly, it may be equally hard for a daughter to admit—it seems so low, so petty—but some daughters will finally come to understand the dynamic.
It took me thirty years to understand what drove my mother’s hostility. I am 57 and I finally get the fact that my mother resents the fact that my life turned out so much better than hers. Her marriage to my father imploded over his infidelity and she divorced him. My marriage survived that tumult and got stronger. She always wants something bigger and better than what she has—she’s never satisfied—but I’m perfectly content to live a low-key life. She actually resents my happiness without seeing that her own unhappiness is about her, not me. I spent years thinking I’d done something to provoke her anger.
The Queen Bee mother
In some families, maternal jealousy begins in the daughter’s childhood if the mother feels displaced in terms of affection or attention; this is especially true of mothers high in narcissistic traits who see their daughters as extensions of themselves but who don’t want to share the spotlight. That was certainly the case for Amanda:
My mother was and is a ‘me, me, me’ person who needs constant praise and attention. She showed me off like a little doll, making all my clothes until I was eight which I now see was a turning point. She’d made me a special dress for Easter and her whole family was at our house. She brought me out in my dress, expecting applause but, instead, her mother said,’You can stop sewing, Leah. That child is so pretty that she could be wearing a potato sack.’ My mother froze. It got worse when everyone started chiming in about how cute I was. I will never forget my mother’s face in the moment. Needless to say, she never made me a dress again. Did she start berating me that day or later? I don’t know but I do know that at point in time, I became someone she could pick on without consequences. I no longer suited her purposes.
Even in a healthy mother-daughter relationship, the daughter’s late adolescence can prove challenging to a mother as she ages and her daughter blossoms. This is what a friend of mine confided:
I was used to getting attention so it came as a shock to me that when Katie and I went out together, people were looking at her, and not me. I felt a twinge. I did. But I realized what that twinge was and I knew that this was the just the course of things. It’s her time to grab the spot light and mine to glow. I’m not disappearing but I am glowing.
That kind of acknowledgment isn’t going to happen with an unloving mother, especially when envy is deep-seated. There is nothing more corrosive than maternal jealousy, alas.
The intertwining of mothers and daughters’ lives is complex and rich. Only by acknowledging our emotions and the difficulty these connections sometimes present can we move forward to a more honest kind of dialogue about motherhood.
Photography by Jon Flobrant. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Ryff, Carol D., Pamela S. Schmutte, and Young Hyun Lee, “How Children Turn Out: Implications for Parental Self-Evaluation,” in The Parental Experience in Midlife. Ed. Carol D. Ryff and Marsha Mailick Seltzer. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.)