My mom just stopped short of putting an ad in the newspaper. She bad-mouthed me to everyone who would listen and, trust me, plenty did. She called my next-door neighbor, my pastor, and even my boss. I couldn’t believe it.
My mother sends my two daughters lavish presents—things she knows I can’t afford. And the notes always say things like ‘It’s so sad your mother won’t let me see you but know that I love you.’ Mind you, these gifts only started coming after I went no contact. She had absolutely no interest in my kids; she was fixated on my brother’s boys, the sons of the golden child. I’m working with my therapist on how to deal.
Some of the stories that were shared with me when I was writing Daughter Detox were mind-boggling in truth and so outrageous that, if I hadn’t heard so many of them, I would have thought they were exaggerations for sure. But they weren’t. There were mothers who called social services in retaliation with bogus claims of child neglect. There were mothers who insinuated themselves into their daughters’ marriages, hurling false accusations. Less surprising were the stories of siblings and other relatives who joined Team Mom and placed the blame solely on the daughters’ shoulders.
This doesn’t happen always, of course, but it happens enough of the time that if you are considering severing your relationship to your mother, you need to be fully aware and prepare yourself emotionally and intellectually.
The psychology of the smear campaign
Most unloving mothers curate their public images very carefully and an estrangement in the family is always going to be viewed as an unwelcome opportunity for that image to be altered; the chances are good that tensions in the family are private and unshared unless the daughter has always been actively scapegoated. Having a scapegoat, as research shows, allows a mother to view her family as healthier than it actually is because, in her eyes, it would be “perfect” if it weren’t for that one troublemaker, the “difficult” or “too sensitive” child, the one bad apple in the bunch. When there’s a designated scapegoat, the smear campaign just becomes a public version of the family mythology.
But for the mothers who are controlling, combative, or high in narcissistic traits, the smear campaign allows them to protect their “truth” as they see it and to reassert control of the situation; they’re going to be highly reactive because by going no contact, the daughter has preemptively taken the wheel. That’s not going to work for these mothers and they will punch back hard.
It’s important to remember that there’s shame involved with a public estrangement, and the more shamed the mother feels—and the greater threat she perceives to her public standing—the uglier the smear campaign will be. Seen in this context, she will need to shift the blame onto her daughter.
Why other people get co-opted
Likely as not, the mother will work hard to get people on her side and force a choice; that’s certainly going to be true for the daughter’s siblings who will have to decide whether to go along to get along and try to stay out of the fray or whether they’ll become active participants in the new war waged. Alas, this is an under-discussed area of collateral damage for the unloved daughter because it’s a sad truth that you never go no contact with just your mother.
Culturally, the mother myths—that all women are nurturing by nature, that mother love is instinctual and automatic—give ballast to the mother’s side, not the daughter’s. As I always say, in the court of public opinion, it’s always the daughter who’s on trial. That I know from personal experience; I remember the way a medical professional’s view of me shifted years ago when I was asked about my mother’s medical history and I said I didn’t know because she wasn’t in my life. In addition to the mother myths, people generally want to believe in one kind of love that’s unchangeable and inviolable, given the fragility of life and, yes, their candidate is maternal love.
What you can do to prepare yourself
- Anticipate the push-back and the effect on you
Going no contact isn’t a solution; it’s an action that permits you to exit a cycle of abuse and to start dealing with your wounds and begin the process of healing from childhood. Be realistic about how your mother and family of origin are likely to react and remember why your efforts at managing this relationship have failed in the past.
- Don’t stoop to her level
Trying to counter a smear campaign is likely to be a waste of time and emotional energy. While it’s understandable that the co-opting of relatives and others you actually felt close to is incredibly painful and feels like a huge betrayal especially given all the losses you already feel, striking back and unfurling the banner of your truth will only keep you on an emotional carousel. Surround yourself with those who don’t need convincing and, for the time being, let the others go.
- Remember why you went no contact
The chances are good that what’s being said about you isn’t precisely new news and that it’s a recap of all the abusive things that were said to you and about you. Again, it’s perfectly understandable why this stuff puts you in a defensive crouch and perhaps makes you wonder if you’re the crazy one after all but remember the source. Review the history of your dealings with your mother in an objective and dispassionate way—as if you were listening to a story about someone else’s life—and work on feeling self-compassion.
- Confront your sense of shame
Remember that one of the default positions is believing that, somehow, it’s your fault that your mother doesn’t love you. It’s been suggested that children often adopt that stance because it’s actually less frightening than admitting that the person charged to take care of you, support you, and protect you won’t. You may still, at your core, feel shame and blame and the best thing to do is to drag it into consciousness and confront it. This isn’t your fault because it’s about your mother, not you.
- Get support if you need it
There’s no gold star awarded for suffering through a smear campaign alone. Do seek guidance and help if you’re floundering. Working with a therapist will help you manage your emotions. A larger discussion of going no contact can be found in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Rclaiming Your Life.
Once again, see the smear campaign for what it is: Vindictive behavior intended to punish you for no longer tolerating abusive behavior.
Photograph by Averie Woodard. Copyright free, Unsplash.com.