When I was writing Daughter Detox:Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, a reader sent me this message:
“It makes me uncomfortable to talk about my mother’s jealousy, you know, because it sounds so unnatural even to accuse her of that. It’s hard enough to criticize your mother publicly to begin with but to call her jealous seems somehow to reflect badly on me. You know, what kind of a daughter calls her mother jealous?’
I’ve called this the last dirty secret in other writings, and perhaps it is; rarely talked about or discussed, it’s nonetheless a very real part of many toxic mother-daughter relationships. My own mother, as it happens, was jealous of everyone but especially me. One of the great gifts she unintentionally bequeathed me was a deep aversion to feeling envious of anyone, having seen the power of jealousy to warp a person in very real ways. Jealousy, as researchers note, is highly personal in that we don’t envy what we don’t consider important but envy that which lies close to our own definition of self. In my mother’s case, this meant that her jealousy of me was triggered by things of the surface—looks, attention paid by men, and material goods—not real achievements. The fact that she didn’t envy who I was as a person didn’t make dealing with her with any easier, in case you are wondering.
Maternal jealousy: the last taboo?
Did you know that before the Grimm Brothers cleaned it up, Snow White’s nemesis was her mother, not her stepmother? Yes, indeed! The Grimms were clearly on to the fact that turning her into a stepmother would offend people’s sensibilities way less. (They did the same thing to the story of Hansel and Gretel; originally, it was the children’s mother who didn’t want share her food with her children during a famine, and not a stepmother. Sending your children out to starve is pretty harsh, no? No wonder the Grimms stepped in.)
Our pastel-tinted vision of motherhood—the myths of unconditional love, the idea that mothering is instinctual, and the assumption that women are by nature nurturing—forces us to look away from certain realities and stresses in the mother-daughter relationship that are less rare than we think, and may even appear in essentially loving relationships at certain points. (There is a difference between tension, which is inevitable at moments, and toxicity. This post is really about relationships that are fundamentally unloving, not loving relationships which experience stress or tension.)
In his book, Crossing Paths, Dr. Laurance Steinberg noted that the arcs of the mother’s and her daughter’s lives may have tension built into them; just as the daughter reaches the age of flowering into her womanhood, the mother—especially in a youth-fixated culture such as ours—may find herself becoming increasingly invisible. As Steinberg writes, “It is as if watching a daughter come into womanhood prompts a sort of midlife crisis for many mothers.” That said, the kind of jealousy I’m addressing isn’t a passing thing but a true foundation for the mother’s behaviors and treatment of her daughter.
Other research confirms that watching a daughter succeed and perhaps outstrip her mother in many respects may not yield smiles and beaming bursts of maternal pride as the culture assumes; in fact, a study by Carol Ryff and others showed that while mothers’ self-esteem and wellbeing were raised by a son’s success, a daughter’s success often lowered both. (The study showed that fathers’ sense of themselves wasn’t affected either way by the successes of either sons or daughters.)
What complicates maternal jealousy is that the culture considers it shameful for a mother to feel it; that means that the unloving mother for whom jealousy is a constant will work that much harder to deny it to herself and to cover her tracks. All of that makes it even harder for the daughter to deal with the onslaught because its provenance isn’t always clear, as one daughter, now in her late 50s, came to understand:
“My mother is terribly jealous of my relationship to my father but it took me years to figure out. I didn’t see it in real time. I didn’t get it. My Dad and I had an easy-going connection, shared jokes and interests, which was the opposite of my relationship to my distant and cold mother. She was pretty, charming, but completely superficial, and she loved my brother who was her foil and the perfect tennis partner when he got to be a teen. My Dad appreciated being married to a beauty queen but he read tons for pleasure and had been an English major before he went to law school. He and I talked books. And Mom never read anything heavier than a beach read; she had one year of community college and no interest in going farther. But she attacked me constantly. My Dad was hurt by it and said so but was conflicted and didn’t want to take sides. They are old now but I mainly do email with him about books. I am just not willing to fight this fight over and over.”
Dealing with maternal jealousy
When your mother’s jealousy is a constant drumbeat and part and parcel of hostile or cruel treatment, there is actually very little you can do to change things. As you know, I’m not a therapist or psychologist but I have been interviewing daughters for way more than a decade; I’m not optimistic about the possibility of talking it through with your mother because maternal jealousy is such a huge cultural no-no. As parents, we are supposed to brim with pride and not seethe with envy when our kids surpass us in ways the we find meaningful. The chances are good that if you try to broach the subject, she will either deny it or deflect it by saying that you’re making it up, reading in, or just too damn sensitive.
The best thing you can do is try not to be reactive when the green-eyed surfaces; remember that it’s not about you but completely about your mother. She is the one who is threatened; you must keep in mind that you aren’t doing anything to actively threaten her. That said, don’t sell yourself out, by apologizing to her or trying to smooth things over. Don’t let yourself get pulled onto the carousel, once again.
When the jealous mother puts you down or marginalizes you
Part of the work of recovering from your childhood experiences is understanding how you were treated with clarity and how you adapted to the treatment, as I explain in my book Daughter Detox; because of the cultural taboos, maternal jealousy may not be expressed directly but may be disguised or camouflaged as criticism or put-downs. That was true for “Marnie,” now 45:
“I didn’t realize how jealous my mother was of my academic achievements because when I was growing up, she always pooh-poohed them, saying that book learning didn’t make you smart or that the tests must have been easy if I got a A. She liked bragging about me to her friends because it gave her status and she saw my degrees as proof of how great a Mom she was, but she was bitter about the opportunities I had that she didn’t When I became a lawyer and married a fellow attorney, all of that popped up to the surface. She resented how I lived, my house, my work, my clothes. It was awful and abusive. I called her out on it and she denied everything. I see her only out of duty; I don’t have a relationship to her nor do my children.”
Jealousy is always a corrosive emotion but does especial damage to the mother-daughter relationship. The best thing you can do is to focus on how you adapted to her treatment; that is the path of healing for you. Keep in mind that the only person you can change is you.
Photograph by Max. 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.)
Steinberg, Laurence. Crossing Paths: How Your Child’s Adolescence Triggers Your Own Crisis. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1994.