Not long ago, I had a conversation with a woman whose two adult children—both in their forties—apparently abruptly went no contact. I knew nothing of her history since she’s a very casual acquaintance of mine but she was aware that I write about difficult and toxic mother-daughter relationships. I expressed my sympathy, and then asked her what they’d said about going no contact. She looked flustered and answered: “They didn’t say anything. They just said I had to change.” She looked understandably upset.
I took a moment and said, “You know, that’s really unusual. This is a huge step and the fact that both your son and daughter chose to cut you out of their lives is significant. Surely there must have been some kind of conversation or discussion?”
She looked up and said, “Nothing. I was a great mother and a terrific grandmother to their kids. This came out of nowhere. I gave them everything always.”
There was an awkward silence and I simply said: “Surely they said something. Listed complaints. Mentioned behaviors they didn’t like. Criticized you directly. Research shows that these decisions are usually carefully considered and preceded by discussion. I know the culture thinks that these decisions are spur-of-the-moment and impetuous but they rarely are. Your son and daughter must have said something. These had to be issues that came up before, right?”
She frowned at me and said sharply, “They said nothing other than I had to change. Nothing. Maybe your research is wrong.” It was clear the conversation was over.
Unfortunately, there really wasn’t anything unusual about her assertions or her certainty about her very fine mothering; the default position for mothers confronted by an adult child or children is almost always denial which is very unfortunate for everyone. You can’t fix something you deny existing.
Often, after denial, there is the smear campaign. Not always—my own mother didn’t engage in one after I went no contact, except for the stray nasty remark it seems—but often enough to warrant a discussion.
Denial and the power of the mother myths
The mother myths that dominate our culture—that all women are by nature nurturers, that mothering is instinctual, that all mothers love their children, and that all maternal love is unconditional—certainly hobble daughters who are trying to make sense of their mothers’ treatment of them but it can be argued that they have a total chokehold on the unloving mother. The culture which is driven by the mother myths doesn’t have room for the woman who finds mothering exhausting and unrewarding or, even worse, bitterly disappointing. There is nothing but shame for the woman who doesn’t like or love her own child. Even good mothers are bound by these myths; as an experiment, try confessing that childcare can be boring or irritating, repetitive or joyless, and see the response you get.
The shame involved backs the unloving mother into denial; there’s really no choice because to admit her true feelings is to declare herself a monster of sorts. What kind of woman doesn’t love her own child? What kind of woman doesn’t like being a mother? Hiding the shame requires the unloving mother to curate her public image even more carefully; most unloved daughters report having well-tended homes, being turned out nicely, with a mom who was well-regarded by the community, whether there were financial resources or not, and a mother who was very careful to look like the perfect mother in public.
Denial and curation go hand in hand and become galvanized if the adult child pushes back. The unloving mother will do anything to avoid the shame of discovery. This isn’t to excuse the mother’s behavior, by the way; it’s her shame and she earned it. But it’s worth knowing that denial and the self-defense of a smear campaign are predictable responses.
The adult child’s push-back and consequences: the smear campaign
As I explain in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, it’s the daughter’s denial and normalization of her mother’s treatment, along with her continuing need for maternal love and support, that keeps the relationship going as it always has, even once the daughter has grown up and is an adult, living her own life. Recognizing her mother’s treatment as toxic usually takes many years and, most often, decades; it’s relatively rare for a daughter to insist on boundaries and new rules for contact before she’s in her forties or older. (This is an observation based on my own research, and not scientific. There are daughters who “know” early—in their twenties—and I was one of them. But even so, most of these daughters don’t take decisive action for years.)
But when she finally confronts her mother the likelihood is that she’ll be countered with denial, and accused of being “too sensitive,” “making it up,” or other rationalizations meant to shift responsibility from the mother to the daughter. My mother did this time again, denying what she’d said even when a third party witnessed it. Initially, the mother’s denial (and gaslighting) often work, sending the daughter into a tailspin which is aided and abetted by self-doubt and her continuing need for maternal love. Sometimes, the mother will simply pretend she’s not heard a word. That’s what I suspect happened with that casual acquaintance I began with; it’s highly doubtful that two adult children with children of their own with whom she’d had close contact would exit her life in total silence.
But limited contact or contact with boundaries doesn’t always work and some daughters are forced to go no contact in order to get out from under mistreatment and to start working on themselves and their own healing from childhood. Even though the daughter may not realize it in the moment, going no contact isn’t a solution in any real sense, and it doesn’t heal you; healing and reclaiming yourself are totally separate processes as my book, Daughter Detox, explains. Going no contact gives you relief from abuse and gives you room to breathe and regroup.
But the mother who is highly combative, needs control, or is high in narcissistic traits isn’t just going to let you leave her orbit; she’s got territory and reputation to protect and shame to cover. The enmeshed and role-reversed mothers want you back and while they might not smear you in the same way, they too will play the victim.
The smear campaign is all about playing the victim and the unloving mother gets to use the mother myths as both the backdrop to and the rationale for her claims. It’s pretty ironic.
Dealing with the smear campaign
I will readily admit that some of the stories I have heard and lengths to which estranged mothers have gone are crazy. Some highlights: Calling employers and making up stories; calling social services and making up stories of child abuse; calling husbands and making up stories of infidelity; asking a religious leader to call out her daughter in services with no proof or evidence as a reprobate; and more. And then, there’s the usual: Telling anyone who will listen to her—including relatives and siblings, friends and neighbors, and strangers— what a miserable, ungrateful, conniving, crazy, etc. etc. you are. Keep in mind the deep, deep shame the unloving mother is protecting from view; seen from this perspective, it all makes sense.
What to do?
Hints on dealing with the smear campaign
There’s no white-washing how painful this experience is and no easy fix. Here are some very general tips that may help you navigate these very rough waters.
- Don’t answer back
Recognize where it’s coming from and fight the impulse to defend yourself. Your mother wants to draw you into her orbit, one way or another; by being vocal, you submit to being in it.
Instead, work on you. Strengthen your connections to those you love. Find a good therapist.
- Understand the motivation
It’s very hard not to take being dragged through the mud personally but do try, nonetheless. Recognize that this has nothing to do with you; everything that is being said about you is a projection. Know, too, that people often go along to get along and that their thinking is swayed by the mother myths. My own opinion is that love is so hard to find and harder to hold onto that people want to believe in one kind of love that is inviolable and that’s a mother’s love. It may be threatening to them on a very personal level to take your side.
- Build your own support network
Do surround yourself with people who have taken the trouble to listen to you and whom you trust; feeling a sense of belonging—perhaps for the first time—will help you grow and recover.
Going no contact is always the last resort but, sometimes, it is a necessary step so that you can get on the path to healing.
Photograph by John- Mark Smith. Copyright free. Unsplash.com