One of the questions offered up by readers of Daughter Detox and included in my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book, was this one: “My father was toxic but by only blaming him, am I denying my mother’s role?”
I’d prefer to use the words “hold responsible” rather than “blame,” since we’re looking for answers and not revenge. But no matter how it’s phrased, it’s an interesting question for a number of reasons, the first of which is all we don’t understand about our parents during childhood and much later.
In a way, we never really grow up enough or get old enough to see our parents’ marriage in fullness. After all, we weren’t there when they met, we have no idea why they chose to be together, and we didn’t know them before they had us. Our view of them is completely shaped by what we need from them and how well they meet those needs. Both our deepest feelings for them and our judgment of them can’t be separated from the nature of our relationship.
As a child, there’s much you don’t understand about your family’s dynamics. You don’t have the perspective to see whether your parents define their marriage in traditional ways or as a partnership, but their definition determines how you are parented and who parents you. You are used to how things are at your house but you don’t know that there are different ways of doing things so you don’t ask whether this is a family in which there’s open discussion or one where every conversation devolves into a screaming match. Without information about the world, you don’t ponder if this is a couple used to tackling problems together or given to playing the blame game at a moment’s notice. Instead, you figure that this is what everyone’s house sounds like which might be animated by dialogue, unnervingly and scarily quiet, or a screaming hell. Yet each and every detail will shape you and your development. Your parents’ marriage is the invisible partner in all that transpires.
If there’s an imbalance of power or source of disagreement, that will trickle down into how the children are responded to and taken care of, as one reader wrote:
“When I was a kid, I was scared of my Dad’s temper, and I basically tiptoed around him. My brother took him on and paid the price. But even though Mom never yelled, she also never took our side either. You know that old show, ‘Father Knows Best?’ It may have been the 1980s but my mother was a doormat and bowed to him. And I hold her responsible for allowing the abuse.”
Another daughter took a very different point of view, defending her mother to the max:
“I honestly think my mother was as afraid of him as we were. She is a timid person with not very much self-esteem and while it’s true that she didn’t mother very well and was distant, dealing with her was and is a lot easier than dealing with the self-appointed King. I deliberately moved 1000 miles away from both of my parents as an adult and see them infrequently. That said, I still put the lion’s share of the blame on him, not her.”
Unloving fathers are easier to talk about (and to blame)
Even though there’s a Commandment that tells us to honor both our mothers and fathers, there’s a different cultural standard for each. Admitting that your father was unloving, absent, or a tyrant will absolutely not get the same kind of pushback that saying the very same thing about your mother will. The mother myths—that all women are nurturing, that mothering is instinctual, that all mothers love unconditionally—don’t have a counterpart when we get to Dads. There’s a long string of stories about bad or even horrible fathers—from the raging King Lear, the tormented James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Great Santini’s Bull Meacham—that gives us permission. Second, the sense of filial duty—of guilt and shame—that is associated with being unloved by your mother just doesn’t happen in the same way with a father.
In her book, Our Fathers, Ourselves, an anecdotal study of fathers and daughters, Dr. Peggy Drexler makes the point that “Despite everything women have achieved and the freedom they have won, they still have not liberated themselves from the need to forgive their fathers and, in so doing, reassure themselves that they are still loved by them.” Even more poignantly, based on her sample of some seventy-five women, she asserts, “…No matter how selfish, stingy, narcissistic, or downright cruel some of these men sounded to me, their daughters were willing to forgive them, if not forget.” I’m not sure I necessarily agree with the forgiveness part but the truth is that many daughters hold their fathers to a different standard than their mothers.
But, and it’s a big but, while focusing on your father’s influence may be easier, it may also feed your denial about your mother’s involvement and specifically how her treatment of you affected your development and behavior. Again, the hardwired need for a mother’s love and support is so strong that it’s easy to look away and rationalize, deny, and pin it all on Dad, In the best of all possible worlds, as you begin to understand the dynamics in your family of origin with greater clarity, you will see how each of your parents acted, both in tandem and as individuals.
Seeing your mother in context
Understanding and assigning responsibility are the goals so you can figure out how to deal with both of your parents. If your father was a tyrant or a bully, much will depend on not just how your mother acted but what motivated her. Did she see him as a comrade-in-arms or was she a facilitator who didn’t have the courage or the stamina to stand up to him? As adults, we can look at the relationship between our parents with a kind of understanding that it’s simply impossible for a young child or even a young adult to muster. As one daughter wrote me with not a little bit of wistfulness:
“I see now that my mother thought that my father’s relentless criticism and authoritarian my-way-or-the-highway kind of thinking was a sign of strength, instead of the hallmarks of a bully. Her own father was a bully and I think she slid seamlessly into her role as my father’s wife. But I don’t think that excuses how she echoed him and treated me and my brother. They were partners in cruelty. That’s the bottom line.”
Even what appears to be passivity or inactivity on the mother’s part when the father is controlling, tyrannical, or high in narcissistic traits can influence a daughter’s development in significant ways and complicate how she copes with the family dynamics. If your mother signaled that you should fold your tents or disappear under the radar or hide in plain sight, she was teaching you to lose sight of yourself, echoing the lesson your father’s behaviors taught.
While daughters often grow up believing that there’s a single villain of the piece, the road to recovery requires a more clear-eyed and balanced vision.
Photograph by Annie Spratt. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
This post is adapted from my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way out of A Toxic Childhood. Copyright © 2019l, 2020. All rights reserved.
Drexler, Peggy. Our Fathers, Our Selves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family. New York: Rodale Press, 2011.