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Exploring (S)mothering in “Terms of Endearment”

Shirley MacLaineIn this next series of posts, I’m going to take scenes from a number of films to explore various aspects of mother-daughter relationships. It can be helpful to take stock of how we were mothered, how we’ve complied with and/or rebelled against the woman who raised us (or was supposed to and didn’t). Also it is useful to identify the beliefs and messages that get handed down to us, often coming down through generations.

Not only can these realizations help point the way to our own individuation (becoming fully ourselves), it can also help us to not pass on our “family legacies” unconsciously.

Mothers can give too much, too little, or both in different areas; they can be on a spectrum anywhere from smothering or engulfment to neglect or abandonment. A “good enough” mother is somewhere in the middle. No one gets it perfect. Furthermore, what is optimal mothering for one child is not for another, and what feelings and behavior get evoked in the mother can be different from child to child.

Here is a partial list of types of mothers  (I’m sure you can come up with more of your own!), and of course there can be more than one of these running in the same person:
–    The mother who gives the message: “I will love you if you please me.”
–    The narcissistic mother who uses her children to meet her own needs
–    The mother who uses her children as an excuse for not living her own life
–    The guilt-tripping, martyred mother
–    The controlling mother
–    The overwhelmed, “weak,” or victimized mother
–    The mother who is unable to attune with her child for various reasons
–    The mother who creates enmeshment with her children
–    The over-compensating mother, often due to her own guilt
–    The mother who becomes overly close with her child, excluding the father from their relationship
–    The mother who treats her daughter as a rival, especially for the father’s attention, creating triangulation
–    The mother who treats her daughter as a show-piece, a reflection of herself
–    The mother who treats her daughter as show-piece AND rival, creating a very confusing mixed message
–    The abusive mother

As adults, we have the opportunity to see our parents as human. If we’ve idealized them, we can begin to understand that they have faults like the rest of us. If we’ve vilified or demonized them, we may see that they were not all bad. [See Joe Burgo’s post on the The Mostly-Bad Mother]. Another important piece is to mourn what has been lost, what was not or what can never be, making it easier to move on in our own development.

In Terms of Endearment (1983), the dynamics of this particular mother-daughter relationship is sketched out within the first ten minutes of the film. Shirley Maclaine plays the mother, Aurora, of Emma (Debra Winger). In the opening scene, Aurora is checking on her sleeping baby. We hear this dialogue between Aurora and her husband:

Husband:    You’re going to stare that baby into a coma.
Aurora:        Stop exaggerating.
Husband:     It’s not good to keep checking and imagining terrible things…
Aurora:        Rudyard… Rudyard, she’s not breathing.
Husband:    Honey, she’s sleeping. The baby’s sleeping.
Aurora:        Rudyard, it’s crib death.
Husband:    It’s sleep! She’s asleep, honey.
Aurora:        Maybe.

At this point, Aurora shakes the baby who starts crying, says, “Oh, good. That’s better,” and leaves the baby crying in her crib, without comforting her. This lets us know that this mother is intrusive, invasive, and insensitive. Although this scene is played for laughs, when we look at the possible psychological ramifications, it’s not so funny.

The next scene is right after Emma’s father’s funeral. We sense that the father has been almost a non-event; there is no sign of grieving or upset. One of the mourners tells Emma (who seems about 7) to “take care of your momma.” A look passes between mother and daughter, appearing to seal a pact, a tacit agreement.

Then we see Aurora entering her daughter’s darkened bedroom, a similar enactment of the crib scene:

Aurora:       Emma? Emma, wake up, please. Wake up.
Emma:        What’s wrong?
Aurora:       I was tense and I was wondering how you were feeling. Would you like to sleep in my bed?
Emma:        No, thank you. Would you like to sleep in my bed again?
Aurora:       Yes!

Here we again notice the mother’s obtrusive and self-centered behavior; Aurora was “tense” and wanted her own needs met by Emma for reassurance and comfort, couching it in terms of concern for her daughter. Emma doesn’t seem to need anything from her mother, and in fact offers to take care of her mother’s needs: a role reversal. This behavior can lead to an unhealthy precociousness in a child, and set up a propensity to take on an entangled, enmeshed, care-taker role with others later in life.

A later scene shows Emma as an adolescent. Aurora is in her garden with a suitor. He puts his hand on her knee and says, “Why don’t you accept the fact that you have certain biological needs?” She responds, “Because I don’t.” Later Aurora confides in Emma, “Can you believe it? He wants to take me to Tahiti.” Emma replies, “I don’t know why you treat these men like this. They have feelings too.”

From these statements, as well as earlier disregard for the father, we observe the messages Emma has gotten about men and sex from her mother, and the cavalier, insensitive way that she treats them.

Aurora attempts to get her own needs met through her daughter, and therefore is not attuned to Emma’s needs. She also tends to be smothering and invasive. Emma has taken on aspects of the parental role, which robs her of a part of her childhood and creates a less-than-healthy level of entanglement.

Next week, I’ll cover more examples of different types of mothers in film.

Creative Commons License photo credit: cliff1066™

Exploring (S)mothering in “Terms of Endearment”

Marla Estes, MA

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APA Reference
Estes, M. (2011). Exploring (S)mothering in “Terms of Endearment”. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Sep 2011
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