Western society has carefully cultivated the myth that every mother sympathizes uniquely with her children and loves them unconditionally. Even fairy tales have been revised to reflect the idea that a biological mother is incapable of cruelty; centuries ago it was Snow White’s own mother, not a jealous stepmother, who was forced to dance to her death in hot iron shoes for treating her adolescent daughter as a rival. In Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt, Peg Streep explores the uncomfortable reality of mothers who lack an inherent ability to love their children—especially daughters.
Streep, herself the daughter of what she terms an “unloving mother,” deftly weaves her recollections and those of other Baby Boomer-generation daughters together with scientific studies of mother-child bonds and psychologists’ observations to illuminate the reasons why some mothers are unable to nurture their daughters.
Born in an era when married women were expected to have children regardless of their capacity for caring, the adult daughters interviewed remember mothers who constantly insulted their appearances, criticized their lifestyles, discounted their achievements and—perhaps causing the deepest wounds—refused to offer the everyday comforts of kind looks, calming voices and gentle touch. Without asking for pity, Streep shows how daughters denied their mothers’ intimate gestures can develop uncertainty in their self-images, leading to compensatory behaviors like overeating, overspending and overachieving.
At age three Streep recognized her mother’s detachment as the inability to love her, knowing “more than anything, that her power was enormous and that the light of her sun was what I needed. But that light could burn, flicker, or disappear for any or no reason.” Despite her painful history, Streep has been able to write a legacy of love with her own daughter. Ultimately, she concludes that while we learn many behaviors from them, we are not our mothers, and we can triumph in disrupting the cycle of hurt.
Jillian Mandelkern is a teacher and writer in Pennsylvania.