The role that denial plays in the toxic mother-daughter relationship is complicated. While its true that initially the denial belongs to the mother alone, many daughters find themselves trapped in an unhealthy connection far longer than they should be because of their own denial. This post is an effort to unravel the tangle of the relationship and the role denial plays in itfrom both sides.
As always, my voice is on the side of the child who is hardwired to love her mother, not vice versa.
Unloving mothers: a still point in a turning universe
In a healthy mother-daughter relationship, the mother shifts gears as the child gets older and the mothers understanding of both her childs needs and the demands of good parenting expands. Even a loving and attentive mother is tested by her daughters growth; parenting strategies that worked for a toddler must be revised and even abandoned as the daughter matures and needs room to experiment and grow. Its thisrather than simply the unpredictability of the adolescent girlthat makes the years between childhood and young adulthood difficult for many mothers to manage. The maternal skillset has to continue to evolve.
The unloving mother feels this tension too, though in different ways. Whether she is combative, dismissive, unavailable, controlling, self-absorbed, unreliable, or enmeshed, she also has to change gears as her daughter begins to voice her thoughts and becomes more independent and less easily controlled. Additionally, it may now occur to her that the way her mother treats her is somehow off or not right. During the early years of childhood and even later, the unloving mother is able to use her authority and power without significant pushback from her child; that becomes more of a problem as the daughter matures. Its often at this point that maternal denial becomes fully articulated.
For the mother, denial reasserts the status quo
When she is questioned or challenged about what she said or did, the unloving mothers first line of defense is denial. That denial can actually be very broadI never said or did that. Youre making it up. and can be the line of defense for years to come. This works well with self-doubting younger children and with daughters plagued by anxiety, but can prove inadequate with daughters whove begun to establish a foothold in the outside world where their self-confidence is fed and nurtured.
The I never said it defense was my own mothers go-to strategy of denial, which she maintained even when I was an adult and there were adult third-party witnesses such as a spouse or friend. My mother always smiled, amazingly enough, and would whine about having a daughter so hell-bent on misunderstanding her! And then she would be vehemently assert impervious to interjections from othersthat I never said that! or if she werent able to deny mouthing the words, shed fall back on You misunderstood me.
My mother was one of many, as it happens. This type of behaviordenying the words said or claiming to be misunderstoodis such a common pattern that daughters have actually asked me via email whether its possible for these mothers to experience some sort of blackout or amnesia. Ummm, no:its called denial and it is one powerful force.
Denying intent and motive
The mothers use of denial can be specific too. Cruel, abusive language is rationalized and the blame shifted by references to the daughters sensitivity: You have to learn to toughen up. Crybabies are nothing but big fat failures in this world and youre going to be one of them if you dont stop whining or something similar. Denial of intent and motive is accomplished by ascribing words and actions to supposed guidance or discipline which the mother feels are within her purview: I had to put her down because she was way too headstrong to begin with or All the compliments shes getting about her grades will make her lazy so I pointed out that the tests were easy and her classmates were pretty dumb. Extreme anger and verbal aggression are denied by shifting blame to the child: If you didnt irritate me when you know Im tired, I wouldnt have a reason to yell or If youre unhappy its because you made me unhappy first by being a bad girl.
Controlling and dismissive mothers also actively deny praise and compliments from the outside world by denigrating their source, thus keeping the daughter in the place the mother is most comfortable with: unhappy, scared, and unappreciated.
The connection between maternal shame and denial
The myths of motherhoodthat mothering is instinctual and all mothers are loving by natureweigh as heavily on mothers as they do on daughters: is it any wonder that mothers deny that their words and actions are hurtful? Keep in mind the image of a small child crying which is exactly what the unloving mother sees, or an older daughter literally recoiling or shaking from the effects of the words hurled at her. Denial is the wall that keeps a mother from feeling the shame of recognizing how shes acted and seeing the extent of her insensitivity or cruelty; is it any wonder that she will hide behind that wall as long as she can?
It was only after I wrote Mean Mothers that I realized that my mother was actually happier when I was out of her life; I was a walking, talking, and highly articulate indictment of her failure. She was happier when she could deny it.
The cost of maternal denial: the Ferris wheel keeps spinning
Adult daughters who attempt to set boundaries and try to re-configure their relationships to their mothers usually find themselves stymied in their efforts by their mothers steadfast denial. This puts them in the unhappy position of either having to deal with the status quo or cut bait on the relationship entirely. Its a Hobsons choice.
Daughters and denial: the view from the other side
Because children are hardwired to love their mothers and because the world they grow up in so small and they are pressured to understand what goes on in that world from the mothers point of view, its enormously hard for most unloved daughters to find secure footing as a child. They are more likely than not to believe that theyre to blame or that somethings wrong with them because their mothers words and gestures are internalized as self-criticism. Having siblings who receive better treatment can confirm those conclusions during childhood at least, although that understanding may be re-visited in adulthood.
The pain of confronting the truththat Mom doesnt love youis so big that daughters armor themselves with their version of denial. They rationalize and excuse their mothers behaviors, hoping more than anything that they didnt really mean it.
For many daughters, denial is fed by hopefulness that, somehow, the situation can be changed, that theres something that can be done to get the love they need and want. This denialalong with actively denying how much shes hurt by the encounters with her mother, rationalizing her mothers words and actions, working at putting a positive spin on eventsputs the daughter in the unenviable position of being an active participant in her own unhappiness.
The end of denial: the leap off the Ferris wheel
Heres where each journey is highly individual: some daughters know they must act by the time theyre 16, some at 26, 36, 46, 56, or even 76. The daughters denial is primarily fed by the need for mother love and belonging and, as her adult life expands and different kinds of love, caring, and experiences flow into it, her denial becomes more porous, more subject to scrutiny. Its very different in kind from maternal denial which is self-protective and conscious; the daughters denial is unconscious which means its vulnerable to being bumped into consciousness. And that happens, of a morning, when a daughter wakes up and says, as Josie did, Today is the day shes not going to make me feel bad about myself. Or it might be a lover or spouse or friend who finally says, Whats up with your mother? Why is she so hostile? Or sometimes, Momnow grandmomtreats a grandchild in the same way and thats the enough is enough moment.
It takes time but there comes a moment when the daughter simply looks at the Ferris wheel and says: Not me. No more. Im getting off. And if her mother is still locked in denial, she will find herself heading for the exit.
Its probably true that all toxic relationships have some denial built into them, especially if one person is staying despite being very unhappy. But when the mother-daughter relationship is toxic, denial is the fuel. Its not more complicated than that.
Photograph by Andrea Enriquez Cousino. Copyright Free. Unsplash. com.
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