Our house was a war zone. My father lorded it over my mother and my mother dealt with us like a drill sergeant. It was her way or the highway. Each of us kids played a different role. My older brother was the enforcerhe talked to me and my sister the way my mother talked and bullied us both. He did everything she wanted and got lost in the process. I was the peacemakeralways trying to placate her. My baby sister was the rebel; she talked back and got punished often. My brother got involved with drugs. I suffered in silence and am still trying to dig my way out. And my sister is a successful attorney. She jokes that she learned how to litigate in childhood.
Lianne, age 40
Shes sometimes a bully whos bullied herself; many daughters of highly combative mothers report that their fathers were tightly-wound men with hot tempers and true authoritarians. Equally, though, the father may simply be an appeaser, absenting himself from parenting and permitting his wife to run the ship as she sees fit. These mothers are often extremely hypercritical, determined that life look perfect from the outside at least; they dont tolerate any deviation from the rules theyve set and theyre not shy about voicing their displeasure.
Like a narcissistic or self-involved mother, the combative mother largely sees her child or children as an extension of herself, and she has high standards which have to be met.
My mothers public self was carefully cultivated. She was always beautifully groomed and careful to be thoughtful to others. She was the first to volunteer for a bake sale or charity drive. But at home, she was an utter tyrant and a screamer. It was terribly confusing to me as a childwho exactly was my mother? The one who berated me for being too fat and lazy or the woman the neighbors admired for her gardening skills and her baked goods? Its no wonder I didnt tell anyone. Who would have believed me?
Geri, age 60
My own mother was highly combative and I too was confused by the switches between her public self and the private one. The world thought my mother was charming and beautiful so who would ever believe me? That was borne out by experience as I hit adolescence; the few people I told thought I was exaggerating which I now know is typical but, of course, didnt then.
The other thing that was confusing was that it was clear that she liked being angry and yelling at me. I knew that even as a little girl and it scared me: She liked the rush of power she felt when she watched me cringe or cry. She actually smiled when she hit me. None of this made sense to me at all: How could fighting and hurting someone make a person happy? Especially if that someone was your child?
Of course, the idea that a mother would actually enjoy berating her child runs counter to every cultural trope we hold dear about motherhood. You know, the ones that tell us that mothering is instinctual, that all mothers love and love unconditionally at that? Thats why daughters keep their silence long past childhood and mothers rationalize and justify their combative behaviors.
The combative mother guards her territory fiercely and while she wants her children to validate her, shes also competitive. That can yield even more confusion, as Karen, now 42, related:
My mother had been a beauty queen and she was very proud of her looks. I was the only girl and super-cute as a small child. The photos of me look as if Im a china doll, dressed to the nines. She looks proud and beaming. But, as I got older, how pretty I was bothered her. She criticized everything I did. She screamed my inadequacies and mocked my failures. It was horrible. I didnt get it and I just kept trying to please her. Strangely, it was my grandmotherher motherwho explained it to me right before I left for college in two words: Shes jealous.
Explaining combativeness away
Hypercriticality and aggression are rationalized by these mothers, insisting that its just discipline or necessary to correct some flaw in the childs character or the mother will simply justify her words and behavior by saying she was provoked. The denial is another layer of abuse.
The constant pattern of shifting the blame for her own behavior on to her childs shoulders is, in and of itself, another form of abuse.
The roles the daughters of combative mothers take on
The home as battleground spawns different ways of coping, each damaging to daughters in different ways. Based on interviews with many women, Ive given them wholly unscientific names because my evidence is anecdotal:
The appeaser: This daughter becomes a peacemaker or a pleaser, doing what she can to amp down the volume and velocity of fights. Shes often timid and so focused on stopping potential conflict that shes apt to forget her own needs and wants. Unfortunately, these girls often end up in relationships with people who take advantage of their need to please.
The scrapper: This daughter takes on her mother in many ways, but can get tripped up by both fighting her mother and wanting her love at the same time. I was a scrapper and it flowed out into my adolescence and young adulthood. I was quick to take umbrage, highly sensitive to slights, and very defensive. Therapy helped untangle the mess.
The avoidant: This daughter will do anything to avoid any kind of conflict with just about anyone; shes learned to armor herself living with a combative mother, and shes distrustful of peoples motives. The problem is that in her effort to live conflict-free, shes also missing out on the possibility of close connection which is something she actually wants. Trust is one of her major issues.
Did you have a combative or bullying mother? Do you recognize your coping style when theres a disagreement? Learning to resolve conflicts productively is an important part of life, one these daughters have to learn from scratch.
Photograph by Jonathan Velasquez. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
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