Mean Mothers

One of the last cultural taboos: what happens when a woman does not or cannot love her own daughter?

Not all mothers are loving and kind. The fact is that many people, not only as children, but also into their adulthood, experience ongoing emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of their biological mothers.

An estimated 56 percent of all abusers (physical, mental and sexual) are women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most common form is psychological. “It happens a lot,” said Dr. Philip R. Muskin, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University. “Neglect and emotional abuse are every bit as damaging as sexual abuse.”

Numerous studies have shown that maternal behaviour like constant criticism, withholding affection or humiliation can take a toll on children, adversely affecting their academic achievement, social growth and self-worth.

The situation in India is even worse. The United Nations now calls India the most dangerous place on earth for a girl. UNICEF estimated that up to 50 million girls and women are ‘missing’ from India’s population because of termination of the female foetus or high mortality of the girl child due to lack of proper care.


Mothers as murderers

In June 2001, Andrea Yates shockingly systematically murdered her five children, aged between six months and seven years, at her suburban home.

In 1989, Debra Jean Milke dressed her son in his favorite clothes and cowboy boots and told him that he was going to the Metrocenter Mall to see Santa Claus. The child was an “inconvenience” so when he reached the Mall, he was killed by on Milke’s behalf by her roommate.

Marie Noe killed eight of her ten children before pleading guilty in 1999 to their deaths.

After getting married in 1852, Mary Ann Cotton spent the rest of her life moving around New England having children and then poisoning them with arsenic for the insurance money until she was hanged for her crimes.


Mean mothers in the movies

‘Mommie Dearest’ (1981): Faye Dunaway plays Joan Crawford, portrayed as a diva and prototype of a parental super villain. Joan cares more about her career than her daughter, Christina, who was physically and emotionally abused. Christina, among other things, is beaten with coat hangers.

‘Carrie’ (1976): Carrie White is a teenage girl with a mother who is a violent religious fanatic prone to wild mood swings and manic episodes.

‘Now, Voyager’ (1942): Gladys Cooper plays society matron Mrs Vale, who bullies her daughter Charlotte (Bette Davis) into a nervous breakdown. It is never quite clear what makes the mother so vindictive, but there is sexual jealousy and paranoia in the mix.


Mean mothers in books

Emma Bovary (‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert): Motherhood is a great disappointment to Emma Bovary. Initially she pretends to dote on her daughter, but soon her vanity and unstoppable desires lead her away from her daughter.

Charlotte Haze (‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov): Charlotte Haze manipulates Humbert into marriage, wilfully clueless to his pedophiliac desire for her daughter.

Eva Khatchadourian (We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver): Eva Khatchadourian is one of the most disturbing mothers in literature. Eva hated her child before he was even born and never failed to treat him like a monster, which he would eventually become. It is the most chilling portrayal of maternal depravity. The mom is a complete sociopath.


Psychology of mean mothers

Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy (MSP/MSBP) is a psychiatric disorder in which a mother does things to make their child physically sick, sometimes resulting in repeated hospital admissions, repeated procedures, injections, even surgeries to ‘rule out’ this or that possibility. The mother seeks and gains praise for being so devoted, loving and long-suffering throughout it all, but the child is subjected to a battery or unnecessary procedures and medications.

MSP affects not only little children, but there is also an “adult” version of MSP in which these mothers do unimaginable things to their adult children, again, in order to gain praise or sympathy for themselves.

Sometimes mothers are purely mean, evil and manipulative. Mothers can sometimes be jealous of their child, especially their daughters, and may do things to minimise, discourage, or even undermine and/or discredit the child in the eyes of others.

No one really knows what happens behind closed doors, even with “mothers” toward their daughters. It is hard to believe and painful to accept, but recognise that it does happen.

Peg Streep has drawn from research and real life experiences in her book, ‘Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt’ (2009). The book is an exploration of the darker side of maternal behaviour drawn from scientific research, psychology, and the real-life experiences of adult daughters.