“If I call my mother and tell her how exhausted I am after a tough day with the kids, she’ll tell me, ‘Let me tell you how tired I am and how hard my day was,’ ” says a mom with two kids under the age of 5. “It’s as if she doesn’t hear or even care about me.”
As she was growing up, hers mother was often sick and needy, so she felt obligated to take care of her from a very young age. “It’s always been hard for me to admit that I need anything from the people I am close to. I don’t want to have to ask for anything. But I am working to change that,” says the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her family’s privacy.
Another woman, an older mom to a daughter just entering middle school, related: “My mother always cared so much about my grades, my accomplishments and my appearance. It felt like she didn’t see me. This made me doubt myself and even now it makes it very hard for me to relax and stop striving all the time.”
Now, as she raises her tween daughter, she finds herself yet again fending off her mother’s scrutiny. Only this time, the focus is on the tween. She knows it’s wrong, but it’s hard to get her mother’s voice out of her head sometimes. She wonders whether her mother might be right after all.
Living with someone who can’t love us unconditionally affects how we view ourselves and the world around us. Both women have one thing in common. They grew up in families where their basic emotional needs were not met in their first, most important relationships. They did not receive what is known as unconditional positive regard.
What these daughters are reckoning with is known as maternal narcissism: a term that does not always add up to full-blown narcissistic personality disorder, although it can feel just as toxic. There is however, a continuum on which people can possess specific narcissistic, traits that make it hard for them to give love and show empathy to a child.
Karyl McBride is a therapist, a daughter of a narcissistic mother herself and the author of “Will I Ever Be Good Enough: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers” (Free Press, 2008).
McBride says that “often the birth of the first child is a trigger for beginning to realize the lack of maternal love in one’s own childhood. Once a woman gives birth, she begins to surge with that maternal feeling and love for her child and realizes and wonders why she did not get the same from her mother.”
Narcissism does not exist in a vacuum and is usually handed down the generations. Seeing your own mother in context can help soften feelings of anger, although it usually does little to change behavior.
McBride says, “If a woman has a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder … it is unlikely that much will change. True narcissists are not accountable for their behavior, blame everyone else and are not capable of true empathy and unconditional love. Some women with fewer traits are capable of change. It depends where the mother is on the spectrum of narcissistic traits.
For daughters of narcissistic mothers, McBride says, “the key to solid recovery work is learning about loving self, practicing self-compassion and rebuilding a separate sense of self as the daughter re-parents herself.”
In addition to her book, McBride’s has created a growing community that includes a newly launched virtual workshop and Facebook parties where daughters can connect Mondays at 6:30 p.m. Mountain time. Learn more at www.willieverbegoodenough.com.
Jennifer Kogan is a clinical social worker in Northwest Washington who works with parents.