Virtual Voices

All moms aren't "great"

Family

The holidays and birthdays can be difficult for some because of severe family dysfunction. In recent years fathers have been faulted for complicity in emotionally wounding children but little attention is paid to the role of emotionally abusive and unstable mothers. On Mother's Day women are praised. On Father's Day men are reprimanded. Christine Ann Lawson in Understanding the Borderline Mother makes the case that much family dysfunction originates with a child's intense, unpredictable, and volatile relationship with mom.

According to Lawson, adult children wounded by toxic mothers often have these common thoughts in her presence: "I never know what to expect," "I don't trust her," "She says it didn't happen," "She makes me feel terrible," "Everyone else thinks she's great," "It's all or nothing," "She's so negative," "She flips out," "Sometimes I can't stand her," and "She drives me crazy."

While the book is primarily targeted for adult children with mothers with borderline personality disorders, I find that looking at the four types of mothers Lawson describes can be helpful in understanding most difficult mothers:

  1. Waif. The waif mother presents herself as helpless. She is primarily a victim and seeks to evoke sympathy and caretaking from others, especially her children. On the outside the Waif may appear strong but internally she feels like an impostor. Waif's tend to have been a victim of childhood abuse or neglect, were treated as inferior, or were emotionally denigrated. The primary message to her children is, "Life is so hard."
  2. Hermit. Hermit behavior evokes anxiety and protection from others. The Hermit fears letting anyone in because she was likely hurt by someone she trusted. She tends to be overprotective of her children and lives in fear of bad consequences. The primary message to her children is, "Life is too dangerous."
  3. Queen. The queen's inner experience is one of deprivation and her behavior demands compliance and allegiance. She is the demanding mother who often intimidates to get her way. She can be vindictive, greedy, manipulative, flamboyant, and greedy. Her emotional message to her children is, "Life is all about me."
  4. Witch. The witch mother is angry. She takes her anger out on others. Her behavior evokes submission. She actually is filled with self-hatred and may single out one of her children to bear the brunt of her rage. Her emotional message to her children is, "Life is war."

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These mothers have different public and private personalities, and only their children know the truth and roll their eyes when they hear, "Your mom is great!" The verbal assaults coupled with passive-aggressive guilt manipulation corners children into embracing their mother's twisted emotional messages. This can make being around her unbearable. What makes Lawson's book so valuable is that not only does she explain difficult mothers, she also gives fantastic advice for adult children so that they can simultaneously love their mothers while creating healthy boundaries that thwart future conflict.

Anthony Bradley
Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of theology and ethics at The King's College in New York and serves as a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is author of Liberating Black Theology. Follow Anthony on Twitter @drantbradley.

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