Maternal jealousy is a common issue between mothers and adult daughters today. In this blog I explain why maternal jealousy is so common. Through Sarah’s story (not her real name) I talk about how therapists, mothers, and daughters can detect maternal jealousy, especially when these feelings are hidden and unacknowledged due to the shame society attaches to them. And I provide some tips on how I help mothers and daughters heal jealous feelings.
Why does a mother feel jealous of her daughter?
Maternal jealousy is a symptom of the sexism that limits a mother’s life. Before the Women’s Movement helped women gain access to universities and broadened women’s career options, mothers and daughters lived the same restricted life. Daughters had little option but to follow in their mother’s footsteps and walk a repeat of their mother’s life. Today, daughters have more options and opportunities available to them, and these options and opportunities are showing their mothers what they weren’t allowed to have.
Daughters today are “their mother’s uncomfortable mirror”. They are showing their mothers the educational opportunities, career choices, freedoms from restrictive gender roles, and increased love and support from husbands and partners that their mother didn’t have and couldn’t conceive of as possible. This gap between what a mother was not allowed to have and what a daughter has today is causing a lot of grief for mothers. Mothers are grieving their unfulfilled dreams, unrealized talent, and unsupported lives. And to make matters worse, society expects a mother to ignore her grief and just be happy for her daughter.
This silencing of a mother’s very human grief is at the heart of maternal jealousy. The silencing teaches a mother to feel ashamed of her jealous feelings, when in truth, a mother needs to and deserves to have her grief heard and understood. And her daughter needs to hear her mother’s grief as well. Daughters need to understand the sexism their mother had to contend with and how recent her freedoms are.
How does a mother communicate her jealous feelings?
Sarah came to see me because her mother was emotionally withdrawn, critical, and lukewarm about Sarah’s recent promotion at work. Sarah felt upset about her mother’s behavior and she wanted to find out what she could do to make her more emotionally engaged and less critical.
Maternal jealousy often presents as emotional withdrawal, criticism, or anger. And when society doesn’t allow mothers to talk about what they missed out on, a mother doesn’t always know how to tell her daughter how proud she is for her and how her daughter’s success upsets her. The grief a mother feels about what she missed out on in her life can be overwhelming, especially when it’s connected to watching her daughter live the life she had secretly wanted to live.
As Sarah and I talked about her mother’s life, she started to connect the dots between her mother’s behavior and a story she once heard from her aunt about how her mother had wanted to be a doctor. Sarah’s mother had been given no option but to go to secretary school because that is what her parents’ generation believed “good” girls did.
How do you heal maternal jealousy?
When Sarah started to see how hard her success might be for her mother, she stopped seeing her mother’s aloofness as being caused by her or because her mother didn’t care about her. She saw that her mother did deeply care for Sarah and was very proud of her. The problem was that her mother’s unvoiced grief was getting in the way of her mother showing what she truly felt.
For homework I asked Sarah to ask her mother about her life. Thankfully Sarah’s mother was able to talk about her lost dreams because not every mother is able to do this. Listening to her mother tell the story of how hard it was not to be allowed to go to medical school when her brother did go, gave Sarah a deeper appreciation of who her mother is. It helped Sarah understand her mother’s life and behavior, and it helped Sarah’s mother voice how proud she was of Sarah’s corporate success. (Read The Mother-Daughter Puzzle for more understanding about maternal jealousy.)
Rosjke Hasseldine is a mother-daughter relationship therapist, speaker, and author of The Silent Female Scream & The Mother-Daughter Puzzle. Rosjke teaches mental health professionals how to become a Certified Mother-Daughter Coach. www.rosjke.com