This is the second blog in my Mother-Daughter Attachment series. In this blog I tell the story of how I worked with Charlotte (name and identifying details changed), helping her understand and deal with her mother’s jealous behavior.
Jealousy is a common and poorly understood dynamic between mothers and daughters. Jealousy, by definition, is a feeling of resentment or rivalry when someone has an experience or opportunity that you desire. Between mothers and daughters, jealousy is about desiring what the other person has. I rarely hear a mother or daughter admit to feeling jealous, because society teaches mothers to believe that it is wrong, shameful, and bad mothering to feel jealous of your daughter. This means that jealous behavior can be hard to detect. In “The Mother-Daughter Puzzle” I write that I have found that most mothers are unaware that they are feeling jealous of their daughter’s increased opportunities, choices, and freedoms that the women’s movement has brought to women’s lives. These unconscious jealous feelings are expressed through critical or emotionally withdrawn behaviors that harm the mother’s and daughter’s ability to emotionally bond.
Charlotte was a young woman in her mid-twenties. She had graduated from college with a degree in accounting and was working for a prestigious accounting firm. I worked with Charlotte through Zoom, because she lived on the opposite coast to me, the west coast of America. She called me because she wanted to heal her emotionally silent relationship with her mother. Her mother’s increasing silence and lack of interest in her life and work was causing Charlotte a lot of pain and confusion. She wanted to know why her mother was distancing herself from her, and why she would lash out at times with hurtful angry words that didn’t fit with what Charlotte had said or done.
It is very common for mothers and daughters to call me when the daughter leaves home for college or is settled in her own life after college. The daughter leaving home and becoming an adult is the 3rd out of 8 life stages in the Mother-Daughter Attachment Model. Each of these life stages present moments of change when relationship issues that have been rumbling below the surface bubble up demanding attention and healing, presenting opportunities for personal growth, increased bonding, and generational change.
Charlotte’s mother did not want to join her in couples’ therapy, so Charlotte decided to see me by herself. She described how her mother had become increasingly withdrawn from about when she went to college. And recently, her mother would question what Charlotte was doing, and if Charlotte ignored her mother or stood up to her, her mother would fall silent and act as if Charlotte had said something deeply hurtful.
When I mapped Charlotte’s Mother-Daughter History, the main exercise of the Mother-Daughter Attachment Model, and we talked about the changes in women’s roles in her generational family I learned that Charlotte was the first woman in her family to go to college. Charlotte’s mother had wanted to be a lawyer like her father, Charlotte’s grandfather, and join his law firm. But her parents believed that being a lawyer was not a fit job for a woman, so they didn’t support her. Charlotte’s mother’s brother did go to college to study law and joined his father’s law firm.
When Charlotte saw this dynamic mapped out, she realized that she was her mother’s uncomfortable mirror! That she was living the life her mother had wanted to live but didn’t. She said that her mother would have made a fantastic lawyer because she was brilliant at arguing and winning. Charlotte’s mother did want Charlotte to go to college and follow her dreams. But by supporting her daughter’s goals, she was being reminded of and grieving the life she never got to live.
Mothers are often blamed and misdiagnosed for their jealous feelings, which is inhumane and victim blaming. Blaming a mother for feeling angry about her unlived life does little to help her daughter understand her mother. It does little to help mothers and daughters connect the dots between how they behave towards each other and how the sexism in their generational family harms their emotional and mental well-being, equality, visibility, and mother-daughter relationship. Mothers deserve to be asked why a daughter’s success is so painful for them. Mothers deserve to be given the space to talk about the grief they feel about what they never got to be and do. And mothers and daughters deserve to understand their shared history.
When Charlotte went to her mother and asked her about her dreams about being a lawyer, her mother sobbed and told her how angry she had felt towards her mother and father for not letting her go to college. She said that she never got over that her brother got to do what she wanted to do. Her mother told her how unfulfilling her work life had been and how she felt that she not done what she was meant to do in her life. Having Charlotte listen to and empathize made a huge difference to her mother. No one had ever asked her about what she had wanted to be when she was young, and it was a relief to finally tell someone. Charlotte’s mother was expected to get married and have children and be a traditional stay-at-home mother who took care of her family and supported her husband’s care. Ironically, Charlotte’s mother married a lawyer.
Thankfully, Charlotte’s mother was able to talk about her lost life. Not every mother is able to do that. Some mothers shut down their feelings to protect themselves. For those daughters, understanding that their mother’s unvoiced grief is behind their emotional withdrawal, criticism, or lack of encouragement helps them not feel responsible for their mother’s behavior and set appropriate boundaries.
(Read “The Mother-Daughter Puzzle” for more information about the Mother-Daughter Attachment Model, the 8 stages in the lifespan of the mother-daughter relationship, and instructions on how to map your own or your client’s mother-daughter history.)
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