By Esther Mann, LCSW
I am one of three children—two brothers and myself. I don’t even know how to begin this story. To put it bluntly, from the time I was young, my mother put my brothers on a pedestal but competed with me. It sounds crazy, right? What kind of mother competes with her own daughter? But it’s true. I have three children of my own, some are grown and married, and there is nothing I wouldn’t do for them and nothing that I wouldn’t want for them. Whatever I’ve achieved in my life, I hope that they will ultimately achieve more. I want them to have more than I have. Experience more than me. Have better lives than I’ve had. And I still can’t get past the fact that till today, my mother tries to hold me down, hold me back, manipulate me, so that I won’t achieve more than her.
My mother is a success in her own right. She has accomplished a lot, and many people admire her. If any of them ever knew how she treated me, they would be shocked. To give you an example, my mother is quite educated. I loved school and loved learning and wanted to be a professional. My mother did everything in her power to convince me that I didn’t need an education. She’s strong and manipulative and has always gotten her way with me.
And there’s the weight issue. When I became a teenager and began to look like a shapely woman, my mother would sometimes borrow clothing from me and insist that they were a bit too loose on her, but still felt she looked better in them. She had to be thinner than me! At some point, I couldn’t take the competition anymore and started gaining weight so that we couldn’t possibly wear the same clothing. I know it all sounds so ridiculous, but till today, I can’t seem to allow myself to be thin. It doesn’t feel safe for me.
When I was dating, she discouraged me from going out more than once with young men who seemed to be headed for great success. I don’t even recall what excuses she gave me, but one never ignores my mother’s demands. I wound up marrying someone who was so beneath me intellectually, and in many other ways. Somehow, my mother convinced me that he would be a good husband for me. And like an idiot, I listened to her. To say that my marriage is a disaster is an understatement.
Here I am, a grown woman, and I still don’t know how to get out from under my mother’s control and toxic competition. She still knows how to make me crumble, when she withholds her love from me or speaks abusively toward me. I still find myself jumping through her hoops and putting myself and my own needs on the back burner.
I’m now so used to underachieving that sometimes I realize that I’m not even trying to do my best and then find myself getting angry at my mother and blaming her, even when she isn’t really involved in the situation. I hold her responsible for everything in my life that isn’t working well. A lot of my failures are her fault, but even when it isn’t, I make it her fault.
Is there any hope for a grown woman like me to someday become strong and not allow this to continue? Also, I feel like I have to figure out a way to forgive my mother for constantly competing with me. It makes me so angry to think that she needed to feel better about herself than she did about me. But I can’t seem to get past all the hurt and pain and the consequences of her mothering.
What a nightmare, having a mother who is in competition with her daughter. It’s unnatural, hurtful, absurd, and, as you’ve experienced, damaging. It doesn’t reflect the normal order of things. You’re right when you say that a mother (or father, for that matter) should naturally want her children’s lives to be more successful than their own. And yet, like your mother, there are parents out there who have this strange disorder of finding themselves competing with their children. It is ridiculous, but sometimes true. So to begin with, know that you are not alone.
Growing up, it must have been extremely confusing for you. How could you know for sure whether this was the norm? For all you knew, all mothers were borrowing clothing from their children and feeling the need to look better than them. To be thinner, prettier, more successful. But of course now you know how dysfunctional this entire situation was. Especially when it came to encouraging you to make life-altering decisions, such as selecting a husband or pursuing a career. You are presently paying the price for her narcissistic demands.
You’ve been an adult for a while now. Yet, in your head, you are still the child, held firm under your mother’s thumb. I suggest that that doesn’t have to be the case any longer. You do not have to jump through any more of her hoops. It is your responsibility to yourself and your family to make independent decisions about your own welfare based on your needs and not those of your mother. I know, easier said than done. But changes begin with a single thought.
I believe that things can change, that you can change. It begins by looking at your world differently, and thinking about what it would look like if you acted in your own interest for once and sustained your mother’s disappointment and maybe even wrath. How would that play out? Would she no longer love you (in her own strange way)? Would she walk away from being your mother? Or would she more likely be angry at you, maybe stop talking to you for a day and maybe a few days, and then life would go on? Most important, could you learn how to stand up to her, knowing that her demands are often unreasonable and hurtful to you?
You’ve never learned how to live with the discomfort of your mother’s anger. Anger doesn’t kill. It doesn’t even have to hurt. It does, however, hurt the person who is holding it, which would be your mother. Ultimately, this is her problem.
Speaking of anger, maybe it’s time for you to stop being so angry at your mother and decide that you are free to move on and get past her hurtful behavior. What’s done is done. Nothing can change the past. It’s the present that you need to concern yourself with, because if you continue to invest all your energy bemoaning your past, you will stay stuck in it for the rest of your life and be unable to turn things around.
Whether it’s small things or humongous things, we can all point fingers at our parents and take umbrage over parenting mishaps or downright awful parenting. (As our own children will likely do to us someday.) But at some point, we need to regain control over our own lives and begin to live our best lives, rather than continue to blame our parents for our problems.
I’m not minimizing how difficult it was and is for you, having a mother who has never figured out what it means to actually be a mother. In some ways, it’s disgraceful. However, my suggestion to you is to end the blame game, perhaps even find some compassion for your mother’s own insecurities and issues (I’m betting that she probably dealt with similar difficulties with her own mother), and become the complete adult you were meant to be.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.