By Esther Mann, LCSW
I’m having a problem with my wife and daughter. Bracha and I have three children. The oldest is a girl and then we have two boys. I’ve always felt that Bracha was extremely hard and demanding of Shira. She’s a bright, lovely young lady—now 11 years old. But sometimes I think that Bracha not only views Shira as an adult, but is almost in competition with her.
A little of my own background. I am one of five brothers. My mother loved us all tremendously, but I remember hearing her say on more than one occasion that she wished she had had a daughter. Though I’m sure the five of us gave her plenty of nachas, there was always something missing from her life, not having a daughter to share girlie things with. I felt sorry for her in this regard.
So when our first child was born and I saw that it was a girl, I was so happy for Bracha, thinking that every mother’s dream was to have a daughter. Boy was I in for a surprise! She admitted she was hoping for her firstborn to be a boy, and I can honestly say that from the beginning, she bonded with Shira differently than I saw her bonding with our sons.
She treats our sons as princes. She adores them, coddles them, and is so proud of them. Shira, on the other hand, seems to be more of a burden to her than a child she can cherish. I know it’s hard to believe, especially considering how amazing Shira is. She is beautiful, smart, and sensitive.
I have always been extremely close to Shira. I am also close to my sons, but I feel there is something special about a father–daughter relationship. She has always been the apple of my eye. And I can’t understand how Bracha doesn’t see the beauty inside Shira—inside and out—the way I do.
Honestly, Bracha was never a great mother to Shira. She wasn’t warm with her, and over the past few years she has been giving her so much responsibility it sometimes makes me cringe. She expects Shira to help out tremendously around the house and look after her brothers, and, in general, I sometimes think she treats her like a poorly treated maid, barking at her to bring her things or do things for her.
Over this past Shabbos, Shira was sitting at the Shabbos table ready to bust with joy. She had some wonderful news from school to share with us. She had done amazingly well on some tests and was chosen for a special honor taking place at school. As she was telling all of us about the news, I glanced over at Bracha and was shocked to see the expression on her face. In that flash of a moment, it occurred to me that Bracha does not like Shira!
It was written all over her face. Rather than look happy and proud of her daughter, she was squinting her eyes and had an almost scary, mean expression on her face. I wondered why it took me so long to realize that Bracha not only doesn’t love her daughter, but probably dislikes her. I was so upset in that moment, for the first time taking in the true reality of the situation between Bracha and Shira, that I wanted to run over to Shira and just grab her and run away with her!
Of course I didn’t do that. Rather, I told Shira how happy I was for her and how much she deserved all the good things that come her way. And then I didn’t know what to do. Do I ask my wife why she doesn’t like her daughter? I’m sure she would deny it. Over the years, I’ve made comments to Bracha about how hard she is on Shira and how she expects so much from her. Basically, Bracha would more or less deny the truth and justify her behavior by saying that it’s important to raise a daughter with high standards, so that she grows up to be a fine young lady. But in that moment at the table, it became clear to me that there was a lot more going on and that her behavior toward Shira was personal and mean-spirited.
I feel so hurt for Shira. I’m sure she feels it and it must be painful for her. Though Shira knows how much I adore her, I doubt that I can make up for the loss of sincere love from her own mother. For years, Shira tried so hard to ingratiate herself with her mother. But I’ve noticed that over the past year or two, Shira has been pulling away from her, as if to say that she’s done trying and doesn’t even care anymore. She comes to me with her problems or just to hang out and schmooze. I love it, but feel that there is something not right about it.
I’m feeling so upset by this whole thing and honestly don’t know how to make things right between Bracha and Shira. Shira deserves so much better from her mother, and I feel like I’ve got to figure out how to fix this awful situation.
What can I do?
Generally speaking, there is a natural order in life and nature that we come to expect and even rely on. The natural love a mother has for a daughter or son is a primitive instinct that we even see among the animal kingdom. That fierce connection and desire to protect creates a bond that cannot and should not be broken.
However, every so often there exists an aberration from nature, from the way things should be. The reasons for it can go deep and are often impossible to explain. But, to put it mildly, it upsets the apple cart and can create reverberating consequences for generations to come.
In that defining moment around the Shabbos table, you had an epiphany while looking deeply into Bracha’s face. It become abundantly clear to you that not only was Bracha lacking in the typical pride and love a mother should display toward a happy daughter, while sharing in her daughter’s special moment, but you witnessed a negative reaction that could have conveyed ugly emotions indeed.
There are mothers out there who have serious issues with their daughters. There are some mothers who are in competition with their daughters, as the impending threat of their daughters growing up and stealing their limelight frightens them. Usually, this happens when the mothers are narcissistic and want to be the only show in town. Or perhaps these are mothers whose own mothers neglected them and felt in competition with them, so that they were never able to learn how to bond properly with a female.
There are mothers who resent the close bond that their husbands enjoy with their daughters. Sad and sick, but true. You mentioned how, from the very beginning, you and Shira had something special going on between the two of you. That’s such a beautiful thing. Yet in Bracha’s mind, it could have been perceived as a threat of some sort.
There are women who just prefer the company of men as opposed to women, even when these women are their own flesh and blood, and subsequently connect closely with their sons but are unable to connect meaningfully with their daughters.
Whatever the reason for the unconscionable relationship your wife has developed with Shira—or lack of a relationship—the real question is what you can do to reshape it. It sounds as though you’ve been afraid from the start to make much of a deal over this with Bracha. Maybe because you were a little afraid of her reaction, or felt you had little power in regard to her, or maybe you didn’t think you could make any difference.
It’s possible there is nothing you could have said to heal whatever wounds exist inside of Bracha that prompt her behavior. But I think we all want to know that we’ve at least given each challenge that comes our way during our lifetimes our best shot.
Regardless of what is causing Bracha’s harmful behavior, it is important for you to speak your truth and tell Bracha what it is you see and feel about her relationship with Shira, and that it is no longer acceptable behavior. You know what you know, and don’t let Bracha wiggle her way out of this one. You must insist that she see a therapist in order to help her understand what is standing in the way of a natural, happy relationship with her daughter. At some point, it may be necessary for Bracha and Shira to go together for therapy, so that they can learn how to be with one another after so many years of inappropriate conduct.
If Bracha refuses to get help for herself, then you should encourage Shira to go by herself. I’m sure there are lots of feelings that she needs help sorting through and hopefully finding a way to make peace with.
In the interim, continue to be the best father you can be. Continue to love your daughter deeply, validate her, encourage her, and let her know that it’s safe for her to talk to you about whatever it is that might be upsetting to her. Keep the lines of communication open and secure.
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.