When a mother’s pride turns to envy

By JUDITH WOODS

Last updated at 15:38 01 March 2008


A mum is supposed to want the very best for her daughter ? but what happens if the daughter's youth, vitality and success make her feel jealous? Judith Woods looks into the devastating effects of maternal envy

When Andrea was growing up she was aware that her mother treated her very differently from her two brothers.

Whereas they were showered with attention for every achievement no matter how minor, she was constantly put down.

"My mother was very critical of my appearance and seemed quite sour when I did well at school or when anyone complimented me. She would withhold praise as a way of punishing me," says Andrea, 42.

"Looking back, I realise she regarded me as a cuckoo in the nest who was trying to push her out. After university, I remember calling home and telling my father that I had just got my first job. He was delighted, but it took my mother over a week to call me, and even then she didn't congratulate me."

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You expect your mother to be your ultimate supporter: mothers and daughters should be soul mates, confidantes, best friends. But what if she is envious of your youth and vitality? What if she wishes she had the career opportunities that were open to you? What if she undermines your confidence at every turn? What if she vies for attention from the men you date?

Most of us take our mother's unconditional love for granted, but some women discover that family rivalry isn't confined to siblings.

This Mother's Day, among the millions of women happily receiving flowers and chocolates from their children, some will be struggling to come to terms with one of the last taboos: a mother's jealousy of her own daughter.

In fairy tales it's always the stepmother who is the jealous one. But when it's the biological mother, the envy corrodes what ought to be the most loving and special of bonds.

Women are far more likely to be jealous of their daughters than their sons. With boys there's an intrinsic sense of difference that simplifies the relationship.

But we feel our girls are like us, so we're far more inclined to compare ourselves to them. For this reason, if a woman feels insecure in her relationship with her partner, the arrival of a daughter can have a dramatic effect.

"Mother, father and daughter can end up in a triangle, in which dad feels so thrilled to have a little girl that he lavishes all his love and affection on her, leaving mum feeling left out and neglected," says relationships psychologist Jacqueline Marson.

"A situation like this needs to be addressed early on by the mother saying to her husband that she feels insecure and would like some of the affection that he shows their daughter, which is a difficult thing to express."

"When a mother feels jealous of her daughter," says YOU relationships counsellor Zelda West-Meads, "it's often because she has problems in her life, particularly her marriage, and is reaching a point where her looks are starting to fade and she feels doors of opportunity have closed for her, while they are wide open for her daughter.

"She might also be feeling a sense of loss that her daughter is growing up and no longer needs her, but it comes across as anger rather than regret. I've heard some tragic stories of girls whose self-image really suffered because their mother was continually critical of them."

From an early age, Jo, 39, vividly remembers being baffled by her mother's disparagement of her. While her friends had mothers who gladly basked in their reflected glory, she found her mother exuded an air of disapproval.

"In my late teens I suffered from depression and I genuinely think my mother liked me best when I was feeling low ? I was so touched when she fussed over me and was very loving. But as soon as I picked myself up and got on with my life, she would start criticising me again; as a result I rarely see her," she says.

Jo went on to have therapy to deal with the emotional fallout. "I've got two daughters of my own now and I overcompensate ridiculously by praising them all the time," she says.

There's something shocking about an overt display of mean-spiritedness from someone so close to us, but that's the bitter nature of jealousy. "From my clinical experience I would say maternal jealousy is far more common than people think," says Jacqueline Marson.

"Most of us come somewhere between having positive maternal thoughts and feeling envious and resentful. It's a rare mother who has never felt jealous of her daughter at some stage ? if you see her having opportunities you never had when you were younger, such as travelling or a high-flying job ? but for most of us that's just a passing thought and we take real pleasure in our daughters' achievements."

But in extreme cases, some mothers are unable to move on. Far from bursting with maternal pride or being able to feel positive about their own role in having helped their daughters to succeed, they feel inadequate and are unable to conceal their envy.

It's a cruel twist of nature that teenage daughters are usually in full, peachy bloom just around the time their mothers reach the menopause, with all its attendant health and self-confidence issues. Geraldine, 38, went through her teens and 20s being told constantly by her mother how much more attractive she had been at the same age.

"That was devastating ? my mother made me feel ugly and I thought I would never have a boyfriend, let alone get married."

Now secure in her own marriage ? and determined not to fall into the same trap ? Geraldine herself goes to the other extreme, showering her daughter with compliments and making sure she always dresses down whenever her daughter's teenage friends come round.

But it can be hard for some women not to feel a touch of the green-eyed monster. In the worst cases, a mother can lose all sense of perspective (not to say decorum) and try to compete with her daughter sexually, wearing revealing clothes and flirting with her male friends, or even her boyfriends.

"My mother, who's in her early 50s now, used to put on lipstick when I had a mixed group of teenage friends round," says Rachael, 27.

"She would hang out in the kitchen for just that bit too long, chatting and making coffee. I found it mortifying, but my mates didn't mind as she's quite a laugh. One of them admitted to me that he quite fancied her, which was presumably the object of the exercise. I never told her, though, because I didn't want to encourage her."

At the heart of the jealousy issue is the fact that in our society the state of motherhood is placed on a pedestal. As soon as she has children, a woman is expected to become a shining beacon of selflessness, making it almost impossible for her to discuss uncomfortable and disloyal feelings, such as envy, with friends or family.

"People bring their whole personality into parenthood, so if a woman is inclined towards being envious generally, she may end up becoming an envious mother," says Windy Dryden, professor of psychotherapeutic studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and author of How to Cope with Difficult Parents (Sheldon, £6.99).

"Envy is one of the ugliest of human emotions and it is very hard when your mother has such low self-worth that she's constantly putting you down and trying to spoil things for you," he says.

Daughters can find themselves bending over backwards to placate their jealous mothers, playing down their achievements so as not to provoke trouble. In some instances, the conflict becomes so painful they end up losing touch.

"Because people feel that envy is so shameful, they're reluctant even to admit to it, so it's not easy to bring it out into the open," says Windy Dryden.

"You can try gently to broach the subject with your mother, expressing puzzlement rather than anger, but if that doesn't work, you may just have to come to terms with the fact that she is who she is and won't change, and seek support and affirmation from other people instead."

HOW TO DEAL WITH YOUR OWN JEALOUSY

•If you feel eaten up by envy whenever your daughter succeeds at something, remember that it's her life, not yours, and it's not her fault that you feel bad.

•Examine the reasons for your jealousy. Are there problems in your marriage? Are you in a dead-end job? Take steps to tackle these and you'll be happier and more able to be genuinely supportive.

•Regard her as a source of inspiration rather than as a rival. If you feel frumpy next to her, for example, ask her to help you update your wardrobe.

HOW TO COPE WITH A JEALOUS MOTHER

•Talk to her about it without being confrontationaI. If your mother is openly envious of your achievements, give her a specific example, explain that you are puzzled that she wasn't supportive and ask her what her feelings were at the time.

•Speak to your father or a grandparent about the situation and ask them to raise the subject with your mother.

•If all else fails, steer clear of subjects that might provoke confrontation. Resign yourself to the fact that she won't give you positive feedback, and look to others for support.

 

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