Don’t Blame Mother: Mending the Mother-Daughter Relationship. – book reviews

Carol Tavris

How Psychology Shortchanges Mothers

When Philip Wylie wrote Generation of Vipers in the 1940s, his description of the all-engulfing American mother shocked a nation. When Philip Roth wrote Portnoy’s Complaint two decades later, his description of a smothering Jewish mother amused a nation. To psychologist Paula J. Caplan, these portrayals of mothers are anything but laughable anachronisms; they are part of a widespread attitude of mother-blaming that surrounds us as invisibly as water surrounds fish. In her compelling new book, Don’t Blame Mother: Mending the Mother-Daughter Relationship (Harper & Row, $17.95), Caplan makes that attitude visible. Readers won’t regard mothers in quite the same way again.

Caplan observes that mothers travel a very narrow band of acceptable behavior: If they veer too far off in one direction, they are considered cold and rejecting; too far in the other direction, they are overemotional, overprotective. Psychology contains no concept of acceptable, let alone praise-worthy, behavior for mothers. (If you do praise your mother, people are suspicious. I recently wrote an essay to celebrate my remarkable mother, and the editor’s only query was, “Where are the warts?”) For example, Caplan notes, family therapists have no positive words to describe attentive mothering; families that appear outwardly warm, loving and supportive are instead considered to be “enmeshed” and “fused”–in short, emotionally disturbed.

Caplan and her associates analyzed a decade of psychological research to determine the nature and extent of mother blaming. Of four categories–things that mothers do, things that mothers fail to do, things that fathers do and things that fathers fail to do–only one regularly turned up to be viewed as problematic: things that mothers do. Mothers were blamed for causing more than 70 different kinds of problems in their children, including bedwetting, schizophrenia, inability to cope with color blindness, aggression, learning problems and “homicidal transsexualism.” Fathers were rarely blamed for their children’s woes.

Caplan has also found that clinicians use a double standard in describing mothers and fathers. A mother is “cold and rejecting,” but a father who behaves identically is considered normal: “He’s just that way.” Or mothers will be described according to how they are (usually negatively), while fathers are described by what they do (in most cases positively). Once aware of this pattern, you see it everywhere. After reading Caplan, I happened on a New York Times book review of a biography of Edward R. Murrow. It seems his mother was an “overprotective, harddriving moralist, his father a hardworking subsistence farmer.”

Caplan does not deny that some mothers are perfectly dreadful, but children have difficulties for many reasons. We need, she says, to consider the child’s temperament (perhaps this child would give any parent trouble), and we need to look at the father’s behavior. We need to look at the child’s friends and other influences. Most clinicians, she says, don’t do this. If there’s a problem, someone must be to blame, and it’s almost always the mother. Caplan cites one study of the children of men who had been Vietnam POWs. The researchers wanted to know if the children were suffering because of their fathers’ experiences. And indeed, the fathers were distressed and emotionally distant from their families, and their children did have many emotional problems. Yet the researchers concluded that these problems were the mothers’ fault. Why was this? The men’s problems disturbed their wives, which in turn affected their ability to be good mothers, which in turn messed up the kids.

In custody battles, Caplan argues, “The justice system and the mental health system provide a double whammy of mother blaming.” Good mothers, she reports, have been denied custody both because they have paying jobs (“they care more about their careers than their children”) and because they don’t have paying jobs (“they don’t love their kids enough to support them well”). They are denied custody if they are living with a man (“they are promiscuous”) and if they aren’t (“they can’t provide a stable heterosexual environment”). If women provide evidence of the father’s sexual abuse of the child, they will be accused of lying, man-hating or being sexually cold–which many experts claim is what drives men to commit incest. Even when fathers are shown to be violent, irresponsible or disturbed, they are praised for caring enough to sue for custody.

The double bind mothers have been put into is particularly hard on their relationships with their daughters, Caplan notes, because daughters–prospective mothers–hear these conflicting messages about power and powerlessness and don’t know whether to value or devalue their mothers, or motherhood. She devotes the final three chapters to ways of “mending the mother-daughter relationship,” such as identifying the conflicting messages and myths that weaken this bond. For instance, society attributes enormous power to mothers, holding them accountable for every action without giving them real power or appreciation. Mothers are expected to know their child’s every want and need through some magical wisdom, but they are also assumed to be ignorant, needy and critical–they’re only mothers, after all.

But this is more than a problem for individual mothers and daughters. It is important for us to pull back from these “individual skirmishes,” Caplan says, and look at the larger issues: Why are there so many conflicting pressures on women? Why does it suit society’s interests for mothers and daughters to invest so much energy in conflict? Caplan believes that if mothers and daughters stopped feeling so panicky about their relationship, they might form a real alliance–and that is what society fears.

Carol Tavris, who is not angry at her mother, is a social psychologist and author of Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion (Simon & Schuster).

COPYRIGHT 1989 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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