The misery of having a competitive mother
22:48 GMT, 29 August 2012
20:13 GMT, 30 August 2012
As a ten-year-old, Maria Warne loved to sing — so when she was picked to perform a solo in her school concert, naturally she couldn’t wait to rush home and share the good news with her mother.
But when the excited schoolgirl burst through the front door, she didn’t get the delighted reaction most daughters would expect. ‘Before I had even finished telling her, Mum made it clear that she had absolutely no intention of coming to watch me,’ says Maria, now a 55-year-old divorcee.
‘She said that listening to the “horrible noise” I made when I sang in my bedroom was bad enough, and immediately went on to reminisce at great length about what a brilliant singer she’d been when she was a child — and how she’d won numerous awards for her lovely voice.’
Hindsight: Jacquie Boyce has realised her mother didn't give her the approval she needed, because she was self-obsessed
Maria was devastated by her mother Irene’s reaction, but not all that surprised.
‘My mother was totally self-obsessed,’ she says. ‘If something wasn’t all about her, then she didn’t want to know. I was always looking for approval from her, but it was a complete waste of time.’
Irene’s monstrous behaviour might sound extreme but, according to writer Danu Morrigan, narcissistic mothers like her — women who have such outrageous egos they cannot see past their own needs and make their daughters’ lives a misery — are surprisingly common.
Danu is the author of a new book on the subject, which she wrote after setting up an online support group three years ago following a difficult relationship with her own mother. She realised just how many daughters were in the same predicament. The site has almost 10,000 members.
She says low self-esteem is a common legacy of this type of toxic parenting.
Maria agrees: ‘Unfortunately, the horrible feeling that I was just not good enough, or important enough, has blighted my life ever since, even though Mum died of heart problems 16 years ago.
‘My mother’s obsession with herself, and indifference to me, made me a pleaser and a perfectionist.
Narcissistic personality disorder affects one in 100 people
‘I’ve deliberately avoided having a family of my own because I’ve always worried that I might end up treating my children the way she treated me.’
Maria grew up in Clevedon, Somerset, where her mother ran the local newsagent and her father was a baker.
While Maria says she was the apple of her father’s eye, he was the ‘anything for a quiet life’ type.
‘I had no one to stand up for me,’ says Maria, who is an English teacher in south-west France.
Such was Irene’s ego, she even insisted on taking centre-stage at Maria’s first wedding — a short-lived marriage at 20 to a local boy she met in her mother’s shop. Maria admits she only got married to escape from home.
She recalls that her mother insisted on choosing her a dowdy wedding dress, while buying herself a fashionable outfit and undergoing a host of beauty treatments.
‘It was all so she could hog the wedding photos,’ she says.
‘When the pictures were being taken, she even shoved one of the tiny bridesmaids to one side, telling her: “You’re in the way —– it’s my day!” ’
Having settled down too quickly, Maria’s first marriage was doomed to failure. After five years, she got divorced and started a relationship with the man who was to become her second husband for 26 years.
‘He was 22 years older than me — and didn’t get on with my mum at all. We ended up moving from Somerset to get away from her,’ she says.
Bygone days: Jacquie with her self-obsessed mother
For the next few years, until her father died suddenly of a heart attack, Maria saw very little of her mother. ‘Mum didn’t cope well on her own, so I ended up putting her in a home,’ she says.
‘Not long after, she died from heart problems. The most upsetting thing about her death was that I realised I had no good memories of her.’
Many of Maria’s experiences are echoed by Danu, who writes under a pseudonym because her parents are still alive.
Danu, 48, who lives in Dublin with her husband and their teenage son, says: ‘Mother would never take the slightest bit of interest in anything I did as a child, or even later on as an adult. She couldn’t even bring herself to tell me I looked good on my wedding day.’
For Danu, like Maria, her mother’s treatment was to have a devastating impact.
‘I suffered from low self-esteem, depression and bulimia in my teens because her behaviour made me believe I was a bad person,’ she says.
Psychologist Dr Massimo Stocchi, who works at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital as well as in his private Harley Street practice, estimates that 98 per cent of us exhibit some narcissistic traits, such as expecting praise and admiration from others.
‘By behaving in a cold, demanding and self-absorbed manner, some mothers realise they can have everyone running around trying to please them. It’s an attractive proposition for many,’ he says.
According to Danu, the experiences of the women who post on her website show many daughters of narcissistic mothers even worry about their sanity, because what they experience growing up doesn’t match their mother’s version of events.
She says these daughters often make poor relationship choices. They can also tend towards addictions as they struggle to deal with repressed feelings. This is something experienced by teaching assistant Jacquie Boyce, 37, a mother of five from Camberley, Surrey, who has been married to her husband John, an accountant, for ten years.
Even Jacquie’s name reveals the depth of the self-obsession exhibited by her mother, who was called Jacqueline and picked a diminutive of her own name for her daughter.
And Jacquie says her mother’s narcissistic personality made her childhood and teenage years, in Poole, Dorset, incredibly difficult.
‘Mum made it clear to my younger brother and me, right from an early age, that she had sacrificed an awful lot to have us,’ she says.
‘She was a bright woman and a talented painter, and always insinuated that she would have had a much more fulfilling life if she hadn’t had children. I remember feeling guilty about that.’
Jacquie’s father, an engineer, worked long hours. Her mother, a housewife, couldn’t bear to be upstaged by her daughter.
‘She loved skirts, heels, make-up and manicures, but would insist that I wore nothing but jeans, a plain T-shirt and trainers,’ she says. ‘She’d then tell everyone what a tomboy I was. When I did put on something pretty, she’d say I looked tarty and make me take it off.’
At 17, Jacquie managed to escape when she got a job in a pub that came with accommodation. Her mother persuaded her to come home, but then threw her out when she fell pregnant at 19 with her daughter Karly, now 16.
‘But once Karly was born, she couldn’t resist taking over again,’ says Jacquie. ‘She made me feel I wasn’t capable of looking after my own child, that she was the only one who knew what to do.
‘When she died suddenly from lung cancer a year later, I have to say I was relieved to see her go.’ But Jacquie spiralled out of control after her mother died, slipping into anorexia, and alcohol and drug abuse.
When she temporarily lost custody of Karly and her second daughter, she knew she had to turn her life around and started seeing a therapist. ‘I met John during this time, managed to get back custody of the girls and the rest is history,’ she says.
So what is the best way to deal with being the daughter of a narcissistic mother Unlike Maria and Jacquie, Danu Morrigan’s mother is still alive, but the author chose to cut all contact with her and her father in 2008.
‘After one particularly fraught phone argument about her behaviour, we didn’t speak for about nine months,’ she says.
‘It was then I realised how much happier I felt not being in contact. I eventually wrote them a letter telling them I wanted to sever contact altogether.’
While that may sound extreme to others, she says: ‘I believe you cannot offer forgiveness if your abuser has not acknowledged what they have done, apologised or tried to change.’
But psychologist Massimo Stocchi thinks Danu is wrong.
‘Cutting a parent out of your life altogether can leave you in a vulnerable place emotionally,’ he says. ‘Rather, ask yourself how much your parent contributes to your life on a scale of 1:100, and then be sure that you only ever give the same back.’
If your mother is no longer alive, Stocchi suggests that counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy (which helps develop new ways of dealing with dysfunctional feelings) may just exorcise her influence once and for all.
As Jacquie Boyce says: ‘Mum threatened to come back and haunt me if I ever did anything she didn’t like. It was a couple of years before I was completely convinced she couldn’t.’
You're Not Crazy — It’s Your Mother by Danu Morrigan (Darton, Longman and Todd, 9.99). To order a copy for 8.99 (including P&P), tel: 0843 382 0000.