When Mami Is Not The Mother You Wish You Had
By Angélica Pérez-Litwin
Undeniably, the mother-daughter relationship is one of the most important and treasured relationships in a woman’s life. Latinas, in particular, often refer to their mothers as their “rock” and the wind beneath their wings. In a survey launched last year by NewLatina.net, Understanding Today’s Latinas, 84% of 382 respondents identified their mother as the most influential person in motivating them to succeed in school and professionally.
Latina daughters are proud of their mother’s strength. They respect the sacrifices their mothers have made for their children and family. As a result, the Latina mother-daughter bond is often anchored on admiration and gratitude.
But what happens when your relationship with mami is less than perfect? What do you do when your relationship has been a complicated and emotionally painful one?
“But She’s My Mother”
It is taboo in our culture to express negative feelings about our mothers. When they do so, Latina daughters often feel they are being “ungrateful” and “malcriadas.” But the reality is that some mothers do fail to mother their children in a way that fosters confidence, emotional security and personal growth. You can spend all day rationalizing why mami didn’t love you the way you needed to be loved, or why she’s so critical and overly demanding, but this rationalization is useless, unless you are willing to also honor how her behaviors have negatively impacted you.
Below, we focus on two types of difficult mother-daughter relationships. The resource list at the end of the article includes books that expand on this subject matter.
The Critical and Overly Demanding Mami
If you grew up with a mother who was a little too comfortable pointing out your limitations and faults, you might struggle with feelings of insecurities and self-doubt. In fact, you may find it difficult to make decisions in your life, take new steps and take risks. You may be “stuck” in your relationship with others, or even professionally. Furthermore, adults who have critical parents are highly sensitive to criticism, are afraid of making a mistake and fear being rejected. These fears limit their innate potential.
The adult children of critical parents often become obsessed with their need to gain their parents’ approval and love. They sacrifice their personal needs and desires, in hopes of meeting the high demands imposed by their parents. Unfortunately, this is often a frustrating situation for the child/adult, as they can’t seem to stop trying one more time to gain mami’s approval.
The Needy Mami that Won’t Let Go
Needy mothers will do ANYTHING to get their children’s attention. They have an amazing way to pull their children into their emotional space, and have their needs taken care of. They are often highly dependent on their children and have very little insight into how this dependency impacts their children’s personal growth. Needy mamis come in all forms: the depressed mami, the emotionally abused spouse, the eternal sick mami, and the disempowered one.
Needy mothers are skilled in making their children feel guilty. One look, one comment, a sigh – are enough to trigger their children’s attention. They often use guilt and the threat of rejection to trap their children into reacting in a vicious cycle of dependency.
In extreme cases, dependent mothers will develop a mother-daughter relationship that is very exclusive. The mother invests a significant amount of time and attention on the child, often aiming to fulfill all of the child’s needs, including the need for other relationships (e.g., friendships with peers). The child, in turn, learns to survive, live and play with mom as the center of his/her world. This creates an interdependency that is hard to break as the child grows older. Chronic guilt, shame and pity are the emotional remnants of growing up with a needy mother. In less healthy situations, daughters may experience difficulties building relationships with other people (including romantic ones) because they fear abandoning their mother to pursue new relationships.
An important note: It is important to mention that, in most cases, parents are not fully aware of the dynamic they are creating with their child. Their behavior is not malicious or ill-intent. They simply have become so comfortable with other people taking care of their needs, that they don’t know how to be otherwise. By doing less for your needy mother, you will help her become more comfortable with doing things on her own (unless she manages to find someone else to depend on, which is typical).
What to Do About Your Not-So-Good Mother-Daughter Relationship?
First and foremost, love and respect her. Equally importantly, honor your needs and your personal growth as a human being. If your relationship with your mother is limiting you and emotionally-draining you, this is a big red flag that something is not well in your relationship with your mother. Don’t ignore it. Do something about it.
Below are some tips to get you started on the road to a more peaceful mami-m’ija relationship:
- Acknowledge how your mother makes you feel. Write it down, talk about it, and say it out loud.
- Question every single negative emotion your mother makes you feel. If you feel bad for not calling her as often as she expects you to, ask yourself: “Why am I feeling bad about not calling her every day?”
- Ask yourself why you choose to feel bad (or guilty, or ashamed). How are these feelings helpful to you? (They’re not.)
- Be objective: Does mami really needs your help, attention, company? Do you really need to take her criticism(s) to heart? Does it really matter what she thinks?
- Ignore, ignore and ignore. Let the critical comments, the complaints, and the emotional stuff roll off of you. Try it. With practice, you’ll get good at it.
- Be yourself. You don’t always need to agree with mami. Trust your instinct and your needs. Take the risk of her being upset at you, and learn to deal with it. Honor thy self.
- Set boundaries. I cannot stress this one enough. Teach your mother to respect your time, your thoughts, your values and your needs. Set boundaries by not giving her complete access to you and your time. Teach her to respect your life and lifestyle.
- Seek counseling if life with mami is so over-whelming that you’re beginning to feel anxious, depressed, insecure and/or stuck in your life. Talking about this with an understanding and trusting counselor will help you figure out how to best create the type of relationship that you deserve.
Angélica is the creative force and publisher of New Latina. She is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in private practice, focusing on Latina women.