The idea that a mother would be, could be, jealous of her own kid paints a picture of a monster. Talking about maternal jealousy is perhaps the ultimate taboo, inimical to all we hold dear about motherhood and want to believe about mother love , especially that of a mother for her daughter. Even daughters who enjoy relatively close, if sometimes turbulent, relationships to their mothers report that rivalry, if not jealousy per se, can animate their conversations.
This is what one woman emailed: She can be snide. But is she jealous? The intensity of the mother-daughter connection is hard to overstate. Is comparison—and hence ambivalence or even envy—inevitable when the emotional connection of the mother to her child is weak or missing? What did she discover? That there are few among us who can resist sticking our clogs, sneaks, flip-flops or stilettos out as the prom queen prances by.
This too is not exactly new; after all, Greek mythology attributed the start of the Trojan war to a beauty contest among the goddesses, with a hapless mortal making his pick. Still, myths aside, we like to think of ourselves as welcoming and kind, not scheming and jealous. For that reason, her jealousy of her daughter will never be expressed directly but always in convoluted and indirect ways which make it all the more toxic and harder for a daughter to deal with.
Jealousy and anger are highly personal in a very specific sense because these emotions reflect the self, not the object of the emotions. As Peter Salovey and Alexander Rothman write: But the attacks—given the onus on jealousy generally and maternal envy specifically—will always be indirect.
She said my good grades showed that the school had no standards because I was lazy and that they meant nothing because I was coasting. When I made friends, she accused me of putting them above family and said I was disloyal. When I proved to be popular with boys, she said it was because I was a slut and easy. I cut her out of my life when I left home. The kind of belittlement and disparagement a daughter may experience leaves a wellspring of self-doubt and emotional bewilderment.
The experience is terribly isolating, especially given the onus on maternal jealousy: Would they believe you? It is an equal opportunity toxin, poisoning and maiming the mother as well. But, as always, I am hopeful that by shining light on these patterns and taking them out of the cupboard where dirty secrets are kept, we can begin to have an open and fruitful discussion about the complexity and depth of the mother-daughter relationship.
Perhaps, then, we can begin to talk about jealousy among and between all women, especially mothers and daughters, and begin a mutual journey of healing.
Ryff and Marsha Mailick Seltzer. University of Chicago Press, Tripping the Prom Queen: The Truth about Women and Rivalry.