Saturday, September 1, 2018

Narcissistic Mothers

Painting by Ambrogio Borgognone from Rijksmuseum
The mother, nourishing and taking care of her infant, is upheld not only as an ideal for human development, but also considered a sign of spirituality: a mother is often depicted as an embodiment of the sacred and the holy, which is most expressly symbolized by the Holy Virgin of the Catholic religion. In fact, motherhood is put on a pedestal as she is seen engaged in the selfless act of not only protecting her loved ones but also imbuing them with unconditional love. 

Motherhood is equally reflected in the symbol of the Earth as providing protection and nourishment for its inhabitants and used as the symbol of the fertile land or of one’s home in its purest state. In the Bible, this is referred to as the land where milk and honey flows freely. As Erich Fromm points out in his seminal book The Art of Loving, this is the symbol of the mother taking the flock under her wing. But it is important to underscore that ideally each mother would provide both milk AND honey to her offspring.

Giving milk is triggered automatically and naturally within the body via breastfeeding and despite modern artificial and less adequate forms of nourishment (formula milk as milk replacement), it is still what most mothers initially provide to their hungry infant.

Humans as a rule are genetically predisposed to instinctively feel warmth and love towards a child, but this feeling tends to be more pronounced in the mother. She will give milk and nourishment to her helpless infant and only the cruelest and most resentful of mothers would deny providing this to their dependent baby.

But as man (and woman) cannot live by bread alone, the child will need more than milk. This is where honey comes into play. This stands for the sweetness of life. It is a mother’s twofold responsibility towards her child to provide not only the basic amenities but also sweetness, meaning an abundance of joy for life as well as spiritual satisfaction and fulfillment. However, most mothers fall short on this second aspect, which causes a wide range of problems within the growth and development of the child, and which spills over and carries on into adulthood.

This so-called lack of sweetness is most pronounced in neurotic individuals, and it is a condition that is most promulgated and exasperated by narcissistic mothers. On the surface, these mothers may appear to be a beacon of the perfect mother and being a narcissist, mothers of this kind enjoy both being the focus of attention as well as having the infant in its most helpless and dependent state of his or her life.

Gladly, they take on the role of the giving mother by providing milk as they see the infant as a reflection of their own ego. For a while, narcissistic mothers become the center of attention among family members and friends, and they relish in that feeling as they lavishly soak up each and every pore and aspect of this situation.

Humans, unlike other animals, are in a rather prolonged state of helplessness and dependency, and they need their parents, especially their mother for their survival. In fact, infants are born practically blind. There is no other world for them expect that of the mother with whom they feel united and unified.

Infants tend to feel that they are still in the womb connected to their mother through a now invisible umbilical cord and, in fact, their mother is not only their first contact with the world, but she is also the first love relationship in their life. 

Yet after some time, infants not only become aware of the outside world as separate from themselves, but they notice a new budding identity that feels separate and distant from the mother. This is a period where moments of separation from the mother can create intense feelings of anxiety within the child. In their minds, they fear that the mother has abandoned them and left them to their own devices, which from an evolutionary point of view would signify certain death.

The narcissistic mother still enjoys that stage of development, but she becomes aware and preoccupied that the power she has held on and wielded over the child is slowly beginning to diminish.

Soon after the child becomes more and more independent, the mother that provides honey will not only accept that growing separation and independence, but she will actively encourage it and help loosen - and later sever - the bonds of motherhood, namely to cut the invisible umbilical cord that still emotionally connected the child to her.

Yet that is an unwanted stage and anathema to the narcissistic mother. First, she would lose her standing and position as the center of attention from both family and friends. Gradually, her child is also gaining and creating some distance from her. This arouses intense anxiety and frustration in her as her projected role of motherhood as a caregiver is falling to pieces.

Since her love for the child is neither authentic nor genuine (let us keep in mind that narcissists are generally incapable of loving or feeling empathy for others, not even themselves for that matter), and as her love and care are merely an expression of her wish to control and have power over the helpless child, she will try her utmost best to stifle the growth and independence of her offspring.

In fact, what happens afterwards with narcissistic mothers is a case of neurotic “unselfishness.” This supposed unselfishness is, as Fromm points out, not in the sense of love and caring for others but more a manifestation of the hidden symptoms of depression, tiredness, and failure in the mother’s own love relationships. The so-called unselfish mother will claim to not want anything for herself and will make others (and sometimes herself) believe that she is only living for others, that is, for her child and children only.

Such unselfishness, were it meant as a true manifestation of unconditional love, should create happiness within the given individual, but the fact remains that the narcissistic mother does not feel happy at all; quite to the contrary, she feels unhappy, sad, angry and resentful with life in general and her lot in particular. These people are indeed paralyzed in their capacity to love or enjoy anything, themselves, their family or their children.

What lurks behind this fa├žade, appearance and demeanor of unselfishness is, in fact, an intense self-centeredness. Narcissists see themselves as and continuously crave being the center of attention, and this is exemplified in their supposed sacrifice (of time, money, resources, and energy) for their children; they relish posing as and even complain about being a victim or being victimized by their constant and never-ending state of motherhood. We can see how and why physical but worse emotional independence and separation demonstrated by her children can cause distress and displeasure within such mothers.

Moreover, children who are supposed to benefit from this supposed sacrifice of their mother are, in fact, not happy but rather traumatized by this situation as they grow up in a toxic environment to begin with. These children tend to be anxious, tense and afraid of the disapproval of their mother and try hard to live up to her expectations; yet to no avail as she will never be satisfied with others or herself. 

Children raised by narcissistic mothers feel stifled in their personality and individual expression, while, in many cases, they do not manage to shake off the bonds and tight grip of the domineering and possessive mother. Even in adulthood, they may not only hold onto the need for having their mother’s emotional support and guidance, but they often project those same qualities upon their own partners and spouses.

In fact, a selfish mother in contrast would be much better for one’s psychological health and well-being because the narcissistic mother’s unselfishness works like a protective halo around her. While you can criticize the selfish mother for being careless and for not catering to the needs of the child, the same is much more difficult to be said or done when it comes to the “unselfish” mother; the child feels both conscious as well as subconscious guilt towards her and does not or is reluctant to give or utter any kind of criticism whatsoever. Since the narcissistic mother does not love herself, she is equally incapable of giving love to her child, and this trauma reaches out and continues far into the adult life of that person.

A narcissistic mother is trapped in a time bubble of when she felt most needed and wanted and when her children were merely the object of her power and control. She will do her best to stop their emotional and mental growth and the fact that she does not want what is best for her child but rather what is most convenient for herself shows not only deep-seated self-centeredness but worse a hatred of and contempt for life in general. Not only does she live her own life without honey, but she has also none to give to her offspring so that they must look for a replacement via other means.

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