For a lot of women, the transformation starts out pretty innocuously. We might scold a partner for failing to remove a stubborn food particle from a plate, or get tricked by a sports replay, crying out “yes!!” at the television while our friends look on, bored, because that goal was scored 20 minutes ago. We might be outraged by motorcycles, complain about loud music in bars, or purchase very uncool things, like insulated lunch bags or SKETCHERS.
Then comes that dizzying moment of self-awareness. Oh my god, we think, I have become my mother. And even if our mom is our hero, the feeling that our identity is merging with hers is never totally comfortable. “I like when my mom is the voice of reason in my head,” my friend Alex, 27, told me. “But sometimes when I notice a wrinkle or a big pore, I see her, and I’m afraid to get old. And I feel guilty for having this fear, because she’s so youthful and loving, but it’s the most accurate depiction I know of my future form.”
Then there are women whose fear of morphing into their mom is so potent it dictates important, life-altering decisions. “I aspire to be completely unlike my mother,” says Julie*. “And that has really influenced the way I’ve raised my children. For example, I never wanted there to be a sense of competition between them, the way there was for me as a kid.”
So, yes, generally we have a lot of feelings about our moms and to what extent we do or do not want to be like them. To make sense of these feelings, VICE chatted with Dr. Lisa Ferrari, a Vancouver-based clinical psychologist who focuses on child and family psychology, explained why the fear of resembling our mothers is so pervasive, what we can do to cope with this fear, and why it’s weirdly difficult to keep ourselves from reproducing bothersome aspects of our mother’s personalities.
VICE: In your experience, how pervasive is the fear of becoming one’s mother?
Dr. Lisa Ferrari: People allude to it quite often. When women start to see annoying aspects of their personality—ones they recognize as negative personality traits of their mother—they’ll think, this is really familiar, this is something I don’t like about my mom, and I don’t want to do that as well. The way I see it, women are resistant to becoming like their mothers no matter how loving and nurturing their mothers are.
Why do you think that is?
As a society I think we tend to really mentally filter the positives and overemphasize the negatives. So it doesn’t really matter how loving and nurturing your mother was, the things we tend to remember about a parent are likely going to be the more annoying aspects of their personality. It’s human nature.
The thing I find interesting too is that, even if we notice a facet of our mom’s personality that we don’t like—say a speech tick or whatever—we still end up replicating it. Why do we reproduce behaviour that we actively dislike?
If we minimize the positive, and we’re overemphasizing the negative, then we’re in this cognitive loop of reinforcing that negative behavior. If the worry over those annoying behaviors is taking up a lot of our thoughts and energy, it’s easier for us to default to those behaviours without knowing that we’re replicating them. Fixating on those behaviours means there’s an increased likelihood that we’ll recreate them.
And what about for people who have very legitimate reasons for not wanting to be like their mom? So, say your mom is emotionally or physically abusive. Do you ever see people who are afraid of inheriting toxic behaviours, and what’s the best way to deal with that fear?
Sure, so a client might come in and say, ‘My mom used to fly off the handle’ or ‘there was a lot of screaming, and I don’t want to yell or get elevated in my romantic relationship, with a friend, or with my child.’ So what do we do with that? Well, I think that when we’re familiar with the things that we don’t want—the behaviours, attitudes, personality traits, et cetera—we tend to just stay circumspect in that knowledge. We’re familiar with what doesn’t feel good, but I think what needs to happen is we need to take it a step further and really focus on how we can do things differently. If we don’t go through a thought process of really laying out what we’re going to do differently and what it will look like for us in our futures, in relationships or out in the world, we won’t have a solidified idea or vision of what the alternate way of being is, and we’ll end up defaulting to what we know and what has been modelled to us.
It sounds like you’re talking about concrete goal setting, or even the power of visualization.
Yeah. I also think that the fear of becoming your mother doesn’t have to be thought of as a negative thing. Women today are very focused on growth, whether it’s through healthy lifestyle, new experiences, or education. There’s just an openness to take everything in, and a growth-oriented mindset, meaning a dedication to bettering yourself. Today there are more resources, data, and information accessibility than when our parents were our age. Not wanting to be like mom might just be a woman’s attempt at being known and being acknowledged for being unique in her own right. It’s about making her own mark, rather than replicating who her mother was as a partner, as a mother, as a friend.
I also wonder if a desire to not become our mothers has to do with a generational shift and wanting to be more progressive. I think there’s this strong desire to defy traditional roles for the sake of politics and feminism. Do you think that plays into things?
I think so. But it’s interesting because to do the opposite of what mom did, in a traditional household, is still an attempt at wanting to be unique and known for something other than what your mom did. You’re striving for a place in the world that is unique to you. And who’s to say that if mom was fully into a career, if she worked long hours and it was particularly upsetting to you to be home on your own after school with a nanny, you may really value being at home. You might think, when it’s my turn to do this, I’ll do it differently. To put it in context, in families where the eldest is fully into sports, it’s likely that the next child in line may like sports but will gravitate to something more creative, because the sports role has already been filled.
And what about sexuality? Growing up, we don’t really think of our mothers as sexual beings because that’s super uncomfortable. Do you think that, on some level, we conflate becoming like our mothers with a loss of sexual identity?
Right, so we don’t see moms as sexual beings because we also see them as old. They are aging, and we associate sexuality with youthfulness, spontaneity, and more romanticized ideas around sexuality. There’s also the fact that, when we get older, and we start to see aspects of our mother’s personality appearing in us that we don’t want to, we associate that with aging and we begin to feel less connected to our younger selves. If we become them, cognitively, we feel like we’re getting older and there’s a real reluctance to go there.
Should we ever discuss the fear of becoming our moms with our moms? Or is that emotionally tricky territory?
It is emotionally tricky, but if you have a loving and nurturing relationship, and an openness to communicate, it could be a fruitful conversation. You might learn a little bit about what your mom’s mom did that brought up similar emotions for her. It all depends on that connection and that relationship, because it can easily be a conversation that your parent does not take offense to, and that they understand deeply because of their own parental mother-daughter relationship. You could find some new commonality and understanding.
In your experience, what would you say is the number one thing people fear inheriting from their mothers?
Control. Hands down.
Why is that such an undesirable trait? Like why do you think women want to seem less controlling then their mothers?
My sense is that the impact of that control felt very stifling for people growing up. That control could have been very limiting in terms of their feeling of autonomy and independence.
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.