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​Are We Destined to Become Our Mothers? A Scientific Investigation

If our brain is a computer, then our interactions with our parents are the default setting. And when things go faulty or get stressful in our adult lives, our neurons head for a familiar path, one usually set in early development.

by Jessica Machado
Nov 21 2014, 5:05pm

Illustration by Penelope Gazin

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It happened after work, at about a quarter past eight. My coat was barely off before I had a pot of rice on the stove and two chicken breasts covered in sauce from a jar labeled "Szechuan flavor." I was hungry, impatient, mentally cataloguing my day while willing the slop to cook faster. When it was done, my husband and I brought our plates into the living room, where we shoveled bite after bite into our mouths between guzzles of wine and answer-mumbles to Wheel of Fortune puzzles. That's when I realized, clear as my Windexed windows, I had become my mother.

Over the years, I have talked a lot of shit about my mother's cooking––her microwaved chicken squares covered in sauces yellow (powdered béarnaise from the packet) or red (ketchup, sugar, soy sauce), with rice from the just-press-the-button rice cooker and the absence of any vegetables. I have written about her need for me to hush through her "stories" of General Hospital and All My Children after her long day of teaching high school kids, running errands, and chauffeuring me to and from school. And like many little girls, at first I wanted to be my mother––I dressed up in her strappy heels and yelled at my dolls like I thought she did at her students––and then from adolescence through young adulthood, she seemed quite lame and I vowed to never, ever be anything like her. I mean, how I could I! We were nothing alike! My mom was prim and proper in Liz Claiborne silk; I was outspoken and sulky in patent leather boots. She listened to Linda Ronstadt and said things like "Geez Louise"; I pounded metal riffs and dropped f-bombs. I was especially critical of her relationships with men. I took a self-righteous teenage oath to never be the kind of woman who would let a man cheat on me. I would never conform, or sacrifice who I was, for any guy, no matter who he was. I even made sure to jot down all my mom's faults and irritating habits in my journals, so I wouldn't repeat them (while, of course, still fiercely loving her and seeking her approval).

In some ways, I followed through on those promises, but there were less-obvious behaviors I engaged in that were very much like my mother's: I stayed in relationships that weren't working because I was scared to be alone. I didn't like to admit that I fucked up, particularly to my mother, who was also always one to put her best face forward. And I may've dressed like a second-hand biker goth, but I made sure my boots were spotless and my eyeliner drawn perfectly. Whether I cared to admit it, I had been acting like my mom long before I was making sad chicken dinners and zoning out in front of the television.

Psychotherapists call this behavior inherited patterns, or "the beliefs and attitudes we inherit from our moms, because we spent our childhoods watching our moms, soaking in how she thinks, how she behaves, how she does things––and, particularly, how she feels about herself," mother-daughter relationship therapist Rosjke Hasseldine tells VICE. Neuroscience also backs up these basic principles: If our brain is a computer, then our interactions with our parents are the default setting, and when things go faulty or get stressful in our adult lives, our neurons head for a familiar path, one usually set in early development. This explains why when we're anxious and hungry, we make our mother's meals; or why when we want something from our partner, we use the little-girl voices our mothers spoke to our dads in.

In other words, science affirms our worst fears: We are, in many ways, our moms.

***

The good news is our fates aren't sealed. Our relationships may shape the inner workings of our brains, but in The Developing Mind, author Dr. Dan Siegel, who has studied interpersonal neurobiology for more than 15 years, says, "We can choose to walk along a different path and change our direction with intention and awareness." While Secret-esque words like "intention" might make you squeamish, the message is pure common sense: To change anything––your addiction to cookie-dough butter, for example––you have to understand the problem at its root and make a conscious effort to do a damn thing about it, or else you're doomed to keep repeating the same cycle.

The key to breaking these unwanted I've-become-my-mother patterns is "understanding who you are as a unique individual and who your mom is as a unique individual, and why each of you are the way you are," says Hasseldine. This means looking at the personalities, relationships, and communication styles of the women in your family––particularly you, your mom and your maternal grandmother––and the social-environmental context in which each was raised.

"What happens between yourselves and your mothers is a complete reflection of how women are treated in the society or culture," Hasseldine says. "Generationally, most women over 50, if they haven't really done the work, they often don't know how to say what they need. Those generations weren't taught to do that. And that is one of the single biggest issues between mothers and daughters today."

Yup, our problems with our moms partially stem from a long history of sexism.

So all those cries of " You just don't get meeee!" that you wailed during puberty weren't completely unfounded––your mom might not have. But that's probably because no one ever cared to "get" her, either. And likely, it wasn't just her parents who dismissed her, but her boyfriends, husbands, bosses, pastors, peers, and general society. Yup, our problems with our moms partially stem from a long history of sexism.

"If a mom is slightly disempowered or emotionally manipulative in some way, it's because she hasn't learned to say clearly and openly what she needs," Hasseldine tells VICE. "If a daughter doesn't understand why her mom is like this, we map out: What is emotionally missing in the family? How are women not being heard? How are their needs not being met? That's an inherited pattern, and often daughters react against the mom, blame the mom, and by understanding this underlying pattern and seeing the generational effect of it and why mom doesn't feel she can say what she needs, mothers and daughters can begin to repair their relationships." And not just with each other, she adds, but with their partners, friends, and others who are on the receiving end of their shitty, why-are-you-acting-like-your-mother behaviors, too.

***

My mom grew up Southern Baptist in Shreveport, Louisiana, in the 1950s, a time when schools were still segregated and ladies weren't allowed to wear pants. Sarah Jean was a woman who lived by a code of silent suffering and keeping up appearances. Which is probably why I am so forthright in what I say, what I write, and how I emote. But this is not just another rebellion against a quality I disliked about my mother––it is also about my recognizing how poorly that kind of silence worked for her and for us. Even though I can be upfront with any jerk who tries to wrong me, my mom and I had established a pattern with each other to never talk about how we never talked about things, like, for instance, pain, failure, sex, shame, or fear.

It unfortunately took my mom dying when I was 25 for me to realize that this type of non-communication was how we communicated. I knew if I was ever going to move on from her death in the slightest way, I had to not only figure out who she was, but also gain compassion for that person. And to do that, I had to acknowledge our generational gap––I may be a loud-and-proud feminist, but I also ride the Gen X-millennial cusp and grew up in the diverse, laid-back warmth of Hawaii. I really had no idea how oppressive times were for my mother in the South more than a half-century ago because she never talked about it. She was programmed not to.

I've done some digging in the years since she's passed, and aside from trying to grasp how little women were valued in my mother's time, I also found out that the two of us were much more alike than I thought––and in ways I approve of. Before she was the pinnacle of the put-together mom (and even after), she had a wild streak. She studied hard, worked hard, but also partied hard. She was the one who gathered her friends together for long drinking sessions after work, and the one who was always up for an adventure, like cruising in my dad's VW "love bus" for a week on the Big Island. She also left behind her restrictive upbringing and family in the South to live a much freer life in Hawaii at the same age I would uproot everything I knew to make my own way in Los Angeles. And in spite of being raised to believe women were mannequins with man-pleasing orifices, she always let me know I was beautiful, smart, worthy, loved. She told me I could be anything, should be anything, as long as I was happy. She tried to give me more than what she'd had.

And now as I get older and throw the world's most pathetic dinner together after a long workday, I finally understand, admire even, why my mother did the same. She didn't give a fuck about a proper balanced meal because she had other matters she was more concerned with, like her career, or arriving in front of the television to decompress so she could then have the energy to pay attention to me again. It also proves she didn't buy into all the domestic-goddess garbage that she grew up with and was more interested in staying an hour after school to help underprivileged students than she was spending that time in the kitchen. I also remember (once I peel away my selective memory) that once she recharged, we would color in one of our many coloring books or snuggle over Growing Pains. And I am glad that's the example she set for me. Because lord knows, to find some kind of career-kid-me balance when I'm a parent, I'm going to be advocating for alone time and a box of Hamburger Helper, too.

Follow Jessica Machado on Twitter.

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