Which mother messed you up?

Was it the Unpredictable, the Perfectionist? A new book defines five basic mothering styles.

ALEXANDRA SHIMO April 7 2008

Which mother messed you up?

Was it the Unpredictable, the Perfectionist? A new book defines five basic mothering styles.

ALEXANDRA SHIMO April 7 2008

Which mother messed you up?

help

Was it the Unpredictable, the Perfectionist? A new book defines five basic mothering styles.

ALEXANDRA SHIMO

“They f--k you up your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do,” wrote the English poet Philip Larkin. The writer had an intense relationship with his mother that many biographers believe he never recovered from. Unlike Larkin, author Stephan Poulter does not compose poems to his mama. Still, it hasn’t always been an easy relationship, and it’s one that has left him with his own emotional hangups. Anxiety, guilt, a feeling of not being good enough: these are all things that can be traced back to different styles of mothering, according to his new book, The Mother Factor: How Your Mother’s Emotional Legacy Impacts Your Life (which will be available in Canada next week).

Poulter establishes five mothering styles: the Perfectionist, the Unpredictable, the Best Friend, the Me First and the Complete Mother. The Perfectionist, for example, which is one of the more common parental types, is controlling, fearful, and anxious that her child succeed. She has an all-consuming desire to keep up appearances. Her children will have internalized some of her anxiety and may find it difficult to commit to relationships (no one is ever good enough), although professionally, they may be driven, highly productive people. “In the United States and Canada, a lot of mothers want their children to succeed so badly that they are over-involved,” Poulter explains from his Los Angeles home. “Their self-esteem is so wrapped up in the child’s success that their kids are afraid to fail.”

In contrast, Poulter’s own mother preferred to relate to the author more like a best friend. Mrs. Poulter was needy, encouraged her son to remain emotionally dependent, and would often avoid making the tough parental deci-

sions, such as when to come home or when to do homework. “My mum is a lovely woman,” Poulter explains. “But the message I got growing up was always, ‘Don’t leave me.’ Right into my twenties and thirties, I always felt this sense of foreboding and doom if I didn’t call her daily.”

The children of Best Friend mothers often seek out mum-like mentors, looking for female authority figures to stand in as role models. They might also find themselves trying to mother others. For Poulter, that meant becoming a caretaker in family and professional situations, which would leave him vulnerable to overwork and high levels of stress.

In contrast, the Me First mother longs to be the centre of attention. She seeks out relationships that will further her social status, even at the expense of her children’s well-being. Since she fails to give her children sufficient emotional support, her kids tend to lack compassion and empathy. Often they feel a sense of superiority, are quick-tempered and unable to accept criticism, and have a rigid approach to problem solving and compromise.

Unpredictable mothers—the fourth of Poulter’s categories—are known for their emotional outbursts, sharp words and insensitive criticism. The basis for this mother’s mood swings might be depression or selfhatred, among other causes, but whatever

the reason, her children have specific, associated behavioural problems. They usually find it difficult to trust others, fear intimacy in relationships, and have a tendency to become overly emotional during minor crises. If these tendencies sound familiar, Poulter recommends analyzing situations before emotionally responding, and taking the time to construct mental, physical and emotional boundaries.

Finally, Complete Mothers strike a balance between mothering and smothering, loyalty and criticism, nurturing and overprotection: these are the mothers who just seem to get it. (Javier Bardem’s mama, Pilar, would be one example, at least according to the many accounts of their relationship after the actor’s headline-grabbing Oscar kiss.) Poulter estimates only 10 per cent of children have a Complete mum. The rest of us are living with side effects the writer likens to radiation—pervasive and invasive, but not always visible (at least to the person exposed). Still, Poulter advises, don’t indulge in the blame game or involve your mother in your attempts to work things through. She probably won’t appreciate the criticism, and it’s unlikely to help your mother-son or mother-daughter relationship. “Lots of people have relationship problems and career anxiety that can be directly traced back to their relationship with their mums,” he says. “But as adults, we don’t have to accept that legacy. We can change that dynamic and her influence over our lives.” M