May 13, 2012

Children: Antidotes to a Mother's Narcissism

As a little girl, I drew paper dolls for my sisters and friends, sketching wardrobes for the perfect children of my imagination. Well, there's fiction and there's reality and real children shatter fantasies about perfect children. Loving real children requires a willing sacrifice of narcissistic fantasies. To love children exactly as they are, we must confront our notions about being perfect mothers with perfect children. 

Confronting the Perfect Mother Image doesn't only apply to narcissists. Most of us are uncomfortable when we don't have cookie-cutter-kids. I spent my fair share of time in principle's offices being lectured on better parenting; time with doctors being lectured on better parenting; and time in church being lectured on better parenting. I also endured earnest conversations with friends whose credentials for offering parenting advice were based on their perfectly behaved children. argh

Until you've been confronted by the value-laden language of what it means to be a good mother, you might not realize how judgmental society is---nor how condemning you are to yourself and other women. What a child does, whether good or bad, determines a mother's value and directly affects our self-esteem. When children leave the privacy of our home, they are walking-talking billboards for the family dynamics. This is what people think. My 'behaviorally challenged' kids weren't  diagnosed in 1970 because there was no spectrum other than the Bad Mom---Good Mom polarity. (Thus the well-meaning lectures about being a better Mom because obviously, I wasn't). I learned to eat my ego for breakfast, my pride for lunch, and a heavy plate of guilt for dinner. 

Its normal for women to worry about what people think. It is not normal for a woman to care more about what other people think of her as a mother, than what her child thinks, feels, and needs. Maybe it's fair to say that the more narcissistic a woman may be, the more she views her children as reflections of herself. She won't be able to eat her guilt for dinner. She'll make her kids eat it for her. Woe be the child who is not allowed to individuate from Mama's expectations. 

Neighbors may approve of the Perfect Family and Mother's Day will be dutifully honored by children who fear displeasing Mama, even when those children become adults; however, the great tragedy of the paper doll family is that the child is sacrificed, not parental narcissism.

Narcissistic parents value image over love
"How well does my child reflect on me?"

The daughter of 'my' imagination
Short Story: My teenage kids sat for a studio portrait back in the eighties when they were involved in the music scene. My son was a heavy metal guitarist and my daughter a feminist punk rocker. You can imagine what they wore when arriving for their photo shoot. "The dressing room is over there," the photographer pointed. "Let me know when you're ready." 

My son says his sister became indignant and put-the-photographer-in-his-place. "My mother wants a picture of us just the way we are!" The photographer swallowed, took a step backwards and reluctantly took their picture. I'll admit to being slightly shocked Christmas morning when we opened our gifts because this portrait is definitely not a sentimental Hallmark picture. I didn't know quite what to make of it (cognitive dissonance?) and then my heart took over and spoke to-and-for me. This framed photograph reminds me every day of my life, that loving children as they are is more important than a picture perfect image of what we  (and society) have determined to be valuable.  

Epilogue: A decade later, I was cleaning a deceased Aunt's apartment when several relatives in the living room gasped out loud, exclaiming in horror, "Whose kids are THESE?" They were freaking out to such a degree over a photo my Aunt had kept on her bookshelf that I asked to see the picture. (Sly readers…you're way ahead of me on this story, aren't you?) Those two kids with dreadlocks and nose rings and combat boots and holey jeans and were none other than my beloved punkers. I looked at my husband (who is now my X) and noticed he had shrunk about two inches into the floor. I wasn't sure he'd admit to their pedigree. "Those are our kids." I grinned. "And there's a beautiful story behind that picture!" 

They listened to my story about the terrified photographer and how unashamed our kids were to say their mother loved them just the way they were---that their Mom wouldn't want a posed, faked picture. I impressed my point about judging people by their appearances. Unfortunately at the same time, I insisted my husband was my best friend. I hope they've decided I have better judgment as a mother than I do as a wife. hahaha

My narcissism was a formidable foe when my kids were bucking the system, thumbing their noses at society and calling my mothering into question. They challenged me to walk my talk about loving kids for 'being' instead of forcing them to earn my love by 'doing'. What did it mean to raise two teenagers with more rings than a P.T. Barnum circus? Well, the first thing that had to go was my narcissism because I couldn't resolve the contradiction between loving my children and rejecting who they were at the same time. 

My kids were h-a-r-d. They confronted my unconscious assumptions. They challenged traditional truths believed to be immutable, passed down from Adam to Eve to me. But were they kind? Were they loving? I decided that as long as my son and daughter were good people with kind and loving hearts, I would learn to love dreadlocks and nose rings. 

by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

"Dr. Ginott listened quietly…and then posed this question: What is our major goal as parents?

...[a] woman glibly said, “To produce children who are, among other things, brilliant, polite, charming, neat and well-adjusted, of course.”

Dr. Ginott looked solemn. It was obvious that this last comment had not amused him. He leaned forward and said, “This is how I see it. It seems to me that our large goal is to find the ways to help our children become humane and strong. For what does it profit us if we have a neat, polite, charming youngster who could watch people suffer and not be moved to action?

“What have we accomplished if we have reared a child who is brilliant – at the top of his class – but who uses his intellect to manipulate others?

“And do we really want children so well-adjusted that they adjust to an unjust situation? Too many Germans adjusted only too well to the orders of the Nazis to exterminate millions of their fellow men.

“Understand me: I’m not opposed to a child being polite or neat or learned. The crucial question for me is ‘What’ methods have been used to accomplish these ends? If the methods used are insults, attacks, and threats, then we can be very sure that we have also taught this child to insult, attack, to threaten, and to comply when threatened.

“If, on the other hand, we use methods that are humane, then we've taught something much more important than a series of isolated virtues. We've shown the child how to be a person – a mensch, a human being who can conduct his life with strength and dignity.”"~pages 14-15

Love to all,


  1. I love this story!!!!

    and I love my kids because of their imperfections -- they're just a perfect reflection of me :)

    Hugs and Happy M Day CZ

    1. Hi Louise!!

      I love my kids because of their imperfections too...ha!

      While listening to a podcast on parenting, the author being interviewed referred to the above quote about Dr. Ginott. After reading it, my kid's punk-picture story came to mind and just in time for Mother's Day!

      In case people are wondering, the nose-rings have disappeared and the tongue studs are gone, too. And the dreads? Well, my son WISHES he had that much hair today!!! ha!

      Hope you had a lovely Mother's Day. I really enjoyed the post on your blogs today. <3


  2. Great post and it resonated well with me on many levels, including the punk rockers. For one, I was NOT the traditional mother going to PTA meetings. Favoring freedom of expression and living a full life at any cost, I completely ignored the judgements of others and still do. I was and am somewhat anarchistic in most of my views and I suppose it comes from my childhood. I managed to raise decent, intelligent though not perfect children that I adore with all their faults, and trust me, there are many. I am a product of a severely disordered, chaotic and cruel narcissistic mother.She was far more concerned with societal appearances than who I was as a human being and as such she NEVER showed any love for me and even on her death bed, her misery and hatred continue. Unfortunately her narcissism has shown up in many aspects of my life and I have finally been able to recognize why after finally recognizing what she was. Had I not been so fierce in developing my own path in spite of her narcissism, I would have become crippled as an adult and thus passed it on to my children. Miraculously, we all are fine and stable, as stable as one can expect.
    Great post.

    1. Hi Summersaid!

      Well what makes my story even funnier perhaps is that I was the PTA mother in chubby stirrup pants and a Doris Day haircut. I loved working in organizations, especially my church group. An anarchist I was not although I am a conservative sort of woman with a liberal mind. My children were the catalysts for differentiating from my family-of-origin and really digging deep inside myself as to what I believed, valued and assumed.

      I've read some authors write about parenting as the ultimate narcissism but holy gosh...I think parenting breaks through our narcissism if we love our children as separate people, not objects of our manipulation.

      What just kills me is how a narcissistic mother can reject her child without questioning her DEFICIENCIES. Without questioning her mental health and at least going to therapy to fix her love-deficit. The kicker about narcissism though is that they don't see themselves at fault...they blame their children for being unlovable.

      "If only my daughter would (lose weight or gain weight or have more grandchildren or be a CEO or whatever stipulation she has to defend HER lack of love) I would love her."

      Getting yourself out of that terrible space isn't easy. It's a lifetime of work, isn't it? If your father was unable to validate you or empathize with you, then you're facing a doubly difficult recovery. Sometimes the other partner bonds to the narcissist and both of them turn against the children.

      I'm glad to read that you have a good relationship with your children. I'd love for people to hear as many times as they can hear it that: we can heal. We can recover. We can find peace, no matter what the circumstances of our lives may have been.

      Thank you for commenting!


  3. "What just kills me is how a narcissistic mother can reject her child without questioning her DEFICIENCIES. Without questioning her mental health and at least going to therapy to fix her love-deficit. The kicker about narcissism though is that they don't see themselves at fault...they blame their children for being unlovable. (Yup.)

    "If only my daughter would (lose weight or gain weight or have more grandchildren or be a CEO or whatever stipulation she has to defend HER lack of love) I would love her."

    (Or..."If only there was less of you, I could love you more.")

    Oh God...that's the meat of the matter, neh?

    Great post, CZ. and the beat goes on.

    I have a mother who was a former ballet dancer, ballet teacher, and I, being 'bigger', was not. And I was rejected because my boobs came in early ("You will never be a ballet dancer because they don't have breasts")....LOL!

    I was overweight, but not by a 'large' standard. I just was...bigger..than 'her' standard. But I never was accepted by her until I became anorexic and then I was 'still about 12 pounds off'.

    I lost hair, teeth, health, but this was the only 'way' I would be accepted by this unloving moron of a woman.

    Narcissism is a horrible thing. It destroys (and continues within generations...) lives, families, personalities.

    Because Narcissists have no idea (or care) of what they do,(actually I don't agree with 'have no idea'...I think that Narcissism is akin to sadism in many respects, and they damn well know what they do: they are just fundamentally cruel's all about power and control to them) it is up to those children that 'see' what is happening (and usually far into adulthood...if ever) to break the chain of this mental illness and seek the therapy to allow them to come into the sun...away from the shadow of the Narcissist that stunts all emotional growth.

    Luckily, late in life, after so much misery, I found a wonderful therapist, an older woman who I could set up as the 'mother' in my mind....a good example of non-narcissistic mothering, and learn something of this for my own child. He had suffered so much of my own 'fleas' of narcissism (as most children of Mother Narcissists never get free of...we scratch at narcissism in our lives) and I realized that I was becoming like "dear old mom".

    I also became (in my mid 50's ) a belly dancer, and made peace with my belly! LOL! Of course, to the Mother Narcissist, belly dancing wasn't ballet, but by then, I was affirming my own abilities here.

    It's a long, life struggle, CZ, to overcome the horrors of Narcissism...regardless from husbands or the birth family. It perverts so much. But when we do understand this mental illness, and its perversion, and we seek the light of good therapy, regardless where we find it, it is a true blessing.

    We can become the women, people, we have been born to be.

    Lady Nyo

    1. What a great post, Lady Nyo! Let me highlight what you've written about pathological narcissism:

      "I think that Narcissism is akin to sadism in many respects, and they damn well know what they do: they are just fundamentally cruel people..."

      This is very important for people to understand. The intentional cruelty to maintain power & control (inflates their self-esteem) is the difference between benign and malignant narcissism. That doesn't mean benign-or-normal narcissist doesn't cause pain for other people (and even the narcissist) but it's usually because of their obtuse self-centeredness.

      The malignant narcissist, on the other hand, is very aware of their tactics to hurt other people. Malignant narcissists are sadistic---far beyond the normal schadenfreude normal people experience. Their narcissistic pathology co-mingles with psychopathy, making them capable of almost anything.

      I am a huge fan of 'self-help' through writing, reading, online discussions, 12-step, etc. However, if we have been raised by pathological narcissists, we need more guidance than self-help can offer. We need professional therapy to direct our desire to heal. I think it's fair to write that.

      You made me laugh with your comment about 'making peace with your belly!" ha! I went shopping for clothes yesterday with my daughter and we both laughed ourselves silly over how chubby we've gotten the past few years! What your message brought to mind for me is how much "I" was able to change the narcissistic legacy of self-hatred for being imperfect.

      I don't recall ever laughing myself silly with my mother when we went clothes shopping. It was a self-hate fest, handed down through generations of patriarchal misogyny. I forgive my mother her many 'fleas' for she did the best she could with what she'd been handed by her mother. I hope my daughter says the same thing of me.

      Well, the dressing room attendant probably went home and talked about the very strange day she'd had listening to dressing room #13. "Mom! You look like a cupcake in that blouse!"

      And yes, I bought it! Who wouldn't want to look like a delicious, cream-filled and chocolate frosting-ed cupcake??!!!


    2. LOL! It's GOOD to have your words affirmed! LOL!

      Yep..people don't understand the narcissism/sadism issue. They think sadism is something exotic, removed from most of life, something done in basements with weird lighting! LOL!

      Sadism is that fundamental disdain for human life: it is a mysognigy (I mis-spelled that one) that is so basic it doesn't see the human being before the sadist: it sees an opportunity to satisfy a deep cruelty. It is a way to inflate an ego that is out of control and reality, as you have said here so well.

      And hence, the similarities of Narcissism. Narcissism, malignant narcissism, is purposefully cruel. (Boy, I can't spell this morning!)

      And yes, again. There is a time when professional therapy leads us to a place where we can claim ourselves....our souls. Because I think the damage that Narcissism does to the human spirit is so far-reaching, it is what M. Scott Peck tried to account for evil in his seminal work: "People of the Lie". It was a scary book back in the 70's...and remains so.

      I had to read your ending about the cupcake twice before I realized this was your daughter and you talking...not your mother!

      I remember the very traumas of shopping for clothes with her. I was always 'too fat' for this, or that, and now that I see myself then...I realized I was seeing myself only through her eyes. I was normal, and in fact, rather petite. It could have been ANYTHING with this woman, and it was. But mother-narcissists are also usually shallow people...and attack what is before their eyes. They don't put the energy in inspecting what is good below the surface, because well, they are narcissists!~ LOL!

      And, I would have been risking life and limb to make any criticism of what she looked like. Oh, no...that was forbidden. Perhaps it is something that children of narcissists learn early on for self-preservation.

      Write on, CZ, we need to hear the balm of health from those who know what they are talking about. So many professional therapists don't...and I have had a few. It was just the Grace of Something that landed me with this therapist. It was the balm for this soul.

      Hugs back!

      Lady Nyo

    3. Sorry about the convoluted writing. That's what happens when I don't proofread!

      To set things straight, my daughter and I were clothes shopping together yesterday and I bought myself a cupcake outfit that makes me look fatter than I already am---but it's so cute and it's so fun to wear!

      How's that for defying the Old Rules?

      You wrote: "I would have been risking life and limb to make any criticism of what she looked like."

      O yes...narcissists are extremely hostile to criticism. Even a mild criticism justifies cruel retorts by super-sensitive narcissists.

      "They can dish it out", so the childhood saying goes, "but they sure can't take it."

      Kids learned early on, that there's a double-standard when it comes to criticism. We were open game and narcissists were a protected species.

      Once you catch on to narcissist's vulnerability, it's easier to avoid getting shot-through-the-heart. Narcissists will say the cruelest, meanest, rottenist things they can...they will say things that you'd never say to them. They will say things they know, without a doubt, will bring you to your knees.

      Anything sacred that you have shared with a narcissist, becomes a bullet in their arsenal of weaponry. They have no compunction against using your sacred revelations, either.


  4. This is a brilliant post.

    My son is 17 now, and it's a tough age to parent. I'm constantly examining my motives when I am trying to get him to work harder at getting ready for college applications, etc. I don't want to squash him, but I don't want to be his friend instead of mother either. It's a tricky line to walk to be able to tell your child that you are concerned about their behavior and how it might affect his future and maybe even disappointed or angry without traumatizing him or making the issue about how I expect him to be. I don't think I should have zero expectations for him, but these expectations ought to be based in what is truly best for my son as an individual for HIS life and happiness. I don't always get it right.

    I love your punk rock kids photo story. I think it's wonderful that you want a real photo record of your kids as they really were rather than a false image dictated by what people think kids "should" look like. It's terrific you can appreciate them for who they are and not for how others perceive them.

    1. Hi VicariousRising!

      I enjoyed finding your blog and added it to my ever-growing list of blogs way down on the bottom of my page. It's amazing how cathartic blogging can be for the writer AND for the reader!

      For those who wonder what your blog is called, scroll down to "Dancing with Myself" and click on the link.

      I love that you said you didn't want to be your son's friend instead of his mother.

      Many years ago, when we were living in France, I took my kids to a psychology clinic because they were having problems adjusting to foreign schools. (DUH! What WAS I thinking??!!!!)

      The psychologist interviewed us and I said some inane thing of course. I was pretty young to have a teen-ager, that's for sure. She was 13 when I was 33. The shrink looked me in the eye with the intensity only French men can give and said, "Madame, vous n'estes pas..." Well, forget the french. He said, "You are not your daughter's best friend. You are her mother!"

      I was startled...stunned as a matter of fact. Then he finished smoking a pack of Gaulouise cigarettes while finishing our interview. ha...

      I've never forgotten his criticism. He saved me from my own dysfunction.

      When you didn't have an intimate relationship with your mother, you might go to the extreme like myself---hoping to achieve a better bond than the one you had (or didn't have). I examined my motives after that session and my behavior adjusted to better mothering as a result.

      Now my daughter is almost 40 and we are very good friends...very intimate and connected. I wonder sometimes if we would be so close had he not blessed me with this blunt, yet brilliant comment. When we were raised in a narcissistic family, we easily fall into dysfunctional patterns, even when we're trying our best not to!



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