Who Is Stifling the Anger?

When we ask mothers what their daughters do that riles them the most, they often describe those times when a pleasing conversation is twisted into a confrontation and their words are taken out of context and thought to mean something different from what they intend. Or when the past seems to hold great sway, causing their daughters to see the present through the eyes of the trauma they experienced as children.

“How long do I have to dance around our history?” Dolores asks. “For me, the past is the past, but my daughter still holds on to it. A few days ago I called her—it was a miracle she had the time to talk—and I was telling her that I was supervising the remodel of the lobby at the apartment building I manage. But this somehow reminded her of when I had her bedroom repainted without asking her. She said how traumatic that had been and how that incident had been one more reason why she lost her trust in me.

Oh my god! I listened to her and said I was sorry that had happened, but inside I was seething. I had just wanted to tell her what I was doing and have her know a little more about me.”

It’s frustrating for mothers when the past intervenes and they are misunderstood or reminded of the ways they failed.

Likewise, when daughters are floundering because of poor life choices, addiction issues, or mental health limitations, mothers may be sympathetic but become impatient and annoyed at the demands their daughters’ lives make on them.

“I have to admit it,” Margo says. “I am constantly irritated at Elise for not being more together. I try to be understanding, but I can’t pull it off. When I go into that cottage and see the chaos around her, I want to scream.”

“How do you handle your anger?” we ask.

“I push it down inside me, and grin and bear it. What are my choices?”

Mothers generally want to help their daughters, but they often become angry when their efforts are not acknowledged or appreciated. Many say the lack of gratitude makes them feel invisible and taken for granted, which upsets them more than any other interaction.

We interviewed one woman who’d recently sold her business. Her daughter asked if she’d take care of her German Shepherd while she went on vacation for three weeks. The mother agreed because she had more free time, and was easily able to feed and walk the dog twice a day. When the dog cut his leg on barbed wire, she took him to the vet and made sure his shots were up to date, and tended to his wound after she brought him home. She didn’t mind the extra caretaking, but when her daughter returned, there was barely a word of thanks. The mother was angry and hurt about the lack of gratitude but didn’t say anything. When we asked her why, she said it would have been humiliating to have to ask for thanks.

Afterward, she thought a lot about what had transpired between her and her daughter. When she was honest with herself, she realized that one of the reasons she had agreed to care for the dog was to please her daughter and be the “good mama,” deserving of praise and a pat on the back. Her daughter had no way of knowing these were her hopes. The mother decided she’s not going to have hidden expectations like that again. It isn’t good for her, and in the end, it’s not good for her daughter.

Many mothers shy away from expressing anger at their grown daughters, whatever the issue. The price is too high if something goes wrong: daughters might be hurt, or withdraw, or attack back, or the relationship can be broken. Since daughters are so important to their mothers, and the relationship is such a source of meaning in their lives as they age, they want to do everything possible to avoid these  painful outcomes.

The belief exists in our post-Freudian culture that unexpressed anger is toxic and can lead to physical or emotional damage, but these mothers don’t seem to be concerned about the results of concealing their strong feelings. It’s more important to them to make sure that nothing damages their relationships or their daughters. This vigilant cautiousness takes priority over giving vent to their feelings.