I have observed an interesting phenomenon in my psychotherapy practice the past few years. It involves single, older women who have come in for help with depression. Their depression is not the remarkable thing. What has caught my attention is that several of the women share similar stories of a negative relationship with their daughter. Basically, this daughter treats her mother like she is incapable and a burden. If a name is given to this phenomenon, the “Arrogant Daughter Syndrome” seems most appropriate.
A composite sketch of the two main “players” in an “arrogant daughter syndrome” would have the following features. The mother is usually in her sixties when the dynamic first appears. She is retired and unattached, typically by divorce. Her former husband, the father of her daughter, was emotionally abusive and denigrating of his wife when they were married. She is of sound mind and quite capable of managing her own affairs, although she may exhibit some mild memory issues. She often lives near enough to her daughter that she is counted on to provide childcare and transportation to her grandchildren. Frequently, she worked in a helping profession such as nursing, teaching, or another human service field. She may have a modest income but is self-supporting. Her self-esteem may be diminished and she often has difficulty being assertive. In relation to her daughter, she may feel incompetent, inadequate, and a burdensome annoyance.
The daughter in this scenario often has the following characteristics. She is usually in her forties when the dynamic develops. She is well-educated and has a job that offers more status and income, comparatively, than the career her mother had. Or, alternatively, she has a husband who provides this lifestyle and status to her. She has young children for whom she must secure daycare. Between work, children, shopping, etc., she is overly busy. Nonetheless, she usually is able to schedule a girls’ weekend and periodic wine parties with friends. She can be very generous and gracious towards her mother, but most of the time she is impatient and critical of her. She may even, consciously or unconsciously, orchestrate events in such a way as to make her mother appear incompetent or stupid. She tends to see herself as a superior female in relation to her mother. She feels that providing childcare to her kids and/or pets should be calling enough for her aging and less financially secure parent.
Sigmund Freud gave the term “Oedipus Complex” to the tendency of a small boy to develop aggressive feelings towards his father and a desire to win away from him his mother’s affection and commitment. Carl Jung observed a parallel dynamic to occur in young girls and termed it the “Electra Complex” based upon the Greek myth of Electra and her efforts to have her brother Orestes kill their mother. These complexes, which are resolved in most children at a young age, can also lie dormant and reassert themselves later in life. This tendency may be even more likely if the daughter saw her father treating her mother with a lack of respect and love while she was growing up. A tentative peace between mother and daughter may be disturbed later in life when the daughter sees an opportunity to outcompete her mother, this time for the kudos and approval of mainstream society.
Her daughter’s arrogance, hurtful and unwelcome though it may be, can be a gift if properly addressed. It can serve as an opportunity for the mother to develop, or reclaim, her assertiveness and self-respect entering her twilight years. Arrogance of the young towards the old is a too-frequent experience for many seniors, but is made much worse when the old themselves buy into these demeaning and dismissive attitudes. Both mother and daughter, each in their separate life stages, have an opportunity to embrace a deeper level of feminine development. The mother needs to stand up to her arrogant daughter and make clear that just because she is older and less fleet of foot, doesn’t mean that she isn’t still dangerous and not to be messed with. The daughter, in turn, needs to learn that mature femininity, like mature masculinity, does not abuse power or status, but serves life and wisdom in all of their paradoxical forms.