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Our Mothers, Ourselves: Mother-Daughter Relationships

The Gift of Independence

"For women in my generation, I saw an awful lot of rivalry between mothers and daughters. There was an awful lot of tension, withholding, and misunderstanding. I'm seeing less of that now. If I think of my students and what I know of their relationships with their mothers, they are fuller, they're more open," Dr. Sharkey observes. That so many moms are now working, he notes, may make it easier for their daughters to see them as individuals and for mothers not to live through their daughters.

"Amazing" was a word that reverberated through each mother and daughter's conversation as they talked about each other. Laura Fries speaks with delight of the love for books she shares with her mother and her sisters, and of the time Rose Marie signed up for a women writers' conference, held at Laura's college, that the two attended together. "It was great because it was something I should have been doing as an English major anyway, but without her I probably would have never gone to it, and it was fabulous," she says.

The best gift a mother can give a daughter — and, as she becomes an adult, that a daughter can give her mother — is permission to be herself, says Juanita Johnson. "The daughter can be who she wants to be because the mother is who she wants to be, and I think increasingly mothers are understanding that," she says. "If daughters have trouble navigating being an adolescent, it's often because they don't know who they are. They're sacrificing themselves to fit in. All that spunkiness they had as a little girl goes out the window and they lose touch with what I call their internal compass."

Martha Frase-Blunt tries to foster that little-girl strength by giving her daughters, Rachel, 8, and Haley, 3, the tools to make their own decisions — an approach her mom admires. Recently, when Rachel had the chance to transfer from the elementary schools she'd always attended to an academically challenging school for the arts, Martha and her husband put the decision in Rachel's hands. "I helped her lay out the pros and cons — leaving her friends, say, versus getting to take drama and dance and visual arts. She said okay, and she agonized over it that night and the next morning she said she wanted to go to the new school," says Martha, noting that in her own girlhood such a decision would have been made by her parents.

"I told my mom about all this and she was so impressed with the fact that I was able to give Rachel the freedom to make a decision that was going to affect her life. I think my mom would have liked to be able to do that more for us if it had been a different time."

Rose Marie Fries also takes pride in her daughters' strength. "I think they're all independent and strong-willed women, which is good, but they're also kind. It's important to be your own woman, but also to have some compassion and understanding of other people, otherwise I think your life is too narrow," she observes. "Women are told now that they must be strong and assertive, and that's fine, but you need another component also to have a satisfying life. That's how I see them, and I hope that's something that I've given them."