Our Mothers, Ourselves: Mother-Daughter Relationships

Having a good mother-daughter relationship can provide understanding and fulfillment.
Having a good mother-daughter relationship can provide understanding and fulfillment.
Jenny Acheson/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Whether you have a great mother-daughter relationship or a mother-daughter relationship that can be improved, you probably know that mother-daughter bonding can start at an early age.

When you're five, she's a goddess. You smear your face with her lipstick and model her earrings and high heels, wanting to be just like mommy. That's the way it is until you're about thirteen, when she suddenly becomes the most ignorant, benighted, out-of-touch creature on the planet, and you can't get far enough away from her. Your primary form of interaction for the next five years or so will be a single word, "Mooooooooooooommmmmmm!" And then, somewhere between your twenties and your thirties, if you're lucky, she becomes your best friend again.

No relationship is quite as primal as the one between a mother and her daughter. "It's the original relationship, and it's also a relationship that has been sentimentalized but not honored," says Lee Sharkey, Ph.D., who directs the Women's Studies program at the University of Maine at Farmington, where she teaches a popular course in mother-daughter relationships. "Women grow up and our energy is largely turned toward men, but the original love relationship is with a mother. If we as daughters don't acknowledge that, we're closing ourselves off from a great source of power and fulfillment and understanding of ourselves."


How Mother-Daughter Bonds Develop

Rose Marie Fries, age 75, raised four daughters and one son, but says she's close to her daughters "in a way I don't think you can be with a son. With the girls I have four best friends that I can talk to about all the emotional things that women consider important that men don't like to talk about." Fries' daughters, now in their thirties and forties, concur. In fact, says 36-year-old Laura, a television critic for Variety, she and her mother built their bond during a time when most young women are rebelling.

In Laura's senior year in high school, her father died, leaving her mother and her in the house alone. "That year probably cemented our relationship more than anything else, just the two of us in this horribly depressing situation. We helped each other through what was a terrible year," Laura recalls. "My sisters, I think, are always shocked because I will ask mom just about anything. I remember when I was a teenager I asked her if she was a virgin when she got married. And she answered, 'Oh my heavens yes, but she didn't seem phased or bothered by the question. My sisters couldn't believe it. 'You asked her that!?'"

It took longer for Dallas native Martha Frase-Blunt to find a similar closeness with her mother, Ann Frase. Now an independent businesswoman in northern Virginia and the mother of two young daughters herself, Martha remembers herself as a rebel — a description her mother does not disagree with.

Ann Frase laughs in recognition. "In high school, when she would come downstairs to breakfast before school, I'd just look at her and say 'No, you're not wearing that. Change your clothes.' We argued and we went through a lot of stress, but she and I are very much alike, I realize now."

Both women believe that Martha's decision to attend her mother's alma mater, Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Virginia, started a process of evolving closeness that continues to this day. "She went to my college — her choice, not my choice. That thrilled me to death but I wasn't about to tell her that! I didn't want to turn her off," says Ann. "I got kind of a subliminal feeling that maybe she had some respect for me and maybe she wanted to be a little more like me, and that's a big compliment for a mom."

You Just Don't Understand Me!

But mothers and daughters aren't always best friends. Storm clouds in the adult mother-daughter relationship most often arise over one very basic question, says Laura Tracy, Ph.D., a family therapist who specializes in counseling mother-daughter pairs and has written books on the relationships between women. "Will the mother accept the daughter as an adult? That means, when she's visiting you, does she let you run your house? Does she trust you to be independent on small issues as well as large — who are you with, what's your sexuality, where do you work, how do you spend your money? Letting the daughter be her own woman is a universal issue," she explains.

Overcoming an Anger-centered Relationship

Mothers and daughters who struggle with their relationships as adults often repeat the old patterns of control and rebellion from childhood, says Dr. Tracy. "They can't hear each other. The daughter will hear the mother say something and she'll think, 'She wants to control me.' And the mother is saying something that absolutely is controlling, but is not meant to be." Meanwhile, when the daughter speaks, the mother hears nothing but anger — in a comment that does indeed convey anger but also "I love you, and can't we do this differently?"

In relationships where communication is thwarted because of old patterns, Tracy recommends trying email to break through the past. If the problem is starting a dialogue about the relationship, you and your mom may want to break the ice with a movie or a book about mothers and daughters.

From the time she was seven until she graduated from high school, Carrie Hutton, a human resources manager now in her thirties, lived with a stepfather she and her sisters recall as emotionally abusive — an experience that reverberated through her relationship with her mother for years afterward. "Because of the decisions my mom made, my younger life was very difficult. When I was in my twenties, that made me very angry. And mom didn't want to talk about it. She just wanted us all to get over it," Carrie recalls.

Finally, on a cathartic weekend several years ago, Carrie and her mother finally managed to hear each other. "For the first time I said, 'I need to understand what happened. It's part of me, as much as my blonde hair and my blue eyes. You have three daughters who love and adore you, and I don't understand why you get so angry when I ask about it.' It was the first time we had a real conversation about what happened."

Carrie's mother, Sue Gearhart, then wrote long letters to each of her three daughters, talking about the choices she had made. "I think writing a letter helped her to put her thoughts down in a way that made sense. She carried a lot of guilt," Carrie says. "I realized my mom is who she is because of the things that happened to her, and she did the best she could. I guess you start to see yourself in your parents somewhat."

Sue certainly sees a lot of herself in Carrie. "We're probably a lot alike emotionally. We're moody, and I think we're alike as far as trying to find out answers to our own emotional problems, always searching for an answer to 'fix' ourselves." She recalls with pride the period when Carrie moved from Hershey, Pennsylvania, near her hometown of York, to start an independent life in Atlanta. "She knew she could live on her own and make it and thrive, and after that, our relationship got a lot closer. Such an important part of parenting is letting go."

Know Thyself First

"Most mothers are supportive of their daughters, want to be supportive of their daughters, and feel very confused by them," says Juanita Johnson, a New York-based therapist and storyteller who does presentations on the mother-daughter relationship with her own 27-year-old daughter. "One of the things that I observe quite frequently is that the mother knows so very little about her own self that she's placing way too much emphasis on how her daughter turns out rather than, 'What do I know about myself and how do I feel about myself?' I think daughters can model a great deal from a mother who is self-aware herself."

Oh No, I Sound Just Like Mom!

The fear of growing up to be like one's mother has long been so common among Western women that it has a name — matrophobia. But Dr. Sharkey thinks that this traditional pattern is changing — and the mothers and daughters interviewed for this article, all of whom talked with great admiration about each other, seem to agree.

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."

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