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."