No relationship is quite as primal as the one between a mother and daughter. Lee Sharkey, Ph.D., a professor of Women’s Studies who teaches a college course on mother-daughter relationships, writes “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.”
Our culture tends to romanticize or demonize mothers. Statements such as: “Everything I ever accomplished I owe to my mother” and “Every problem I have in my life is my mother’s fault” greatly simplify this unique and complex relationship. Mothers and daughters find in each other potential for great comfort but also great conflict.
Mother-daughter bonding starts at an early age and experiences significant transitions. When a daughter is five, mom is a goddess; when daughters are about twelve, mothers morph into the most ignorant, out-of touch creature on the planet that should be avoided at all cost; and when daughters are in their 20’s or 30’s mothers can become a best friend again.
However, mothers and adult daughters aren’t always best friends. Laura Tracey, Ph.D., a family therapist who specializes in counseling mother-daughter pairs asserts that difficulties emerge from one very basic question: “Will the mother accept the daughter as an adult?” The questions of “Do you see me for who I am? And is who I am okay?” are ones of depth. Truly accepting a daughter as her own woman is essential to the enjoyment and health of a mother-daughter relationship.
When children are small mothers have the enormous responsibility of guiding and teaching. When children grow up, it’s sometimes difficult to just STOP. An important part of parenting is letting go and 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. When you are a mother to an adult daughter it is an opportunity to show her your love and not focus on approval of how the daughter is living her life. Acceptance of yourself and each other becomes the key to developing and healing this relationship.
However, knowing and accepting who you are is not always easy – especially for adolescent girls. SuEllen Hamkins and Renee Schultz have co-authored a book titled “The Mother-Daughter Project: How Mothers and Daughters Can Band Together, Beat the Odds and Thrive Through Adolescence.” They have found that girls who can talk to their mothers and receive support for the hard things they face – from friendships to eating disorders to depression to sexuality – navigate these challenges better.
Psychologist and author Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. interviewed hundreds of high school girls and summarized their perceptions:
Their mothers are too busy for them or, too focused on them.
Their mothers are too intense or too distant.
Their mothers are too strict and rigid or too much like a friend.
Their mothers don’t tell them enough or tell them too much.
Their mothers don’t expect enough or their love is too conditional.
Their mothers don’t empathize or, the daughter itches and the mother scratches.
From this listing the importance of finding the middle ground in mothering is obvious. Balance is essential. Ask your daughter “If you were a mom, what would you do the same as me? What would you do differently? Whether your daughter is seven or seventeen, you may learn something interesting.
Almost all daughters feel disappointed with their mothers at some point. The construct of a perfect mother, perfect daughter, is not real, and not possible. Even with this reality, researcher Karen Fingerman, Ph.D., found that the mother-daughter bond is so strong that 80 to 90% of women at midlife report good relationships with their mothers – though they wish it were better. Within every mother-daughter relationship there is potential for growth.