Relationships between mothers and daughters can be special and close, but they can also be thorny and problematic. This complicated relationship is reflected in many books and films about mothers and daughters. Here’s just a brief list: Terms of Endearment, Postcards from the Edge, Mommie Dearest, White Oleander, Bad Seed, Freaky Friday, Steel Magnolias, ‘night mother, The Winter Guest, Mermaids, and Joy Luck Club.
Some of the mother-daughter relationships in those books are warm and close, but even those have an element of conflict. In the worst, the relationship is brutal and abusive. Most, like most of us, have relationships somewhere in between: moments of closeness mixed with moments of sheer frustration.
At various times in my life, I’ve had people mention they were envious of my good relationship with my mother or talk about how ‘cool’ my parents were. While I do think my parents were cool about many things and that I have a pretty good relationship with my aging mother now, those things weren’t always true, and there are still areas of conflict.
As a teen, I remember doing the pretty typical rolling of my eyes at half of the things my mother said to me. I remember her saying that she felt that I thought she was stupid. I’m not sure that I ever thought she was stupid, but I do remember being embarrassed by my parents at times.
In contrast, my friends would often comment on how cool my parents were, how they’d let me have parties, how my mother was very frank about teaching sex ed to me and other teenagers, even though she and my father raised us in a very strict Christian denomination (Church of Christ). I knew that my parents were cool in certain ways, but I also knew how frustrated my friends would feel if they had to live with my parents 24-7. I wasn’t allowed to say “shut up” or “fart” or “Oh, God,” much less use harsher swear words, and I was always expected to go to pretty much every church function on the calendar. My mother declared I couldn’t get my ears pierced until I was 14, and using makeup was highly discouraged until I was in high school.
In my twenties, I clashed with my parents over religion and morality as I turned away from Christianity and began living with my boyfriend (now husband). When we stayed away from those topics, we got along OK, but there were significant silences about a number of topics.
Relations improved when I got married, and by my late 20s, I had figured out a few things about my parents, like the necessity of growing past petty grudges about things I thought they did wrong in my childhood. But still, I wasn’t as close to my mother as I am now.
The big event that changed that for me was my father’s death when my parents were in their early 60s and I was approaching the age of 30. For several months after his death, I sent my mother a paper letter almost every week. That’s about the time I got into the pattern of weekly phone calls, too.
My father’s death revealed many parts of my mother’s personality that I hadn’t noticed clearly before. She became both more fragile and more tough and resilient all at the same time. She was crabby less often than I remembered her when she was a 40-something working mother, perhaps because she retired shortly after Dad died.
My father was always verbally painted with a halo in our family; my mother and all us kids treated him as a bit of a saint. He was a good man, but it must have been hard on my mother to be constantly eclipsed by his bright shining virtue. In his absence, I began to see how wise my mother was in many, many ways. Still flawed, still human, still with moments of weakness. But the things that used to bug me a lot hardly register at all any more. I put on some metaphorical eyeglasses of compassion when my father died, and I have looked at her in a much different way ever since then.
Over the years, I believe I’ve learned some valuable lessons about how even conflicted relationships between mothers and daughters can become more peaceful and close over time, and I’d like to share a few of those. One caveat: if your mother was actively abusive or if there are other issues such as severe mental illness, it’s possible that you may never have a peaceful relationship with your mother, at least not without a lot of therapy and efforts at reconciliation on both sides. However, if your relationship was merely rocky but not abusive, I think there’s always hope.
Establish some distance. I remember being angry quite often during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college. I’d had a taste of living on my own my freshman year (as much as living in a dorm was ‘on my own’), and it felt constraining to be back in my parents home, living with their expectations. I recall screaming in frustration and leaving to go on long walks.
Now, I live about an eight-hour drive away from my mother, and in many ways, we’re closer than ever. I try to call her once every week to 10 days, and we typically exchange a paper letter or email a few times a month. We talk about family, books, movies and cooking a lot but also about deeper things, too. When we do get to visit in person once or twice a year, it’s really special. I get to rub her back, and cook with her, and we talk and talk and talk.
If it’s not possible to put physical distance between you and cantankerous mother, sometimes mental space is equally useful. This can mean blocking out one evening a month where you turn off the phone and only interact with your nuclear family or choosing to only call or visit your mother twice a week, even if you could conveniently visit more often. If your mother is older and ailing, even that may not be possible, but taking a break from her once in a while and having another relative or a friend look in on her might create that needed distance. The term “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is usually reserved for romantic relationships, but a little distance can also provide perspective in mother-daughter relationships, making the time you do spend together that much more special.
Assert your adulthood. Many women get frustrated when they move into womanhood and their mothers still treat them like children. I’m lucky that hasn’t been a problem with my mother since my early twenties. My mother had started loosing the tether by age 18 and actively encouraged all us children to explore the world, and I’m eternally grateful. Still, no matter how enlightened your parents may be, you probably will still fall into old patterns from childhood and adolescence occasionally when you’re with your mother.
If your mother starts to treat you like a kid, don’t fall into the trap of screaming back at her like a teenager. You’re an adult now, and part of acting like one is refusing the bait and holding onto your confidence in your adult abilities. Easier said than done when your mother criticizes your clothes, cooking or children, I know.
The idea of “non-attachment” from Buddhism might help. You may never be able to get your mother to stop treating you as a child or criticizing you, but you can become less attached to her judgments of you. You can learn to smile and laugh it off instead of letting it make you fume for days.
Act instead of reacting. This was a powerful concept when I first figured it out. As adolescents, a lot of what we do is reacting against our parents instead of choosing our own paths and acting on our own ideas. Whether you conform to what your parents want, or whether you rebel wildly, you’re still re-acting to them. When you sit down and assess your own values and your own reasons for doing things, you will be acting from integrity whether or not what you do pleases your mother. If you go against her wishes, it’s not rebellion anymore but merely being your own person. If you follow some advice of hers because it resonates with you, you’re not bowing to her pressure but following your own heart.
As I said above, I know some of these things are easier said than done. I’ve still had rough patches with my mother. Once during a phone conversation with her, I badgered her into saying that, according to her beliefs, I was going to hell. Another time, she mentioned that she felt my non-belief meant that I thought she and my father’s deeply-held Christian beliefs equaled “believing in fairy tales.” On the other hand, I recently admitted to her that at age 36, I still occasionally had the urge to call and talk to my Mommy when I was having a rough week.
So, no, my relationship with my mother isn’t perfect. But I’d rather have a complicated and close relationship with her than an emotionally distant and polite one. If fate is kind to her and to me, I hope to keep growing our relationship closer and closer for another decade or two. Through learning to embrace your adulthood, acting with integrity, and practicing some strategic non-attachment, you may find ways to make your relationship with your mother smoother and yet deeper as well.
Here are a couple books about mother/daughter relationships that may be useful:
You’re Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation- Deborah Tannen
You Don’t Really Know Me: Why Mothers and Daughters Fight and How Both Can Win – Terri Apter