She’d given birth to her first child–a daughter–the year before, and I wanted to take an intergenerational look at the conflict and difficulty that seems to exist in the mother-daughter dynamic. I’d been privy to her struggles in her relationship with her mother, the pain and angst it caused her, and hoped she’d be willing to have a conversation about how she grew up, and what she’d like to do differently with her daughter.
Perhaps the most verbose, rapidly-speaking person I know (a court reporter once asked her to slow down during a testimony), we joked that I was lucky to be getting our interview in after she’d been down with the flu and bronchitis for a week. She began to take me through her early childhood, leading me from the picture of an idyllic family toward the tense, guilt-ridden, sometimes self-esteem-crippling snapshot of today’s relationship with her mother.“We were the all-American family, everyone was happy, we got along, had family dinners, everything seemed golden,” she described. The oldest of three, and only daughter, she was a daddy’s girl, spending the bulk of her time with him, enjoying his company. Her father worked construction, and around the time she was in middle school, work was drying up in the construction business, forcing him to move from Oregon to work in California and Texas. She was twelve at the time, and deemed old enough to help her mother take care of the family. Her father came home every few months, and she found herself struggling to understand his absence. What wasn’t hard to understand was the strain the long distance was putting on her parents’ marriage. She recalls many arguments that became fights between her parents, indicating that while earning an income was critical to family survival, living apart wasn’t ideal for family health.
With her father settled into steady employment in California, she found herself uprooted from her school and friends in eighth grade, leaving Oregon behind to reunite the family. She was asked by her parents, who were enduring continued financial stress, to contribute her savings to help pay for the move. “My parents had no resources to help me with moving. I was stressed and scared.” She didn’t want the move, but had no choice. Turns out her mother didn’t want it either.
You might think that mother and daughter would connect over lack of enthusiasm for moving to California, aligned both in circumstance and perception. It was an opportunity to share in a common grief and support each other through it, but mother-daughter relationships are wickedly complicated sometimes, and things got bad.
“Mom didn’t know what to do with me. I was willful, I had a new life in the city. I rebelled.” Facing both a lack of support and resources, her parents reacted by keeping the reins tight on their children. She wanted to meet people, try new activities, even reinvent herself, as teenagers are wont to do, but everything was met with “no”. “I wanted to branch out and be a teen. My parents put the kibosh on everything. I heard lots of no’s.” The constant naysaying soon blew up into terrible fights between her and her parents. “We went straight from me asking to spend the night at a friend’s house to screaming, slamming doors, punching holes in walls. Things were volatile all the time.” Ironically, during her early high school years she had an excellent GPA and was working part time, was proving herself to be a responsible young woman. Her parents, however, saw her as reckless, reflecting a paranoia rooted in deep anxiety onto her. Everyone was stressed to the max.
At age fifteen she slapped her mother’s face in the heat of a verbal altercation, recounting how surprised she had been when her mother slapped her back. It was the first instance of physical violence between the two.
She started to notice that her mom was beginning to vie for attention with her kids’ friends. “She wanted to be noticed. I didn’t understand as a teen why my mom was flirting with my boyfriend.” When her mom found out she was having sex with her boyfriend she called the boyfriend’s parents to notify them. “It was a big thing. Horrible, of course. There was no guidance from her, just ‘this shouldn’t be happening’.” She recalled feeling she needed to distance herself, and began hiding even her clothing choices from her mother, changing at a friend’s house in the mornings and afternoons. “I found reasons not to be home.”
Even with the tense, controlling and sometimes violent environment it offered, she chose to live at home while she attended college. Her parents split up when she was twenty-two, and she reasoned with the marriage over, things might be calmer, and moved back in while pursuing her degree. She helped her mother manage the household and care for her youngest brother. “Mom went through a second adolescence. She was out at bars in mini-skirts. I felt like I was the mom and she was the kid.” The role reversal caused any stress dispelled by the divorce to spike. Mother and daughter argued about anything and everything. “I was so confused about who my mom was.” She was watching her mother take risks and engage in behavior she had been adamantly scolded against during her teen years. The flipped dynamic was overwhelming, and she moved back out at twenty-five.
The next decade involved long periods of silence between mother and daughter. Sure, they got together for holidays, but that was the extent of it. “She was on her own with her new life, and I was on my own with my new life.” Her mom experienced health problems and she went to care for her periodically, trying to focus on the good, not slip into old, abusive patterns. It was lonely. “I felt like I had no family. It was a weird period of time. I did my own thing.”
So what’s their relationship like these days? I heard stories over the past five years about excessive anger over perceived slights, walking on eggshells, faking it in the hopes of making it, emotional blackmail and manipulation. I met her mother on several occasions, finding her to be a warm, inviting and kind presence, just exactly the sort of person you’d like to have for a mother. This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced a woman’s ability to be a wonderful mother to everyone but my friend, her daughter. I wondered if the birth of a granddaughter, indeed a first grandchild, had changed the dynamic, for better or worse.
“I’ve realized she is my biggest cheerleader and my biggest saboteur,” she ruminated. Her mother speaks with great pride about her daughter’s accomplishments, yet in the same breath can turn and express the lowest depths of disapproval. Result: daughter feels worthless and constantly seeks approval. How does mother have that effect, what does she say? “She says small things, brings up the past to to remind me of how bad I was, how disappointing.” For a long time she felt she was crazy, so affected by her mother’s criticisms was she. She bought into her mother’s perception of her, which obscured her mother’s personal and pathological issues, as they may have been. “The past is never over for her. It comes up in every argument.”
Her husband lacked proof of her mother’s disordered approach to the relationship, having only seen the side I myself had experienced–the loving, everyone’s-mother persona. He grew up in a house free from verbal abuse or volatility and struggled to understand the pathology embedded in the relationship. Many times he cautioned her to listen to the way she interacts with her mother, pointing out her stubbornness as the cause of their problems. Then, shortly before their wedding, they were in an argument over an event detail and her mother chose sides, displaying the unkind behavior she’d unleashed on her daughter for years to her future son-in-law. He was at a loss, but had finally seen and heard for himself the depth of her emotional cruelty. “I always thought, I’m going crazy. He thinks mom’s an angel? This finally leveled the playing field.”
“I need to find approval from within, stop asking, stop seeking it from her.” How does she go about manifesting this? She sees a therapist who helps her see the relationship dynamic with clarity. Her therapist empowers her to make decisions based on her own feelings, instead of seeking her mother’s approval. She stays guarded around her mother. She’s careful with her words, what topics she brings up for discussion. She understands she needs to protect herself, part of which is making good choices about visits. Staying three days in her mother’s home instead of the week to ten days she used to helped. So has working on projects together, as both women enjoy a variety of crafts. Even so, the dysfunctional dynamic persists, rearing its ugly head and sending both women into their separate corners. I wanted an example.
She talked about a recent visit, when her mother had come up to stay with her. Her mother had offered her daughter a collection of family slides and a projector, years of history to be sorted through. The women attacked the project with relish, sifting through boxes, cataloguing, organizing, pausing to enjoy various scenes and tableaux. It was enjoyable, this process of reminiscing together and quite literally ordering the past, the source of her pain and her mother’s bitterness. It was a way to celebrate shared history, removed from the habitual need to drag it out to support conflict. But this idyll lasted only hours. She said something neutral about putting together a keepsake photo album and the next thing she knew her mother was packed, had jumped in her truck and was peeling out toward Oregon. “I have no idea what that fight was about,” she recounted. “In her eyes I’m possessive, controlling and demanding.” What did she think may have happened? “Mom feels inadequate. I talked about making an album from the negatives and she blew up.” I know her to be a formidable crafter, creating original designs pinterest-worthy and better, and I wondered if a competitive streak had been exposed that day. Yes. Her mother does tend to make comparisons between her daughter’s life and hers, accusing her daughter of making her feel guilty for her shortcomings as a parent and person. “Her big struggle is that she feels guilty for everything she’s done, and everything she hasn’t done. There’s no way we will work things out without mediation.” Living a state away makes mediation unnecessary.
Life with her own daughter is starting off well. She’s able to be at home with her baby, a child she’s wanted fervently but was unable to conceive for one reason or another until her early forties. She’s interested in teaching her daughter about the world, instilling a sense of confidence that comes from experience and relating to her as an individual (rather than a reflection, or extension of herself). During her pregnancy, she and her mother had not a single fight. She understood she couldn’t afford the energy, and the pregnancy gave the two a new common experience to talk about, to focus on.
What kind of relationship does she want with her daughter? How will she know different from the relationship she’s in with her mother? As her friends became parents, she began to watch closely the ways they interacted with their daughters, taking mental and emotional notes. “It sure is complicated,” she remarked of the relationship between women and their daughters, girls and their mothers. “I was looking for something I might want to model myself after.” She saw a close friend foster a “best friends forever” dynamic with her child, now a seven year-old mini-me, half of an inseparable duo. No, thanks. Too risky, too complicated, too many blurred lines.
She wants her daughter to have fun, to give her the freedom to learn, to make her own mistakes and have a mother with whom she can talk about them. She felt boxed in as a kid, without choices or power. She credits her reactions to her parents with this lack of space. Not being able to make decisions for herself, and being met with harsh criticism by her parents shaped her. “I still have broken pieces from my mom, like my self-worth. I don’t want my daughter to see that.” She wants her daughter to feel valued, with the ability to feel her own value within herself. An important part of creating this value is letting her daughter see her accomplishments as her own, without taking credit for herself.
“I hope to create an open dialogue, the ability to talk about things, that was lacking in my childhood.” In place of guides she had punishment, and hopes instead to be a sounding board for her daughter, creating a sense of safety as opposed to fear. She’s found herself alleviating her husband’s worries that they won’t know how to talk to their daughter about important things. She’s resolved to create a relationship where her daughter understands she can go to her parents with questions, for help with problem-solving. “Raising a girl is a big responsibility. So many things are wrong with women in society.”
Did she feel concerned about having a same-gendered child as she? The old stereotype about parents of same-gendered children is that the relationship is naturally imbued with complications because of the similarity. As though the parent simply can’t view the child that shares their gender as a separate person of differing experience. “I always wanted a boy. Can’t screw up a boy because I’m a girl. I can screw up a girl because I’m a screwed up girl.” She recalled the negative messages about gender she received from her mother. There was anxiety about aging and losing value as a woman. She once heard her mother talking on the phone when she was in her forties, saying life was over after forty, everything good was gone. She remembers telling her friends at school she hoped she’d die before forty. She was fifteen at the time. As a result, she’s practicing awareness and caution about the messages she’s sending her daughter about being female, about aging, body image, self-image.
What, ultimately, will help her avoid replicating the relationship she had with her mother, since often pathology contains a strength that lasts for generations? Perhaps one of the biggest factors is that she has resources where her mother did not. She’s part of a large community of friends who are parents, people she trusts, with whom she can do “gut-checks” when making decisions about raising her daughter. Awareness is another major part. Seeking professional help for the wounds and patterns created in childhood has guided her to a bigger picture, better perspective. Maintaining a sense of realism is important too. There are no perfect mothers, no one ideal mother-daughter relationship.
“You can’t be on guard all the time. Something will have to give. I want her to make the decisions that are right for her, not for us.” Already, she’s released the child from the cycle of approval-seeking.