The Mother/Daughter Dynamic

May 9, 2007 — Leave a comment

KSL TVââ?¬â??Studio 5

It can start with an innocent question: “Are you going to wear that?” Or, a harmless comment: “I usually quarter the tomatoes.” Suddenly the air is filled with tension, and a warm exchange has turned into a hostile misunderstanding. If this sounds like a lover’s quarrel, think again. The mother-daughter dynamic: How can two people who love each other so deeply inevitably misread each other’s intentions?Mothers and daughters talk to each other in better or worse ways more than anyone else. It’s not that fathers and daughters or mothers or sons don’t have their own complicated, conversational hurdles. Mothers and daughters, however, face a few more struggles because of the closeness and power issues that define their relationship. Who else is going to care about the great deal we got on paper towels, or our secret desire to star on Broadway? A mother typically shows a level of interest in every area of our lives.

Mothers will often offer more sympathy and interest than husbands! A wife was sitting next to her husband, absentmindedly tugging at a hangnail until she tore the skin; blood appeared; she showed her husband. His comment? “Get a band-aid.” And she wonders, “Why did I show him such a silly injury anyway?” Then, she remembers. She had developed the habit of showing her wounds, no matter how small, to her mother. Now, had she shown the broken skin to her mother there would have been much more sympathy, with the reminder that someone else shares her universe. Even as an adult, a daughter is tempted to show her mother “a tiny drop of blood.” In doing so, an adult daughter reminds her mother, “I’m still here” and a mother reassures her adult daughter, “I still care.”

There certainly are power struggles between mother and daughter. We can ALL understand this; (while not all women are mothers, all women are daughters.) The “Big Three” conversational tar pits that entrap so many mothers and daughters are: Hair, Clothes, and Weight. It was certainly this way when I was growing up. This is partly because mothers and daughters often see the other as representing them to the outside world, and they worry they’ll be judged by the other’s appearance.

Mothers with little girls will often be the first to tell another adult, “I just wanted you to know: Suzy dressed herself todayââ?¬Â¦..just wanted you to know it wasn’t me putting all those patterns together!” And, then before too long, those same daughters will be saying to their mothers, “What? You’re wearing that to my school concert?”

A friend of mine is an accomplished author and career counselor. After her first book came out, she did a number of media interviews. Her mother had the good fortune of celebrating her daughter’s success and she watched every television interview Robin did. Her only comment to Robin, “But, Honey, you wore the same suit on every interview!?” Mom was upset with Robin’s choice of clothing, and Robin was upset with mom’s attention to what she wore and not to what she said.

No question about it: Mothers absolutely want the best for their children; they want them to look their best, be their best, but more importantly, mothers want their children to be happy. As the saying goes, “You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.”

It seems that no matter how old we get, we crave our mother’s approval. Nearly ALL of us feel this way. Any hint of disapproval by our mother gets blown way out of proportion. Then, in a knee-jerk response, a daughter’s withdrawal is deeply hurtful to her mother. Current research is striking in its determination at how often mothers feel excluded from their daughters lives. Both mothers and daughters overestimate the power the other has in their relationship and they underestimate their own.

Here are a few suggestions to ensure a close bond continues through the years:

Be Inclusive (For both mothers and daughters) All negotiations are based on trust and mutual respect. Teens will tell me that it’s easier for them to accept “no” after they have been through a fair and respectful process with mom. And, when moms consider their daughter’s viewpoint, while remaining confident and strong in their parenting role, it helps her young daughter gain strength, as well. Regardless of your age, ask for the other’s opinion; “Honey, what do you think?” “Mom, teach me what you know about this.” As an adult daughter, you don’t always have to take mom’s advice, but ask her opinion as a way of joining. Moms never stop wanting to be helpful or to stop life’s hurts.

Don’t Let Go Motherhood is marked by a series of beginnings and endings. Just when you have settled into one stage, along comes another. ..and before you know it your baby is having a baby of her own. What we understand even about adolescence is that daughters are not so much trying to separate from their parents during these different stages, they are trying to renegotiate a different relationship to reflect their new stage in growth and maturity. Be willing to adjust with the different life stages but hang on to each other, especially through the misunderstandings!

See Care Behind Comment Moms, realize that your comments often convey both caring and criticism: bite your tongue more times than not. All mothers should have a few calluses on the ends of their tongue to prove their great self-restraint. Daughters, when you feel mom is bugging you about trivial matters, like your hair, with the comment, “Honey, do you really like your hair that long?” Remember: who else really gives a hoot? Attentions to these details are really very tender. We need to bite our tongues as daughters, as well, and hear our mother’s words through the ears of love not criticism.

Bottom line: Mothers will just about sacrifice anything they have for their children: Hear behind the comments.

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Dr. Liz Hale

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