“You’re not wearing that?” How many times did we hear that and other critical comments from our mothers, not only as teens but also as twenty- and even thirty-somethings. My dear, departed mother sometimes made me crazy with her comments. When I complained to a therapist friend she replied, “Your mother knows which buttons to push because she installed them!” She was so right. Mothers know the insecurities sowed when we were children, and, as we become adults, can trigger negative feelings with off-hand (and often deliberate) remarks.
Now as parents of adult children we struggle not to repeat history, particularly when it comes to daughters. Yet the conflicts continue as the Wall Street Journal recounted last week in “’I’m Not Your Little Baby!’ Calling a Truce in Mother-Daughter Conflict.” The article tallied a litany of prime topics for criticism: clothes, housekeeping, haircuts, husbands, weight, spending habits, grandchildren’s behavior, makeup or lack thereof, how the dishwasher is loaded, and on and on!
Why do mothers act this way? Is it ingrained in our maternal DNA? Journalist Elizabeth Bernstein interviewed several therapists and reports that among the reasons for this behavior:
Mothers may place unrealistic and at times conflicting expectations on their daughters. They want their daughters to do things they didn’t get to do, but they also want their daughters to be like them. They want their daughters to respect them, and they want them to be a friend.
Of course, we don’t make friends with heaps of criticism, yet mothers often claim that their comments come from love not hostility. It sure doesn’t seem like love to daughters, who often feel they are being treated like little children or with unnecessary cruelness. The daughter’s feelings are magnified, Ms. Bernstein writes, because:
Underneath, they fear they’ve failed the one person they have been seeking approval from since before they could speak.
The opportunity to change this paradigm comes when we are the mothers and our little girls have become young adults. Does turning off the criticism mean biting your tongue, and never enjoying an honest relationship with a daughter? The long answer to that question has filled self-help books and countless hours of therapy. Thankfully, the Journal article provided several suggestions on how to improve the mother-daughter relationship. Some of them are admittedly difficult for both mother and daughters: “Leave your anger at the door” and figure out “What are we really fighting about?” The most-user friendly suggestion:
Find something fun and mutually satisfying to do together instead of the negative pattern. Art? Hiking? Antiquing? Couples who try new activities together are happier. It can be true of moms and daughters, too.
A great idea! Even those of us who enjoy good relationships with our adult daughters can strengthen the bond by spending time as friends, even if it means footing the bill for the spa facial or movie and dinner. Maybe this Mother’s Day the best gift we can receive is one that we give to our daughters to spend time in a criticism-free zone for a relaxed few hours while having fun together.
Of course, there are many mothers who don’t have an adversarial relationship with their daughters, some even taking that “friends” idea to an extreme. A fascinating look at a mother-daughter duo who really get along was provided in “My Mom is My BFF.”
In the New York magazine piece, journalist Paige Williams dissects mother-daughter parenting styles over the decades and comes to the conclusion that in the 21st century:
Friendship became a kind of parenting strategy: By treating Child as Adult, parents hoped that the kid would actually become an adult, and a good one. The happy outcome for some: mothers and daughters who didn’t have to wait until middle or old age to actually enjoy each other’s company. To maintain peer-ness, there came a coinciding pressure to stay young, technologically supported by the capacity to stay young. Moms have never had at their disposal so many resources—so much paraphernalia—allowing them to shrink the generation gap. If they want, they can practically turn themselves back into teenagers.
Turning ourselves back into teenagers is a bit more work than most of us want to sign up for! However, perhaps we can consider that trip to the spa for a dual purpose: We cement mother-daughter bonding and look younger at the same time.