What is it about the mother/daughter relationship that makes it often so intense, whether intensely positive or negative? Why are women rarely neutral about their bond with their mothers?
One recent study of family relationship based on cell phone bills showed that for most older women, their most frequent daily calls were with their daughter, if they had one.
When I ask women in individual or couples counseling about the "life script" they got from their mother, useful information emerges. As an adult woman, the more you can understand about your mother, the more you can grow to understand about yourself. It is important to look behind the "mask" of the mother role. Understanding the woman she is---her background, her growing up years, her beliefs, and her relationships, may shed a great deal of light on how she mothered you.
Your own life may build from a foundation of her values, fears, and beliefs; or your life may be, in part, a reaction to your mother's. For example, a woman may react strongly to her mother playing a voiceless/childlike role with her husband, and in the daughter's own marriage she may be quite focused on not being taken advantage of.
In examining the life script you received about being a woman, consider the family your mother came from. Was she born into an advantaged or disadvantaged family? How many siblings were there to compete with for parental attention? Was the family stable, or did she deal with a great deal of change and instability? Were the children nurtured by anyone? What hopes and dreams did she have for her own life? Did she benefit from a good education, or is she a self-made woman? What are her beliefs about men, marriage, raising children, faith, and a woman's role in the family? How did she appear to you as a child? Was she joyful or joyless? Was she a strong woman, or a martyr?
The fit between your temperament and your mother's is an important factor in determining how close you are to her. Stella Chess, MD, has done extensive research to determine the factor of "goodness of fit" between a child's temperament and a parent's temperament. If it is not a very natural fit (for example if a daughter is very unstructured and spontaneous, while the mother is extremely structured and planned), then the mother's ability to accept the child's natural temperament, rather than "declare war" on it, is a critical factor in creating a loving, positive mother/daughter bond.
It has been said that it is primarily in the mother-child relationship that we learn how to love and be loved. What an incredible responsibility it is to be what psychologist Bruno Bettelheim termed a "good enough mother." A mother doesn't have to be perfect. Admitting your own mistakes, apologizing as needed, recognizing and honoring your daughter's own unique strengths and gifts, listening, and spending time together in enjoyable activities, are sure ways to strengthen a mother/daughter relationship.
What if you don't like the script you got from your mother? Then, as you become consciously aware of what her script was for you, you may choose to selectively rewrite it, just like a playwright rewrites a script. Writer Pam Finger says,"You do not have to be your mother unless she is who you want to be. You do not have to be your mother's mother, or even your grandmother's mother on your father's side. You may inherit their chins or their hips or their eyes, but you are not destined to become the women who came before you. You are not destined to live their lives.So if you inherit something, inherit their resilience. The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be."
There can be difficult aspects of the mother/daughter relationship. Because we share our gender, mothers can impose strong messages about roles and relationships, even our relationship with our own body. Sometimes as mothers age, they have unresolved feelings stirred up by their daughters emerging into adulthood and asserting themselves. Developmentally, it is healthy for daughters in their teens and twenties to push back and reject some of who their mother is. Mothers need to stay grounded, patient, and give up control, as it is appropriate. (She may be back closer to you later in life). Some daughters sense a feeling of competitiveness between themselves and their mother. A mother may have unrealized hopes and dreams for her younger self that she may project on her daughter.
As an emotionally mature woman of any age, it is possible to come to peace with your relationship with your mother. You can decide how you are like her, and in what ways you are different. You can determine what the boundary can safely be between the two of you. You can choose what you wish to ask of her and what you would like to give her.
Through our relationship with our mother, we can look behind us into our past. With our mother, we see our emotional roots and her roots with the woman who raised her. Through our relationship with our daughters, we can look into the future and see our dreams for them. We can anticipate the ways in which they will need to do this same sifting process of positive and negative scripts with us in time.
A key to coming to peace with your relationship with your mother is to begin to view her not just in her role as your mother, but as a woman in her own context. This shift helps to equalize the power between adult daughter and mother. When you make this shift, you can be free to construct a different relationship with your mother, being aware of your history with her, accepting what love and stability she can provide, and begin the lifelong task of "mothering" yourself.
Recently, I have been organizing closets at home, and ran across some heartfelt notes and drawings that my daughters made for me when there were little, and it touched me deeply. Children grow up and launch, but the enduring closeness between mothers and daughters, when it works, is among life's sweetest blessings. This week as we approach Mother's Day, I honor all those who seek to nurture, encourage, and mother to the best of their ability. It's a big job, but with the potential for great meaning. Mothering can be one of life's most transformational and complex experiences.