Understanding mothers and daughters

It’s been ten years since I wrote the following article about the dynamics between mothers and their adult daughters.  A recent re-read has inspired me to share it again – with a few updates – in honour of Mother’s Day.

These ideas, inspired by the work of Deborah Tanen, have helped me be less reactive and more understanding with my mother, my daughter – and also my son. And I am still applying them! I hope you also find them illuminating.

Something to think about

Every relationship requires a search for the right balance of closeness and distance, but the struggle is especially intense between mothers and daughters.
                                                       –Deborah Tanen
The emotional tight-rope

Mothers and daughters walk a tight-rope of emotions with each other. Sometimes the relationship is a haven, sometimes a minefield. By virtue of the closeness of their relationship, mothers and daughters hold enormous power to both hurt and care for the other.

I am a daughter. I am also the mother of a daughter. I gained a new appreciation for the sensitive dynamics inherent in the mother-daughter connection through reading the work of Deborah Tanen.  Her wonderful book is descriptively called You’re Wearing That?

As a linguist, Tanen shines a light on these dynamics by studying conversations between mothers and their adult daughters. She identifies themes that run through their conversations, themes which seem to hold true even cross-culturally. She also shares about her own difficult relationship with her mother – and the new understanding she gained through her research and as she cared for her mother prior to her mother’s death.

Her observations gave me a new compassion for the sometimes complicated and vulnerable relations between mothers and daughters in general — and my own experience as a daughter and a mother in particular. I was amazed to discover how universal these dynamics are.

Caring or Criticism?

Have you ever listened to a mother bemoan the fact that she can’t seem to suggest anything to her daughter without causing offence?  Or how many women do you know who felt criticized by their mother while they were growing up — and perhaps still do? I have heard many such comments and Tanen did too.  “Women have told me of their mothers — or their daughters — criticizing almost every aspect of their lives:  clothes, weight, home decoration, how they raise their kids — plus trivial things, such as how much salt they put in the soup.”

A mother may give advice or ask questions about her daughter with the motivation of looking out for her safety and wanting her to succeed in life. However a mother’s questions may be interpreted as controlling or intrusive by her adult daughter – or as an indication that the daughter isn’t competent to handle her own affairs. Given that a daughter deeply desires the APPROVAL of her mother, any suggestion that she isn’t competent or fine the way she is, can be unintentionally hurtful.

So here’s the dilemma that Tanen points out:   A mother’s CARING is often interpreted as CRITICISM by her daughter. Says Tanen, “Daughters and mothers agree on what the hurtful conversations are. They disagree on who introduced the note of contention because they have different views of what the words imply. Where the daughter sees criticism, the mother sees caring.”

A personal example

Some years ago my husband and I attended a concert with our then 19 year old daughter, who had been living on her own for over 6 months. Afterwards, she was heading to a friend’s home in a nearby municipality, by public transit, late in the evening. She made it clear that she didn’t need or want a ride, however I was concerned about her arriving safely –– a concern I would have had about any woman travelling alone at that time of night.

I asked my daughter to call when she arrived, so we would know that she was safe. She bristled at the request and didn’t call. She was also rather annoyed when both my husband and I called the next morning to see if she was OK. I felt misunderstood in the interaction. I felt my concern was misinterpreted as distrust, when it was really coming from caring. I felt hurt by my daughter’s reaction.
It began to make sense
After reading Tanen’s book I decided to debrief the interaction again with my daughter, to see if she had taken my concern as criticism. Bingo!  As she saw it, she’d been living on her own for months, making many late night bus rides quite safely, without consulting us. Sure enough, my protectiveness was perceived as a failure to recognize her new autonomous status — and perhaps also as a criticism of her judgement.

When a daughter (or son) is a young child, she needs a caring and concerned mother who is looking out for her safety and security. However once grown, her mother’s need to protect, be helpful and feel needed may seem smothering or undermining. It may collide with her daughter’s desire to feel independent, competent and not in need of help.

So what’s a well-intentioned mother of a grown daughter to do?

Tanen recommends that mothers find ways to be helpful to their daughters OTHER than giving advice and protection. Your daughter can get advice from any number of people. (And she can always ASK for your advice, if she wants it.  Or you can ask, before you offer it.) The most important way that you can help your daughter is by giving your approval and vote of confidence in her choices.

There is no one in the world whose approval and endorsement would make a bigger difference than yours. Try reframing her defensiveness as a need for autonomy and approval.

What if your daughter doesn’t do things the way you would wish or you can’t approve of her choices? Says Tanen, “Say less, not more.” Leave the issue alone, or the distance between you will grow. If a mother keeps referring to it, then the daughter is likely to minimize the time she spends with her mother. (The exception to this advice would of course be situations involving abusive behaviour or risk to the children.)

What can independent grown daughters do?

Tanen recommends finding ways to involve your mother in your life, without compromising your own independence. Mother’s of grown daughters may feel powerless regarding how often they’ll get to see their daughter or their grandchildren. Some may act needy or demanding. If as a daughter you are proactive about arranging times and ways to be with your mother (ways that feel good for you), it may preclude difficulties.

Try changing your response when your mother says something that is hurtful. Instead of becoming reactive and defensive, you can ask your mother what she meant by her comment. Did she mean to be hurtful?  By asking, you can discover what her intent was, rather than assuming that it was harmful. Experiment with reframing her comments as expressions of caring, not criticism.

Try to see each other in the present tense
Mothers and daughters long to be seen for who they are NOW. Daughters grow and develop and so do their mothers. Neither wishes to be seen as someone “fast-frozen” in the past. What a gift we can give each other when we remember this fact — and strive to see each other with fresh eyes, compassion and awareness.
Invitation to action
Try to cultivate an attitude of generosity and compassion for one another, as mother and daughter. You BOTH care deeply and you are BOTH vulnerable to the judgement and approval of each other.
If you’d like to hear more about Tanen’s research, there’s an interesting audio interviewwith her from shortly after the book was published.  More recently she’s written a book about friendships between women called You’re the Only One I Can Tell.  That’s next on my list!

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