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Making Up with Mom
Why Mothers and Daughters Disagree About Kids, Careers, and Casseroles (And What to Do About It)
By Julie Halpert, Deborah Carr
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Julie Halpert and Deborah Carr
All rights reserved.
Mothers and Daughters: Why We Get Under Each Other's Skin
A mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled.
— EMILY DICKINSON
A daughter is the happy memories of the past, the joyful moments of the present, and the hope and promise of the future.
Young women today have vastly more options than their mothers and grandmothers did decades ago. "Should I become a doctor, a writer, or a stay-at-home mom?" "Should I get married or live with my boyfriend?" "Do I want children?" Women in their twenties, thirties, and forties today are wrestling with deeply personal, life-altering decisions about work and family. Life choices are inevitably accompanied by self-doubt, regret, and nagging questions about the path not taken, so young women need all the affirmation and support they can get. But the very people whose support they crave most — their mothers — often can't get on board with their choices. This frustrates mothers and leaves daughters questioning themselves. It also creates a sometimes cataclysmic rift between the two generations, even for women who have always had a close and loving relationship.
A mother's simple question, like "How can you trust a nanny to watch your children all day?" can bring her poised, accomplished CEO daughter to tears or provoke a nasty response more suitable to a surly teenager than a leader of industry. Why can't mothers and daughters today see eye-to-eye when it comes to important choices about love, work, children, money, and personal fulfillment? Why does a mother's approval still matter so much, even to the most confident and self-possessed daughter? And when daughters choose paths different from their mothers', why is it so painful for the older generation?
Why Mother-Daughter Relationships Are So Important
The mother-daughter bond is the closest and most emotionally intense of all relationships. But as daughters grow older, the natural evolution of becoming an independent woman creates a forceful current against that unifying bond. Mothers start out as the primary caregivers and role models for their daughters. Many secretly hope and expect their daughters will turn out just like them. Yet as daughters mature, they must become physically, psychologically, and financially independent. In their attempts to carve out their own unique identities, daughters often choose paths that are intentionally different from their mothers'.
Psychologists have argued that the mother-daughter relationship reaches its lowest, most contentious point during the teen years, when daughters fight their hardest to be "individuals." That's the age when daughters dye their hair purple, write morose poetry, stay out all night, or strive to be a star athlete — so they can prove they're not their mother's daughters. But those rebellious years quickly fade. Many psychologists believe that the mother-daughter relationship reaches a glorious turning point when the daughter becomes a mother herself. The younger generation of women can relate to their mothers' experiences, and their relationships recover from the tempestuous drama of the adolescent years.
Yet the underlying assumption here is that daughters will be the same kind of wives and parents as their mothers had been. Quite often, that's not the case. With young women reinventing marriage, pregnancy, career, and parenthood, we found in our interviews that mother-daughter relationships can take a turn for the worse once a daughter becomes a wife, mother, and worker. Daughters who enjoyed warm, easygoing relationships with their mothers begin to butt heads once the daughter starts raising her kids or running her household her way. The reason? By doing things her own way, a daughter may be unintentionally conveying the message that her method is better than her mother's. At the same time, mothers want badly to remain close with their daughters. Many feel the need to "fix" things when they don't like the direction their daughters are headed. So, they may resort to unsolicited advice, which their daughters invariably interpret as criticism or disapproval.
That perceived criticism is painful because a mother's endorsement and affirmation means the world to her daughter, even if she's a confident woman with a long list of professional accomplishments. As women have more choices today, they inevitably experience at least some self-doubt or regret. The term "cognitive dissonance" applies frequently to young women when, after choosing between two options, they feel a nagging sense of discontent and need to ask themselves, "Did I do the right thing?" This discomfort will only be exacerbated when their mothers question their decisions.. Often, the only way to resolve these conflicting feelings is to stubbornly stick to the original choice — even if they recognize that the decision wasn't necessarily in their best interest. As we'll show in our interviews, when mothers question their already insecure daughters' choices about love, marriage, and work, the relationship can take a turn for the worse.
The Ups and Downs of Mother-Daughter Relationships
Adult daughters and their aging mothers can frustrate each other because they have a hard time acknowledging that the other has changed over the years. A grown woman may still view her mother as the inflexible disciplinarian who wouldn't let her attend a midnight movie "because I said so." And a mother may have a hard time accepting that her daughter, the girl who once didn't know how to make toast, is now a chef at a four-star restaurant. It's even harder for the mother to accept that, as she becomes older and her health declines, her daughter may be cooking meals for her — rather than vice versa. Mothers are accustomed to teaching and protecting their daughters and may not easily accept that their daughters have grown into smart, competent women who no longer need their mothers' help.
Many of the daughters we spoke with said they had concealed a major life event — illness, an abortion, marital woes — from their mother because they feared she would become upset and overly emotional, or that she would pass harsh judgment. Yet as their mothers age, those intense emotional responses they had as young mothers fade. Psychologists say that as adults mature into their sixties and older, their "emotional reactivity" declines. That means that they are less emotional when joys and crises come their way. A mother who would have flown off the handle at her daughter's misbehavior thirty years ago may simply roll with the punches today. That's because older women have experienced enough ups and downs in life to have perspective, and are now better at taking things in stride. But their daughters don't always realize this, so they shield their mothers from the truth. And that creates a climate of pain and distrust..
Daughters today also fail to recognize that their mothers are entering a new phase of life, as well — focusing on their own personal accomplishments, such as going back to school or developing a new hobby, after devoting earlier years to their family. Some of the mothers we interviewed had led traditional, family-centered lives in their twenties and thirties, but once their children left the nest, they went back to work, got college degrees, and in some cases, divorced their husbands. As these older women carved out new lives for themselves, they also were better able to relate to their daughters' struggles than they had been decades earlier.
Taking the Pulse of Your Relationship
Psychologists have developed dozens of theories to characterize mother-daughter relationships, yet we realize that no two relationships are exactly alike. For starters, we invite readers to take the quiz that follows; it may provide some insights into what's good and bad about your mother-daughter relationship. We hope this quiz will help you identify strengths and weak spots in your own relationship.
DAUGHTERS: Your mother invites you and your family over for a home-cooked dinner. You:
a. tell her you have tickets to see American Idol Live with your family that night, even though you don't.
b. agree, but bring a box of macaroni and cheese for your kids, since they don't like her cooking.
c. take a deep breath and grudgingly agree.
d. happily say yes, knowing you'll be treated to a wonderful meal and lively conversation.
MOTHERS: You've invited your daughter and her family for dinner and have spent the afternoon preparing your daughter's favorite dish. As you are about to serve, your daughter heats up a bowl of Kraft macaroni and cheese for her kids. You:
a. tell her to take it away immediately and insist your grandkids eat what you prepared.
b. decide to go to your favorite restaurant next time, where everyone can order what they want.
c. let your daughter serve the macaroni, but then silently seethe all night because she's hurt your feelings.
d. gently ask your daughter why she felt the need to bring the macaroni and ask if your grandchildren might try some of the specialty dish as well.
DAUGHTERS: Your mother has rented a condo in Florida for the month and has invited you and your family to visit for a week. Your children burst into your mother's living room, kick off their boots, and start chasing each other. Your mother tells them to put their boots in the closet and keep their voices down, so as not to disturb the neighbors. You:
a. tell your mother that you and your family will never vacation with her again.
b. quietly tell the kids that it's fine if they want to run around for a little while.
c. tell your children that they must obey Grandma's rules when they're at her house and to go outside if they're planning on running around.
d. explain to your mother that your children have been sitting on a plane for four hours and ask if she can allow them to let off some steam.
MOTHERS: You've invited your daughter and her family to stay with you at your winter condo in Florida for a week. As soon as your grandkids walk in the door, they kick off their boots and start running around and yelling. Your daughter laughs it off and does nothing to discipline them. You:
a. tell your daughter you'll never invite her family to your vacation spot again.
b. tell your grandchildren they need to put away their boots and keep their voices down.
c. say nothing, even if their unruly behavior bothers you. Disciplining your grandchildren is your daughter's job.
d. take your daughter aside and ask if the two of you might come up with some ground rules to keep the kids in line when they visit.
DAUGHTERS: You've just gone shopping and treated yourself to a new spaghetti-strap tank top and snug-fitting cropped pants. When your mother sees you, she raises her eyebrow and says, "Oh, is that what you girls are wearing today?" You:
a. tell your mother that the last time she could squeeze into slim-cut pants was during the Eisenhower administration.
b. tell your mother that your husband likes your new outfit and his opinion matters more than hers.
c. quietly take her advice — even though you and she have very different styles — and ask her to go shopping with you for a new outfit.
d. let her know that you appreciate her input, but would prefer to make your own choices about what you wear.
MOTHERS: Your daughter has just bought a new spaghetti-strap tank top and snug-fitting cropped pants. You think the outfit is too revealing and doesn't flatter her curvaceous figure. You:
a. tell her she is an adult and shouldn't be shopping in the teen department.
b. ask if the pants come in a larger size, and whether she has a long sweater to go over the tank top.
c. say nothing, since what she wears is her decision, even if you don't think it's flattering.
d. ask if it's okay to give advice on her outfit, and then gently tell her that other styles would be more becoming on her lovely figure.
DAUGHTERS: Your mom comes from out of town to visit for the week. As soon as she walks in your house, she sees a mass of wrinkled towels falling out of your tiny linen closet. Immediately, she starts to reorganize. You:
a. tell her to sit down and stop messing with your stuff.
b. let her go at it, but then run to your husband and complain about how annoying she is.
c. do nothing, since you don't want to hurt her feelings.
d. agree to let her help, provided you can do it together and show her where you like things to go.
MOTHERS: You are visiting your daughter for the week. As you walk into the house, you see dishes in the sink and towels spilling out of the linen closet. You:
a. tell your daughter that her house is a mess and she should hire a cleaning woman if she doesn't have the time to straighten up.
b. immediately start cleaning.
c. ignore the mess, since it's your daughter's house and you have no place commenting on how she runs it.
d. tell her that you realize how overwhelmed she is, and ask her if she would like you to help clean her house or offer to pay for a cleaning service.
DAUGHTERS: When your mom offers to babysit, you:
a. tell her you and your husband don't need a sitter. You spend all your leisure time with your children.
b. agree, but give her a list of rules she must follow, including appropriate foods to eat and a bedtime ritual.
c. agree, even though you have a regular, paid babysitter you prefer to use.
d. happily accept. A free night out and the children get to see their beloved grandma — what could be better!
MOTHERS: When your daughter asks you to babysit, you:
a. say no. You're very busy and don't have the time.
b. reluctantly agree, but tell her it needs to be at your house. You have a better stocked refrigerator and your home is tidier.
c. agree, even though it means giving up your monthly bridge game.
d. happily agree, delighted by the chance to spend time with your grandchildren.
DAUGHTERS: You've been dating the man of your dreams for four months, and have finally brought him to your mom's house for dinner. Your mother grills him on why he's a vegetarian, making him squirm and run for the door as soon as dinner is over. You:
a. apologize to your beau, yell at your mother for her insulting behavior, and leave before dessert is served.
b. make light of her behavior, telling your boyfriend not to take her too seriously.
c. say nothing, so as not to create any additional tension.
d. take your mother aside and tell her that you'd rather she not interrogate your boyfriend about his dietary preferences.
MOTHERS: Your daughter calls to tell you she's met the man of her dreams and wants to bring him for dinner. Within the first half-hour he tells you that he's a staunch vegetarian, that "meat is murder," and that he couldn't possibly eat your pot roast. At dinner, he interrupts your daughter and rolls his eyes when she shares her political views. You:
a. let him know firmly that you want him out of your daughter's life.
b. slip your daughter the phone number of your cardiologist's unmarried son.
c. say nothing, and hope your daughter comes to realize what a jerk he is.
d. speak to your daughter privately, gently expressing your concerns about his insensitive behavior.
DAUGHTERS: You just celebrated your fifth wedding anniversary and have no children. At a lunch with your mother, she expresses concern that you're waiting too long and tells you that you should have a child soon. You:
a. tell her that you'll start your family when you're good and ready, and that it's none of her business.
b. mention that you don't want to struggle the way she and your father did, so you're waiting until you're financially secure before you have a child.
c. try to change the subject.
d. acknowledge her concerns, but firmly tell her that this is a personal decision between you and your husband.
MOTHERS: Your 35-year-old daughter has been married for five years but has no children. You're worried she'll have a hard time getting pregnant if she doesn't start trying soon. You:
a. tell her that she better make getting pregnant a priority — pronto. You're the only one of your friends who doesn't have a grandchild yet.
b. recount a story about a lonely, childless cousin of yours, and ask her, "Who will take care of you when you're older?" c. say nothing, since it's her life and her decision.
d. let her know your concerns about fertility difficulties as women age and ask if it's okay to share your feelings on the subject.
DAUGHTERS: You've been named partner at your law firm. You're thrilled and can't wait to share the news with your mother. Her immediate response is, "You're home with the kids so little as it is. Do you really think it's a good idea to accept that promotion?" You:
a. tell her she couldn't possibly understand what's best for you careerwise, since she's never had a real job.
b. block out what she says, and let your mind wander to the thought of your new corner office.
c. quietly agree that the promotion will take you away from your family more.
d. let her know you understand her concern and suggest brainstorming together on the best way for your family to adapt to your changing work situation.
Excerpted from Making Up with Mom by Julie Halpert, Deborah Carr. Copyright © 2008 Julie Halpert and Deborah Carr. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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