Common Thread: Mothers, Daughters, and the Power of Empathy

Common Thread: Mothers, Daughters, and the Power of Empathy

by Martha Manning

There is no relationship more fulfilling, infuriating, emotional, and problematic than that of a mother and daughter. Psychology has traditionally regarded as inevitable — and, in fact, necessary — a female child's eventual separation from her mother as adulthood ensues. Now renowned psychologist and author Martha Manning offers mothers and daughters of


There is no relationship more fulfilling, infuriating, emotional, and problematic than that of a mother and daughter. Psychology has traditionally regarded as inevitable — and, in fact, necessary — a female child's eventual separation from her mother as adulthood ensues. Now renowned psychologist and author Martha Manning offers mothers and daughters of all ages a revolutionary new way of understanding each other and their relationships, and challenges the accepted thinking that this powerful bond must ultimately be severed. In a work of intelligence, wit, heart, and scholarship, Manning examines this important link and concludes that it is a precious attachment that is never outgrown — that, while the differing, ever-changing needs, conflicts, and obligations of two distinct women may create a chasm between them, bridging the gap will serve to strengthen a lifelong commitment, love, and identity, while fostering essential independence. The key is empathy.

Through empathy — the ability to perceive the other's actions as an aspect of individual behavior — even a troubled relationship can become gratifying and beautiful. Exploring the developmental stages of the mother-daughter union from infancy through old age, Manning provides potent tools to help us build stronger ties, enabling us to celebrate rather than eschew the twists and turns, joys, secrets, and surprises inherent in this most glorious of life connections. She also focuses new attention on the parts played by cultural, historical, psychological, and biological influences, areas often ignored in previous works on the subject.

Drawing on her personal experiences as a mother, daughter, and "champion eavesdropper," combined with scrupulous research and intriguing insights culled from today's headlines, literature, pop culture, and extensive clinical experience, the author casts a fascinating new light on what can — and should — be a dynamic, fluid, and mutually empowering relationship. For everyone who is, and always will be, a mother, a daughter, or both, this important, inspiring book will guide the reader toward a new love and respect born of understanding and the enriching ability to find the common thread.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Both psychologist Manning (Undercurrents) and Snyderman, a surgeon, columnist, ABC and PBS medical news correspondent, and author, explore the mother-daughter relationship through research and personal experience. Although Snyderman restricts her study to adolescence and Manning takes a broader view, they both examine the relationship from dual perspectives, considering how mothers and daughters can bridge the gaps between them and create dynamic relationships for a lifetime. Manning argues that empathy can link mothers and daughters and identifies barriers to empathy at each life stage. Stressing that it is never too late to build a better relationship, she urges women to examine themselves and see what barriers they are creating. In an afterword, she urges all women to use empathy not only in their relationships with their mothers and daughters but in improving the status of women everywhere. Snyderman offers an in-depth analysis of the mother-daughter relationship during adolescence, suggesting that growth and change need to be experienced by the mother as well as the daughter and offering guidelines for dealing with these changes. She stresses the individual nature of each relationship for both mothers and daughters, and notes the frequent coincidence of a daughter's adolescence and a mother's entry into mid-life, times when both may be exploring expanded roles and identities. Snyderman offers concrete examples and tries to debunk certain myths of adolescence, such as inevitable rebellion and raging hormones. Both books are recommended for parenting and women's issues collections in public and academic libraries. Kay Brodie, Chesapeake Coll., Wye Mills, MD Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A clinical psychologist reflects on empathy within the mother-daughter relationship. Manning (Chasing Grace: Reflections of a Catholic Girl, Grown Up, 1997) argues that empathy is both an instinctive trait and a talent that can be developed, a skill affected by timing, biology, and culture. Timing, she notes, is everything. "A �good' daughter at six months might be a baby who takes several naps a day . . . is attached to a pacifier, and prefers to sit on Mom's lap all day. But those criteria applied to the same girl at age five usually aren't cause for celebration." Relations between mothers and daughters are culturally specific: "American mothers talk to their babies a lot, placing great emphasis on verbal achievements. They also stress autonomy and independence in their children," traits that are not universally valued. Because relationships that must last a lifetime depend on understanding, Manning begins at the beginning, with pregnancy and childbirth, a situation she likens to "a nine-month-long blind date that culminates dramatically in a lifetime commitment," adding insights from her clinical practice and episodes from her own experience as a mother. Moving from infancy to childhood and adolescence, Manning outlines barriers to empathy that can spring from both mother and child. Although she can seem long-winded-her appealing recollections of her daughter and her practice are sandwiched between rounds of psychology-speak-her self-deprecating wit enlivens her account. Beset with bronchitis, Manning is mortified when her coughing makes her lose control of her bladder. "I always believed that I'd be somewhat cool about the whole aging thing. However, I can't help feeling that it's abit unfair that I have to carry Tampax and Midol in the same briefcase that now holds several neatly packaged bladder backups." An engaging look at how to become actively empathetic.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Chapter One

Mothers and Daughters: The Big Deal

Why do we spend hours thinking and talking about our mothers and daughters? Because it's the longest-running show in town and we've had front-row seats for our entire lives. Some of us got our tickets for free, and others paid dearly for them. The plot has endless twists and turns, contradictions, secrets, and surprises. We will never understand it all. We may edge closer to some answers about why our relationships with our mothers and daughters are the way they are, but we'll never make it all the way. We aren't supposed to. Insights? Yes. Answers? Never.

Whenever I tell women that the subject of my writing is mother-daughter relationships, it doesn't matter whether I'm shooting the breeze with two or giving a speech to two hundred, the response is always the same. A collective groan rises up, followed by statements like "Oh, God!" and "You should interview me" and "I have stories you wouldn't believe!" The response is as reflexive as "You're welcome" after "Thank you." It almost seems that we are fulfilling some cultural mandate when we groan about our mothers. Among the multiple dimensions of all mother-daughter relationships, the aspects we are primed to emphasize are those that drive us crazy.

When women say, "Oh my God, I'm turning into my mother!" they don't exactly shout it proudly from the rooftops. We often shudder when we catch ourselves repeating phrases that we swore would never become part of our repertoires, such as "Young lady..." or "As long as you live under my roof..." or "I don'tcare if the entire seventh grade is allowed to do it..." "Accusing" a woman of turning into her mother is a handy weapon in verbal confrontations for people like spouses and children. When a loved one makes the comparison, a woman's reaction is much closer to "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" than to "Really? What a compliment. Thank you." In a Salon "advice" column, Mr. Blue (a.k.a. Garrison Keillor) responds to a letter of urgency — "My wife," writes the troubled husband, is "turning into her mother!" The problem with this transformation becomes instantly clear in the writer's description of his mother-in-law (and, indirectly, his wife): "a wretched, spiteful, miserable martyr, who drives my father-in-law to drink a pint of Canadian whiskey every night."

The irony is that the majority of groaning women admit they have essentially positive relationships with their mothers. The two bickering old women in my office would have said they do, too. If you ask the question "Do you love your mother?" the majority of women will answer, "Yes, of course." Admittedly some will then immediately wish to amend that statement with a list of qualifications. "Yes, I love her, but..."

The Long Life of Early Expectations

We want our mothers to love us perfectly, completely, and unconditionally. We want them to love us as they did at first sight when we were newborns. At the same time we expect them to treat us with all the adult respect to which we feel entitled by virtue of our age and experience. Unlike our relationships with friends, lovers, or husbands, which have their roots in adolescence and adulthood, the relationship between a mother and daughter is radically different. The sense of loving and being loved — even before birth — carries weighty expectations: that the connection will forever be as strong, as connected, as free from boundaries and conditions as it was in the honeymoon stretches of infancy and early childhood.

Mothers can be similarly unrealistic about the ways their daughters should love them. Despite the intensity of the connection, it is rarely ever "equal." For example, an adolescent daughter's "I hate you" usually carries less weight than a mother's use of the same words to her daughter. A mother's scorn over a child's painting packs a far more powerful punch than any rotten thing a child can say to a mother. It's never an even exchange. It's not supposed to be. In most cases, a daughter takes up more space in her mother's mind than her mother does in hers, an insight that can be found even in ancient texts like the Talmud: "A mother is always attached to her daughter but not so a daughter to her mother."

Thinking Back

In A Room of One's Own, her groundbreaking treatise on sexism, society, and art, Virginia Woolf had it right: "We think back through our mothers if we are women." Any attempt to understand ourselves without considering our mothers, and their mothers, and their mothers, will eventually dead-end in a sign that says "You can't get there from here." To move forward, sometimes we must first move back. My mother and aunt still turn over questions about my grandmother, now dead ten years. "When do you think things changed for the worse?" they ask each other. "Why were you the 'good' daughter and I the 'bad' one?" "What made her so unhappy?" With nine grown daughters between them, my mother and aunt are still working out a relationship in which one of the major players is dead. But that doesn't matter. The mother-daughter relationship remains alive for women, long before birth and long after death. It is the lens through which they filter their past, as well as their present and future, experience. "Why don't they just let it go?" my sisters, cousins, and I ask one another. As far as we're concerned, this particular plot of land has been farmed entirely too long. But when it comes right down to it, why should they stop talking about their relationship with their mother? As long as they continue to till, seed, and water that soil, their work will unite them as sisters and will...

The Common Thread. Copyright © by Martha Manning. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Martha Manning, Ph.D., is a writer, clinical psychologist, and former professor of psychology at George Mason University. She is the author of Undercurrents: A Life Beneath the Surface; Chasing Grace: Reflections of a Catholic Girl, Grown Up; and All Seasons Pass: Grieving Miscarriage. Manning has been recognized by the National Institutes of Mental Health for her work in education and advocacy and was awarded the American Psychiatric Association 1996 Presidential Award for Patient Advocacy. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, Ladies' Home Journal, and New Woman. She has been featured on Dateline NBC, Good Morning America, C-SPAN, The Early Show, NPR's "Voice of America," and other radio and television programs.

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