Daughters and Moms

By Eliza Reynolds '14 / May/June 2013
April 25th, 2013

Did Mother’s Day throw you for a loop this spring? As graduation approaches, are you at a loss for a way to thank your mom for all her support through the years? Maybe you feel, as I do, that a box of chocolates just doesn’t express what you really want to say: something equal to—let’s face it—the lovely mix of emotions we often feel when we’re with our mothers. Now that I am out of the house and safely e-connected (more often than not) with my mom, I am trying to reassess this new stage of the whole mother-daughter thing. Life would be so much easier if we could get along. Over the past six years, I’ve become sort of a “professional daughter”—running workshops for hundreds of mothers and daughters with my mom, who’s a therapist. Out of that experience I can offer a handful of suggestions for daughters who feel that flowers and chocolate just don’t cut it. Let’s start here:

This spring, give your mom some REAL talk. Pick up the phone, open the Skype screen, or, if you can, go home. Yes, frequent, honest, un-attitude-filled communication is the best present you can give your mom. Despite all evidence to the contrary, your mom cannot read your mind! She can’t guess the truth that lies behind all the “I’m fine’s” we may quip into the end of the phone line. Make a genuine, kind, courageous effort to tell your mom the REAL stuff—not just the good, or the nice, or the sweet. If you want her to know you, you have to show her you.

Is that so hard? Well, yes; for some of us, it may seem actually impossible to tell Mom the truth without screaming.

My best friend from high school—I’ll call her “Susie”—has the I-adore-you-and-you-make-me-want-to-pull-my-hair-out variety of relationship with her mom. Susie has a love-hate relationship with her body, the kind that’s become the “scary new normal” for my generation of young women—with the bathroom-mirror panic in reaction to naturally changing curves, and a thigh tone she declares irately she “just can’t seem to hold on to” when it’s not basketball season.

Susie’s got no illusions about where her own troubled patterns come from: “It’s my mom. I mean, every day she tells me I’m beautiful, she tells me how perfect I am, how I should never think anything bad about myself. But she hates her own body—whether it’s the new ‘slimming’ jeans, or the exercise plan, or the endless comments about her weight, her fat, her stomach, her unhappiness.… I want to scream at her, ‘MOM, I AM YOU!! How can I be beautiful and you be ugly?’ ”

So, whether you’re like Susie or not, I offer this second piece of advice:

Don’t give up on your mom. Giving up is when you say, “She’ll never get me. She’ll always piss me off. She’s going to be pretending I’m somebody I’m not forever.” Don’t assume she can’t change. And here’s the truth: when you give up, and you check out—yes, I’m talking disappear-behind-crossed-arms, one-word answers, and rolled eyes in response to her earnest questions—you are practically daring her to give up on you.

Cut your mom a break, and get to know her own maternal “inheritance.” We humans are a lesson in cause and effect. Ask yourself: What made your mom the mom that she is? Did her mom tell her she was beautiful? That she loved her just as she was? Did they snuggle? Or did her mom yell at her, imply that she was fat or that her slow reading speed meant she was stupid?

If you take a moment to look around, you’ll see women shaped by their mothers’ emotional legacies. My friend Sofia credits her grandma’s pioneering entrepreneurship in 1920s New York as the inspiration behind her own tech start-up. Lexi chats up the student next to her in class and the janitor in her dorm hallway, the same way her mom makes friends with the bus driver and the elderly gent behind her in the grocery line.

But some maternal legacies just plain suck. When my friend Alexis started to put on her natural puberty weight at thirteen, her well-meaning, appearance-conscious mother taught her to diet, undermining Alexis’s self esteem and maybe even setting her up for an eating disorder. Christiane’s mom hasn’t spoken to her own mother in twenty years. Barbara’s grandmother is a functioning alcoholic—after “happy hour,” it’s better not to call.

Whatever the case, try to put yourself in your mom’s shoes, and you’ll probably see that she’s scared. She’s scared of repeating a painful relationship pattern that she had with her own mom. She’s scared of car accidents. She’s scared of feeling disconnected from you—whom she loves so deeply it hurts. She’s scared of the emotional intensity that comes with sex (yeah, she’s lived it), and how a romantic relationship might get in the way of your bond with her. She’s scared of your realizing she’s a messy, imperfect human—like the rest of us—and of the way you call her out on it. What do you think your mom is scared of?

If you bought those chocolates to thank her for all she’s done for you over the years, consider following them with a note:

Acknowledge your mom (in a conversation, or a card) for at least one positive thing that you were unable to say when you were younger: the effort she put into getting to know your friends; how her work, her intensity, her empathy, or her cooking modeled a lesson for you; the seasons of field hockey games she showed up for; the compliment she always gave you in the morning—“Oh honey, you look so beautiful today! You really have an eye for fashion”—no matter how grumpy and surly you were.

Just because I know how to push my mom’s buttons, that doesn’t mean I have to. My adolescent arsenal, carefully refined over the years, includes all the phrases guaranteed to embarrass, guilt trip, hurt, or infuriate my mother dearest. Instead, this spring let’s work to create the relationship we want—the one that actually works for us. Let’s try to say “I feeeel like you never call about anything except laundry, food, grades, and potential future sons-in-law,” instead of claiming it as a biblical truth, as we may have in our teen years.

So here’s the scary question: if I do all these things—talk straight to my mom, acknowledge the gifts she’s given me, and try to understand her own childhood wounds—am I going to be (gulp!) “enmeshed,” as the psychologists call it? Today’s wisdom says that, in order to grow up, teenage girls are supposed to rebel, reject their mothers, and return to the fold years later, as mothers themselves, ready to battle their own teen girls. If my mom and I are “too” close, will I be enabling a “helicopter parent”? Will I be sacrificing my independence?

From my twenty-two years of daughtering (yup, that’s a new word), I answer with a pretty hearty “no.” When you and your mom are enmeshed, there is an inappropriate crossing of boundaries. Being enmeshed has nothing to do with the number of times you call each other, or the quality, warmth, and openness of your conversations. When a daughter is living out her mother’s agenda, instead of setting the stakes herself—then we’re talking enmeshed.

So quit listening to the conventional wisdom that tells you that hating your mother is normal—that it’s “developmentally appropriate.” Ugh! No relationship works unless both people actively participate—and mother-daughter relationships are no exception. Take a different approach to your relationship with your mom and see what happens. You may just find that the benefits of real conversation last a lot longer than those chocolates.

Eliza Reynolds and her mother, Sil Reynolds ’77, are the authors of Mothering and Daughtering: Keeping Your Bond Strong Through the Teen Years, published in April.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter. 

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May/June 2013