Today's Topic: Understanding Mothers and Daughters
and mothers, I found, both overestimate the other’s power –
and underestimate their own.
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.
a daughter. I am also the mother of a daughter. And I have developed
a new appreciation for the sensitive dynamics inherent in the mother-daughter
connection. This has come through my recent reading of the linguist,
Deborah Tanen. She has written a wonderful book about mothers and
daughters, descriptively called You’re Wearing That?
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.
Her observations have given 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 some of these dynamics
the ideas that struck me most forcefully was Tanen’s observation
that a mother’s CARING was often interpreted as CRITICISM by
that a mother’s mandate is to protect and care for her children,
she is often concerned for their safety. She may ask questions about
the comings and goings of her daughter with the motivation of ensuring
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
recently experienced a personal example of this breakdown.
husband and I attended a concert with our 19 year old daughter, who
has been living on her own for over 6 months. Afterward, 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.
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.
reading Tanen’s book I decided to debrief the interaction
again with my daughter, to see if she had taken my concern as criticism.
I discovered that she perceived our request as unnecessary and bothersome.
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
a daughter is a young child, she needs a caring and concerned mother
who is looking out for her safety and security. However once a daughter
is 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.
what’s a well-intentioned mother of grown daughters to
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.) The most important way that you can help your
daughter is by giving your approval and vote of confidence in her
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 may be situations
involving abusive behaviour or risk to children.)
can independent grown daughters do?
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
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.
and daughters long to be seen and loved for who they are NOW.
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.
touched on just a few of the themes Deborah Tanen identifies about
mothers and daughters. If you’d like to deepen your understanding,
then treat yourself to her book: You’re Wearing That? Understanding
Mothers and Daughters in Conversation.
Vollett, Life and Relationship Coach, delights in working with pro-active
individuals who want to make positive changes in their lives, their
work/business or their relationships. Her clients appreciate her ability
to listen deeply, her compassionate wisdom and her support in moving
forward. Shirley offers a complimentary intro session for those who
want to explore how coaching works and how it can help. Click on a
link below to contact Shirley or visit her website at http://shirley.vollett.com
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