Issue #5 |May 2008

Today's Topic: Understanding Mothers and Daughters

Daughters and mothers, I found, both overestimate the other’s power – and underestimate their own.
-Deborah Tanen

Mother’s Day Reflections

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. 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 are.

Caring or Criticism?

One of the ideas that struck me most forcefully was Tanen’s observation that a mother’s CARING was often interpreted as CRITICISM by her daughter.

Given 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 her safekeeping.

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.

I recently experienced a personal example of this breakdown.
My 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.

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.

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. 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 her judgement.

When 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.

So what’s a well-intentioned mother of grown daughters 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.) 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 may be situations involving abusive behaviour or risk to 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.

Mothers and daughters long to be seen and loved 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

I’ve 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.

Shirley 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
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Copyright © 2008 by Shirley Vollett. All rights reserved.