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The Paradox of the Mother-Daughter Relationship

by Beverly J. Valtierra, Ph.D. LCSW

Mothers and daughters have been the subject of interest forever it seems.  In psychology, we have looked at the relationship between mothers and children for many years, unfortunately too often blaming mothers exclusively for the behaviors of their children.   

Mothers are the child bearers and the primary caregivers usually, and because they have contact with their children over a long growing up period, they  have an extraordinary effect on their children, both boys and girls. This is especially true if she is the solo parent. That is not to say that fathers, other family members and significant others do not also have an impact.  They do. But lets face it, fathers are usually not as available as mothers for many reasons; work, career, financial obligations, outside interests, lack of interest, to mention a few.  So mothers, have a tremendous impact on their children. 

We know from experience in our own lives and from the lives of others that most women, even as adults, yearn for a connection with their mothers.  This is particularly true if we felt unloved and unimportant to her as a child.  Those who have grown up as “motherless children” (which usually refers to children whose mother has died) continue to long for reconnection and that can last a lifetime. No matter how we have “lost “ our mother, we grieve for our loss of her.  And we sometimes, grieve for the mother we never had. The paradox is that she is our model for being female and we desire this connection but we do not want to be like her.

Many times, women are told they are immature, dependent or needy if they still want to be in connection with their mothers.  Some have been told that they need to disconnect from their mothers and “stand on their own two feet.”  We learn to believe that we need to be independent and grow up and to not have close contact with her. The truth is we do need to change the relationship not through distance but towards a more mutually responsive relationship. One that is a mature relationship not one that is still characterized as a parent-child relationship, with its power-over quality but with a mutually empathic, sharing quality.  We will always need a connection with our mothers, even if it is not possible to have one. There are ways to have that, even if she is “lost” to us.

What are the reasons that  this is such an important relationship for us?  We now know that a women’s development is intimately tied to her relationship to her mother.  We know that her sense of self, as a person, evolves from her attachment and identification with her mother. This relationship is the starting point for women’s development.  It becomes the prototype for all other relationships.

So why is the mother-daughter relationship so many times fraught with anger, disappointment and bitterness?  Here are things I have heard women and girls say:

ü     She was not there for me
She did not protect me
I could never be good enough or do enough
I could never talk to her
ü     She always criticized me
ü     I was never what she wanted me to be
ü     She never took time to know me
ü     She left me either through death or dissertation
ü     She left me in other ways, illness, other people etc

The following are things that  have impacted you and they have also impacted your mother.. Read each statement  and then ask yourself each question. Then answer the question as if you were your mother.

v    Women are  devalued, and/or abused, neglected, not respected, and seen as inferior by others, including the society at large.  What does that say about me—I am a female too?

v    Women have always been lacking in power, their voices non-existent or disregarded.  No one is really interested in what we think, feel, want or need so we never say it.  This makes us feel “less-than”. So where does that put me?

v    This lack of power has made it impossible for women to protect themselves and their daughters. How has this effected me? How did this effect my mother?

v    Women have internalized many of these negative beliefs and therefore feel unworthy, defective, and flawed.  Girls then have a problem—how do I identify with my mother.  To be a female, do I have to internalize these negative beliefs too?  Did my mother internalize there from her mother?

v    Women are seen as objects or as ornaments and possessions.  Does that describe me?

v    Women’s bodies are not their own, others tell them how they should look and what they can do with them.  How much freedom do I feel with regard to my body?

v    What girls and women want is for their mothers to be authentic with them.  Share their voice. What keeps you from doing this and what kept your mom from doing this?

What we want from our mothers is the knowledge that as she gave us life, she remained alive herself and connected to us. For some there are wounds they still carry from the relationship with their mothers, wounds that still cause pain.  These need to be healed and then maybe  there can be an understanding that she has gone through similar experiences with her mother brought about by how women have been regarded in our time and in all time, and  then we can better  understand her and ourselves.  But the healing has to come before we can do this and many times the healing will happen  through counseling. For some then, there is the  possibly of  having  some connection with  their mothers and growing  into a more mutual relationship, where  both can be  equals. Did she want that too?  Does she want it now?  If it is not possible then we need to accept that and connect in whatever way is possible.  We need to understand our experience, her experience and her experience with her mother. Maybe we can learn to forgive and then change how we see these relationships.  Maybe we can help other women do the same. Then we can forge a new way with our daughters and granddaughters. Then maybe society will begin to change its views.  Let’s hope.