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Building a Better Mother-Daughter Relationship

Today, young women have many more options than their mothers and grandmothers. They can become professionals or stay at home moms; choose to marry or not; become moms or remain childless. Inevitably, these choices are difficult and often accompanied by self-doubt and regret. But just when they need all the affirmation they can get, their moms, the woman whose support and approval they crave above all others, turn critical and questioning, often leading to tension and tears. A desire to understand this phenomenon inspired freelance writer Julie Halpert to join forces with Rutgers sociologist Deborah Carr, Ph.D., to write Making Up With Mom: Why Mothers and Daughters Disagree About Kids, Careers, and Casseroles (and What to Do About It) (St. Martins, $24.95). They interviewed nearly 100 moms and daughters from all walks of life, focusing on three core issues—dating/marriage, career and child rearing. Tips and observations from more than two dozen therapists they consulted are woven throughout the book. Jewish Woman spoke recently to Julie Halpert. 
Q: Why did you decide to write the book?
A: When I had children of my own and started looking at my life and realizing how different it was from my mother’s. I’m juggling a lot between working and raising children. My life is far more chaotic than hers. She would come in and be critical of things -- from how I decorated my house to the food I hurriedly prepared. She felt I should be more firm with my children and that they were often running amuck. It was stressful! It made me think: Are other women going through what I’m going through with my mom? I found that I was not alone. This is definitely a generational issue.

Q. Do you think the mother daughter bond is the closest relationship we experience in our lives?
A: I really do. In many ways it’s closer than the father daughter bond. I think mothers see in their daughters an extension of themselves and want their daughters to be a lot like them. Daughters often turn to their mothers for advice and look up to them. There’s a lot of passion attached to that relationship. Also women tend to communicate their feelings more in a way men often do not. There’s that whole dimension to it. It’s definitely a very tightly knit bond, which makes this issue more complicated.

Q: Haven’t moms and daughter always had areas of disagreement. How is it different today?
A: It’s different today because it’s a unique point in time when the lives daughters are leading today are so different from the lives their mothers led.  For example, the advent of the birth control pill gave women the choice of when to have children, how many children to have. The incredible advances in the workplace gave women choices today that their mothers couldn’t have dreamed of. That has also evolved into marriages that are more like partnerships, where men take on far more domestic responsibilities than they used to. Children are raised in affluence as a result of both parents working. There are so many situations that make women’s lives today so different than their mothers. That creates an issue because the mothers often can’t relate to their lives. Daughters often feel the mothers can’t empathize with them so they tend to shut them out. They are also trying today to do everything and do it well so when their mothers try to be helpful and offer advice, they will often snap back “You just don’t understand,” and interpret it as criticism.

Making up with MomQ: What is most surprising thing you learned in your research?
A: A few things. The main thing we learned, is that even in the most contentious relationships mothers and daughters crave nothing more than each other’s respect and are often frustrated because they don’t know how to get it. What underlies all of this is that women want their mothers to love and respect them and honor their choices and mothers really want to feel needed and loved by their daughters. The other thing is, which is kind of surprising for us, on the work front, we just imagined that women who stayed home a generation ago to raise their daughters would want automatically want their daughters to do the same thing, but we found that in many cases quite the opposite. Women who stayed home now want their daughters to take advantage of all the opportunities that there are in the workplace. If a woman today made a choice to stay home or have a more laidback career, their mothers often were not happy with that. They felt that their daughters were taking these new opportunities for granted. Even when the daughter did work but didn’t necessarily have a high-paying career, the mother wanted her to do something more prestigious or lucrative, so she could support herself and not have to rely on a man, the way she had to.

Another interesting thing we found out is about women and their mothers-in-law. Typically the mother-in-law has been demonized. These days what we found is that often, when a woman had a contentious relationship with her own mother, the one with her mother-in-law was warm and supportive, probably because it didn’t come with the emotional baggage.  

Immigrant daughters, especially, often had big divisions with their mothers because the mothers were raised in other countries and came to the United States. We found that if the daughter was married to an American she had an easier time relating to the American mother-in-law than her Old World mother.

Q: What was most inspiring thing you learned?
A: We have a chapter on inspirational mother-daughter stories. For me, this was most moving chapter of the book. It shows that mothers and daughters who have fundamentally sound relationships can be there for each other when times get tough. One woman we write about was pregnant with twins and had to be on bed rest for the last two months of her pregnancy. Her mother gave up her own job and drove a distance every day so she could be there for her daughter. The daughter said she felt a sense of calm when her mother was there. Her mother said to be a good mother you have to be there for your own daughter not only when she’s young and in college but beyond. We had another daughter whose father was very ill with stomach cancer. Her mother was having a very hard time. The daughter took off time to help her mother through this and said, “My mother was always there for me and now I want to be there for her.”

Q: Why do women today feel that they have to live up to the ideals of their homemaker mothers and professional fathers?
A: The pressure to do that comes not so much from our mothers but from society and from our peers and from the media. There is this portrayal in the media of what women should be--a woman who is running on all cylinders who has a high powered job, is raising baby geniuses, looks gorgeous and runs marathons on the weekends. I think this expectation comes, not from our own mothers, but is a societal thing. I’m hoping our daughters will find more of a balance.

Q: Some of the mothers you talked to felt trapped by the lack of opportunities and their daughters were trapped by too many opportunities. How can you negotiate your life without feeling repressed on the one hand or burnt out on the other?
A: You need to make choices that work best for you and not to look back on them and anguish over whether you made the right decision. What’s going on now is that women are so overwhelmed by these choices that they often agonize over them. When their mothers come in and make a comment, whether intended to be helpful or questioning, they get very defensive because they are insecure in those choices to begin with. So the main thing to do is to make a choice that you think really works best for you and your lifestyle and your family and plow ahead and don’t second guess it. If it doesn’t work for you then you make another choice. The beauty of what we do have today is that if we make a wrong choice we can do something else and our mothers often didn’t have that option.

Q: Young women have a lot of choices which is wonderful, but it can be overwhelming and exhausting. How can you handle the all this pressure without burning out?
A: One of the things we talk about in our book is this issue of personal time, taking time out to nurture your own body and soul. Women today tend not to do that very much. That’s a source of consternation with their mothers. The women who are able to handle the pressure the best find a balance—they also make time for themselves and time for their husbands, to nurture that relationship. And they aren’t so hard on themselves if they let things go. One area women let things go comfortably is housework. A generation ago there was a lot of emphasis on appearances—your own appearance, the way your house looked and the way your children looked. This is a source of tension between my mother and me. She comes in and the clutter disturbs her. There are unmade beds and dishes in the sink. I think if I would have to focus on having an immaculate house on top of everything else I would go off the deep end. A lot of women put housework on the back burner and their mothers aren’t too happy about that.

Many mothers felt that daughters weren’t taking enough time to nurture themselves by putting on makeup and getting their hair cut, stuff that the daughters didn’t feel was important. We had a mother who was having an anniversary party. Her daughter drove nine hours with her two very small children to come to the party. When she walked in, her mother looked at the kids and said, “So that’s what they are wearing?” The daughter thought her mom should just be happy that they were there, and wasn’t that worried about how her family was dressed. The mom felt it was important that at a party everyone should be dressed appropriately.

Q: Does this generation experience more guilt and anxiety than in the past? Or has guilt always been a part of motherhood?
A: I personally think that women today feel much guiltier for everything they do. That makes things much more difficult. Women who stay home feel that they should be making more money for the family. Women who work feel that they aren’t spending enough time with their kids. Women who work part time feel that they aren’t good at working or staying home. Women who don’t put their kids in enough extra curricular activities feel that their college resume will fall short.  Women who don’t exercise enough feel that they aren’t looking attractive enough for their husbands. It’s pretty much across the board. A lot of women feel deficient. When their mother chimes in and asks why do you feel that you have to be perfect in all these areas, that often elicits a defensive response

Q: What did you observe about the Jewish mothers and daughters whom you interviewed?
A: What makes Jewish mother-daughter relationships unique is that family is so important to them. They have a tight-knit, passionate relationship and tend to say what’s on their mind. Jewish mothers and daughters also crave each other’s love and support.

In Judaism we’re very proud of education and a lot of Jewish mothers felt that they didn’t have the educational opportunities they wanted. They want their daughters to pursue career goals but also feel it’s important for them to focus on family—an inherent conflict. We interviewed one woman who wanted her daughters to go to good schools, law school in fact, and yet she felt that after they got their degrees they should stay home once they had children.

Q: Why does it seem that daughters’ marital status and romantic choices are a flashpoint for moms and daughters?
A: Mothers want what is best for their daughters. But what they often think best, is what would have made them happy, not their daughters. A woman who married someone who wasn’t a devoted husband and didn’t make a lot of money so that she had to work to support herself, wants her daughter to marry someone ambitious and successful. When her daughter picks someone who she doesn’t view as ambitious enough or hardworking enough, she’s unhappy. Yet her daughter is very happy, and says her husband is a wonderful father and has many good qualities and that she doesn’t mind working to supplement his income. The mother projects her needs and wants on the daughter. That’s a common theme.

We spoke to another woman whose daughter is living with someone. They are very committed to each other and are very happy. Yet the mother is unhappy because she feels they are not really committed, if they haven’t gotten married and don’t have an official piece of paper showing they are husband and wife. So a lot of what it comes down to is the mother’s expectations of a good relationship and whether she is willing to embrace what makes her daughter happy.

Another daughter adopted three children from China as a single parent. The mother was concerned that the daughter wouldn’t have time to pursue her own interests and to date so she could get married again. Yet the daughter was really happy because her children made her happy. Her mother’s idea of happiness wasn’t the same.

Q: Why do many moms today feel that their daughters don’t consult them enough in raising their children?   
A: A generation or so ago women often married young and lived close to moms, sometimes down the street from their mom or just a town away. They turned to their moms for advice because didn’t know a lot and were young enough so they were still almost like dependent children. The mothers often pitched in with child care and were very much part of their grandchildren’s daily life. These days, moms may live across the country or miles away. Also, women often postpone childbearing so they are older, more educated and stronger and don’t want to be dependent and turn to their mother for advice. They may turn, instead, to the vast array of resources their mother never had—the Internet, tons and tons of parenting books, even their friends who they see as having more in common with than their mothers. Also, mothers may not see their grandchildren often so they are not part of their daily lives. Mothers want to give their advice, they want to come and visit and pitch in, and the daughters feel they don’t want to rely on mothers in that same way. And that of course is very hurtful to the mothers.
Q: Have attitudes about parenting changed?
A: Yes, in many areas. Food was a big topic for us, especially among the Jewish mothers and daughters we interviewed. Food used to be the main way women showed love to their families. They had time to cook elaborate meals and everyone was home at 6 pm to eat dinner together. Women today are more inclined to pick up take-out or have fast food. Dinner is often quick. Families often don’t eat dinner together. Their mothers don’t think that this is the best way to go. 

A generation ago there tended to be more emotional distance between parents and children and discipline was often more rigid. Today the pendulum has swung in a different direction. Children are more likely to have more intimate discussions with their mothers and discipline more often takes the form of talking it out and time outs; the relationship between children and their moms is almost peer-like. The boundaries are different. As a result, sometimes our mothers may feel that our children aren’t as well-mannered and respectful as they should be.

Q: How can moms come to accept that their daughters are different without feeling that it negates the choices that they made in their lives?
A: Try to realize that you shouldn’t mold your daughter in your own image. You shouldn’t interpret her decisions to do things differently as a rejection of the way you did things. Respect her as an individual. We hold our mothers and daughters to higher standards than anybody else. We tend to focus on deficiencies. Try to see positive qualities instead. If you were a stay-at-home mom and she’s a corporate CEO, you should embrace that and be proud of her. And tell her you’re proud of her.
Q: What are some strategies for better mother-daughter relationships?
A: The first thing—the most important—is delivering your messages with empathy and understanding. So if you walk into your daughter’s house and you think it looks like a battlefield, instead of being judgmental, say to her, “I know you have a really busy life, is there anything I can do to help tidy up? Can I help you clean?” At the same time, daughters should realize that their mothers can provide good advice. And both mothers and daughters can say to each other, “I really appreciate your helping me out. Thank you so much.”

Sometimes as a mother you need to learn to butt out. There are times when if your daughter is doing the best she can and seems happy, you need to learn to let her go and stop constantly interfering with her choices. She’s an adult and you need to accept that.

On the flip side, daughters at some point should realize they are grownups and shouldn’t keep seeking their mothers’ approval; they need to learn to be confident in their own choices, without worrying what mother has to say about them.

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