An Excerpt from Too Close for Comfort? Questioning the Intimacy of Today's New Mother-Daughter Relationship
By Linda Perlman Gordon and Susan Morris Shaffer
September 16, 2009
I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want, and then advise them to do it.
— Harry Truman
We believe mothers and their adult daughters can't be best friends, but they can develop a gratifying relationship. Turbulence happens when a mother can't accept her daughter as an adult. The basic question for mothers is: Do you trust your daughter to be an independent and self-sufficient woman? And can you support her in making choices and doing things differently from how you would do them? Control is elusive, even when your daughter is younger, and it certainly is less appropriate when she is an adult. One of the most important messages you can give to your daughter is your permission to let her be herself, and as she becomes an adult, you should expect that same acceptance from her.
We want to avoid some of the dysfunctional patterns that may have occurred when our daughters were younger. What we say to our daughter as an adult, she may still hear with the ears of her younger self. We have to be more cautious with adult daughters, because we want them to hear us with their adult selves. According to Jane Isay, author of Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents, parents should "keep their mouths shut and their doors open."
All of us have to accept at this point in our child's development that we did the best we could, and we should not focus our attention on "what could have been," or be filled with regrets. Instead, we have to keep our focus on what's really important: maintaining a good relationship. We want to establish elements of a friendship, intimacy, mutual respect, respectful interdependence, and sharing the good and bad times, understanding that our primary role is that of mother, and not best friend. No one else can occupy that space. This should be payoff time, when you are still healthy and vital, and she is, finally, an adult.
Some Basic Principles for Parenting Adult Daughters Based on our personal and professional experience, research, and the wisdom offered by mothers in our focus groups, we have developed some overarching principles to assist you in finding your own answers. These principles include:
Address your adult daughter in a manner that encourages effective communication and respectful interdependence.
Becoming an adult is a learning process, and so is developing a positive and nurturing new way of parenting your adult daughter; so give yourself a break.
Be flexible in determining what is appropriate to meet your child's needs as well as your own.
Make a decision based on the lessons you would like your adult daughter to learn, not on the results you may want.
Be open to the choices your adult daughter makes, even when those choices may not be the ones you would make.
Believe that your adult daughter is okay and can stand on her own, and let her know that.
To implement these principles, we have created the following strategies for your consideration. We believe these strategies can help guide you to developing and sustaining a positive and rewarding relationship with your adult daughter. As was the case when your daughter was younger, parenting is never linear. Realize that all relationships have downsides. A mother and daughter should focus on the positive aspects of their relationship. The most important advice is to hang in there and invest time and energy into your relationship. Encourage your daughter's sense of well-being, while also taking care of yourself. It is okay to take a breath and enjoy!
Give Advice Only When Asked
Communicate directly and in a straightforward manner.
Keep your remarks to the present; try not to rehash things from when your daughter was a young girl.
Refrain from hovering; such behavior is no longer appropriate for an adult daughter.
Avoid giving unsolicited advice that may risk your daughter's pulling away from you.
Be intentional about the way you offer advice; be careful to give advice without judgment. Begin with statements such as, "Have you ever considered?" Being less judgmental will mean your daughter will be more likely to listen to what you are saying.
Be clear in your intentions. Saying "Don't call me" and then being upset because she doesn't call sends a mixed message.
Provide real support when your daughter asks for advice by telling her the truth as you see it. She has to trust that you will give her an authentic reality check.
Avoid discussing weight, clothing, and hairstyles unless she asks for your opinion.
Avoid words like "should,""must," and "ought."
Be positive and respectful of her feelings and accept that, although she may seek your advice, she may come to a different conclusion.
Be an Active Listener
Talk to your daughter in a collaborative way by seeking her input and listening very closely to her.
Ask your daughter if she wants to talk; let her talk through what she is feeling without rushing her.
Refrain from fixing her pain and concentrate on expressing empathy with expressions such as, "I know how difficult this must be." Your goal is to listen to her, not to try to influence her.
Anticipate that there will be disagreements, but this doesn't mean that either of you has to withdraw from the relationship or stop listening to the other. Trust and communication is a two- way street and takes vigilance.
Discuss issues openly and stay engaged. Compromise is key.
Be aware of your body language; remember that 95 percent of communication is nonverbal.
Listen empathetically and validate your daughter's feelings.
Develop and Maintain Appropriate Boundaries
Keep from imposing your own views when it doesn't respect your daughter's thoughts and feelings about what is good for her, rather than what may be more appropriate for you.
Be clear; don't set boundaries for the wrong reasons, such as trying to manipulate your daughter. Don't allow grown children to manipulate you, nor should you manipulate them.
Set boundaries about when you are willing to provide assistance without guilt.
Try to be as consistent as possible about setting limits. Helping your daughter to set limits gives her an opportunity to develop and practice problem-solving skills.
Be direct and phrase things as "I" messages, such as,"I would like to see you," rather than, "Why don't you ever visit me?" The goal is to express your need, not to make your daughter feel guilty for disappointing you and failing to meet your needs and expectations. The danger of delivering a message that creates guilt is that your daughter may stay away from you to avoid your disappointment, which prevents you from attaining the intimacy and connection you desire.
Think through what your goals are. Sometimes you may want her to listen and value what you are saying, other times you may want her to change her behavior. You are always more effective if you know what you want.
Avoid quid pro quo.
Respect your daughter's privacy and expect her to have respect for your privacy as well.
Don't overburden your daughter with your problems. There are some parts of your life that should be kept private, and vice versa. For example, bedroom details. "My mom has no shame when it comes to sex," says Julia, 27 years old. "She tells me about her lingerie purchases or asks what moves my husband is up to. I like her in my life, but sharing that part grosses me out."
Don't be too buddy-buddy: It's a rare mother and daughter that can be best friends because there will always be a generation gap, says Christiane Northrup in her book, Mother-Daughter Wisdom. And there are some parts of your life that you and your daughter just shouldn't discuss. Sure, you can tell her how much fun you had at a party last night, but do you really want to brag that you did three shots of tequila—while wearing a lampshade (and not much else)? Sharing that kind of info "crosses a boundary," says Northrup.
Don't be a punching bag. Because you may be your daughter's safest and most available target, she may lash out at you. But remember, it's not your responsibility to manage your daughter's anger.
Coach your daughter rather than do things for her.
Accept Your Daughter for Who She Is
Give your daughter permission to be herself. She may not tell you this, but she still wants your approval.
Be tolerant of change.
Praise her effort, not the results.
Listen to your daughter and tell her you respect and admire her for how she handles herself and the decisions she makes. Of course, this praise must be genuine.
Acknowledge your daughter's sense of reality. If she says she doesn't have any friends, don't deny her reality by telling her she is wrong because she was invited to "so and so's" engagement party last year. Instead, strategize with her about how she can find ways to make some friends. If she tells you she's panicked about taking the GMATS, don't tell her not to worry—just mirror or reflect back to her so you don't discount her feelings.
Create enough separation so you no longer take responsibility for her bad manners. As an adult, her behavior should no longer reflect on you. If she doesn't write thank- you notes, it's about her.
Accept your daughter's timetable for doing things, even if it kills you. You have to accept that your daughter will do things differently from you. If she was sloppy as a teenager, she may be sloppy as an adult. Unless you want to keep cleaning up after her, you need to "turn the other cheek."
Remember, you learned from your mistakes, and it's time for her to learn from hers as well.
Don't take out your anger and disappointment for who she isn't on your daughter.
Help her to understand that she has the power to make her own life choices and you want to encourage her to exercise that power.
Accept Being a Perfectly Imperfect Mother
Know yourself first and forgive your imperfections. If you forgive yourself for not being an ideal parent, you provide a much more powerful role model for your daughter. What more powerful way is there, after all, to communicate to your daughter that no matter what life brings her, when she stumbles and when she soars, she'll be acceptable not just to you, but to herself as well?
Don't view your daughter's struggles or frustrations as proof that you aren't a good mother. You may recognize this as Winnicott's "good enough" mother who prepares her child perfectly for adulthood. She understands that by being imperfect, she is helping her daughter learn to face adversity while she is there to help her adjust, cope, and persevere. Don't try to be a perfect mother because that creates an impossible ideal, one that no daughter can emulate or live up to.
Give your daughter the message that you want and expect her to be a moral and responsible person, to have the strength to make her own choices, and to appreciate her own abilities and talents.
Understand that your daughter may make very different choices in life; don't interpret this as a rejection of yourself or evidence of bad mothering.
Value your daughter's feelings and see them as an opportunity for intimacy.
Work at tolerating your daughter's anger and frustrations and don't give her verbal and nonverbal messages that you are uncomfortable with these feelings. Remember, you only have to listen; you don't have to fix it.
Don't dictate how your daughter should look or feel. For example, try not to say things such as, "Don't frown, you look prettier when you smile."
Tell the truth.
Step Back, But Don't Disengage
To support your daughter, try a skill we call "engaged detachment." Engaged detachment requires close involvement, but with a sense of perspective. Engaged parenting includes being empathetic, acting as a sounding board, and providing objective coaching.
Empathize rather than overly identify with your daughter. If you don't step back, it is easier to lose perspective.
Check your emotional temperature. When you can think clearly, you are much more able to refrain from making things bigger than they are.
Don't jump in to save your daughter from making mistakes. This allows her to experience the natural consequences of her decisions. Only a victim needs to be rescued.
"Hold and guide" your daughter, which requires affection, understanding, and active listening rather than "doing for her." This behavior gives your daughter the opportunity to solve problems on her own with appropriate support.
Communicate via e-mail or in writing when things get really hard and you think you will say things that you will regret. Somehow, putting down one's thoughts on paper, and then editing and rewriting one's words can offer a calmer perspective and prevent impulsive and angry reactions. Visualize that what you write will be above the fold in the New York Times. In other words, allow some breathing space before continuing the conversation … or find another way to communicate without speaking directly.
Bite your tongue or duct tape your mouth when necessary!
Encourage your daughter to have her own voice, thoughts, and opinions. This is your time to step back.
Treat Your Daughter as an Adult
Try to work problems out collaboratively.
Value her advice.
Respect her capabilities.
Share more of what is going on in your life without burdening her.
If you are feeling unappreciated, explain to your daughter how you want your relationship to change.
Be clear in your intentions and continue to model the behavior you would like your daughter to emulate.
Agree to disagree when resolution doesn't seem imminent to maintain communication.
Accept that "mother doesn't always know best." Let her be.
Have Fun Together
Focus on the positive aspects of your relationship and invest time and energy in them.
Plan activities to do together; conversations are much more casual and exchanging information is more likely.
Develop mother and daughter traditions; it's never too late to begin new ones.
Remember to use humor!
Develop and Maintain Respectful Interdependence
Show appreciation and affection.
Develop a balance between letting your daughter go and being a nurturing parent of an adult daughter.
Build trust with your daughter, and she will be more receptive to your involvement in her life.
Respect her autonomy; this is a critical component in building trust and mutual respect.
If your adult daughter moves back home, model the kind of mutual respect adults should have for each other. Living with an adult daughter can present opportunities and challenges in maintaining a close relationship. Basic courtesies should be expected and should go both ways. You are not running a hotel; it is your home. You should feel comfortable expressing your needs and expectations.
Respect Your Daughter's New Family
Step back and give them time to develop their new identity as a couple.
Allow her to establish the roots of her new marriage/commitment and understand that this is an important part of a healthy transition.
Accept and enjoy your new status as the second, rather than the first, "go-to" person in your daughter's life.
Don't get in the middle of arguments or disputes between your daughter and her spouse/partner.
Be the Grandmother, Not the Mother
Encourage, support, and, once again, bite your tongue!
Continue to nurture your daughter. Being a new mother is very stressful.
Provide a comforting and friendly ear.
Provide kind and reassuring attention.
Assist and help when you can.
Speak up if you see a threat to your grandchild's safety. At times your advice will be welcome. But you may have to remind yourself from time to time that you've had your turn!
Enjoy your grandchildren!
Don't Personalize Your Daughter's Disappointments
Separate your own feelings when you interact with your daughter.
Support your daughter without attaching blame. For example, no matter what you feel about the end of your daughter's marriage, this is not the time to attach blame. Her ex may be less than likeable, but you don't want to jeopardize any further relationship, because they may get back together and/or he may be the father of your grandchildren.
Share your own feelings of disappointment with your spouse and/or friends.
Maintain the Mother-Daughter Bond
Sustain your relationship with your adult daughter. In some ways it doesn't matter how you do it, it's just important that you do it.
Be respectful of her schedule and lifestyle if you want to be included in her life.
Say what you need and want. During this transition time, you can repair a broken relationship with your daughter or begin a new one.
Let your daughter know you love her no matter what.
Maintain your role as the mom. Mother trumps best friend every time.
Advice for Daughters
Your mother wants to feel loved and appreciated for making you the wonderful adult you are. She wants you to call and sincerely say, "Mom, how was your day?"
Your mother wants to be included in your life. If you don't have time to see her, try to say it nicely. It never hurts to be considerate and protect her feelings.
Realize it's difficult for some mothers to stop seeing their adult daughters as younger daughters.
Try to understand your mother's life circumstances, the choices she makes, and the challenges she faces, especially when you are engaged in minor conflicts.
Learn to live within the consequences of your conduct and be prepared for your mother's disapproval when you make a decision with which she disagrees.
Be clear in your intentions; you want to be talked to as an adult. Continue the dialogue even when the going gets tough.
Regardless of age, your children remain your children. Their increasing maturity does not bring an end to your caretaking role, it merely changes the ways in which you execute this role. Parenting adult daughters can be much more difficult than parenting children. There are no road maps or manuals on what to say or do, and you must proceed without knowing what lies ahead. The pattern of more than two decades has ended, and you and your daughter must adjust to new roles: her economic independence, her role as wife or partner, and her role as mother. Both mother and daughter have to adjust to a new order, where the relationship is more equitable. Maintaining the balance among caretaker, companion, and trusted confidant; guiding your child without taking charge; and helping your daughter to carry out her own solutions is your new role. Take a breath and enjoy, and, as the saying goes: "If you love something, let it go; if it comes back to you, it is yours forever."