Happy mother and daughter
© 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation
Why is the mother-daughter dynamic such a complex one? Some mothers want to walk and talk just like their adult daughters. Some daughters need their mothers' acceptance before they make any move.

Linda Perlman Gordon and Susan Morris Shaffer, authors of Too Close for Comfort? Questioning the Intimacy of Today's New Mother-Daughter Relationship, explain why mothers and daughters can have a close bond but should never take it to the level of being best friends. Plus, find out how to get your mother-daughter relationship back on track if you feel you've become more friends than family.
Stephanie Mitchell: Can you define some traits of a good best friend? A good mother? Why can't mothers and adult daughters be best friends as well as family?

Susan Morris Shaffer: A best friend is different than a mother-daughter relationship. It requires having common experiences: You raised your kids together, you went to the same college and you're in the workplace together. Mothers and daughters are never in the same stage of life at the same time, so the relationship is never equal.

The other thing that's important is that unconditional love exists only in the parent-child relationship. You'd put your body in front of a truck for your daughter; you'd probably call 911 for your best friend.

SM: How do mothers and daughters find a balance between being too attached and being individuals?

Linda Perlman Gordon: Boundaries are such an important thing. The way mothers and daughters can [create boundaries] is that mothers, for instance, can let their daughters fail and not fix everything for them. They can make sure that if their daughters are upset about something, they can do active listening, rather than feel their daughters' pain. They give their daughters the opportunity to step back and try to fix the problem themselves.

The problem when mothers fix things for their daughters is that it erodes daughters' self-esteem or it doesn't allow it to develop. It makes daughters feel like they can't do things by themselves. Or, if their mothers overemphasize and feel the pain too much, daughters have to start making their mothers feel better about it and they start to worry about their mothers and parent their mothers.

A mother's job is to manage her own feelings so that a daughter doesn't feel that she's taking care of her mother, but that she can deal with whatever her own issues are.

How technology and the economy affect mother-daughter relationships

SM: How has technology changed the mother-daughter relationship?

SMS: Technology has made a huge difference. It's offered mothers and daughters 24-hour access to each other. There's always the good side of technology and the bad side. Even though a mother can be in contact more with her daughter, it doesn't mean it increases the intimacy. When we think about when we were young women talking to our parents, we talked to them once a week on Sundays, whether we had anything to say to them or not.

LPG: Technology also creates an opportunity to set boundaries that are good. For instance, I had to think about this when I was "allowed" to go on Facebook. I knew that other people my age were doing it, and I let it go for a long time (even though I do like technology a lot) and then I said: "You know what? I want to connect with people I knew in college." I went on Facebook, and I purposely did not try to befriend my daughter because that's the boundary I set. What's funny is that later, my daughter said, "Why didn't you ask to be my friend?" And I said, "Because this wasn't about my trying to spy on your life. This is about me having my own thing. If you wanted to be my friend, I was giving you that opportunity. But I didn't want to put you in a position where you felt like your mother was now going to have access to the information that you send out to your friends."

SM: Does the current state of the economy affect the mother-daughter dynamic—for example, an adult daughter moving back home with her mother?

SMS: It can be a very good experience. It's another opportunity to mentor and coach your daughter. But again, it only works if you welcome them back as adults and not as children. So you're not telling them what to do, but [rather] you're providing them with opportunities to do more for themselves and manage their lives.
Maintain healthy boundaries, and [make sure] that your daughter feels that, incrementally, she's able to become more and more self-sufficient.

The difference between mother-daughter and father-daughter bonds

SM: How is a daughter's relationship with her father different than her bond with her mother?

LPG: Your father has the capacity to see you as separate from himself. That's really key. He sees you as your own unique being. It's more difficult for a mother and her daughter.

SM: You say that when a mother and daughter are too close, their potential to grow is less. How does it affect a daughter?

SMS: If, as a mother, you're continuously rescuing your daughter, then how does a daughter ever feel that she can manage on her own? That she can take care of herself? That she can become self-sufficient? That she has the right to be able to forge her own identity and her own path? What we try to talk to mothers about is that we really want to go along on the journey with our daughters, but once they become adults, they shouldn't control it. That's where it becomes too close for comfort.

SM: How does a mother-daughter relationship that's too close affect the mother?

LPG: A mother's really not able to see her daughter as a confident adult. What happens is she probably becomes more of her extreme self. For instance, instead of a mother gaining her own identity and understanding that she has brought up this wonderful adult daughter, she's acting in a way that she doesn't know where her identity ends and where her daughter's starts, which leads to all kinds of problems. A mother feels responsible for her daughter's happiness, as opposed to a mother being a partner in life with her daughter, being there as a guide, giving her a message that she's okay regardless.

SM: How can someone adjust her mother-daughter relationship if she feel she's crossed the line into best friendship?

SMS: This is really the whole purpose of the book: how to reestablish those kinds of healthy bonds. Because women are connected by talk, that's how we establish a relationship: Communicating what's going on and how to get out of that toxic relationship is what we do best.

The first step is to recognize it. If a mother is being too intrusive—trying to control the daughter's life in ways that don't seem healthy and in ways that the daughter doesn't really want to be controlled—the daughter needs to speak up.

I think a mother treats a daughter more like an adult when a daughter has her adult voice and can really speak to what her needs are, in the same way that a mother can. If a mother models that kind of behavior, then her daughter will also have permission to have her own voice in that relationship.

The thing that's so important to remember is that this mother-daughter relationship extends to all other relationships that the daughter will have in her life. Because a woman is going to be a mother hopefully for about 50 years with an adult daughter, it's really important that you have that kind of communication to get it right.

LPG: I think for a mother just to see her daughter as an adult and her own person, even if she's not acting adult, is really important. It's also important for a daughter to step back a little bit from her historical need to have her mother fix everything, think of her mother less as the "all-giving tree," and know that her mother is a person too.

Read an excerpt from Too Close for Comfort? Questioning the Intimacy of Today's New Mother-Daughter Relationship

More on Mother-Daughter Relationships


Next Story