In this blog I talk about a dynamic I see often between mothers and adult daughters, where “the river of nurturing flows backwards” up the generations from the adult daughter to the mother. This dynamic is present when the adult daughter feels that she is responsible for her mother’s emotional well-being and happiness, spending a lot of time and energy focused on what her mother needs. This dynamic would be normal if the mother is elderly and physically and mentally incapable of taking care of herself. But if the mother isn’t elderly and is perfectly capable of taking care of herself, the dynamic spells trouble for the mother-daughter relationship and the mother’s and daughter’s emotional and mental health.
How does this happen?
This dynamic is a symptom of the mother having been emotionally neglected as a child by her parents and as an adult by her husband, friends, and family. And because of this, the mother is unable to recognize or voice what she needs emotionally. And when a mother is unable to recognize what she needs, she turns to her daughter, often her eldest daughter, to meet her unacknowledged and silenced needs.
At its core, this dynamic tells the story of how a multigenerational family emotionally silences women. It tells the story of what happens when mothers, daughters, and wives are not asked what they feel, think, need, and desire. It tells the story of women’s multigenerational experience with sexism that creates a climate of emotional neglect through the expectation that women focus their attention on taking care of others and labeling self-care and self-focus as selfish. And it tells the story of how this socially constructed experience of emotional silence and emotional neglect is passed down from mother to daughter through the daughter putting her needs aside in favor of focusing on what her mother needs. This ensures that the experience of emotional silence and emotional neglect is repeated in the daughter’s life, who in all likelihood will turn to her daughter to meet her own unacknowledged and silenced needs.
How do you heal this dynamic?
Understanding this dynamic requires a multigenerational examination of the emotional reality that women in the family live in. This is achieved by mapping the mother’s or daughter’s Mother-Daughter HistoryTM. (See my book The Mother-Daughter Puzzle for instructions.) When we map a client’s mother-daughter history we uncover the generational experience with emotional silence and emotional neglect. And having done this, we have the information we need to create a roadmap for generational change that coaches a mother and daughter to speak the language that voices what they feel, think, and need. When a mother and daughter recognizes how harmful their family’s pattern of silencing and emotionally neglecting women is, and how this dynamic is a reflection of the sexist socio-cultural environment they live in and their female ancestors lived in, their relationship issues stop being their fault. They understand that their relationship is a reflection of how women are, and have been, treated for generations. And this knowledge empowers them to be a voice for change.
Rosjke Hasseldine is a mother-daughter relationship therapist, speaker, and author of The Silent Female Scream & The Mother-Daughter Puzzle. Rosjke teaches mental health professionals how to become a Certified Mother-Daughter Coach. www.rosjke.com