It is commonly believed that the mother-daughter relationship is a complicated one, and mothers and daughters are often made to feel that they are solely to blame for their relationship conflicts. Hormones and similar or differing personality traits are usually the reasons people attribute to why a mother and daughter aren’t getting along. The truth is, the mother-daughter relationship isn’t complicated to understand, especially once we recognize that mothers and daughters do not live in a cultural vacuum. How a mother and daughter relate with each other is deeply influenced by the environment women live in and the sexist norms they internalize.
Over the past twenty years as a mother-daughter relationship therapist, I have listened to thousands of mothers and daughters of all ages and from different countries and cultures. This experience has taught me that the mother-daughter relationship is a mirror reflection of how a family, society, and culture treats women. In “The Mother-Daughter Puzzle” I show that sexist beliefs and limiting gender role stereotypes set mothers and daughters up to fight. It makes sense that a mother and daughter will struggle to talk about what they feel and need openly and honestly if they live in a family that silences and discounts women’s thoughts, feelings, and needs. Being heard becomes a battleground for a mother and daughter, as they fight over who gets to be heard, and whose needs get to be met, in their relationship. And there is more. When women are silenced and not heard, they become starving hungry to be listened to. And a woman’s emotional starvation directly influences how she relates as a mother and/or daughter. When mothers and daughters are starving hungry to be heard, they turn to each other to receive the understanding and visibility they crave. They expect their mother or daughter to feed their starving heart and guess what they are needing, which creates conflict and emotionally manipulative behavior.
Sarah and Emily (not their real names) came to see me because they were arguing a lot. Sarah, the mother, was feeling hurt that Emily, her twenty-six year old daughter, was emotionally withdrawn. During our first session Sarah told me how they used to have an easy relationship until Emily became a teenager. Since then, Emily had become increasingly distant and angry.
I mapped Sarah’s mother-daughter history early on in their couples therapy. Mother-Daughter History MappingTM is an exercise I have developed that exposes the stories of what has happened in Sarah’s, her mother’s and grandmother’s lives. The exercise focuses on how women are treated, particularly whether women are listened to and heard, and how sexist and limiting gender role stereotypes affect women’s emotional wellbeing and mother-daughter relationships. Through this exercise it became clear that Sarah’s mother had been an extreme caregiver who never asked for anything for herself and that in this generational family women were emotionally starved. The women in this generational family did not speak the language that voiced what they thought, felt, and needed. Instead, they believed that as a woman you must put your own needs on the back burner and focus your attention on making other people happy. Saying what you need was viewed as selfish and unfeminine.
As Emily listened to her mother talk about how emotionally silent her mother was, and how she felt responsible for her mother, she said; “That’s why I’m angry with you. I don’t want to be responsible for your happiness. I want to be free to take care of myself and not have to worry about whether you’re taking care of yourself emotionally or having to guess what you’re thinking. I am sick of feeling guilty about doing what I want and need.”
This dynamic of emotionally silent mothers and guilt-ridden adult daughters who feel burdened by the expectation that they must meet their mother’s unspoken needs is very common. Adult daughters can feel frustrated with the lack of emotional honesty in their mother-daughter relationship. Women are waking up and realizing that they have inherited their mother’s emotional silence and are connecting the dots between this inherited theme and their symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, low self-esteem, and their struggle to advocate for themselves in all their relationships and at work.
During their mother-daughter couples therapy, Sarah and Emily learned to listen to themselves and each other. They uncovered the harm that emotional silence had inflicted on Sarah’s mother and grandmother, and how they now silence themselves and each other. They also connected the dots between this generational experience with being silenced and their tendency to be attracted to silencing and emotionally unavailable men.
As with Sarah and Emily, when mothers and daughters come together to challenge and change harmful generational patterns and beliefs, the mother-daughter relationship becomes a force for change. Together they can challenge sexist cultural norms that families believe are not only reasonable, but necessary. And together they can coach each other as they decontaminate themselves from the emotional silencing that they have internalized, and other limiting gender role stereotypes that they have learned to tolerate and act on.
When mothers and daughters team up and pioneer a new normal for themselves, they are not only changing their own lives, they are changing their family culture and the lives of the next generation of sons and daughters.
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