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An excerpt from the new book Daughters and Mothers: Making It Work

Our efforts to understand the essential principles and dynamics of a powerful relationship have led us down many roads and many women have been our guides. They have taught us and asked us to teach them. As we have worked over the years with mothers and daughters in improving, changing, healing and nurturing themselves and their relationship, some guidelines have emerged that may be useful. These are not, by any means, set in stone. As you create your own autonomy, you will create your own set of guidelines. The guidelines we offer may be a jumping-off point for your own growth.

by Cindy Shamp

There are guidelines for mothers and guidelines for daughters. They have emerged from the experience of hundreds of women. If these guidelines serve, even in part, to ease the transition from parent or child into adult and adult, then they are worth their presence here. Here then is the “short form” of ideas and ways to be and grow with each other.

Guidelines for a Mother-Graduate

Advice is a Pitfall. Most daughters agree that mother's advice tends to keep them feeling little, especially when it is unsolicited. “Mother knows best” is a hard trend to break, but a good way to do it is to trust your daughter's perceptions and choices. Mothers have also found that the tendency to give advice is based on the old feeling that their daughter is little, thus continuing them in the parent/child trap. On the one hand, daughters may have to push mother away to keep from having to sift through all the advice and their own feelings in relationship to it.

“Don't talk to me at all about my career or my friends or my religion, Mom. I need to do life on my own, and I don't need your advice!”

On the other hand, the daughter may come to depend on mother's advice as an adult as much as she did as a child, and her life is defined by it.

“Mother, I didn't realize till after your sudden death just how much I depended upon your intense affection and protectiveness to see my day through. I feel very insecure knowing that there is no one to help me in some of the decisions life has called on me to make. I long for your ever-present advice and feel hopeless without it.”

Never Assume. Never assume that your daughter wants the same things from you that you might have wanted from your own mother. Over and over, women try to make up for their own losses or repeat their own positive experiences by foisting them on their daughters. The intentions may seem good, and generally are not harmful, but they may, as well, be shortsighted. If I offer to take my daughter to dinner whenever she expresses sadness, I may be giving what I got and loved, but there is no way for me to assume that this will make my daughter feel the same way it made me feel.

Before you give or do something for your daughter, ask yourself whether this is what she wants. Don't replace “wants” with “needs!” When we assume that we know what our daughter needs, we are again playing “Mother knows best.” Then when you've asked yourself if this is what she wants, ask her! Be straight with her! Communicate and don't guess.

From Therapy: Eleanor's daughter Joan asked her to stay with the kids while she was away on a business trip. Eleanor readily agreed. While in her daughter's house, she cleaned and reorganized and painted one of the rooms and fully expected her daughter to come home elated. Joan was furious, felt invaded, disrespected, made “little” by the assumption that she read into this act that she was incapable and by what seemed like her mother's general sense of “I can do it right!” This incident put a great rift in an otherwise good relationship, and it was not until Eleanor realized that she was making some inappropriate assumptions that things began to get back on track again.

Rescuing Doesn't Help. Only a victim needs to be rescued. Mothers who step in and take charge for their daughters tend to promote in their daughters any victimized feelings they may have. A friend and someone who loves me will offer me help, ask what I need, share her own experience, give me an ear to talk to, a shoulder to cry on, but she will not fix anything for me. And for this I will be grateful, as it is a more respectful stance. Respect your daughter's capability. Let her know that you do! And then be there for her in any way that you want to and she wants you to!

From Therapy: Leah was a bright college student whose mother loved her dearly. Her mom also rescued her regularly. When she had boyfriend problems, mom said, “Come on home.” When she overspent her monthly allowance, mom said, “Take a semester off.” When she was depressed, mom said “I know a good therapist.” In therapy Leah looked and talked like a sixteen-year-old, not a twenty-one-year-old. She felt little and inadequate. She felt tied into her mother and resentful of her. She felt unable to make it on her own and could barely face the thought of being an adult, though mom had told her “not to worry.” Leah was drowning in her rescuer's grip.

Interference is Worse than Advice. Mothers may be wiser, more capable and more mature than their young-adult daughters. They may have greater resources, skills, and insights into life. They are likely to be able to handle some of what a daughter faces better than the daughter could—but it won't work.

You don't like the man she's dating; you've met his kind before. So what? Let her figure it out. Got some strings you can pull to get her off the hook or get her a better deal—don't bother. Let her do it the hard way! Don't like the way she's raising her kids, think you could do it better? You can't. It's her life. Leave her alone. Certain that she needs a little spiritual guidance? Want to send her those articles on morality? It won't work. She'll run farther away. Growing is learning. Just as we let the two-year-old learn to feed herself, though we could have done it better, we need to let the adult learn about life and do it her way. Trust stands out again as the guiding light!

From Therapy: “When I was in the hospital having my second child, my mother took it upon herself to toilet train my two-year-old. I have never forgiven her. I think she damaged my child and she certainly damaged any faith I had in her.”

From Therapy: “I saw my daughter walking down the aisle with a man that I knew was no good for her, but I kept my mouth shut. The marriage did end, but her son is the joy of her life as well as a gift to me. Thank God I didn't butt in.”

Guilt Hurts. Duty is a poor substitute for friendship. In most cases, out of guilt, a sense of duty can be extracted from a daughter. She will come to the family gatherings, send birthday gifts, call once a week—if she has to. But all spontaneity, originality, and intimacy are lost in a relationship based on guilt.

Mothers who instill guilt as a motivating force may well be assuming that daughter will have no real interest in her without the guilt to motivate her. The mother who instills guilt or in other ways gets what she wants covertly (through manipulation, coercion, or plotting) is likely to be fairly unhappy and unsure within herself. And she may be cutting off the possibility of a meaningful relationship with her daughter. Telling the truth will work better: Letting your daughter know what you want and feel will allow her to have a genuine response rather than a preprogrammed one.

From Therapy: At a mother/daughter workshop, one mother in the back of the room brought up over and over again how her daughter refused to live in Chicago, where the whole family was. In many ways she enticed, bribed, and tried to “guilt” her daughter into returning. The workshop seemed to have little impact on her and her parting words were, “Maybe she'll come back to Chicago now that she's dealt with some of these issues.” The daughter left, more determined than ever to stay away.

"Well, In My Day..." This is an unsatisfactory way to start a sentence and mothers do it all the time. When you compare your daughter's way of life to the way you used to live, out loud or to yourself, you set up a barrier in which you are unable to see her for her, living in her time and place with her uniqueness. You fail to accept her the way she is. You operate under the old assumption that “Mother knows best.” Let her be. This one goes back to trust and to acceptance and to a willingness to suspend your views in order to build the relationship!

From Therapy: “I can't stand having Mother at my house. Our eating habits upset her. She thinks we waste money and she is always ready to point it out. Even when she doesn't say anything, I see her snooping in my refrigerator in a condescending way. She can't believe that we spend extra money on butter when we could buy margarine. She has a thing about chicken. I've heard this line a hundred times: ‘I used to make a chicken last for three meals. We'd have it roasted the first night, then we'd have sandwiches the next day, and then I'd make a delicious soup out of the carcass. All you do is spend twice as much money buying frozen chicken and pizza.’”

Faking It Undermines the Relationship. With the best of intentions—in fact, after hearing “rules” like the ones above—many mothers begin to fake it in order to help the relationship along. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways they agree with their daughters, do what their daughters ask, hold back their own feelings, needs, and beliefs. They try to please their daughter. In the role of friends your rights are equal, and it is not a favor to either of you to pretend that you like Japanese food just because your daughter does. Faking it creates mixed messages and confusion and a tendency to always second-guess each other. Tell the truth, again! It works better to be straight.

From Therapy: “I wanted so much to have a good relationship to my daughter that I became as accommodating as I could, as appreciative and complimentary of her as I could, as like her as I could be. I was a chameleon. I was sure this was the only way to bridge the gap that had been created in high school. When I realized that I was beginning to resent her, I knew it wasn't going to work. I've been expressing some of my ideas lately and it's been working better.”

Changing some long-standing behavior patterns does not mean that you give up loving your daughter. It means that you see her as a person capable of handling her own life and that you respect her right to live her life the way she chooses. It also means that you do not have to pretend to be able to take care of everything anymore. It means that if you are afraid of thunder, you can say so without wondering how it will affect your little one. It means that you let your daughter know that you love her because she is who she is, not because she is your baby. Playing by some new rules will allow you both to be fuller people. Both of you will find that you have rights and they can be respected, you have needs and they can be honored, you have preferences and they can be negotiated, adult to adult.

Guidelines for an Ex-Child

Stepping out of the role of daughter into the role of independent woman and ex-child involves gaining control of your own story and also giving up some of the perks of having a mother there to do for you and give you the things that you want. While it is clearly difficult to give up the role of mother, it is equally difficult to give up the role of the daughter. At least it is difficult to give up the goodies in that role. Many adult women try, unconsciously, to have their cake and eat it too, to be an adult and still have mother as the safety net, to do what they want and still have mother help foot the bills. Truly being an adult will require letting go of the “little” and taking on the big.

Take Her Off the Pedestal. If advice is offered, before you react in the old ways (probably as if mother were telling you how badly you are doing) ask yourself, “How would I respond if my best friend said this to me?” Think about the value of what has been said by mother. Might some of what she says be true? Don't automatically imagine that she is treating you like her little girl because she doesn't trust you or sees you as less than a grown woman. And let her know where and how you are open to hearing about her perspective on things. You might even try asking for her advice on occasion, knowing that it may or may not fit for you.

From Therapy: “I have run as far as I could away from my mother's ‘interference.’ In fact, I am beginning to see that some of the choices that I made were made just to get away from her opinions. But the other day, in desperation with my own daughter, I called Mother and asked her how she had handled temper tantrums. I really appreciated what she said. More than anything, she made me feel that I was doing okay in a tough situation. It has changed my attitude about her.”

Don't Interpret. You are as likely to read old feelings and ideas into your mother's actions as she is to treat you in old ways. Don't interpret her actions, words, requests without checking out what they mean. “Why did you do that?” “What do you mean?” “What's going on when you say that?” These and other questions designed to get clarity will let you know what your mother's side of something is. When you know that, you can react appropriately. Trust her intentions and look for the positive in what she is doing rather than the negative. This will go a long way toward creating an adult-to-adult experience.

From Therapy: “Every time my mother asks me about the kids, I have assumed that she expects me to be failing, to tell her some tragedy or problem that I can't handle. One time I yelled at her about it. She was shocked and I was forced to look at my own stuff. I expected me to fail. She was just being casual and concerned. If she hadn't asked about the kids, I would have been equally upset.”

Don't Carry Expectations. If you've decided to be an adult, then you can't still be the child. You have to give up the perks of being your mother's little girl. She won't bail you out, fill in for you, fix things in the way she did when you were a child. Don't expect your mother to be your baby-sitter, housekeeper, and financier. Ask for her time, money, and effort only with the same courtesy and lack of demand that you would ask a friend. Don't expect her to approve of all the things you do with your life. Be willing to have her disagree. She needs to be her own person and you need to let her be. Respecting her is as important as being respected by her.

From Therapy: “I live my life very effectively, as do my four sisters, but this issue of going home to Mom makes us all act like kids. We all expect Mom to pay for our trip and then we feel slighted if any one of us stays longer. We have this credit card routine. Mom lets us go shopping with her credit card. And we play these games about who gets the most, who was most responsible with Mom's credit card (read: who was less greedy). It's ridiculous. We're all over 38 years old. Mom doesn't push this on us. We do it. We want to be little for all the goodies—but big as well. I'm going to my parents' home this week and I went shopping before the trip. I bought myself new clothes so I wouldn't feel tempted into the credit card trip. I think this will really help.”

Create Boundaries. Daughters often invite their mother's interference by not letting it be known who they are and what they want. Creating boundaries isn't about becoming armored, it's about defining yourself. Mother knows you best as a growing girl. The twenty, thirty, or forty years of her knowing you has been mostly as a child. Cleaning your room for you as a girl was probably an appropriate action. Cleaning your house may or may not be. How will she know if you don't tell her? Knowing yourself, and being willing to own that to your mother, will help her know how to be with you respectfully.

From Therapy: Gloria came from a conservative family. Her mother's values were quite different from hers, especially around issues of being “feminine.” She often bought Gloria dresses and offered to take her to the beauty parlor when they visited. It took Gloria a long time to make clear to her mother who she was and how she was different from what her mother wanted her to be. For a while, Gloria would just brush off her mother's advances and secretly resent her. When she finally told her mother that she liked her hair straight, that she preferred pants to dresses, that she'd rather eat at a casual than a fancy restaurant, her mother heard her. The level of friction lessened markedly. Mother was able to accept these boundaries when she knew what they were.

Guilt Hurts. Daughters can lay guilt trips on mothers as powerfully as mothers can on daughters. All sorts of covert behavior can be used to try to fix old and “little” feelings. Mother is likely to respond, but it will be in an unclear way. She certainly knows that she hasn't done her job perfectly and probably wishes she had. This fact leaves her wide open to trying harder, to feeling bad, to trying to make up for it. It also leaves the relationship wide open to staying “hooked” and hurt. Don't compare what mother does for a sibling with the things she does for you. Don't play “poor me” games with your mother in an effort to get her sympathy or help or anything else. Don't make “loaded” statements, designed to pull mother into your own problems. Talk straight, be honest, let her know your feelings and wants. Be prepared, as well, to have her not be available in all the ways you want.

From Therapy: The bulk of one mother/daughter relationship that we encountered was composed of the daughter's unconscious need to make mom feel bad. Sally herself felt bad inside. She felt little and scared. Her initiatives with her mother were often about her pain, her inability to get on with her life, her “neediness.” Mother was always right there, trying harder and harder. Of course it never worked for either of them. Mom felt guilty and like a failure. Sally felt like a victim who was never quite saved.

"Oh, Mother..." This is not much better a start to a sentence than “Well, in my day...” The daughter's version of “my way is better” comes down to a slightly rebellious and condescending approach to mother and her “old” ways. We may be overt or covert in our put-downs of mother. We may embarrass her by emphasizing our differences especially where she is sensitive—or we may discount her with our “greater” knowledge. When we act out of a feeling of superiority we are covering up our own feelings of insecurity. When we are certain in our knowledge about anything, we are not likely to need to proclaim it loudly or to make anyone else “bad” for their way. If valid differences exist, we do need to state our version, but not with any assumptions or intimations about mother's limitations. Respecting mother will lead to a great deal of growth.

From Therapy: Mary, at some unconscious level, loved to make her mother uncomfortable with her liberal ideas and radically different lifestyle. She was, for instance, a vegetarian, and a good cook as well, but when mother came to visit she managed to make the skimpiest, least appealing vegetarian meals she could think of. She often laughed at her mother's opinions, frequently in front of her friends, and generally felt herself and her “new age” ways to be superior.

The final blow to mother came when Mary invited her to come over for a Sunday afternoon and had her hot tub going with lots of naked friends roaming around. Mother was embarrassed and distressed. She felt put down and disrespected. She put on a good face, but when she got home she broke down and felt a deep hurt. She wrote to her daughter and said she would not visit her anymore. Mary needed to take a good, hard look at her own intentions and her mother's needs before this relationship would be able to grow.

Daughters, as well as mothers, need to change some old behavior patterns. It is quite surprising to note how easy it is for us as young women to act out adolescent behaviors with our mothers long past our adolescent years. We struggled for independence as adolescents and yet we need to struggle, too, to transcend that stage and become full-fledged adults no longer playing tug-of-war with our mothers!

So we are left to consider what advice we need to give ourselves and what advice to take. How will we handle the good times and the bad, the ups and downs, the loves and the hates that we will surely encounter in our whole lives and in our relationship to this very important other? We may console ourselves with the knowledge that the difficulties can lead to greater strength, the pain to greater love, and the obstacles to greater growth. Mothers and daughters attest to this over and over.

The Best Advice

The best advice you can give yourself is yours. Guidelines given by others cannot truly “fit” you. Only the words, values, beliefs, and the uniqueness of your true self will be able to make the right intervention, teach the right lesson, answer the questions rightly. And here is your chance.

Based on everything that you know about your past (section one), your growth and goals, your present (section two), your morality and values, your best, become the advice giver. Remembering that you are a compassionate, wise and gentle teacher, write down the advice that you need to hear about your relationship to your mother/daughter and about yourself.

Suggestions: Write short, pithy statements that are easy to remember and then elaborate, if necessary. Watch for a critical voice. If you feel it, dump it and find a loving place from which to begin again. Be specific. Global advice such as “Be good always” won't be very helpful.

You may have the joy of following your own best advice!

About the Authors

Julie Firman, M.S.

“I have watched my goals and perspectives change dramatically over my 80+ years. I was married before graduating from college even though I had gone for all four years. I just decided not to take any final exams because marriage seemed so much more exciting. Then we had three children and I decided I wanted to teach school. I went back to college and I received my degree when I was in my early 40s. I found I was a good teacher and taught school in various places when we moved around. Then when I was fifty I decided to get a Master's Degree in Counseling and did so. I also trained in Transactional Analysis and became a Clinical member and along the way took some training in Gestalt therapy.

My daughters married and I became a grandmother and found a new way to be nurturing and loving, perhaps, at times, trying to take over when it was unwise to do so. I continued to learn and take courses and to change my way of seeing the world and of loving people.

In 1979 Dorothy (nicknamed Didi) and I decided to try working together as two adults rather than as mother and child. A wonderful experience. Since then we have shared many days working together. As we worked together, I became more confident of myself and found that I, too, could speak to groups. I became interested in aging and how many choices we had as elders to lead full and inspiring lives. I still considered myself half of a team but ventured alone to give classes and talks on the process of growing old.“

Dorothy Firman, Ed.D., LMHC

“I've been a daughter my whole life, a mother for 30 years and recently I've become a grandmother. It's not the whole story. I'm a sister, wife, friend, psychotherapist, trainer of psychotherapists, writer, beginning potter... and more. I have a daughter, a daughter-in-law, nieces, a grand-daughter, lots of ‘daughter’ age people in my life. The mother/daughter relationship plays out not only with a mother and daughter but with many of the mother-age/daughter-age relationships. It's a great thing, being part of the lineage of women, from the oldest to the youngest. I'm thrilled to have so many generations of our family available to each other.

I also know from my own family experience and from my twenty-five years of work as a psychotherapist that the relationship can be hard, painful, hurtful. I am deeply grateful that this work that my mother and I do touches women in a way that helps them find what is best in this relationship. I hope that this work touches you and that you in turn touch others.“

About the Book

Daughters and Mothers: Making It Work by Julie Firman and Dorothy Firman. Published by Health Communications, Inc. Available wherever books are sold, online or off. (ISBN 0-7573-0124-X, 300 pages, softcover, $12.95)

Empowering and nurturing or destructive and dispiriting, the mother/daughter relationship is life's most profound bond. Whether your relationship is fortified with love and encouragement or weakened by hurt and shame, this book will change your life for the better.

Mother-and-daughter therapists Dorothy and Julie Firman have taught thousands of women how to bring new trust, healing and energy to their mother/daughter relationship. Now they bring their popular relationship program to you in this practical guide. Through thought-provoking exercises and poignant personal stories, you will talk more honestly about your feelings; find a new appreciation of your strengths; move beyond negative patterns; and create a mutually beneficial relationship based on friendship, respect, trust, and genuine caring.

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