Mother and daughter, it’s a special bond that spans the years. Through laughter, worry, smiles, and tears. A sense of trust that can’t be broken, a depth of love sometimes unspoken, a lifelong friendship built on sharing, hugs and kisses, warmth and caring, mother and daughter their hearts as one. A link that can never be undone.– unknown
Mother’s Day seems as good a time as any to ruminate on mothers and the relationships they’ve established with their daughters. Over the years, various labels have been used to describe parenting styles, and because women were seen as primary caregivers, their parenting styles became the target of stereotypical adjectives. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard the phrase Jewish Mother. She’s the one whose desire for her children to succeed academically and professionally became the butt of countless jokes. The phrase has become politically incorrect so we we rarely hear it these days, but versions of it appeared following the publication of Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Her book is a memoir about the Confusion child rearing techniques that she and other Chinese immigrants used to rear their children. The book was an international best seller and made Chua, the Tiger Mom and Yale law professor, wealthy. It also created a huge backlash, and the media attention surrounding it ignited a global debate about different parenting techniques and the cultural attitudes that foster them. Fans of the Tiger Mom point out that her technique is about work, trying hard, and perseverance. Her critics fault her for a one-size-fits-all type of parenting. Both her daughters are happy and successful, so the technique worked for her.
Ordinary folks like me, see a lot of distance between the Tiger Mom and her Laissez-Faire counterpart. The Laissez-Faire mother believes children will raise themselves. Some may ignore their children and shrug off poor choice while others may try to be their children’s best friend, doing whatever it takes to make them “happy” and never holding them accountable for their actions. An old acquaintance of mine raised her children without boundaries. When they were very young I’d batten down the hatches when they came to play with mine because play dates would quickly go off the rails. I can best describe their behavior as that of children whose creative impulses had been over-stimulated. I haven’t found a lot of personal stories about other Laissez-Faire children, but I can tell that the two I knew turned out well and have a fairly good relationship with their mother these days.
What then is a good mother? Tucked between these two maternal extremes are the more ordinary women who resemble your mother or mine. The masks they wear may be stern and demanding or cool and permissive, but I suspect they are swapped out depending on time, place and circumstance. No type of motherhood comes with an instruction manual and as daughters age, the primal relationship between a mother and a daughter is fraught with speed bumps as the struggle for control and rebellion play themselves out. Often language gets in the way and what one says is not what the other hears. Expectations, hers of you and you of hers, create walls that must be scaled once they are built, and small, silly things become lumbering giants intent on slaying anything or anyone that gets in their way. No mother or daughter starts the morning with the conscious intent of spoiling the other’s day, though it might sometimes seem that way.
Once the mother’s need to protect is seen as controlling and a daughter’s need for independence is seen as rebellion, it’s game, set and match for everyone involved and there are no winners. Forty-five years ago, Nancy Friday wrote My Mother/My Self, a book that explored the unique interaction between mother and daughter and the real need for daughters to create identities separate from their mother’s. However, she also emphasized that a mother’s greatest gift to her child is an early, unquestioning love so firmly rooted that nothing can cause it to be lost. That is the basis on which trust and the strength of future relationships will be built.
From my perspective, I wish we could hear more about the mothers and daughters who have bridged the divide and become friends once the angst of those early years has faded. Most of us end up on level playing fields with our daughters, but it is still nice to hear the stories of others who have survived the battle. Several years ago I first heard the story of Deb Cooperman and her mother. It is sad and touching but serves as a marvelous reminder of the ties that bind us to one another. I hope you’ll take 5 minutes and listen to Deb read, “Walking Through the Mist,” the story of her relationship with her mother.