Revisiting a Mother -Daughter Relationship
Nurturing a healthy relationship between mothers and adult daughters
A mother-daughter relationship is considered as universally sacred and is often seen as an epitome of selfless love, affection, and respect. Across cultures, this relationship is revered and set up on a pedestal and perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to address the ambiguity and complexity that sometimes surrounds it.
One of the most disturbing concerns young women come with involves ungrateful, self-centred, narcissistic, and neglectful mothers. What does an adult woman do when she receives disrespect and doubt from her sacrosanct mother? This does not sound like a blueprint for a mother-daughter relationship, does it? And this is truly tragic because no matter what our age, how our primary caregivers (especially mothers) think of us informs how we view ourselves and our lives even into adulthood; we derive our sense of self, and self-concept fundamentally from our parents.
One of the clients recently shared a rather harrowing story about how she had to patiently listen to her mother while she so nonchalantly shared her sex life with her daughter. Another client opened up about her struggle with body-image as an adult because her mother wanted her to join a ‘slimming centre’ when she was just 9 years old; while another client shared how her mother made her feel guilty and miserable for not calling and meeting her mother often.
All these people are adults, well in their 20s and 30s, and some in their 40s. And they are all struggling with dwindling self-esteem and self-worth along with immense anxiety because they have been told they are not good enough and hence are not treated as equal adults. As a result, their boundaries have never been respected. And what’s worse is that these women are scared to doubt the intentions of their mothers and spend their entire lives double-guessing. They take years to recognise that they are being manipulated; after all it’s not easy to point a finger at a parent, they are supposed to be our well-wishers. However, this gut-wrenching feeling tells them something is not right. Something is getting toxic and it must be addressed.
This article is for mothers who want to revisit their relationship with their daughters and reflect on whether they share a healthy, mature relationship with them.
Setting healthy expectations
Are you telling your adult daughter to be a certain weight, have a certain body structure, lead a certain life, or earn a certain income, in an unhealthy way? Honestly, there's nothing amusing about a mother telling me that she’d like a ‘thin, pretty daughter.’ Mothers need to be conscious of the language they use to express their concerns for their daughters and sometimes revisit the expectation to check if it’s healthy in the first place. A daughter who is told to ‘lose weight throughout her young years instead of ‘staying healthy’, will develop toxic self-talk, and will inevitably form an unhealthy self-image as an adult.
Creating boundaries for sharing
Emotional sharing forms the basis of a mother-daughter relationship, and sometimes adult daughters find ‘best friends’ in their mothers. But no matter how friendly a mother-daughter relationship may be, it’s always a good idea to have mutual boundaries and regularly check each other’s comfort level around sharing. Some mothers fail to monitor the content of what they share and become ‘over friendly’ with their daughters. Despite repeated requests, they fail to respect boundaries, leading to distress and anxiety for the daughters. What should be shared, and what information should be sought, should always lie within the mutually defined boundaries between a mother and an adult daughter.
Letting them be adults
It is important for mothers to recognise that their daughters have their own lives as adults and too much involvement can impair them from making mature decisions for themselves. It is important to trust their decisions in every sphere of life, and be a guiding light, instead of an enmeshed parent. Many mothers share their stories of how they ‘saved’ their adult daughters from a bad friend, a bad job, or a bad guy and yet their daughters were not happy with them. One mother offered to pay a psychologist to become her 30 year old daughter’s friend because she thought her daughter was lonely! Concern is important, but we need to know where to draw the line, and stop trying to ‘control’ or ‘protect’ our daughters at all times.
Not blindly following what our mothers did
People are inescapable products of their upbringing, operating on the same patterns of behaviour, communication, and language that people grew up witnessing as a child. Everyone’s conditioning is supremely subconscious, and sometimes mothers fail to take a fair look at their borrowed parenting style. A mother once told that she never praises her daughter ‘too much’ for her achievements because her own mother never did, justifying that “it is others who will praise you for your good work, not your own parents”. Although she herself craved a pat on the back from her mother, this reasoning stuck with her all through her adult years without a conscious exploration. Soon, she found her adult daughter having the same complaint with her and she realised something was amiss. The dangerous thing about life-long conditioning is that if you fail to consciously scan your behaviour through the lens of appropriate or inappropriate, it might never occur to you that perhaps a change is needed.
Supporting them through the undying patriarchy of our culture
In Indian society, many daughters are invariably advised by their mothers to ‘adjust’ and ‘accommodate’ with disrespectful, aggressive, short-tempered, violent, and abusive partners because perhaps they too did or this is how things are. When daughters are blamed for not holding-up a relationship, they begin to doubt their own judgement, and even feel guilty for wanting to take a stand for themselves. Mothers need to support their daughters through patriarchal family systems and bring about a change in how inter-generational wisdom is passed on.
Keeping a check on criticism and sarcasm
It’s always brushed aside as a ‘joke’, the subtle criticism and sarcasm that floats around in families. Mostly these comments are sandwiched between praises which makes one indulge in self-doubt at the thought of wanting to take offence. “You look lovely in this new dress, but you have become a little plumped now, you should start working out again! But the colour is suiting you so much!” or, “you will look like a hanger if you wore a saree! Wear a suit, you will look so beautiful!” Are you operating this toxic cycle of bringing down and then lifting up your daughter?
It is important that mothers take a deliberate and conscious look at these communication and behavioural patterns with their adult daughters to build healthy and supportive relationships.
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