Mothers and Daughters

Theories about mothers and daughters tend to focus on the dominant role of biology in determining the form these relationships will take. For example, girls grow up to become mothers because of their biology. It is only natural that females will exercise their biological imperative.

Along these lines, societal norms dictate that children be viewed as helpless and needy. They are thought to be vulnerable due to their specific needs of nurture, attention, love and physical contact. The mother is seen as bearing the onus for fulfilling the needs of her offspring. If the mother's womb provided the fetus with all its protection and needs, so too, this line of thinking goes, once a baby is born, the mother must continue to provide protection, albeit in a more external manner.

There is an equal assumption that mother and child will be symbiotic, sharing a natural attachment. The nature of the mother within this relationship is to offer loyalty, availability and sensitivity. Women who fail to become mothers, for whatever reason, are therefore often thought to be selfish, even where the failure to become a mother is not willful.

The relationship between mother and daughter is thought not to differ much from the general mother-child relationship. From the psychoanalytic viewpoint, the mother-daughter relationship is seen as a virtual delivery room in which the daughter can evolve into womanhood, with the mother playing the role of the model and midwife. As feminism emerged, however, the mother-daughter relationship was reexamined and given new significance.

Feminists felt that women and their work within the traditional family home had been undervalued. This constrained interactions between mothers and daughters, since a mother, being undervalued, could not transmit a sense of true worth to her daughter. The early feminists also felt that physical similarities had an important impact on mother-daughter interactions. Since women were being told by men that they lacked the capacity to care for their own needs, these women in turn, transmitted a sense of weakness to their daughters.

Be that as it may, both classical theorists and feminists idealized the mother as a perfect being who could satisfy all the desires of her offspring: nurturing, love, reassurance and protection. A mother who fulfilled the role as it was meant to be could alleviate all discontent, anxiety and loneliness. The perfect mother even shouldered the responsibility for her child's happiness. If a child's life should deteriorate into chaos or go astray for any reason, the mother was invariably blamed for these events, both real and imagined. In essence, every theory of mothering sustained the concept of mother-blame.

Daughters, on the other hand, bear a heavy burden as well: they must offer perfect obedience to confirm the perfect omnipotence of their mothers. Even while daughters struggle under this heavy load, they are cognizant of the human frailties of their mothers. If a daughter dares to rebel against the "mom as God" fantasy and attempt an honest and authentic relationship, the mother may counter her offerings with a forbidding silence or by a verbal underlining of the unequal relationship: daughter=earthling, mother=Goddess.

At the same time, daughters see the way men have cast the role of mothers, predetermining their unimportance and their inability to care for their own needs. A daughter may feel threatened by the scenario of a future that offers only someone else's plan of a life under the rule of a man, accompanied in abject submission and helplessness. These concerns may lead to depression, alienation, self-neglect and a devaluation of self.

Some experts opine that these effects may be worse in daughters who grew up after the feminist movement of the 1960s. Before that time, women were less aware that there was anything "wrong" with the role that men assigned to women. Therefore, women felt less hostility with regard to their mothers.

As daughters become adults, the mother-daughter relationship may be prone to the development of relational "knots." A middle-aged daughter and her aging mother may fall into a pattern of mutual avoidance, mutual care taking or fear of change. The elderly mother may be feeling invisible, or may be facing a daughter's avoidance or rejection.

The middle-aged daughter may be unable to confront her own distaste about her own approaching old age. By blaming their mothers for demanding too much, daughters manage to dodge their own upset and worry. On the other hand, as daughters notice the aging of their mothers, they may decide to reconsider and adjust the relationship before it is too late.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The New Don't Blame Mother: Mending the Mother-Daughter Relationship
Paula J. Caplan.
Routledge, 2000
Nurturing Success: Successful Women of Color and Their Daughters
Essie E. Lee.
Praeger Publishers, 2000
Economic Hardship, Family Relationships, and Adolescent Distress: An Evaluation of a Stress-Distress Mediation Model in Mother-Daughter and Mother-Son Dyads
Lempers, Jacques D.; Clark-Lempers, Dania S.
Adolescence, Vol. 32, No. 126, Summer 1997
Adjudicated Adolescent Girls and Their Mothers: Examining Relationship Quality and Communication Styles. (Articles)
Smith, Sondra L.; Kerpelman, Jennifer L.
Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling, Vol. 23, No. 1, October 2002
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Communication among Grandmothers, Mothers, and Adult Daughters: A Qualitative Study of Maternal Relationships
Michelle A. Miller-Day.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004
Mothers and Daughters in American Short Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography of Twentieth-Century Women's Literature
Susanne Carter.
Greenwood Press, 1993
The Voice of the Mother: Embedded Maternal Narratives in Twentieth-Century Women's Autobiographies
Jo Malin.
Southern Illinois University Press, 2000
Snapshots: 20th Century Mother-Daughter Fiction
Joyce Carol Oates; Janet Berliner.
David R. Godine, 2000
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