Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

Why Moms and Daughters Can Never Really Be Friends

Why BFFs between mother and daughter is a bad idea

Be honest: What mother-daughter pair among us hasn't watched reruns of Gilmore Girls (or the more current tween smash Pretty Little Liars) and wished—at least a little bit—that we, too, could be just like Lorelai and Rory? Exchanging witty banter, enjoying each other's company for days on end, chatting on the phone three times an hour? Or maybe you have that sort of relationship. These days—much more so than when I was growing up—many moms and daughters do. They act less like parent-children than old college roommates. A friend once told me she and her 20-something daughter went halfsies on a subscription to Teen Vogue. "I like the fashion," she told me, though I think there was more to it.

Indeed, this generation of moms and daughters has more in common with one another than ever before. They share clothes, they share secrets. In some cases, giving rise to the notion of cougars and MILFs, they even share men. And now they've got their own reality show: VH1's in-the-works Mama Drama will chronicle Dina Lohan-types who "share drinks, wardrobes, and social lives with their daughters, and occasionally need to be reminded that they're the parent." In a recent New York Magazine story, mother and daughter Julie and Samantha Bilinkas have matching t-shirts, catchphrases, and workout routines. At 50 and 19, respectively, they're such good friends—and so physically similar—that they're often mistaken for girlfriends, both in the friendly and the romantic sense. I don't know which is worse.

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Let's put aside the more commonly-asked question these days—that is, should you be Facebook friends with your children—and get down to a much more basic quandary: Can you be real life friends with them? Can mothers and daughters ever be friends, truly? More—should they be?

I understand why it may seem perfectly harmless. The mother-daughter BFF trap is an easy one to fall into. (And yes—I do mean trap.) We have come to believe that treating children as adults has benefits. There's the sense that befriending our children—and especially our daughters—will cause them to behave better, rebel less. After all, the reasoning goes, teens are less likely to spout off to their friends (if only slightly) than to their mothers; why not approach mothering more like friendship? If we treat our kids like "one of us," will they respect us more? Will we have more control over them? Will they like us better?

At any age, but especially as girls grow into young women, mothers like to feel connected to their daughters and, in many cases, their daughters' friends. At a time when there is so much societal pressure to stay young, this helps keep us feeling youthful. It also helps us feel appreciated long after our children stop "needing" us to survive. And it's a form of validation: We're cool enough that our children actually want to hang out with us! Maybe we even look closer to their age than to our own, thanks to Botox and all the other cosmetic enhancements now available at our fingertips. Which, of course, begs the question: If we're so afraid to be mothers, why did we do it in the first place?

The fact is that the mother-daughter best friendship doesn't leave much room for the traditional role of being a mom. Or, for that matter, being a daughter. For one thing, when the best friend role trumps the mother role, a competitive dynamic can emerge. Take Alexis and Mimi. Twenty-three-year-old Alexis has always been very close to her mom, though sometimes Mimi "is a little... intense," says Alexis. "When I was a teenager I couldn't buy anything without my mom's approval—and it wasn't about money," she says. "She loves fashion, and just wants me to know her opinion." This need for Mimi's approval has been tough to shake—for both of them. Sometimes, when Alexis comes home to her parents' house for the weekend, Mimi will question something her daughter is wearing, or her haircut, or her color eye shadow. "I guess she's looking out for me, but now I'm nervous to pick things out for myself," says Alexis. "Like I think, should I be wearing this to work? Sometimes I can't tell. I don't think things look that bad. But, I don't know, maybe she's seeing something I'm not."

More likely, it's that Mimi—consciously or not—is living vicariously through Alexis. Or maybe she likes the control and sense of purpose. Because if whatever Alexis does is never quite up to snuff until Mimi steps in, her role as mother will never be diminished. But the sad side effect for Alexis is that she'll have a hard time believing that anything she does on her own is good enough.

Thirty-year-old Julie tells her mom, Kat, everything—mostly. Growing up, Julie would bring her friends home to get advice from Kat on "just about anything: boys, makeup, whatever," says Julie. "She was the 'cool mom.'" Since she got married, though, Julie's moved towards more of a "need to know" model, especially when it comes to her husband. "I used to tell my mom everything about Billy, like when we first started dating," she says. "But at one point, he was like, 'You don't tell your mom about our sex life, do you?' He was furious, and mortified, and I saw his point. Obviously I wouldn't have wanted him to talk about me with his dad!" Julie's closeness with Kat had caused trouble in other ways. Whenever she and Billy argued, she'd turn to Kat for advice, like she always had—until she was unable to react without her mother's input. "I'd have to call her up and be like, 'This happened. Should I be mad?' It was almost like there were three of us in the relationship." That's because there were.

As mothers, we want our daughters to grow up to be, at least in theory, independent. We want them to feel loved, and we want to feel love ourselves. But when we're over involved, even if our girls actually like telling us all their deepest and darkest secrets, at some point, they'll lose confidence in themselves. They'll question their ability to make their own decisions. They'll remain children, indefinitely—and not in a good way. Like in the case of Julie and Billy, being "married to Mom" can interfere in a daughter's ability to form close relationships with anyone else but her mother, including her husband. Or she won't learn how to parent her own kids. Why should she? Mom's right there doing it for her. Like writer Lena Dunham, creator of HBO's Girls, has said of her parents, "I feel like I'm constantly asking them to please stay out of my work life but also to please bring me soup." She's being funny, but that's not a relationship. That's a service agreement.

But perhaps most importantly, unlike a best friend, a mother and daughter relationship is permanent. This makes it naturally more intimate—and more intense. There's a hierarchy that exists—or should—between moms and daughters that doesn't exist between friends. You're not equals and you're not supposed to be.

This doesn't mean that mothers and daughters shouldn't enjoy each other's company. They can even tell each other secrets, once in a while. Just remember to honor the boundaries. The mother-daughter relationship is special enough in its natural form. Breaking away won't make your bond with each other weaker. In fact, it'll make you both stronger.

Dr. Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Medical College, Cornell University, and author Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family (Rodale, May 2011). Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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