Singletons

The world of only children

How Close is Too Close in Mother-Daughter Relationships?

Should Moms and Daughters be BFFs?

Swapping clothes and sharing information about my dates are areas I would not have considered approaching with my mother when I was a teen or 20-something. Nor would my mother. But our mother-daughter relationship was in a different generation. Today parent-child lines are blurred; more mothers claim to be BFFs (best friends forever) with their daughters, and that often includes openness about their sex lives.

Cellphones, e-mail and texting give mothers the possibility of perpetual contact with their daughters and, as a result, mothers and daughters acting like very close peer friends has become both more common and worrisome at the same time.

A mother of a three-year-old is already concerned. In a comment to my post about children with imaginary friends, she wrote:

“I have seen some mothers…treat their daughter as a best friend to the point to where the mother/daughter relationship is blurred a bit and the daughter is not of "herself". My dream is to be and stay close to my daughter throughout her life but steer clear of a relationship where one doesn't know where one begins and one ends. Are there warning signs, things I should be aware of that tell me I am creating this type of - in my opinion, unhealthy relationship?”

Mothers and daughters in noticeable numbers want to be BFFs. I respect the new openness, camaraderie, and sharing. But, can the intense togetherness have negative effects? Is being a “Best Friend Forever” with a daughter a positive thing or a dangerous slippery slope that could compromise a daughter’s development?

An her article in New York Magazine spotlighting mother-daughter BFF bonds, Paige Williams blamed it on “the stay-young revolution” among older women, saying, “The mother-daughter-besties development couldn’t have happened without the stay-young revolution. After the culture handed women the tools to look young, shop young, talk young, think young, it demanded that they do it then deluded them into believing they’d succeeded and needed to improve upon that success.”

Accepting a parent’s drive to look more youthful, be in better shape, and be tuned into youth culture, how can mothers and daughters manage female competitiveness in a healthy way?

Mothers and daughters are never on the same level.

To a generation raised with clear distinction between mothers and daughters, seeing moms and daughters acting like sorority sisters, speaking freely about sexual partners and frequenting bars together seems odd.

Linda Perlman Gordon and Susan Morris Shaffer, authors of the book Too Close for Comfort: Questioning the Intimacy of Today’s New Mother-Daughter Relationship, report conversations with mothers who are proud of the friendships they’ve developed with their daughters but who worry the closeness has stifled their girls’ sense of self and independence. They say, “The mother-daughter relationship is much more comprehensive than even a best friendship. Mothers never stop being mothers, which includes frequently wanting to protect their daughters and often feeling responsible for their happiness.”

For her New York Magazine article, Williams also talked to Camilla Mager, a psychologist specializing in women’s psychology and a former Sarah Lawrence College counselor. Mager explains that as close as you may be to your mother, ideally on “some level she’s always a guiding force, someone who’s been there before you; therefore, you never can be true peers…Not that mothers and daughters can’t ever speak as friends, but there is a constant sense that you are never actually on the same level.”

Mothers and daughters feeling—and acting—as if they are on the same level suggests to me that the daughter may be mothering her mother or that the mother is missing something in her life. During adolescence and into young adulthood, it is pivotal for young girls to shape their own opinions and test ideas many of which come from their peers — sometimes against the wishes of their mothers.

One 20-something woman told me that while she bemoaned her mother’s role as a strict rule maker when she was growing up, she admits it laid the groundwork for a much healthier relationship. “Having a mom as a steadfast, guiding force even now has created a great deal of respect for each other. I don’t think that would have been possible if we had been each other’s confidante, soul mate and party pal.”

Where do you draw the line as a mother or adult daughter between being supportive and being each other’s BFF?

Related: Inside Every Mother Is a Daughter and "Daughtering": 6 Keys to Stronger Mother-Teen Bonds

Resources:

Gordon, Linda Perlman and Shaffer, Susan Morris. Too Close for Comfort?: Questioning the Intimacy of Today's New Mother-Daughter Relationship. New York: Berkley Trade, 2009.

Stroud, Clover. “My mother is my best friend.” The Telegraph. 02 July 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/mother-tongue/9354096/My-mother-is-my-best-friend.html

Williams, Paige. “My Mom Is My BFF.” New York Magazine. 22 April 2012. http://nymag.com/news/features/mother-daughter-best-friends-2012-4/

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Copyright @ 2013 by Susan Newman

Susan Newman, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her latest book is The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide.

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