Holly Williamson left home on angry terms when she was 19, moving from Milwaukee to Madison in the dead of night to attend college and live with her future husband. This act of rebellion, followed by years of a distant family relationship, was her way of shaking loose from a strong, controlling mother and home life, she says. Many years later, however, those tensions have long since melted away and the shackles that so constrained Williamson have grown into a profound mother-daughter bond.
The resiliency of this relationship isn't unique, according to a Pennsylvania State University study on the ties between midlife daughters and their elderly mothers. Researcher Karen Fingerman, Ph.D., found that despite conflicts and complicated emotions, the mother-daughter bond is so strong that 80 percent to 90 percent of women at midlife report good relationships with their mothers—though they wish it were better.
"The relationship between mothers and their adult daughters is one in which the participants handle being upset with one another better than in any other relationship" explains Fingerman, an assistant professor of human development and family studies. Women generally are better than men at maintaining relationships involving a high degree of intimacy, she says, and mothers and daughters share an investment in family that enhances their bond late in life.
"There is great value in the mother-daughter tie because the two parties care for one another and share a strong investment in the family as a whole," says Fingerman, author of Aging Mothers and Their Adult Daughters: A Study In Mixed Emotions. She bases her findings on questionnaires and interviews with 48 mother-daughter pairs. The average age for mothers in the study was 76; for daughters it was 44. Participants were asked to discuss sources of tension and positive aspects of their relationships, as well as demographic information and family background.
Any daughter who's winced at a mother's criticism won't be surprised to know that mothers continue to mother and daughters still seek mom's approval late in life. Williamson, now over 50, admits, "I still keep secrets from my mother because there are things about me I don't want her to know!"
Williamson describes an evolution in her relationship with her mother. "There's a critical moment when the daughter suddenly realizes that the mother is another woman," she says. "Before that, a mother is a symbol. She's all-knowing, all-powerful, maybe the enemy and maybe the nurturer—but you don't see her as another woman with similar problems and experiences."