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Mother-Daughter Envy: Truth or Fable?

Mothers continue to be unfairly accused of envying their daughters

During the past month, I've been phoned several times by several different journalists keen to write a feature on mother/daughter envy. "Why are mothers envious of their daughters?" I am asked. "What effect does this have on them?" and, "How do you spot envy?" As someone who has engaged in research on mothers and teenage daughters over many years, these questions have a disturbing resonance with theories I had hoped were out-dated and stamped-out. But the so-called Electra syndrome, a daughter's public exposure and repudiation of her mother, has slipped back into prominence, partly through Rebecca Walker's recent book "Baby Love" and Phyllis Chesler's response, which endorses Rebecca Walker's experience of her mother of having "a strange competitiveness that led her to undermine me at almost every turn" as "routine, not unusual."

This view is entrenched in psychological literature. Throughout the last century, some psychologists argued that mother envy, especially towards a daughter, is not only normal but inevitable. In 1945, Helene Deutsche claimed that women observe a daughter's adolescent bloom as a sign of their own decline. In middle age, a woman is pushed out of the sexual limelight, and as she sees her daughter achieve the first blush of maturity, she grows envious. In Deutsche's view, this envy was often disguised by displays of protectiveness and tenderness. When a mother says: "Don't do that, it's not safe," what Deutsche hears her saying is: "Don't you dare enjoy your youth, because I envy it." A mother's fear about the complicated dangers of a daughter's sexuality, for example, is reduced by Deutsche to grudging her own daughter pleasure and admiration and fun.

My own research on mothers and daughters, for my book "You don't really know me!" shows something very different. Mothers' concern about sex and sexuality was varied and nuanced, with envy far from the mark. The difficulty the mothers in my study reported dealing with was the wish, on the one hand, to give a daughter the message, "You are a strong young woman," when, on the other hand, in regard to her sexuality, a mother feels that her daughter is unaware of her own vulnerability. Maternal protectiveness been challenged, and analyzed as being "really" about jealousy with her daughter's youth, or as collusion with a culture which seeks to deny/suppress female desire. But listen to Bridget speak about her 15-year-old daughter Cassie, and something very different emerges:

"She thinks she's strong. And I guess in some ways she is. She has guts, that's for sure. But she doesn't know how much it can hurt to be dumped by someone she thinks she's in love with, let alone someone she's had sex with. She doesn't realize how delicate her confidence is. I do. I've been there...You're far more vulnerable than you think...I hope she means it when she says, `I know what I'm doing and I'm in charge.' But things can suddenly change and you're stunned by your own stupidity...She has this cute, bright manner when she's with him. She's nervous, maybe because she sees me seeing how keen she is to please him."
Here maternal protectiveness signals the awareness that life and love are far more complex than a teenage daughter realizes. Protectiveness leads to conflict not because it disguises envy, but because it stems from sensitivity to the doubt behind the bravado.

Half a century after Deutsche, Susie Orbach, Kim Chernin and others argued that young women's expanding career opportunities can (albeit not always) arouse a mother's envy. A daughter may hold herself back, terrified that, if she does surpass her mother, she will be forced to eat of those proverbial poisoned apples - in the form of maternal disapproval, distain, guilt. Or, she may hope to win approval by her success, only to find that success does not give her mother pleasure; instead, her mother responds with envy, which a daughter experiences as disapproval.
But, again, envy is not the norm. My research shows that women in midlife have often had zig-zag careers, in consequence of the demands of child care, and that many experience these unusual career paths as the result of compromise, or constraint. But any lingering regret or anger is more likely to be directed towards a partner, or the career structure. They use their experiences, and their disappointment, to set up guard posts along a daughter's future.

In what circumstances, under what conditions, might a mother envy her daughter? Well, envy would arise only if a mother lacked that central identification as mother of this daughter, and saw her daughter more as a peer. She would have an unformed view of her life phase, and be oblivious to her emotional input in her daughter's well-being. A woman who suffers envy of her daughter is likely to be powerless in many areas of her life. And a daughter is likely to be terrified by this terrible response, for envy contains a primitive anger, a wish to destroy. It can co-exist alongside love (as it does in siblings), but it marks dangerous relational territory.

If we are to understand a mother's envy of a daughter, we have to see it as exceptional rather than the norm. The envy Deutsche and other psychologists highlighted must have arisen in special clinical cases. For envy is very different from passing regret, or aching appreciation of how nice it is to be young, beautiful, with a full future to come. It is different, too, from competition - so when a daughter wants to succeed more than her mother did, she may be being comeptitive, but not envious. And a mother can look at her adult daughter's struggles, reflecting, "There it is, all over again, the tough decisions, the constraints, the compromises," and feel a rush of satisfaction when she reflcts on how much after all she has done.

Jenny, now 52, says, "I'd forgotten how difficult it was to take on so many different tasks. Now my daughter is combining career and motherhood herself, and saying to me, `Mom, how did you do it?' And there is real admiration in her voice. That makes me proud of myself, too. But it's odd realizing that the struggle is the same for her, all these years later." Mother and daughter keep looking to one another, and back again, and seeing the achievements and struggles of each anew. These life-long comparisons sometimes spark pride and sometimes spark regret; but they should not be confused with envy.

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