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Is It Always a Turf War? Adult Daughters and Their Mothers

The seven roles mothers play in grown daughters' lives.

“Every time my mother walks in, she takes over. I get a running commentary on everything I’m doing wrong with my kid, my life, my apartment. It’s crazy-making.” —Caitlyn, age 34

“She asks my advice and then gets really irritated when it’s not what she wants to hear. I feel like I’m always walking on eggshells.” —Jill, age 62, mother of Abby, age 27

“I’m 25, not 5. How do I tell her to butt out without having World War III break out?” —Allison

“I’m worried about the choices my daughter is making. She keeps switching jobs, and hasn’t been in a serious relationship in five years. She’s 33.” —Susan, 59

When we talk about tensions in the mother-daughter relationship, the focus is usually on the period of adolescence, widely seen as the most challenging. Little attention is paid to a second, even more difficult transition: when the daughter becomes an adult. From the mother’s point of view, the transition may be hard because it requires her to let go of ways of mothering she’s been using and adapting for more than two decades; she may have trouble seeing her child as capable and independent, or may be unwilling to give up the role she’s played in her daughter’s life.

Similarly, a daughter may feel ambivalent about how involved she wants her mother to be as she makes the first decisions of her adult life; she may simultaneously want maternal support, on the one hand, and unfettered independence, on the other.

The cultural mythologies about mothering as instinctual as well as our ideas about filial duty muddy the waters and stop us from talking about these tensions frankly. At the same, the transition into adulthood has become, for many, less defined than it was in previous generations. One in five adult children are back in their childhood bedrooms and, even if they aren’t, many of them are receiving some form of financial support from their mothers, fathers, or both. Mothers may find themselves caught in this relational shift at the same moment that they actively return to their own roles as daughters, caring for their aging mothers and fathers.

What makes this transition so hard?

Research shows the tension between mothers and adult daughters is more of the norm than not, even in essentially loving relationships. Despite the cultural tropes about mothers universally reveling in their adult daughters’ achievements, researcher Carol Ryff and her colleagues discovered to their surprise that mothers who perceived their daughters’ achievements as surpassing their own reported lower well-being. This was not true of fathers with either sons or daughters, nor was it true for mothers if the successful child were a son.

More provocatively, a 2004 study by Deborah Carr examined the relationships between mothers who came of age in the 1950s and their daughter who reached adulthood in the 1970s. It will surprise no one that, in the main, the daughters had achieved higher levels of education and career success. Measuring their achievements against those of their daughters, 65 percent reported their daughters had done more, 23 percent said they had done equally well as their offspring, and 12 percent rated themselves as more successful. But, interestingly, the 65 percent who said they were less successful did not report a decrease in self-esteem or well-being. Two primary reasons were 1) the mothers’ attribution of their lack of success to the mores and dictates of the era, the 1950s, in which they came of age and 2) the high costs they saw their daughters paying for their success, including having to deal with the balance of work and family. This led them to feel that, in fact, they had enjoyed more success in the domain of family.

Even if there is no competition between the mother and the adult daughter, there is always comparison.

In You’re Wearing That? Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, Deborah Tannen writes that, “Women are healed by, or ache for, satisfying conversations with their mothers and adult daughters; in some cases, to build on already excellent relationships, in others to break out of cycles of misunderstanding that can turn amiable conversations into painful or angry ones in the blink of an eye. Both want to maximize the gifts of rapport and closeness while minimizing the inevitable hurts that come along with any close relationship but can be especially intense in this one.”

Why is the adult daughter-mother relationship often fraught?

According to the work of Karen L. Fingerman, some of it can be attributed, even between adults, to developmental differences. These are not the same differences as there were when the daughter was 15 and the mother in her 30s but they persist because the self and how conflict is resolved continue to change over time. Some tension stems from the primacy each part of the dyad gives to the relationship. An independent daughter set on living her life far away or on her own terms or, alternatively, a daughter who considers her spouse and children her primary family may make a mother feel excluded. (The reverse sometimes happens, too, when mothers change up their lives.) Another source of tension is the amount of worry each member of the dyad foists on the other—the mother on her daughter’s choices, the daughter on her mother’s aging and health. Finally, there’s the part no one likes to talk about: The traits each dislikes in each other. And, yes, there are mothers who simply dislike or hate aspects of their daughters’ personalities and behaviors even if they don’t admit it in public; daughters tend to be more voluble about their opinions, if not to their mothers’ faces (filial duty) then to their friends.

The roles mothers play in their adult daughters’ lives are various and, in an effort to start a discussion, I’ve given them my own thoroughly unscientific names. Since I’m neither a therapist nor a psychologist, I’ve drawn on my own experience as the mother of an adult daughter and the many interviews I’ve conducted over the years. Some of these roles blend into each other, and there’s a wide spectrum of behaviors connected to each one. The one role not mentioned is the one I’ve written about before: The unloving or mean mother.

1. The Girlfriend

Over-sharing is her trademark and has been since her daughter was in her teens. This mother needs to be in the know on everything and has no respect for boundaries. She’s nosy and intrusive and when her daughter starts putting up fences, she either begs and pleads or hits the roof. Her competition with her daughter may be only slightly masked or not all. From the daughter’s point of view, the problem isn’t just feeling crowded but the frustration of needing a guide, not a pal, as she works her way through the inevitable stresses and strains of figuring out her own life. It may be hard for a daughter to bring the girlfriend to the table to sort things out because this mom likes things the way they were. Besides, being the mother of an adult daughter makes her feel old and why should she feel that way when she can still fit into her kid’s jeans?

2. The Critic

This mother doesn’t need much explanation but the bottom line is that, according to her at least, her daughter is always falling short in important ways. The critic’s motivations are various; under the guise of helpfulness, she finds a way to insinuate herself into her daughter’s life at the very time the daughter is establishing her independence. She may feel intensely competitive with her daughter and feel undone by her daughter’s successes. Her criticisms are a way of exerting control. This relationship with the hyper-critical mother is extremely tense, and is maintained by the daughter at personal great cost. It’s the relationship that’s most at risk.

3. The Sheriff

This mother may be well-meaning and loving in her own way but she has never recognized a single boundary when it comes to her daughter; she may also be enmeshed, especially if the daughter is an only child. She has a very specific sense of what “should” or “ought” to be done in every circumstance and on every occasion. She’s quick to share her opinions (she’s positive that they are the right ones, after all) without being asked on everything from the chopping of cherry tomatoes in a salad (“Yes”), whether the ceiling of a room should be wallpapered (“Always”), along with what she considers an encyclopedic knowledge of raising children (“If a child isn’t potty-trained by two, the mother has done a lousy job”). Sheriff mothers don’t just drive their daughters crazy but tend to alienate their daughters’ spouses too. Not every Sheriff mother is pure of heart, though; some enjoy making their daughters feel inadequate, and crossover into Critic territory. From a daughter’s point of view, the Sheriff, along with the Critic, is the hardest mom to deal with.

4. The Oak

This role has less to do with how a mother acts than who she is, and the tension often emanates from the daughter’s side, even though the Oak may contribute from time to time. The Oak casts a long shadow over the sapling, and so the highly accomplished, sometimes witty and social, often beautiful and charming, mother makes it hard for her daughter to find her own place in the sun. Culturally, this conflict tends to be associated with fathers and sons but it applies equally to the daughters of highly accomplished or successful mothers. In most cases, the daughter is very ambivalent. She’s proud of her mom, on the one hand, and is pleased to note the ways in which she and her mother are alike; on the other hand, she also feels the need to differentiate herself from the mighty Oak and find an arena which is hers alone in which she can distinguish herself. Similarly, the daughter may need the Oak’s praise more than she needs what the Oak believes is her unvarnished opinion about her child’s choices. The Oak needs to recognize the role she plays, even unwittingly, and applaud her daughter’s efforts to individuate, and refrain from giving unsolicited advice. Redefining the mother-adult daughter relationship, even when the bond is strong and constant, is an absolute necessity, but this connection has a good shot at peaceful resolution.

5. The Fixer

She’s been a helicopter parent from day one—making sure that her daughter always has the home court advantage, helping with homework, finagling whatever needs doing—and the problem is that now that her daughter is an adult, she’s out of a job unless she insinuates herself into her daughter’s life big time. Some Fixers mean well but they just can’t accept that they’ve been sidelined, and that’s not okay. At the first sign of a daughter’s distress—or what the mom translates into a need for her to spring into action—she’s on the phone. If her daughter ignores her texts or calls, she’ll call around to her daughter’s friends and maybe even land on her kid’s doorstep. Boundaries are not her forte. Dealing with the Fixer is tricky, especially if the daughter has suddenly woken up to the fact that she really doesn’t want her mother that involved in her life and she actually has a say in the matter. Dealing with the Fixer, especially if she means well but is driving you nuts by doing too much, requires lengthy discussion and a lot of patience. Fixers need to understand that it’s one thing to help your daughter move into her new apartment but quite another to decorate yourself if you haven’t been invited. Mom, it doesn’t matter that you hate bare walls and floors; they’re hers.

6. The Absentee

The cultural myths about motherhood deprive this role of discussion and publicity, even though Absentee fathers are all over the place. This mother has been walking through the paces of parenting without enthusiasm for a time and has been waiting for the empty nest with bated breath; the minute her daughter becomes an adult by the family’s standards (usually post-college), the Absentee is out of the game. Often, the Absentee is married to someone other than the daughter’s father or has other children she is more invested in. Usually, the Absentee has a “life philosophy” that jibes with her stance, and she’s fond of alluding to how she was on her own, made her own way, figured it out by herself and the like. By her lights, she’s actually making her daughter stronger by cutting bait. The daughter, though, feels abandoned and slighted, especially in the early years of adulthood. As the dyad ages, their relationship may become more like the Girlfriend model but with more distance.

7. The Wise Woman

Ever hopeful, I have saved the best for last—the role I aspire to as the mother of an adult daughter—and the mother I know my daughter and every daughter out there would like to have as a regular part of her life. Despite what the mother myths tell us, the Wise Woman is not perfect but she’s coming to terms with her own shortcomings in this time of transition. She works on learning how to master this relational shift and she does her best to try to see it from her daughter’s point of view, although not always with success. She is aware of the need to pay attention to the comments she should have kept to herself, the moments at which she invaded her daughter’s space.

What the Wise Woman knows is that, appearances to the contrary (and it doesn’t matter how old the mother and daughter each are), this can never be a relationship of equals. This is a relationship with a very specific history that sets it apart from all others. To both women, the relationship is central to the sense of self, although in different ways. The daughter’s sense of self is built during the years of her infancy, childhood and adolescence, and highly dependent on her connection to her mother. The quality of that connection over the years—and the degree to which the daughter felt loved, understood, and listened to—inform the adult relationship. At the same time, the mother’s adult sense of self—whether she’s had a career or not—will, in part, rely on whether she feels she’s done a reasonable job of raising her kid or kids, or made a hash of it.

For both women, this is very loaded terrain.

The bottom line is this: the relationship between adult daughters and their mothers is an area that demands more attention than the culture has given it.

Copyright© Peg Streep 2014.

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Ryff, Carol D., Pamela S. Schmutte, and Young Hyun Lee, “How Children Turn Out: Implications for Parental Self-Evaluation,” in The Parental Experience in Midlife. Ed. Carol D. Ryff and Marsha Mailick Seltzer. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Carr, Deborah. “My Daughter has a Career; I just Raised Babies: The Psychological Consequences of Women’s Intergenerational Social Comparisons,” Social Psychology Quarterly (2004), vol. 67, no.2, 132-154.

Tannen, Deborah. You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation (New York: Ballantine Books, 2006).

Fingerman, Karen L. “Sources of Tension in the Aging Mother and Adult Daughter Relationshp,” Psychology and Aging (1996), vol.11., no.4 (591-606).

Fingerman, Karen L. Mothers and Their Adult Daughters; Mixed Emotions, Enduring Bonds. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003).

Birditt, Kira S., Karen L. Fingerman, and David M. Almeida, “ Age Differences and Reactions to Interpersonal Tensions: A Daily Diary Study,” Psychology and Aging (2005), vol.20, no.2, 330-340.

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