From Misery to Marvel: The Adult Mother-Daughter Relationship

March 27, 2018

Truth be told, there is likely not an across-the-board answer on how the mother-daughter dyad can reach an idyllic point in their relationships, at any stage of life, though it seems to be increasingly tricky when both parties are grown adults. The dichotomy between mother and daughter roles continues to confuse and mystify us well into adulthood. Even when a daughter becomes a mother herself, she sometimes has not a clue as to how to have a palatable relationship with her own mother, since “perfect” seems unattainable, at best. Some are co-dependent or enmeshed with their mothers, while others are aloof and disconnected, entirely. Both extremes can disrupt and disarm, just in different ways.

We have a tendency to overthink it—to show trepidation when establishing an adult relationship with our mothers—just as mothers tread softly so not to overstep their place in their daughter’s personal life. It’s a shock to the normative patterns that had been laid out ever-so gently, all those years before them: the mother as the protector and the daughter as the protected. Back then, it definitely was not easy, but at least instincts paved the way. Now, how does a mother progress past the natural notion that it is her job to solely act as the proverbial pain-repellent and squash any source of anguish from before her daughter’s eyes? All those earlier days you lamented your wide-eyed little girl had been exposed to R-rated movies, only to discover she figured out what sex and death were before her 5th birthday. An old soul. It was nothing you did or didn’t do. Today, you’re glad she required no introduction to the birds and the bees, but at that time if felt like a failure of mass proportions.

In older age, how might this unwavering, do-it-all, super-hero of a mother decloak and reveal herself as human, without feeling like a perpetual imposter, there after? Would it mean thwarting super-natural tendencies in order to allow her daughter to learn from her own mistakes, or lunging past invisible “No Trespassing” signs to mediate and mitigate, at every misstep? How does mother transcend immortality to reveal human emotions—regrets, doubts, fantasies for a chance at a do-over—without spilling the elixir of life, the Holy Grail, that daughter had always envisioned was hidden in plain sight inside her mother’s jewelry box, there, buried underneath that delicate and exotic green emerald necklace? Daughter still thinks mother never found out it was she who had broken its clasp, all those years ago. So, while mother does surely know best, and knows more than she lets on, how does she admit her feelings when such an admission requires the ultimate confession: she never did behold the elixir in her palm, and there were times she desperately wished she did, especially when she couldn’t seem to raise her daughter’s downward gaze after a rough day at recess. How does adult-daughter likewise acknowledge and come to accept that this once untouchable, fixture of strength, is in actuality an earthly-figure, flawed, and a mere mortal. Neither mother nor daughter can make peace OR MAKE SENSE of this newfound reality that has caused a deeply painful rupture. Daughter notices mother’s fine lines around her eyes have deepened just as she notices the very first sight of crow’s feet around her own two eyes. It becomes almost an existential crisis—and a longing to connect—when both are perplexed and protecting themselves from something, like being seen might cause an explosion. A mini-death of the innocence she wished would never escape her daughter’s face, and the daughter’s realization that her mother won’t be here forever. There is grief and loss associated with assimilating to the status-quo, so it is no wonder judgement and ridicule runs the show. Ha, that rhymed.

Both sides wage wars within, though they are on divergent life-courses. It is debilitatingly confusing for everyone involved, and nobody dares speak of it first, lest it become definitive. So, where do you go from here, daughter? Your mom isn’t perfect, she never was, and never will be. And, mother, how do you make peace with this fact? How can the mother-daughter duo switch their footings and propel into the present-tense. It is a collision that happens at the blink of an eye; we are more inclined to rehash the past, on a loop, than to to deny the ambiguity of the present. Maybe it is easier to fight over what went wrong in your childhood—even though your daughter’s critiques reduce you to shreds—than acknowledge the reality of your reality: You’re in an adult-relationship with your daughter or mother, respectively, and the only thing you have in common is that you’re both at a complete loss as to how to have one, at all.

Daughter assumes mother will simply step onto her stool, reach for that “how-to-parenting” guide from the classified section of her closet shelf, and apply the reading to the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, the “how-to” gods abandoned their manuscript on adulting before adulting even entered the urban dictionary—so, please do not believe the hype. Nobody has this thing down to a science. There is yet to be an equation devised for the act of parenting while un-parenting and befriending while unfriending. Such is the juggling done by the adult mother-daugher dyad, in hopes of getting it just right. The adult-daughter might become impatient as she awaits her mother’s recipe for a meaningful relationship: one part grace, 1/2 part all-knowing, 3/4 part psychic powers. Such cognitive distortions continue to create a division between mother and daughter well into adulthood, except their needs have advanced and their world-views have progressed with the times. Both parties are seeing each other through half-shut eyes, because widening their horizons would require uncomfortable conversations. They might be challenged, or worse, forced to change something inside of themselves that has served as protection from vulnerability.

They catastrophize that such vulnerability is homogenous to a creepy, side-show, where the first stop might be the shame-on-two-wheels parade, and up around the corner they could drift into the infinite guilt-trip exhibition with their hearts in jars, for passerby’s to ooh and ahh. Both might decide it is better to avoid such a calamity and continue their course. That being said, both mother and daughter have trouble processing their place in one another’s life. Such frustration can result in turning inward, talking less and less. Or, it can result in vehement arguments, rage-induced exchanges, and unnecessarily hurtful slander spat at the face of their supposed-adversary.

So, what are the secrets to embracing the adult mother-daughter relationship and what are the gifts of regrets, here? Also, how do we make the most with this precious time shared between mother and daughter? Consider the following depictions as a guide—there are no hard and fast rules— towards understanding and possibly improving the relationship between mother and daughter, respectively:

Perfection is an Illusion: There is no such thing as a perfect relationship and in order to thrive in our relationships and free ourselves from this misconception, we must radically accept our mothers and daughters for who they are. If radical acceptance were an easy feat, everyone would have it down by now and this notion would be irrelevant, at best. To accept who your mother or daughter is also means accepting who YOU are in RELATIONSHIP to her. Maybe you aren’t your daughter’s best friend, but you are the first person she calls when she’s sick, despite her herself being a professional nurse. Could that be enough, to take inventory of what YOU ARE to your daughter, rather than fixating on what you are NOT to her? And, if this sounds less than satisfactory, what might you deliver or model in your interactions, in order to hopefully receive it back tenfold?

Mirror, Mirror: Our relationships with our mothers serve as a mirror for other significant love relationships, our beliefs about the world, our self-esteem, and our sense of overall satisfaction. The mother-daughter relationship is both terrifying and gratifying. Everyone acknowledges “marriage takes work,” yet, the work that must go into maintaining an enduring mother-daughter bond is seemingly top-secret. I would venture to suggest that the same character defects and self-defeating patterns existing in the dynamic you carry with your mother or daughter do too exist in other areas of your life, if you are willing to look hard enough. Maybe you postpone confrontation with others until you reach your utter breaking point, at which time things seem to be blown out of proportion. Could it be your pattern that you avoid confrontation until one small transgression, by those closest to you, becomes enough to unleash your wrath? Depending on the nature of the mother-daughter relationship, it could be a safe-zone in which you might start to acknowledge, or even begin to break, habitual patterns of behavior.

It has become engrained in your psyche: “Your daughter is not your friend.” Then, as if overnight, your daughter has morphed into the better version of yourself—with the addition of a sharp wit, and an unabashed potty mouth she must have gotten from her father— and had she not been your daughter, you’d want her as your friend, without reservation. Suddenly, you want to vent about your husband, who happens to be your daughter’s father. The boundaries are blurry, and you’ve even shed a few tears in front of her. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this in and of itself. The issue arises when a mother assumes that her daughter is comfortable with this gradual arise of intimacy; likewise, the sense of needing to comfort her mother can feel both overwhelming and uncomfortable. It’s critical for mother and daughter to discuss their limits and boundaries without assuming that the guidelines were clarified, implicitly, somewhere between age 18 and 40. For instance, if an adult daughter doesn’t want to hear about her mother’s love life, it’s okay for that to be off limits. It is also more than okay for it to be within normal limits for one mother-daughter dyad, and not so for another. The issue arises when a daughter pretends to be comfortable with the topic, while her stomach churns and her discontent grows. Honest communication and boundary-setting is crucial to figuring out where the “friend zone” begins and ends.

Same goes for you, daughters. Most often in my practice, I have heard women say they can’t bring themselves to share the darker parts of themselves with their mothers, for a variety of reasons. Mainly, the source of their fears are twofold: they fear they won’t receive the type of support they so often crave, or, they don’t know how to ask for that which they have never had. Additionally, they fear they will worry, scare, alarm, or unnerve their mother. Their lack of confidence in their mother’s ability to both handle her daughter’s qualms and act reasonably, is not a jab at the mother, but rather, it is attributable to the basic fears we all share: fear of failure, rejection, vulnerability, shame, etc. Mother’s intuition can only take her so far when she only hears half of the story. The result can be a feeling of rejection or indifference when mother doesn’t probe or pry any further. Mother doesn’t break down any walls, because she either believes there are no walls there at all or she assumes they were placed there for a purpose. So, yes, sometimes mothers do their best to delineate her daughter’s boundaries, in an unspoken fashion. This pattern of “talking, but not really saying much,” persists until one day the daughter boldly suggests that her mother tap into the not-so-obvious, clues she left her, which were meant to imply everything is in fact not going alright, and that she does want to share the reason for the sullen look on her face. Both parties have a hard time opening this door that has been locked since puberty. At first, it feels like kicking down a door, intrusive and disturbing. Later, it feels more like light knocking on the door, and waiting to hear “come in” before stepping closer.

One of these Things is NOT Like the Other: Acknowledge that no two pairs of mother-daughter bonds are the same. Even if you have a sister, your personal relationship with that same mother will inevitably be dissimilar just as you are not your sister’s total clone. The act of comparison is futile and may actually hurt the relationship you’re meant to have. What if you could look for the good, rather than highlighting the bad? Maybe you can use your imagination to find areas you’d like to nurture, that has nothing to do with what other people are doing. Do you want to do more activities together and talk less? Or talk more and do less activities? Do you want to tell her all your secrets or keep that space for the jagged, ripped pages of your journal, only to be set ablaze after the ink hits the page? Think about it, so you can then work towards it. Comparison is much like an endless struggle to perfect or obtain that which will never be perfected nor obtained. Again, radical appreciation and gratitude for what you do have can help with this aspect.

Since there are endless renditions of the working adult mother-daughter relationship, I’d love to hear your suggestions and opinions on this topic! Feel free to let me know what you would have added to this list—from either the mother or daughter perspective—as it could surely go on, and on, and on.

With Love,

Eva Moheban

Eva Moheban, LCSW​I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) with extensive experience working with those who struggle with self-esteem, body image, eating disorders, addiction, self-injurious behaviors, suicidal ideation, peer group and family conflicts, and depression and anxiety. I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles and my Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW) from the University of Southern California.

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