The first step in understanding the dynamics between mothers and daughters and what causes mothers and daughters to fight is to understand that mothers and daughters do not relate in a cultural vacuum. Just like any relationship or workplace situation, understanding how mothers and daughters relate is deeply connected to the cultural environment they live in. Gender role stereotypes that define what women and girls should be, do and say are the foundation on which mothers and daughters relate, both with themselves and each other. In my experience, having listened to thousands of mothers and daughters around the world, what happens between a mother and her daughter tells a story of how their family and society treat, or mistreat, women.
Historically, the mother-daughter relationship has been treated as separate from, and unaffected by, the socio-cultural environment they live in by the media and some pockets of the counseling, psychology, and coaching professions. In this blog I outline the harm that this misinformation inflicts on mothers and daughters. And I explain how the mother-daughter relationship tells the story of the socio-cultural environment they live in, and how this fact influences the work mental health professionals do with women and girls, mothers and daughters.
Mothers are often the first person that gets blamed for any conflict she has with her daughter, whether her daughter is a young girl, a teenager, or an adult. This is because, as Paula Caplan writes about in “The New Don’t Blame Mother”, mother blaming is a sport that is so ingrained and normalized in our patriarchal society, we no longer realize when we are engaging in it. Mothers get accused of being too needy, too demanding, lacking in mothering skills, or mentally or emotionally unwell. Daughters are targeted as well, with accusations of being uncaring, emotionally unavailable, selfish, to name a few labels. The trouble is, these labels or accusations entirely miss the true causes of mother-daughter conflict. They also inflict more harm on an already troubled relationship. Mothers and daughters already feel a great deal of shame and blame for their inability to have the close emotional relationship that society expects from mothers and daughters, and when they then get told that it is because they’re being too needy, selfish, or emotionally unavailable, their shame is doubled. And it still leaves mothers and daughters without any understanding as to why they’re not getting along and how to heal their relationship problems. These blaming labels or accusations only serve to perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes, which ironically, are the root causes of mother-daughter conflict, as I explain in the next paragraph.
It is important that mothers and daughters, and mental health professionals examine what they mean by a mother or daughter being too needy, too demanding, or emotionally unavailable. We must unpack the social conditioning we have been subjected to and understand what we have come to believe makes a ‘good mother and daughter’ and what a needy, demanding, emotionally unavailable mother or daughter is, because these labels are social constructs, not truth or facts. For example, one of the most common beliefs about how a good mother behaves is that she must be selfless in the way she cares. Mothers in our society are not viewed as people. Fathers are, but mothers are not. And this lack of personhood and the expectation that mothers have no needs of their own, and if they have needs, they must put their needs last, is one of the main causes of mother-daughter relationship conflict around the world.
The expectation that a good mother must be selfless, sacrificing, and self-neglecting is sexist and patriarchal and rooted in what I call, ‘The Culture of Female Service’. I coined the term ‘The Culture of Female Service’ to describe the patriarchal belief system that views women, and especially mothers, as society’s caregiving gender, without having any rights to their individuality or personhood. This belief system labels mothers and daughters as being selfish and uncaring when they ask for what they need and set normal, healthy boundaries.
It makes sense that the expectations that a good mother must be selfless, sacrificing, and self-neglecting sets mothers and daughters up for conflict. It creates an unhealthy dynamic where the daughter, usually the eldest daughter who is the next selfless, sacrificing, self-neglecting female, must meet her mother’s unvoiced and denied needs. It shames into silence the conversation that allows for mothers and daughters to say what they think, need, and want clearly and openly. Without the vital human conversation that inquires after what women feel, think, and need emotionally, mothers and daughters are expected to relate in an environment in which neither of them are encouraged to, or know how to, speak their emotional truth. And worse, this emotionally silenced environment makes mothers and daughters starving hungry to be heard, and for someone to meet the needs they have been taught to deny. How can a mother and daughter create emotional intimacy when they do not know how to say and hear what they each feel, think and need emotionally?
Mothers and daughters and mental health professionals need to understand how patriarchy and sexist gender stereotypes silence what women, and especially mothers feel and need, and how this harms not just mothers and daughters, but every woman’s ability to speak their truth and advocate for their human rights. In my experience, the silencing of what women feel and need is at the heart of understanding women’s lives and relationships today, and our mother’s and grandmother’s lives and relationships with each other. And it is at the heart of women’s continued fight for equal rights.
Reprinted with permission from my American Counseling Association blog.