On Each Other’s Sides (Instead of At Each Other’s Throats!)
The following is excerpted and slightly adapted from The New Don’t Blame Mother: Mending the Mother-Daughter Relationship by clinical and research psychologist Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar at the Pembroke Center at Brown University and Adjunct Professor at Washington College of Law, American University. She was formerly a Full Professor of Applied Psychology and Head of the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Dr. Caplan’s work has opened people’s eyes to deeply entrenched cultural myths about motherhood.
Most daughters will tell you, when they’re frustrated, “You don’t know my mother.” Most daughters will also tell you they’ve tried for decades to have Big Talks with her, to no avail. Usually, they’ll say they told Mother, “Stop hanging on to me,” “Stop telling me how to run my life,” “Stop being so critical of me,” and so on. Especially when there is some painful problem between them, daughters and mothers become so focused on the problem itself, rather than on what to do to solve it, that rarely do either of them come right out and say, “I want to mend fences, to bridge the chasm between us. I want to be closer…under certain conditions, yes, but closer and more relaxed.” But saying that is absolutely crucial, because it puts daughter and mother on the same team, reminds them of their common ground and the potential for good in their relationship.
Why is knowing you’re on the same side so important? Because we become defensive or paranoid if we believe that the other person wants to hurt us or protect herself no matter the cost to us. Once a daughter or a mother is committed to improving the relationship, the other is likely to sense that commitment even before either one talks about it. If mother and daughter both want to improve their relationship, their shared vision of a better future can take them a long way…
Let me tell you a small step I took years ago toward my mother. One day my son, Jeremy, then seven years old, had had a difficult day at school. That evening, my mother telephoned long distance from her home and talked to Jeremy for a while. A few minutes later, Mother called back because she was not sure whether I knew about the upsetting incident that Jeremy had described to her. She wanted me to be alert to any particular needs he might have that night. She then asked to speak with Jeremy again, just so that they could have a pleasant chat and she could remind him that she cared about him during this stressful time.
People may roll their eyes and talk about overprotective, interfering grandmothers, or at best fleetingly register the fact that Grandma had done a nice thing for her grandson. I put myself in Jeremy’s place and imagined how I would feel if my grandmother took the trouble to call me back just to talk, at a time when I felt I had had a rotten day.
To call what my mother did “naturally feminine and nurturant,” just part of a mother’s job, would not do her justice. Few people do such compassionate, considerate things anyway, and no one is served if, when mothers do them, we hardly take notice because it is what we believe they are supposed to do.
That evening I found myself filled with pride and warmth for my mother. I appreciated how much we women have to work with, even if our nurturance and compassion have sometimes been taken advantage of and used against us. Taking care not to let ourselves be abused or ignored because of how we are, we can feel proud of our warmth and strength, and proud of each other’s. I told my mother how I felt, and she seemed surprised but warmed by my appreciation and respect for her.
When we respect our mothers more, we gain more self-respect, and when we see the injustices they have suffered, we increase our own humanity. We can use our common humanity and strength to empower each other. When we mothers and daughters support each other, we can shape something better for our mothers, ourselves, other women, and the coming generation. As you begin, I wish you well.