The relationship between mothers and daughters is probably both the most fruitful and the most fraught a woman ever has. It’s the source of the deepest love and deepest anger.
Take a simple everyday conversation: if you nab some coveted handbag in the sale, your mother will be the first to share your excitement. But tell her you’re on a diet and she can’t resist saying: “Make sure you keep it up.” That’s when you feel like throttling her.
You share every hope and dream with her. She knows you inside out and is supposed to be on your side, so why does she insist on making you feel a failure?
It’s the same when she gets onto the topic of your hair and your clothes. According to her, they’re never quite right. But ask your mother why she’s so critical and she’ll be horrified. She genuinely thinks she’s only trying to help.
This doesn’t happen with sons simply because with mothers and daughters we are brought face to face with reflections of ourselves, and that forces us to confront who we are, who we want to be and how we relate to others.
And perhaps not surprisingly given we’re women and love to if talk – a lot boils down to mixed messages in conversation. The conversations we have with our mothers are the glue that binds us – they’re also the touch-paper for terrible conflicts. may sound glaringly obvious, the crux of the problem is that both parties are women. That means we cement our relationships with talk and have endless opportunities to say the wrong thing.
A girl’s best friend is the person to whom she tells everything. A man’s best friend is the person with whom he does everything. A man can play tennis with his friend every week and not know he’s getting divorced. Can you imagine that happening with a woman?
Your mum’s the one person on earth who’ll share your delight when you ring and announce. But as we tell our mothers everything, there’s also more opportunity to be criticised. And there are three universal flashpoints: hair, clothes and weight.
So why on earth do mothers feel the need to be so hypercritical? It’s not just that they feel the urge to offer advice – a throwback from when we were little. It goes much deeper.
Mothers notice our every flaw because they’ scrutinisr us just as they do themselves. One woman told me it was the biggest surprise of her life to discover that her daughter didn’t turn out exactly like her. Sons would have to dye their hair blue and wear it down to their waist before they came in for the same level of attention.The awful irony for daughters is that the person we most want approval from is the one most likely to criticise us. Quite simply, we didn’t love our mother so much, she wouldn’t have the power to hurt us. If she didn’t love us so much, she wouldn’t notice our every fault and want to improve it.
Most mothers try to be tactful. But we can always hear that underlying message. If your mother says: “Are you keeping your hair long for summer?” you know she really means: “Your hair’s too long.”
You fly off the handle because you want her approval. She claims you’re touchy. Understanding that your mother doesn’t mean to hurt you can transform your relationship. Another thorny area is life choices. Once again, it’s down to the intensity of the relationship. If your mother was a housewife and you’ve got a glittering career, she’s probably hugely proud. But her pride is tempered by a sense of rejection and possibly envy. Why have you rejected her choices?
One 40-year-old woman told me she was walking down the road arm-in-arm with her mother when she suddenly said: “It’s not fair that all the men are looking at you, not me.” This woman was 65. Few mothers would express their feelings so frankly – but most feel them.
It’s easy to concentrate on the problems. But every woman I interviewed said she had a much better relationship with her daughter than with her mother. We talk to our daughters in a much franker way than mothers did a generation ago.
That may make our relationship more fraught. But it can make it so much richer. One 20-year-old woman summed it up: “I have the best conversations of my life with my mother. I also have the worst.”
No bond is stronger than that between mother and daughter. We can either regard it as a ribbon that ties a beautiful gift or a tie that binds and imprisons.
…with Thelma Asantewaa