Sins of the mother


What is it with mothers and daughters? Karen Kissane tries to make sense of this volatile relationship.
SHE had tried to teach her daughter all the right things about resisting the modern world’s caging of girls. Be happy with who you are, not how you look; wear what you like, not just the brands that carry cachet with the kids at school; stay in touch with your own feelings about what you want and follow them.
And then came the awful moment, the one that challenged her fond beliefs about her mothering. Her teenaged daughter was going to the movies with friends. She came to say goodbye dressed in a pair of tights
with a hole, a skirt and top in colours that did not match, and a favourite handbag that her mother thought clashed with the lot. The comment was out of her mouth before the mother could stop it: “Going for the Little Orphan Annie look, are you?”
The ugly words hung in the air between them. The daughter slid her eyes away and quietly kissed her mother goodbye.
The mother says, with regret, “Here she was, being quirky and individualistic and anti-fashion, using her clothes to find out who she was, and it was me who tried to put her in the cage. And I know exactly why it happened; even now that I am middle-aged, whenever I tell my mother I have something important on, one of her first questions is, ‘What will you wear?’ She still reminds me when she thinks I need
a haircut.”
What is it with mothers and daughters?
The relationship between mothers and daughters is different to that of any other dyad in a family, researchers say; it can be more intense, more volatile, more conflicted, more painful and more rewarding. Part of the reason for this is that talk is a much bigger part of the mother-daughter exchange, and what mothers say – and what they leave unsaid – has a powerful effect on their daughters, who yearn for their mothers’ approval and resent that yearning. Although daughters often do not realise it, the reverse is also true.
American linguist Deborah Tannen has studied mothers and daughters and written about her research in a book published earlier this year, You’re wearing that? Understanding mothers and daughters in conversation. Writing in the Washington Post, Tannen says, “For girls and women, talk is the glue that holds a relationship together – and the explosive that can blow it apart. That’s why you can think you’re having a perfectly amiable chat, then suddenly find yourself wounded by the shrapnel from an exploded conversation.”
She found the most common complaint from daughters to be:
“My mother is always criticising me.” The corresponding complaint from mothers was: “I can’t open my mouth. She takes everything as criticism.” Tannen says mothers subject their daughters to a level of scrutiny they otherwise reserve only for themselves, and that the Big Three topics for criticism are hair, clothing and weight. A mother feels obliged to criticise because she knows women are judged by their appearance, and because daughters represent their mothers to the world, Tannen says.
Sometimes, it is because a mother just doesn’t understand a daughter’s choices. Tannen gives an example from her own life. Tannen had recently taken a teaching position at a prestigious university. She showed her mother around her new office, with her name on the door and her publications on the shelf. Her mother asked if she would have done all this if she had stayed married (her mother had been distraught at Tannen’s divorce). No, Tannen said, she would never have got her PhD if she’d stayed married.
Her mother replied: “If you’d stayed married, you wouldn’t have had to.” Ouch! Tannen wrote: “With her casual remark, my mother had reduced all that I had accomplished to the consolation prize.”
But what mothers do not say to their daughters – “what my mother didn’t tell me” – can also have a profound effect. There is the thin-lipped, disapproving silence about
a daughter’s actions. There is the avoidant silence about the awkward topic – sex, periods, the family scandal. And then there is the great silence, heavy with things unspoken, that is maternal depression, which was so beautifully and wordlessly portrayed by Holly Hunter in Jane Campion’s film about the almost-submerged mother, The Piano.
The psychological effect of the great silence on daughters is well documented, with the daughters of depressed mothers at greater risk of depression themselves. What happens in the psychic space daughters share with their mothers has profound physical effects, too: one study of girls in America and New Zealand found that those whose mothers had mood disorders reached puberty earlier than those whose mothers did not. Their mothers’ unhappiness and instability kick-started their periods. The researchers speculated that human females might have evolved to
respond to early childhood stress by accelerating pubertal development.
There is also some evidence suggesting that personal secrets in a mother’s history can play themselves out again in the next generation if they are hidden away. One study more than a decade ago examined families in which the mother had had an abortion when she was young. In those families where the mother did not tell her daughter, the daughter had a higher likelihood of finding herself in need of an abortion in early adulthood than did the daughters of families where the mothers had talked about their own experience. Perhaps those who do not learn from family history are also destined to repeat it.
But mother-daughter relationships are so complex and so nuanced that it is sometimes hard to judge the application of a worthy principle such as openness; when to tell, and how to tell. Erica Frydenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, says mothers might not tell daughters about an abortion, for example, because they do not want their daughters to prejudge how to manage a pregnancy.
The timing of a revelation can also be crucial. Erica tells of a woman who was told on her wedding day that the person she had thought of as her mother was actually her aunt; that her biological mother had died when she was tiny. “She was so shattered
by this information that she never spoke to the aunt again for the rest of her life. Judgements about discovery are very tricky.”
For every daughter who feels she has suffered over something for which her mother did not prepare her, there is a mother who feels her daughter resisted being forewarned about possible painful experiences.
Maggie Kirkman, at the Key Centre for Women’s Health in Society at the University of Melbourne, was a co-researcher in a study about the way parents talk to their children about sex. “Relationship information was one of the things parents wanted to talk about, and daughters often didn’t want to talk about it.”
Kirkman says mothers trying to warn daughters about potential life problems can be a bit like a doctor trying to deliver bad news: “People will swear blind that no one told them, and they were told but they found it too distressing to absorb it.”
The difficulties of falling in love, and falling out of love, can be similarly uncomfortable for daughters to hear about: “I tried to tell my daughter how it felt when someone important fell out of love with me. She was sympathetic, but I think she felt it wasn’t something that a mother should be sharing. Daughters want parents to be coping and to be bulwarks against the world rather than people who will fall apart when something happens.”
On the other hand, in Kirkman’s study there was a woman who blamed her teenage promiscuity on the fact that her mother did not talk to her about sex or relationships and failed to educate her “that you don’t just throw yourself into a sexual relationship without thinking of the consequences”.
In the world of classic “chick lit” – Jane Austen, the Brontes, even the light-hearted Regency romances of Georgette Heyer – it has always been the task of the mother to guide a daughter in the proprieties and protect her from sexual predations. Often in these authors’ stories the mother is absent or inadequate (a contrivance
to give their heroines greater trials and greater freedoms), but even then, she symbolises protection or restraint. In her book, Beyond the Myths: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Psychology, History, Literature and Everyday Life, Sydney researcher and psychologist Shelley Phillips points out that when Rochester begs Jane Eyre to be his mistress, it is the ghost of her long-dead mother who tells her to flee temptation and leave Rochester and Thornfield.
For Erica Frydenberg’s daughter Lexi, though, one of the great strengths of her relationship with her mother is that her mother did not ever tell her about judgements she had made about her daughter’s adult relationships. Lexi, 33, is a Melbourne pediatrician. She is also mother of a little boy and is five months pregnant with her second child.
Lexi says she feels her mother has given her great freedom to make her own choices. She never heard much about Erica’s own experience of childbirth and early parenting but Erica was always there to help with cooking and cleaning when Lexi was sick or exhausted: “I was grateful that she was there to support me and didn’t put her own issues on me and didn’t constantly reflect on her own experience.
“We have never talked in depth about marital relationships either.
I think she adores my husband and is completely there for us, but we never sat down, even when I was going out with men, and said, you know, ‘He’s got this or that going for him, or not going for him.’ She gave me freedom to form my own opinions.”
Long after one long-term relationship ended, Erica told her daughter that she had found the man exceptionally boring. “I had no idea,” laughs Lexi. “I thought she thought he was a great catch.”
Another time, when Lexi was in a “total dilemma” about her reluctance to marry a man who seemed perfect, her mother did not buy into the debate. She referred Lexi to a psychologist who could help her think it through independently. “It was a clever thing to do at the time because if the relationship had worked out and she had put her two cents in, it would have changed the dynamic between us, and if the relationship didn’t work out because of something she said, I would have resented her for it. By being supportive but suggesting that I do the deep talking with someone else, she wasn’t putting a value judgement on the relationship.”
Erica Frydenberg herself had been brought up by a mother who was a Holocaust survivor and who was progressive for her culture and her times, but who did initially resist Erica’s determination to adopt Australian freedoms, such as mixing with boys and going to university. When it came Erica’s turn to mother Lexi, she decided it was important “to respect the other, and to be there to assist and to ‘scaffold’ but
to really trust in my kids’ capacities”.
Erica remembers only one time they ran into trouble in Lexi’s teens – “saying she was somewhere when she wasn’t, an under-age drinking thing. That wasn’t very hard”. And Lexi remembers only one major dispute: her mother wanted her to have a big wedding, and Lexi wanted a small one. “That was the biggest crunch time.
I hadn’t actually anticipated her opposition because she had always been so open-minded. But in the end Adam and I dug our heels in. We wanted to form our own boundaries as a couple.”
Such a rebellion-free youth is unusual. According to Shelley Phillips, most daughters report that they argue more with their mothers than with anyone else when they are teenagers and young adults. Conflicts often centre around everyday things such as tidy rooms and outings but the intensity can escalate out of all proportion to the issues. Daughters argue with their mothers because it is during fights that they work out who they are and what is important to them. Many researchers have concluded that daughters do not want to “separate” from their mothers or break the relationship; they want to maintain emotional closeness all through their adult lives in a way that is not as common with sons.
Kim Kane, 33, a commercial lawyer and children’s writer, has forgiven her mother all her “sins”: making Kim eat celery sticks and carrots at childhood parties, studying at university instead of being “a proper tennis-and-tuckshop mum”, vacuuming furiously outside Kim’s bedroom if she slept in too long. Says her amused mother Barbara, “That is grotesquely exaggerated!” She adds, “Kim was always my great leveller.”
They see themselves as close – they share a love of trashy magazines and the high arts, and often go to the opera or to a gallery opening together – but Barbara says she doesn’t expect that closeness to extend to talking about everything. “I’m very close to my mother but I don’t tell her about things that would worry her. I’m sure my girls are the same, they’d just give me the general headline.”
Asked to think about “What my mother didn’t tell me”, Barbara says that, while it is not something she would have expected to come from her mother, she does wish now that when she left home she had known that it was wise to get established in a career before starting a family. She had three children because she wanted them to have the fun of siblings, but it meant that her own career as an art historian began late and had to be squeezed in around family commitments.
For Kim, too, the only thing she wished she had known involved the world of work: she found some corporate environments tougher, blokier and more bruising than the sheltered world of her family, and realised that she had to upskill in boisterousness and bad language. “That’s something my family could not have prepared me for because we don’t act like that.”
Just like the women in Tannen’s research, Kim remains sensitive to her mother’s criticism in a way that she is to no other. When she showed her mother the manuscript of her first children’s novel, her mother took seriously the request to say what she thought. “She said, ‘Well, it’s good, there are some strong characters, but I’m not sure about this.’ I was absolutely gutted!
I found myself saying to publishers, ‘This is what my mother thinks’.
I sounded like a 14-year-old!”
Lexi Frydenberg recently had an ultrasound for her pregnancy. Her mother came with her because her husband was away. They were both delighted to hear she is expecting a daughter. Says Lexi, “We both had tears in our eyes. Because I have a very strong bond with my mother, I’d like to have that with a daughter.”
You know how it is with mothers and daughters.
Mother-daughter books …
1. The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan
Four mothers and their first-generation, Chinese-American daughters dealing with culture clashes.
2. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Single motherhood in 19th-century New England.
3. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
The silly Mrs Bennet is heroic in her tireless attempts to get her five daughters good husbands.
4. White Oleander, by Janet Fitch
Heartbreaking coming-of-age story.
5. Beloved, by Toni Morrison
Civil War tale of runaway slave Sethe, who is haunted and comforted by the ghost of her murdered daughter.
6. Unless, by Carol Shields
A wry feminist meditation on women’s roles.
7. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, by Rebecca Wells
A novel of imperfect love and forgiveness.
and films …
Freaky Friday (1976 and 2003)
Mother and teenage daughter swap bodies and are forced to live each other’s lives.
High Tide (1987)
Gillian Armstrong’s tale of a maternal relationship lost and potentially found.
News from Home (1977)
An engrossing meditation on the bonds of family, identity, exile and creativity.
Stella Dallas (1937)
A mother raises her daughter alone, renouncing everything to allow her child a better chance in life. — JANE SULLIVAN AND PHILIPPA HAWKER

First published in The Age.