The Third Third

Can Mothers and Daughters Handle the Truth?

Sometimes it seems the Mother-Daughter relationship is the toughest of all. Even after adolescence. Long after adolescence. Most of us with grown daughters are making it up as we go; we have no good models. Our mothers believed we were eternally 12 and they were in charge. We – daughters and mothers alike -- deserve better. Yet in conversations with other women, I am learning how difficult that improvement can be to achieve. And, often, not because of the daughter. Often, it’s because *our* expectations, or *our* needs are out of whack. It might feel, for example, like your kid has shut you out, cut you off, slammed the door in your face for some reason (there’s always a reason), when in fact, all she said was “This really isn’t a very convenient time to get together, can we try another?” Read on: According to her mother, the daughter is 34, married, and employed. She has a home. She’s independent. She’s a published author and almost a Ph.D. She’s a committed vegetarian. As mother and first-born daughter, they’ve been through a lot. They survived the Terrible Two’s, the F-ing Fours and Middle School. The daughter’s been to camp and college and Europe. The mother sent her away *and* learned to let her go. They fought the daughter’s eating disorder together and, with hard work, the daughter won. They negotiated the daughter’s complete financial independence before age 30; she even bought her own car and paid the insurance. And they did her wedding *her* way and afterward, the mother even agreed it was magically far more wonderful than any convention or tradition could have been. Mom considered her daughter “launched.” She didn’t hear her needing her approval any more. She smiled inside, believing the daughter’s struggle of becoming was over; she’d made peace with who she is. Indeed, the mother marveled at all her daughter had done, academically, intellectually, and physically, the way she made friends and touched lives, and the way she balanced it all with the silliest of humor. She was prepared to enjoy the next stage of their lives’ interactions. But then, suddenly, there weren’t any. They had dinner together one night (of three days’ graduation activities) when the daughter’s husband and brother both got advanced degrees, and again when the parents arrived at their summer place the night before their daughter left it, having been there for a wedding. The parents had traveled a day early just so they could see her and asked her to stay a day later, but she said she couldn’t. That evening she announced she wouldn’t be joining them for Christmas because she’d be hosting her husband’s family, and when her brother asked, “Not even for New Year’s?” she said “No,” and her husband opined it would be too expensive, and they’d both have to get back to work anyway. Earlier, she had refused her mother’s offer to help her move and set up her new place; she wanted to have it just-so when they came to visit she said. So, once fall was underway, the mother wrote to say that she’d found an inexpensive fare, and that she’d love to come visit for a few days to see where her daughter was living and working. If it was convenient. The daughter wrote back: it wasn’t convenient; perhaps she could come another time. The mother was devastated. She felt like they were back in adolescence, or in the throes of therapy, where independence is an all-or-nothing proposition rather than a relative condition. You know, like when the daughter has to hate the mother in order to leave, has to reject everything about her mother in order to prove she can make her own way. But they’d been there and done that. Now the mother really doesn’t care what her daughter cooks for dinner or how long she wears her hair. She’s not her job any more. She’s done. “She can do and be whatever she wants,” she says. “I’d just like her to share some of her self with me so I can know and enjoy her as much as I love her.” The mother is hurt that she can’t. And she’s still mother-centric enough to think it must have been something she did or said – but for the life of her, she doesn’t know what it was. A sister has suggested that perhaps the mother’s curiosity comes across as critical. She admits to being curious about her daughter’s choices, but because she cares about her, and because, for her, they’re often the roads not traveled and she’s just preternaturally curious. But she insists she’s not feeling judgmental, that she doesn’t care what her daughter eats, she’s not intent on changing her beliefs, she’s never asked if she’s going to have children. She likes to talk with her daughter about books and ideas and politics and work and writing and hikes, family dynamics, and her new bike or a sermon she heard. She might express concern if her daughter didn’t seem happy or healthy; that would only be natural. But she doesn’t start there. She starts by assuming she is absolutely fine, that she can laugh and learn with her, that they love each other, and that if her daughter needs something from her, she will ask. She doesn’t mean to be at all threatening or overbearing. She doesn’t think she’s asking too much. All she really wants is a connection, the emotional connection of a mother to a daughter that they’ve worked so hard to affirm, even to re-wire, over the years. Her daughter, she says, is too much a part of her life not to be part of her life anymore. It occurs to me there is a strong possibility this dis-connect is completely unintentional. In developing her new married, professional, independent life, the daughter may simply be working so hard to get it right she doesn’t have room for the messiness of relationships in transition. She may think, for example, that she needs to be the perfect hostess to her mother, to showcase her house in all its just-right-ness, and tour her around the town; that just being there wouldn’t be enough. Even if just being there is what her mother craves. Or, the daughter may feel impotent staking her lifestyle claims in the shadow of her parents’ and need them, at least temporarily, out of the equation. She may feel conflicting demands (we women always do) on her identity (identities?) – as daughter, wife, sister, woman, teacher, student, friend – and need space to find new balance. Then again, it has probably never even occurred to her in the intensity of her day-to-day life right now that her personal decisions could pack such an emotional wallop. Are the mother‘s fears about their relationship then baseless? Indeed, completely wrong-headed? Even selfish? What if, instead of holding her mother off, the daughter is letting her in to see and experience a more honest self, someone who could tell her mother (as I never could have told mine), that it really wasn’t a very convenient time for a visit and that, quite simply, directly, realistically, and candidly, she’d prefer another. What if she is so emotionally mature that she believed her mother when she said “If it’s not convenient, . . . ,” and trusted her to understand? What if they’ve truly moved beyond 12 year-old-and-Mommy, beyond everything that they’ve struggled to overcome? Could it be? How would a mother know? Would she have to ask? Uh-huh – Yeah -- she has to ask. And she did. As they sat in her daughter’s living room drinking a glass of wine, Mother asked Daughter (finally – after two months’ time) about the negotiations that preceded their now perfectly-lovely visit. The daughter looked horrified. “I knew I shouldn’t have sent that email,” she said. “It took me hours to push ‘Send,’ and I cried when I did it. I knew you’d be upset. You were upset, weren’t you?” “She was very upset,” her father answered, hastening to add he had told her she shouldn’t be. “I didn’t know what you were telling me.” “I was telling you I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t get the house ready, our books unpacked, my classes started, my work done, I couldn’t do it then, I just couldn’t. I wanted you to come; it just wasn’t a very good time. That’s all I was telling you, that’s all.” One of the mother’s friends had suggested as much. She had said how wonderful she thought it was that her daughter felt comfortable enough to tell her the truth, as she would never have told her mother. She said she envied their relationship, even as the mother fretted about it. She was right. And the mother’s fears and anger? They were so wrong. She was embarrassed. But also relieved. It’s not that she has her daughter back; the daughter never really left. It’s that she has a stronger, better relationship with her daughter now, and she is learning to trust it as much as she savors it. Even her father has noticed; their phone conversations are richer and more real now that they’ve cleared the air. The mother has apologized for doubting her daughter. She thanked her, too, for teaching her new ways to participate in their ever-changing lives. She’s looking forward to their next visit. “But if it’s inconvenient, she can tell me,” she says. “Really.” *How have your relationships with your “adult-children” evolved? What do you see as the greatest challenges? What are your expectations for the relationship? How willing are you to move out of the roles of the childhood home into new ones? What excites you about the lives of your adult children? What worries you? What kinds of activities, events, experiences have enhanced these more mature relationships?*
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