Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Mother-Daughter Relationship from An Adult Daughter's Persective

Thanks to various voices across the blogosphere, I've been thinking about the relationship of mothers to daughters a good amount this week, but I'm compelled to post something less because of those conversations than because today is my mom's birthday. And you know, mother's day is coming up, too, so the timing seems to be right.

But so yes, my mom is 56 years old today. (For those of you keeping track, yes, that means she was just 20 when she had me, 19 when she got pregnant. No, that pregnancy wasn't planned and yes, my parents had a shot-gun wedding.) Now you might think that because I've got such a young mom that our relationship would be more friend-like than mother-daughter-like. I mean, you've heard the narratives about young mothers and their daughters, which usually are something like, "it was like we grew up together" or "my mom is my best friend because she was so young when she had me."

But you'd be seriously mistaken if you thought that. Yes, now that I'm an adult, I do have a friendship with my mom, but it's unlike any other friendship I've got. I would not call my mom my "best friend." I'd call her my mother. She's one of a kind and in her own category. I've got "best friends" but my my mom is not who I call when I want a "best friend" sort of conversation. My mom is who I call when I need a mother. That's how both of us like it. The fact that she's my mom totally comes before any friendship we have developed. Which means that there are things I don't tell her, or don't tell her in their entirety, and there are things that she doesn't tell me. We don't hang out or go out together in the way that I would with my actual friends. (Which is not to say that we don't spend time together or do things together, but the shape that takes is a mother-daughter shape.) She has Opinions. She makes those Opinions very clear. She is bossy. She is protective. She's sometimes overbearing and nosy, in a way that I wouldn't accept if she were not my mother. I don't say all of this to indicate that we're not close. We're tremendously close. But not in a way in which we "honor the friendship that we have" if you get my drift. Her philosophy of motherhood, if I give myself license to describe it, would not include the word "honor" at all. Instead, it would include words like "raise" or "teach" or "discipline" or "encourage" or "sacrifice," but not "honor."

I suppose one could say that we have a "special bond" or something, but I've always felt a little... I don't know... resistant to the discourses about the "special bond" between mothers and daughters, mainly because my relationship with my mom doesn't actually feel like how that "special bond" is usually described. (At least not to me. You'd have to ask my mom whether those accurately reflect her experience, though I bet if she were here to speak for herself she'd say something along the lines of, "um, all that stuff about mothers and daughters is 'shit-sweet' and isn't real life.") The dominant discourses about mothers and daughters tend to feel very greeting-card and pretend to me, and don't really talk about my relationship with my mother in a way that resonates.

So here's just one example of what it's like with me and my mom. I was awakened by the phone ringing at 8:30 this morning, and it was my mom. The first words out of her mouth were, "I've been waiting for you to call me to tell me happy birthday! Why haven't you called me yet?!?" And then I said, kind of groggily and bitchily, "I'm not even AWAKE yet! You need to hold your horses!" And then we laughed, got off the phone so I could go make coffee, and I called her back. Not exactly a Hallmark moment, but that's what we're like with each other. And no, I didn't even send her a card (because I'm a jerk), but she doesn't hold that sort of jerkiness against me, because she's my mom, and not my friend. (But, to be fair, my friends don't hold that jerkiness against me either. I'm a lot of great things, but thoughtful in the way of sending greeting cards is not one of them.)

But so anyway, what does all of this have to do with the two posts to which I linked? Well, I think the first thing is that I don't think that my mom was ever terribly thoughtful about what it meant for her to be "a mother" in the way of things like, "can I be friends with someone who doesn't like my kid?" This is not to say that she didn't think about what it meant for her to be my mother, or that her identity isn't really powerfully shaped by having become a mother at 20 years old. But I think that she just sort of saw me as part of the package that came with her, and so whether or not people "liked" me they would have to deal with me. I'm not sure it ever occurred to her that it mattered whether people liked me or not (or that it ever occurred to her that it mattered whether I liked or disliked a particular grown-up). As a corollary to that, she (and my dad, when I was little) expected me to suck it up and to behave appropriately in whatever context they dropped me into. It was a two-way street: people had to deal with me, but also I (as a kid) had to deal with people. And I was put into a lot of situations that weren't necessarily "kid-friendly" in the way that I think my friends with kids now would describe "kid-friendly" environments. I was often the only kid present at grown-up parties, my father took me to the bar with him after his softball games, I remember my mom hanging out with people who didn't have kids and I was expected to keep myself busy and not to interrupt them, etc. And if I didn't behave appropriately for the situation, that was on me - not on other people for not making allowances for the fact that I was a kid. (This is not to say that I was expected to be a 'little grown-up' or something at all times - totally not the case - but when I had to be in grown-up environments, I was expected to behave accordingly.)

Now, I think some might say that my parents' expectations for me to deal in these non-kid-friendly environments were somehow unfair to me, but you know, I didn't know that it could or should be different, so I rolled with it. And if I had a melt-down, they took me out of the situation so I could calm down. It really wasn't some big philosophical thing, from what I recall. Now, of course, it was also the 1970s and early 80s, and it was much more normal for parents to just send a kid off to play unsupervised, or to expect a kid to be able to handle more things independently. I mean, I walked to school without adult supervision from about 7 or 8 years old on (though we knew both crossing guards, and it was only a few blocks to my school), and I was a latch-key kid from about 9 or 10 years old on. I babysat from the time I was 12 or 13 (so yes, me alone in a house with a kid or two under the age of 7). If "play dates" had been invented, I don't think that my mom was aware that they existed. Playing was something that you did because you were a kid and the adults wanted you out of their hair. I doubt that these would be typical childhood experiences for most kids today, but I don't think they were negative, at least in my experience.

But anyway, I think one result of this is that my mom's parenting style was such that it was in some ways more authoritarian than what many people I know with kids today might find palatable. She was the grown-up and was in charge, and I was the kid and I had to mind her. This didn't mean that she didn't encourage me to be creative, to have my own ideas, or to have my own feelings. She did. But she encouraged those things in a context in which it was always understood that I was the kid and I didn't get to run the show.

And so this is the thing: the power relationship between me and my mom was always explicit. She had the power. As I matured, I then acquired power, until now we've reached a point where most of the time she realizes that I'm in charge of my own life and that I don't have to do things her way. And the road toward that hasn't always been smooth, but she gave me the tools to challenge her, so that's ok. So now we both have the power, but that certainly wasn't the case when I was little. Basically, and I think that my mom would agree with my description here, her job was to raise me until I had the skills to make decisions and to function independently, and that meant that a lot of times when I was little she didn't think of me as an autonomous person with agency. She thought of me as her responsibility. As I grew up, I became an autonomous person with agency. And now she gets to enjoy the person I've become.

But so this is the interesting thing about Bardiac's post about the mother-daughter bond, which she concludes with the following:

"but mostly there was a romantic sense that of course the mother knew best and should tell the daughter what is what. And suddenly, that sounded lined up with patriarchy in strong ways: women's limited authority comes in having power over children, and lasting power over daughters, and so the patriarchy will support their exercise of that limited authority. And if we romanticize that power relationship, then it can be enjoyed, at least by one, and the other voice can be silenced. And it can't easily be questioned or critiqued."

When I think about my relationship with my mom, I think it's true that she was very much the subject with the power when I was little. But I think what's great about my relationship with my mom is that she never wanted "lasting power over" me as her daughter. She never romanticized our "mother-daughter bond" as this special, irrevocable, everlasting thing - maybe because of her own relationship with her mother, who had five daughters, maybe because I was unplanned and she didn't have much time to construct an ideal of perfect motherhood on which to base her mothering efforts, maybe because she really looked forward to being unburdened of the responsibility of me so that she could get to focus on her own life for really the first time in her adult life, or maybe just because my mom just doesn't tend toward romanticizing much of anything and isn't terribly introspective.

My mom isn't the sort of person who says, "you'd understand if you were a mother." She's said more than once that she doesn't think that the fact that she's a mother makes her any more capable of "understanding" anything than anybody else, because, as she says, she only knows what it was like to be my mother, and also, that she knows a lot of mothers who don't have a clue about much of anything. While she's incredibly proud of my accomplishments, and while she is very proud of the work that she did in raising me, she doesn't take total credit for the person I've become. She doesn't say things like, "Crazy's the best thing I've ever done." She likes that I am independent - not only in my everyday life but also in terms of my relationship with her (even though that independence does sometimes cause conflicts between the two of us). She likes that I don't call her for every little thing, and she likes that I am confident enough to make decisions and choices on my own without her input, or even the input of anybody else. Yes, I'm her daughter, and she loves me as her daughter. I think that's been true since the day I was born. But the way I feel now is that in addition to loving me as her daughter, she also loves me as a unique and separate person from that relationship. I know that's how I feel about her, now. Sure, I love her as my mother first and foremost. But I also love her because she's funny and smart and honest and silly and, yes, even because she can be a bit sharp-tongued and bitchy. I think we both love each other now as "whole people," and I kind of think that's possible both because she explicitly and consciously wielded the power when I was a kid and because she explicitly and consciously relinquished that power (even when I didn't want her to do so, sometimes) once she knew I was able to operate under my own steam.

So happy birthday to my mom. She may not be perfect, she may not be exemplary of ideal motherhood, she may not have mothered the way that any of you would choose to mother your own children. But I think she, as my mother but also as a person separate from her status as my mother, is exceptional.


Dr. S said...

So much about this post sounds like the relationship I have with my mom and the kind of mom she was and is. Here's to exceptional moms.

Bardiac said...

Happy Birthday to your Mom!

What a great description of what sounds like a good adult relationship. :)

life_of_a_fool said...

happy birthday to your mom!

This also sounded a lot like my mom, from the early unplanned pregnancy and shot gun wedding to the way she approached parenting.

Someone once told me that you either raise your kids to leave or your raise them to stay (or something along those lines; maybe to be independent or dependent). Mine definitely raised me to leave, which I think allows me to have an adult relationship with them now.

Susan said...

Happy Birthday to your Mom. I like and respect my mother as a person, as well as loving her as my mother. But I'm totally with you on her not being my friend... Of the members of my family, she's the one I can most imagine as a friend if they weren't family, but still, now she's my mother.

Anastasia said...

I'm pretty sure my mom raised me to leave and then I never came back. Not even to visit.

I won't unload all my negative feelings here but I wanted to add that I do bring my kids into a lot of adult environments. I haven't even gotten around to kid-proofing yet. We do the playdate thing, but that's mostly because there aren't kids on our street unless you count the drugged out twenty somethings in every other house. :) Otherwise, they go where we go. And I take a whole lot of shit for it, from people who have kids and from people who don't.

where I'm going with this because of the division between kid friendly and not kid friendly means that it's harder to take your kids with you into adult oriented situations because other parents don't necessarily want them there people without kids don't want them there (isn't that was chuck e cheese is for??) and nobody has realistic expectations for how kids should act--by which I mean like kids within reasonable limits of acceptability.

My point, in that case, is that it isn't just that parents choose to do the kid friendly thing. After a certain point, it just perpetuates itself because it's expected, which changes expectations for non-kid oriented spaces in ways that even the best behaved kids can't realistically satisfy.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

You're lucky, and I thank you for this description of what an adult daughter-mother relationship can look like. It's nice to see someone articulate how that developed.

PhysioProf said...

Very nice post, DrC. Sadly, my parents are both delusional assholes.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks to all of you who've wished my mommy a happy birthday! (And yes, I still call her "mommy" regularly, even though I'm in my 30s, because I'm a dork. It's especially embarrassing when I accidentally do that in front of other people, but I think that she thinks it's funny.)

You know, here's the thing: I'm not at all saying that this is the one true way that "healthy" mother-daughter relationships work or should work. It's just the way that *mine* has worked, and yeah, I think it's healthy and positive and great, but in saying that I want to be very clear that I understand the specificity of that, and that specificity is both personal (in terms of the people that my mom and I are) and in terms of the historical (in terms of when I was a kid).

In that, I do think that what Anastasia has to say about the division between kid-friendly spaces vs. adult spaces today has merit. I can see where the very act of designating some spaces as "kid-friendly" actually excludes kids from most other spaces, and I don't think that's desirable.

With that being said, I wouldn't necessarily analogize what I described in this post in terms of my parents bringing me into *wildly inappropriate spaces for children* - which, let's face it, from 1976-1984 it was still totally unacceptable to bring a kid to a bar *as I think it should have been and should be*, and during those years, between the ages of 2 and 10, *I was totally a regular at a bar* - to what any of my readers experience as mothers in terms of where they bring their kids. I would also note that my mother totally felt that I was often brought into spaces *where I did not have any business being* and where, if she had the ability to have somebody watch me *she never would have allowed me to be brought.* My mom really doesn't like kids, and she's not a fan of them being out in the world. Seriously.

But even if that weren't the case, dude, neither of my parents went to college and they were 20 when they had me. They did not experience parenthood as people who have PhDs experience it, they did not think about parenthood in the same way (which I also tried to communicate in my post), and they dealt with what I would argue are far more difficult challenges than feeling like people out in the world are criticizing their skills or choices as mothers/fathers. I suppose my point here is this: in this post, I was talking about *my* relationship with *my* mother, and that is specific and descriptive. It's not prescriptive and it's not a commentary on anybody's experience but my own.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

And that's why it's so valuable. I have always thought Tolstoy got it backwards: unhappy families are all alike, but happy ones find a lot of different ways to be happy. I always find something to sympathize with when women have trouble with their mothers, but until your very detailed, specific, individual account of a comfortable daughter-mother relationship, have had trouble imagining how such a thing could work. It's just foreign to me. But I really like hearing about how that one relationship works---to be specific, how you could both laugh when she called you early in the morning on her birthday, and you were still groggy. Because the ensuing events would have gone down very differently in my family, and we would both have felt terrible. Somehow it's just comforting to me to hear about other ways that conversation can go.

Dr. Crazy said...

Dame Eleanor, I'm glad that you got something out of the post. My comment was really generated by the fact that I didn't want people thinking that I was making some sort of generalization.

Anyway, how could we laugh about that? Well, partly it's because my mom and I... How do I put this? Well, we do talk in the mornings on Saturdays and Sundays, as a rule. Before free long distance, it was only on Sundays (and it really sucked because I lived a time zone away so she'd call at like 6 AM). But yes, always early. We have a phone date. And if she doesn't call by like 10, I've been known to call her and to say, "You know, you accuse me of not doing my "duty" if I don't call you! Where were you this morning?!? You are a bad mother!" And we laugh. Similarly, she's been known to call me and to leave hilarious messages if I for some reason miss the phone date. My favorite was when my best friend A. was in town and she left a message that stated the following: "This is your mother and I'm calling to bug the shit out of you. It's your duty to talk to me when I call, and I don't care if A. is in town. She has to talk to me, too." (A. was a fixture in our house over pretty much every break from college, so she knows my parents well.) My mom will also call and leave messages in which she talks to my cats and asks them if they're being mistreated because I'm not available enough. (See what I mean about my mom being kind of annoying and overbearing?) I suppose the point is, we have an agreed-upon back-and-forth in which we both accuse each other of not doing our motherly or daughterly duties, and we both think it's a tremendously funny joke to do that. If either of us really thought the other was being a bad mother/daughter, I doubt this would be funny.