Mother-Daughter Workshops: An Interactive Encounter

PREADOLESCENCE

In preadolescence, girls begin to be more aware of the world they live in and the power of men over women. They see women taking their husbands’ names, women’s subordination to men, and they begin to feel more vulnerable (Debold, Wilson, Melane, 1993). Carol Gilligan describes this stage for girls as “coming up against a wall.” She describes a sense of confusion, a “losing track of myself,” and a “not knowing who to trust.” Girls seem to undergo a crisis of “not knowing,” particularly in math and the sciences, since these areas are deemed to be “unfeminine.” Girls associate their physical development with greater vulnerability and stories of violence and rape accentuate the power differential between men and women. Some exuberant girls are told that they are being sexually provocative, and a shyness can set in (Gilligan, 1990). Girls see this played out in their individual families as well as in the culture. Although the woman’s movement has made progress over the years, women are undoubtedly still treated as the lesser gender resulting in fewer opportunities, less pay, and less power (Levinson, 1996). This holds less true in African American communities where women have a stronger role (Debold, Wilson, Melane, 1993).

ADOLESCENCE

Adolescence is a turbulent time for mothers and daughters. It is a time when daughters experience biological and social changes, and separation issues become more prominent. It is also a time when mothers are entering their mid-life and may be assessing their changing needs, particularly as their own roles are evolving. The greater the intensity and closeness of the mother and daughter, the more difficult the separation will be. The search for new roles for the daughter can be confusing because it is common for the mother to have had fewer opportunities, and the daughter may feel conflicted about surpassing her mother. Separation can lead to feelings of guilt, abandonment, loss, and pain. According to Herman and Lewis: “Young women express the greatest scorn for their mothers, the greatest desire to be different from them, and the greatest fear that they’ll turn out just like their mothers” (Debold, Wilson, Melane, 1993, p. 54). The way in which both the mother and daughter handle separation during adolescence will impact upon the adult relationship. If the mother feels betrayed and clings in response to her daughter’s allegiances toward her friends, the daughter will feel compelled to move away from her mother.

YOUNG ADULTHOOD

An important first task for the young adult woman involves balancing intimacy and friendship with her mother with the fulfillment of her own strivings. A young woman may feel the need to sacrifice her autonomy in order to maintain her connection to her mother, fearing a loss of her mother’s support if she separates. For example, a daughter who was raised by her maternal grandmother and whose mother was raised by her maternal grandmother is now allowing her little girl to be raised be her mother, despite the fact that she questions her mother’s emotional stability.

Another important task for a daughter involves separating from her family of origin and establishing her own identity. In the above example, the great-grandmother, the mother, daughter, and child all live in the same building, which in this case had a negative impact upon the daughter’s  marital relationship. The last, and perhaps the most challenging task, is to recognize the mother as a separate individual with her strengths and limitations. The daughter needs to trust her perceptions, even if they differ from the mother’s.

MID-LIFE

The mother of an adult daughter is at an age when there is an awareness of the finiteness of time, and a realization of her mortality. Mid-life is generally considered a time of reflection and introspection, and can stimulate an interest in personal growth or a resignation with accompanying depression (Neugarten, 1979). Whether the mother is married, widowed, or divorced will also impact considerably upon her desire for intimacy and friendship, as well as her expectations of her daughter. The impact of mother aging adds to the feeling of urgency and motivation to resolve and untangle the relationship. With mothers’ aging also comes a role reversal. Usually there is an expectation by both the mother and the daughter that the daughter will start taking care of the mother. This can bring a new level of tension and guilt into the relationship. A new balance in the relationship must be found. It is important to note that the level of expectation varies with cultural norms. For example, in most Chinese families, the daughter is expected to care for the mother in old age.