Mother-Daughter Workshops: An Interactive Encounter

FAMILY SYSTEM

Ilana presents the concept of the family as a system as a critical dimension for understanding the mother-daughter relationship in the context of other family members, particularly the father. For many reasons, fathers and daughters do not communicate as easily, thus leaving the burden of working through family problems or healing the relationship on the mother-daughter pair.

The role of the father is critical to mothers and daughters. In a healthy relationship, fathers often intervene and become a stabilizing force between the mother and the daughter. When the parental bond is weakened, complications arise. A father may turn to his adult daughter for female attention and companionship. In the case of a divorce or an absent father, the daughter may become mother’s confidante, and ally against the father, or she may idealize him, especially if she is financially dependent on him. Frequently when daughters struggle with their own intimate relationships, they tend to blame their mothers for not being better role models. If the father was abusive or alcoholic, daughters blame the mother for remaining in the marriage.

All of the relationships in the family impact upon the mother-daughter relationship, and mothers cannot be blamed for the ills of the family. In the physical world, we think of causality in linear terms, A causes B which causes C. This billiard ball model in which a force moves in one direction affecting the objects in its path is inappropriate for understanding relationships in a family. Rather, a system, which is defined as a set of interacting units with relationships among them, better illustrates family dynamics (Miller, 1978). “The components interact so that each influences and in turn is influenced by the other component parts, together producing a whole—a system that is larger than the sum of its interdependent parts” (Goldenberg Goldenberg, 1985).

Our goal for the group is to help members understand the complexity of the relationship, as each member interacts and impacts on the others. It is our hope that this education will help mothers and daughters realize that their issues are greater than the sum of those of the two individuals. Finally, the introduction of the family systems theory to the workshop allows women to examine the roles they have played in their family, in order to maintain the family homeostasis.

GETTING TO THE HEART OF THINGS

In the second phase of the workshop, we remain in a circle, mothers and daughter sitting together. We use a fantasy exercise to assist mothers and daughter to explore their relationship. We ask three questions adapted from Bergman and Surrey’s 1989 oral presentation: 1) If your relationship were an animal, what animal would it be? 2) If your relationship were a color, what color would it be? 3) If your relationship were a texture, what texture would it be? Mothers and daughters use interesting metaphors to describe the emotional and physical relationship between them. In regard to an animal, mothers answered that their relationships resembled:

  • a lion, “tender and rough”
  • a leopard, “protective, sleek, and indecipherable”
  • a cat, “warm and affectionate, but elusive”
  • a chameleon, “changing and camouflaged, can only be how she wants me to be”
  • like lovebirds “coming at each other head on”

Daughters described their relationships as:

  • a big cat, “at times playful, sensuous, relaxed, at other times independent, vicious, hurtful – sudden to wake from sleep and spring into action, loyal, protective, intense, but at times seemingly disinterested”
  • a snake, “hiding, deceiving, and lying”
  • a wild cat, “no space”
  • a giraffe, “strong, distant, placid”
  • a woodpecker, “listening to the same theme”
  • an elephant, “slow, smooth, warm, and plodding, mates for life, capable of squashing”
  • aardvark, “too noisy”
  • hermit crab, “withdrawn, comes back and bites”

Mothers’ animals tend to be more gentle, citing the aloofness and difficulty of holding on to their daughters, while daughters see mothers as hidden, stifling and powerful, as well as protective and loving.

To our surprise, mothers and daughter chose similar colors to describe their loving and hostile relationships:

  • yellow, “bright, warm, and sunny”
  • blue, “calm, not affectionate, cool, serene, intense, and clean”
  • red, “repressed, angry, vibrant, on edge, glowing, and like a stop sign”
  • purple, “intense, rich, different shades, bruises, gradations, deceptive to others”
  • gray, “guilt, sadness, resignation, depression, and self neglect”

Both mothers and daughters seemed to use these textures to convey the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship:

  • tweed, “built up texture, unpredictable”
  • burnished wood, “bumps, knots, growth”
  • fine sandpaper, “hurt each other with possibility of making things smoother, conservative abrasion”
  • waffle or seersucker, “covers but with breathing room”
  • wool, “itches but feels warm and I need layers between it and me”
  • corduroy, “smooth when you stroke in one direction and coarse the other way, with deep grooves
  • polyester, “foreign, strange, not natural and not something you would buy”
  • silk, “smooth but no depth”
  • an ocean, “lots of big waves, can be calm”

In one particular difficult relationship, the daughter said the texture was “like a bed of nails, it hurts especially because it is the only bed I have.” Mothers and daughters tend to generate similar colors and textures, except for unusually difficult relationships when perceptions differ radically. This playful exercise helps participants to become acquainted with each other, to recognize that there are commonalities in relationships, and eases the tension with both laughter and tears. The group experience involving the visual images is useful in that it stirs the imagination and helps mothers and daughters to become aware of their unconscious fantasies and emotions – both positive and negative. As a result, not only do the mothers and their daughters connect in a more meaningful way, but the entire group shares in this intimate playfulness which results in group cohesion and increased intimacy.

The following exercise is also adapted from Bergman and Surrey (1992). Mothers and daughters separate into two smaller groups, mothers meet with Leah, and daughters meet with Ilana, and each group is asked to answer three questions.

  • What do you see as your mother/daughter’s main three strengths?
  • What do you want to understand most about your mother/daughter?
  • What do you want your mother/daughter to understand most about you?

“The rationale for this is to give each group the opportunity to give voice to it’s particular experience, and stimulate respect, curiosity, interest, and empathy for the other group” (Bergman & Surrey, 1992, p. 3). The group discussions focus on the themes that arise from these questions, and commonalities are found. Often group members relate to the words of others, and are quick to identify with one another. The small separate group format enables mothers and daughters to speak freely while not in each others’ presence. They are able to share perceptions of the dynamics and offer suggestions and ideas for improvement. We also ask: “What behavior would you like to start, to stop, and to continue in relation to your mother/daughter?” This is done as a group process and one member of the group records the responses and presents these after the groups reunite. By this time the mothers and daughters feel a strong connection to each other and are able to offer each other the support and encouragement that will help them with the next phase when they face each other in dialogue.

Consistent with the model of Bergman and Surrey (1992), we ask mothers and daughters to sit on opposite sides of the room facing each other. Women who come alone can “adopt” a mother or daughter and role-play their struggles. At this juncture, there is great excitement, anticipation and anxiety. Women feel empowered by the small groups to face the issues.

Perhaps the most meaningful aspect of this workshop occurs when a mother and her daughter are willing to pose these questions in front of the group. Women listen intently to the presenting mother and daughter pair. Each group is familiar with the issues since they were discussed in the separate mother and daughter groups, and the speakers are aware of the support they will be receiving. These dialogues are emotional and intense, sometimes hostile and painful. They can also be cathartic and shed new light upon the conflicts of mother-daughter dyads that had been in the darkness for years. Frequently, the volunteering pair cries, and the issues resonate for other mothers and daughters who become tearful as well. Tissues are passed around in a show of empathy and support. Here is a composite of some vignettes: