Mother-Daughter Workshops: An Interactive Encounter

Usually there is great emotionality as mothers and daughter hear from each other what the other considers her strengths. Many mothers mention their daughters’ loyalty, compassion, humor, thoughtfulness, sensitivity, generosity, intelligence, perseverance, and creativity. What is strikingly common is the mothers’ admiration for the daughters’ independence, lack of conformity, ability to hold her own with others (particularly with her husband if married) and her career accomplishments. Daughters tell their mothers that they respect their creativity, enthusiasm, energy, loyalty, intelligence, vitality, and care taking ability. The predominant themes, although not universal among daughters, are mother’s selflessness, availability, concrete and emotional support, her role as peacemaker, and her holding the family together. Daughters frequently ask mothers how they made it through their hardships in life, which inevitably brings mothers to tears.

In relation to the second question – what would you like to understand about the other – mothers want to know more about their daughters’ desires, anxieties, dreams, pain, reasons for lacking self-esteem, and “the real core.” Many mothers feel hurt by their daughters not confiding in them, experiencing this as a lack of trust. In that vein, the questions arise. “Why does she perceive things so differently from me?” “Why does she need ‘space’?” “Why does she take every statement I make as critical or controlling?”

Daughters want to know why their mothers are so controlling, critical, protective of them, and not more open with their own feelings. Some want to know why mother only sees the nice things and never the problems; others want to know why mother only sees the problems and never the nice things. Many express a desire to know more about their mothers’ past, desires, fears, and guilt. Daughters perceive their mothers as not having pursued their dreams: “Why didn’t you become who you could have been?” “Why are you allowing yourself to be bullied?” “Why are you so unassertive despite your strengths?” They have anger and disappointment at mothers who have devoted their years to caretaking while suppressing their own strivings. Daughters feel betrayed or let down by mothers’ sacrifices and submissiveness, since this hampers their own self-esteem and self-assertiveness.

Perhaps the most poignant question involves the things that mothers and daughters want the other to know about them. The mothers’ answers include: “How my life has been unfulfilled because of so much caring for others;” “Who I am and my needs, needs and feeling that I would like you to consider;” “My own struggle with becoming independent and the adversities I’ve lived through;” “That I am more than your mother, a complex human and courageous.” Mothers want their daughters to understand their humanity, their past, their fears (of aging), and their need for love, compassion, and their stage of life (menopause). One mother summarized her request in this way: “To understand that there is really another me, with very different needs and desires that what is obvious – I’m not as strong as I appear.”

One of the most pervasive and powerful themes among the daughters is their urgent need for their mothers to understand their desire for separation. I want my mother to understand: “My need for separateness,” “my need for boundaries,” “my values regarding money and success,” “understand my change, growth, needs, wants.” Daughters also want their mothers to understand “that our purpose in life is not to take care of you or please you.” One daughter writes: “I am happy and like myself even if I don’t meet your expectations.” Another writes: “I am not you, I will not be you, I am not your image of me, you exhaust me.”

Related to the separation theme, daughters want their mothers to know that they feel burdened by their mothers’ guilt when they are feeling unhappy and resent having to comfort them at such a time. Daughters express: “It’s OK for me not to be happy all the time – it’s not a reflection on you!” In addition, daughters want mother to know they are concerned that they will be rejected or unloved if they don’t fulfill their mothers’ expectations of them.

Our dialogue ends with a summary of what mothers and daughters would like to start, stop and continue doing to improve their relationship. Mothers and daughters generate these responses. Mothers would like to start: Communicating better and more deeply, being totally honest, being more nurturing, being less nurturing, feeling less angry and more loving, being more of a mother and less of a friend, being more of a friend and less of a mother, really accepting their daughters. When there are contradictions they tend to evoke laughter and confirm the complexity of the relationship. Daughter would like to start: Being more honest with how things really are, being nicer to their mothers, being who they are when they want to be, being more confident despite mothers’ anxieties, spending more time with mothers when they want to. Mothers would like to stop: Worrying, feeling guilty, directing, walking on eggshells, being ‘wishy-washy’ and feeling so powerless in relation to their daughters. Daughters would like to stop: Being protective of mother, stop feeling anxious that they are not perfect in mother’s eyes, stop feeling guilty that they are not spending enough time, or giving enough. Mothers would like to continue: Being loving, honest, available, understanding, accepting what daughters cannot change even if they don’t approve, learning the 90’s style of discussion, (which to mothers feels like confrontation). Daughters would like to continue: To feel OK about being separate and different, to spend quality time together as person to person instead of mother to daughter, grow together.

The rationale for this exercise is to enable mothers and daughters to become conscious of their negative behavior, take responsibility as a group for common dynamics, and to think creatively as a group, taking charge of what they would like to change. Asking participants to articulate behaviors reinforces positive actions that are appreciated and valued. It also allows them to recognize that there are no totally right or wrong behaviors and that the behavior that brought them to this point in time is by not means all negative.

These dialogues are at the heart of the workshops. Mothers and daughters publicly negotiate emotional realities of the relationship, communicate powerful thoughts, feelings, and ideas that have not been shared before, and agree to some tangible behavioral changes. This intimate negotiation, conducted with the group’s support and involvement, enhances their knowledge of each other as individuals, reinforcing their differences and similarities. This exercise leads to greater self-definition and restructuring of boundaries. Explicitly defining boundaries increases safety within the relationship and paves the way for greater intimacy.

The leaders intervene if the predominant mode of communication is not productive. We offer ideas so that the couple can learn to process conflict and communicate about their relationship. Although we stress that there is not a normative model of the mother-daughter relationship, we make suggestions to improve communication. For example, we suggest that group members take responsibility for individual responses, and not assume that they know what the other is thinking or feeling. We encourage participants to wait for anger to diminish before speaking, and to arrange a mutually convenient time to discuss issues.

We also encourage mothers and daughters in the group to make observations and/or suggestions when witnessing a negotiation between another mother-daughter dyad. Some of the most powerful interventions arise when a mother-daughter pair discuss an issue that resonates with another group member. The following is an example:

Vignette IV

Mother: “Why don’t you tell me anything? You are so closed – all I want to know is, are you happy? Why don’t you want to marry your boyfriend? What did I do so wrong that you never want to marry? I won’t be so intrusive, I just need to know that you are OK.”

Daughter: “That is intrusive, I told you many, many times that I am happy Bill

(boyfriend), and no, I don’t’ know if I’ll ever marry, and neither do my sisters, and yes, maybe that has something to do with your marriage to Daddy, but don’t keep asking me, I’m not going to give you a new answer.” Mother falls silent, she looks to the other mothers as if to say “See? What did I tell you?” seeking their support. Another mother leans forward, her eyes filled with tears, she gently asks, “May I share something with you?” (addressing the mother and the group). She continues, “Now I know why my daughter doesn’t talk to me, and she would not even come today, she says I’m intrusive, that I don’t listen when she tells me something if I don’t want to hear the answer. It’s painful to observe, but I see my daughter in you (addressing the daughter who just spoke), and I recognize myself in you” (to the mother). She continues and says to the daughter, “May I pretend you’re my daughter?” The daughter said yes as her own mother observed intently. She continues, “I love you so much and I care about you, I know I was in an unhappy marriage and that might have something to do with why you don’t want to marry. I want to share my experiences with you if you want to hear them; I want to be closer to you if you’ll allow it. How can I approach you so that you don’t hurt me out?” The daughter starts to cry and responds, “I want you to ask about my relationship, don’t just harp on the topic of marriage, ask questions and listen to the answer. Do you know that this is the first time you ever asked me what I need instead of telling me?”

This exchange highlights the significance of the group in this process.

At the conclusion of the workshop, we ask the participants to evaluate their experience in writing. For the most part, both mothers and daughters find it relevant, are surprised and gratified by the commonality of issues, and appreciate the openness of the participants. One woman wrote, “I was grateful to have been able to participate. It was an experience more gentle and helpful than I had imagined. The participants were supportive and insightful. My favorite aspect was sitting close to my daughter and being able to hear her.”

The co-leadership of the mother-daughter team adds an additional dimension to the group in that women can see in-vivo how we negotiate and sometimes struggle in our effort to maximize the experience. Inevitably, we differ on issues regarding timing, pacing or breaks. We are both aware of how keenly we are observed. Daughters frequently address their remarks to Ilana, and mothers to Leah.

Although the group may not be aware that we have different theoretical orientations, it is clear that we have different personalities and approaches. Ilana generally teaches new communication strategies and modifies current behavior using a cognitive model, while Leah focuses on the internal subjective experience. Participants have commented on our differences and have praised our cooperation and mutual respect.