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Should Mothers and Daughters Be Friends?

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Dr. Wendy Walsh: Recently, my 12-year-old brought me her first real problem. I'll spare you the details, because the important point is that I felt honored that she would disclose such private adolescent material to her dear old ma. In my day, I wouldn't have dared breathe a word about my inner emotional world to my admonishing Catholic mother. My relationship with her revolved around household chores and academic success. Personal problems landed in my diary or with my peers.

mom and daughter
But times have changed. Children's inner voices and emotional lives are being respected and even nurtured. Mothers are in some ways becoming friends with their children. And the friendship is often a two-way street, with mothers disclosing more and more to their kids -- especially their daughters -- about their own internal worlds. All of this begs a few questions, like: Where should the boundaries be between mothers and daughters? When is close ... too close? Are kids -- even adult kids -- ever ready to hear about parents' personal problems? 

First of all, when children are young, they really need a parent more than another friend. Parents provide boundaries and protection. Disclosing adult problems to small children can give them anxiety. On the other hand, children are tiny sponges who soak up their parents' emotional moods, so trying to hide your feelings is like trying to hide a steak from a canine. Being emotionally open and disclosing the source of your sadness or anxiety in limited, simple terms is the healthy way to go. Assuring children that your emotional state is not their fault and that you are solely responsible for finding a solution is the way to stay a protective parent even when you are distressed. 

But mothers and older daughters are an interesting combo. Unlike fathers and sons (who are slightly less likely to become emotionally fused), mothers and daughters sometimes thrive on emotional closeness. All very well and good -- if the family system is one wherein personal boundaries are taught and respected. In my opinion, there are two kinds of intimate relationships that are not growth-enhancing: One in which people live like polite roommates and tread gently around any topic that might risk intimacy, and one in which people are so close they can't remember whose problem is whose. As daughters get older, one of these two scenarios often describes their relationships with their mothers. 

The harder task is to practice interdependence, wherein a mother and daughter may lean on each other from time to time, but also know when to step back and let the other solve her own problems. Being close to your mother is a wonderful gift. Being dominated by your mother is another matter. Part of the journey from childhood to adulthood is a process called "individuation," wherein one examines the values of her family and peers, chooses which to retain and which to discard, and then looks toward the world at large for other beliefs in order to eventually shape herself as an individual. This process can't happen if the only choice mothers give their daughters is to conform to family values. 

Bottom line: Can mothers and daughters be friends? Certainly, if they are allowed to disagree and suffer no emotional blackmail as a result.


next: Why Is Academia So Hard on Working Mothers?
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