Mammy and me: How to get along as mother and daughter
As comedian Dawn French reveals that she and her adult daughter fight, Anna Maxted asks: which mother-and-child tribe do you belong to?
Published 28/10/2015 | 02:30
Surely no one is as frank as my mother, whose comments on my poor housekeeping ("Don't tidy up for me, Anna, I'm used to it - some people live how they live!") do exasperate. Or as critical ("The boys need a haircut - their hair is a disgrace!"). Yet no one bakes as willingly or as beautifully. No one is as sweetly appreciative of me and my children. In short, no one loves me in quite the way she does.
As Dawn French made clear in a newspaper article last week, the mother-daughter relationship is a complex one. She spoke for many mothers when she admitted she adores her daughter Billie but their relationship can be fraught: they have rowed frequently and if they still lived under the same roof, there would be blood.
It may sound familiar. Or perhaps you and your daughter/mother are all but inseparable? The maternal-filial bond comes in many colours, after all. So which mother-daughter tribe do you belong to?
The best friends
This relationship can be unnerving to others, especially when mother and daughter swap clothes, prompting the dubious compliment: "You look like sisters!" This mother remains gleefully involved in aspects of her daughter's life from which most of us kindly shield our parents.
They go clubbing and shopping together, and every gruesome relationship detail is candidly discussed (even, on occasion, witnessed). They gossip daily and live suffocatingly close.
Wendy Bristow, a London-based psychotherapist, says: "It's not particularly healthy to try to be your daughter's best friend, or to treat your mother as your soulmate. It suggests you haven't accomplished the psychological task of separation, which is a crucial part of growing up. There's nothing unhealthy about loving your mum a lot and wanting her around, but you can't be forever in a child relationship with your parent."
The two notable separation stages during childhood occur in toddlerhood and adolescence, and if this isn't achieved, she warns, "mother and daughter can be stuck in a perpetual adolescence together".
If it sounds like a recipe for grief, it can be. One "best friend" daughter, Joanne, 38, a PA, invited her divorced mother on her hen night, where she (the mother) drank, danced, and smooched the night away. Their friendship subsequently suffered.
"Our relationship was always tricky," says Joanne. "She wanted to be one of the girls, but when I let her, she'd inevitably take over. It was like she was the child and I was the parent. Now we no longer talk."
In this type of relationship, Bristow adds: "It could be that the mother is in denial about her age, which is not healthy. You need your mother in a supportive, parental role. She needs to live her own life, in her own generation.
"You need space in your life for your own partner, and bestfriend mothers can become jealous of husbands or be too involved. To have a fulfilling relationship with your partner, your mother needs to take a supportive back seat in your life."
The Sunday-night caller
This daughter tends to call her mother weekly, and probably lives in a different town from her. These women have a good relationship, but the daughter values her independence and is selective about the aspects of her life she shares with her mother.
To move away from your parents and live your own life is normal, says Bristow. "If you keep in touch once a week, for many daughters that works perfectly well. It can be a sign that the relationship is strong and can tolerate distance. The question is, is there distance in more ways than one? If you were upset or thrilled by something, would you still only ring once a week?"
Emma, 43, an engineer, recognises herself as a Sunday-night caller. "We do deeply love each other, but it has been a distant, difficult relationship. I used to ring and say 'How are you?' She'd chat for 40 minutes about herself, then ask how I was. I'd say 'I've hurt my knee' and she'd reply, 'Oh yes, my knees hurt!' And we'd have another 20 minutes talking about her.
"Now I say, 'OK, the conversation has swung back to you again!' Now I can be honest with her, our relationship has improved. And I know she's very proud of me."
Can't live with her, can't live without her
This is the Dawn French/Billie version of the mother-daughter bond. "Our relationship exists in a bizarre kind of process of peacetime, small battles, war," said French.
"The peacetime is much more than the other two energies, but we have our wars. The love, thank God, is profound and I do thank God, because I love that kid so much that sometimes if I don't like her or she doesn't like me, we survive it."
Mother and daughter live just 12 minutes away from each other in Cornwall. "We could no longer live together - there would be murder," said French. "But we have to live nearby."
Pairs like these would be lost without each other, even if they sometimes drive each other to distraction. To Bristow, this is a poignant, honest example of a healthy parent-child relationship.
French said: "I haven't got a kid who wants to read with me and have adventures with me, I've got a different kind of kid."
As Bristow says: "Her vision of motherhood was that she'd have a daughter she could read with, and it turned out the daughter she got didn't want to read with her. That is called parenthood! You might have kids who share what you love and you might not, and in a healthy relationship you accommodate the differences."
Blow-up arguments are far better than pretending disagreement doesn't exist. "It's natural to drive each other round the bend," she says. What matters is that you can argue, make up and still love each other.
Mum as staff
This is a mutually beneficial relationship where mum does most of the childcare while daughter works and/or has a night out. The mother is pleased to be involved and enjoys time with her grandchildren. The daughter enjoys the free babysitting. However, these mothers can occasionally feel unappreciated by daughters who are prone to occasionally take advantage.
"In previous societies and generations, this is what would have been called a family," says Bristow. "It happens less often now, but at the healthy end of the scale, if the daughter is working, having her mother looking after her children is a lovely way of organising childcare and it can work fantastically well."
Naomi, 65, has looked after her seven-year-old grandson - whom she adores - while her daughter works, since he was born. But she says: "I'm getting too old for this. I'm exhausted. It's got to the point where I'm nervous to tell her if I've booked to go away. I do feel she takes me for granted."
Another potential flashpoint in this type of relationship is if the mother starts to take over and the daughter, feeling guilty, worries she can't impose her own parenting values.
But, says Bristow: "A healthy mother-daughter relationship can tolerate having a conversation about this, and it can be sorted out."