Tuesday 17 October 2017

Mommy dearest

Most of us have the odd cross word with our elders, but for some the mother-daughter relationship can be near impossible to negotiate, says Ailin Quinlan

Joan Crawford and her daughter Christina
Joan Crawford and her daughter Christina

Ailin Quinlan

Face it – the mother-daughter bond is one of life's most intense and complex relationships. You mightn't get along with Mum, but you're so neurologically hard-wired to have a strong bond with her that even if the relationship is toxic, you'll often subconsciously seek to heal it.

Yet when it's good, it's very, very good – a solid, empathetic relationship with your mother can be a crucial support through the vicissitudes of life. Research has even found that just hearing a mother's voice can quickly calm frayed nerves, even if it's just over the telephone.

The world is peppered with examples of mothers and daughters who can't get along – Jennifer Aniston's rift with her mother Nancy made world headlines back in 2000.

Aniston broke down as she discussed their toxic relationship and her decision not to invite Nancy to her wedding to Brad Pitt.

At the age of just 15, movie star Drew Barrymore went to court to argue that her mother was a bad influence – and won her emancipation as an adult.

Then there's Shirley MacLaine's prickly relationship with her daughter Sachi Parker – Parker has recently written a memoir about growing up with the legendary actress, recounting her turbulent relationship with both parents.

And let's not forget 'Mommy Dearest', the explosive tell-all by actress Joan Crawford's adopted daughter Christina, which details what she claimed was a highly abusive relationship with her mother. It's a dynamic with which many women struggle – and with which they will continue to struggle, albeit in reverse, with their own grown-up daughters.

Why?

Because it's such an intense connection, says author and child psychologist Patrick Ryan, Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of Limerick.

"The mother still remains the primary care-giver and spends the majority of time with the growing child, so the relationship between mother and daughter is much more intense than the father-daughter relationship," he explains.

Long-term, however, if a mother fails to allow the 'space' necessary for her daughter to develop into an independent adult, the relationship will not mature as it should – cue the rumblings of war, warns Ryan.

However, a daughter's relationship with mum can become volatile from an early age. Puberty, during which girls start to question everything and create their own value system and beliefs, is a big upset to the apple cart.

Throw in the fact that mother and child are the same sex and with similar hormonal mood swings, and conflicts can be sparked out of the blue, says child and adolescent psychologist Dr Kate Byrne. It's just not the same with girls and their dads, she says.

"Dads have very different personalities and influences and play different roles in the family.

"Often, the father and daughter get on better because he may not be as involved in the day-to-day running of the home or the more emotional issues."

But mums must hold the emotional fort, says Eileen Gormley, author and mother of three girls between the ages of 12 and 16.

"There's a love-hate relationship but you try not to admit to the hate! You can't admit to 'hating' your daughter, even if at a particular time she's one of your least favourite people in the world – you have to remind yourself that you do love her."

Gormley believes that mothers often see their daughters as another chance to right things they did wrong or do things they didn't get the opportunity to do themselves.

And they can also be slow to acknowledge that their daughter is becoming her own person, observes Gormley, co-author of 'The Pleasures of Winter'. "You think they'll be like the way you were," she says – but they're not.

Another catalyst for trouble is that, despite their best, politically correct intentions, mothers often feel obliged to treat daughters differently to sons. That's because of their strong inner vision of what they'd like their daughter to be – and their anxiety about successfully instilling appropriate morals, values and life lessons.

And then there are the Big Three: "Every parent I've dealt with has three big fears for their daughter around binge-drinking, drugs and pregnancy. There are big parental fears around drink and rape, for instance," says Byrne.

This is a much bigger issue than it is with sons, she says, and it can lead to serious conflict if a girl is very strong-minded and wilful or rebellious.

Byrne recalls her own rebellious adolescence – she had a troubled relationship with her mother and left home at 17.

"I love her very much but we're very different people – poles apart in outlook and attitude and I find we communicate best via email or text," she says.

"It wasn't until I was in my mid-30s that I reconciled my feelings about my mother."

Yet conflict isn't always a bad thing, says youth marketing consultant Sheena Horgan, a mother of four girls between the ages of seven and 14 and author of 'Candy-Coated Marketing'.

"I reckon most mothers and daughters have a few fractious years. There's an honesty in conflict – it's how you resolve the conflict that's critical," she says.

The clash between maternal and modern societal expectations often leads to trouble, says Ryan, who points out that most mothers will base their expectations on their own experiences.

Rooted as they are in the experiences of a past generation, however, their expectations are completely out of touch with today, where binge-drinking and sexual activity among even young girls are often viewed as the norm.

Yet, despite all this locking of emotional horns, women still seek their mother's approval, even in adulthood, says Ryan.

The intensity of the mother-daughter relationship is so immensely strong, he believes, that "it leaves its mark right through your lifespan to the point that as adults we often still look for acceptance, acknowledgement and affirmation from our mothers".

That continues, he adds, even when a daughter has her own children – and, often, even though she never got on with her mother.

It's almost inevitable, agrees Byrne. "We're neurologically wired to have a secure attachment to our mothers. We emotionally require it and if there's insecurity or ambivalence in the relationship, we'll subconsciously seek to redress it," she explains.

However, this closeness also means that unless they're careful, mothers will pass on their own insecurities to daughters.

"In our earlier years we watch our mother and absorb the role she takes on," says Byrne, who warns that one of the most important things a mother can do is look at herself and work on any personality traits she wouldn't want her daughter to adopt.

Gormley agrees: "If you asked your daughter, she'd say you're the last person she'd model herself on, but you're the biggest female influence so you have to be careful not to pass on your own issues.

"You may say you're fat – then you see your daughter standing in front of the mirror sucking in her tummy and saying, 'Oh I'm so fat'. It gives you a shock."

Disagreements are normal but good communication is crucial, says Byrne. "There's great support for a daughter if she can discuss something with her mother."

That's also important for healthy relationships with your mother-in-law, observes Ryan.

Both sides in this relationship must negotiate the ground rules. "Adult relationships only work when both sides understand what is acceptable and what is off limits," he says.

"Some mothers-in-law believe they have the right to influence the upbringing of their grandchildren, but the mother sees them as outsiders who don't have that right so there's a clash of expectations."

If all of this gives you cause for concern about your future relationship with your adorable toddler daughter, don't despair, reassures Ryan. Toxic mother-daughter relationships are actually in the minority.

"The significant majority of mother-daughter relationships do manage to reach an understanding that is workable for both sides by the late 20s.

"Most adults will have worked out a reasonable relationship with their parents – but for a significant minority where it doesn't work, it creates a lot of trouble and it tends to grab the headlines!"

Irish Independent

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