Mother's Day 2012: The Changing Dynamic of Mother-Daughter Relationships

I forget what the fight was over -- my clothes, my friends, my brothers -- but I remember slamming the door shut on my mom and screaming disdainfully, “I hate you!” I didn’t mean it and I loathed myself for saying it, but at the time, it was the only phrase from my limited word bank that I knew could cut deep. What’s worse than hate? I was such a jerk.

If you scanned my diary from age 13, you’d find scribbles that say, “Be nice to your daughter’s friends,” or “Make sure the boys do the dishes too.” When I was younger, I’d make a point to record how I intended to be a better parent, a better mother. Not only was I a jerk, but I was a self-righteous one at that, convinced I knew what was best for me and my nonexistent children. Thankfully, now at age 25, my mom and I barely fight, let alone raise our voices.

I wasn't the only hormonal teen clashing with her mother; most girls have similar battles, as New York Magazine writer Paige Williams points out in her recent feature. There seems to be, however, a developing anti-conformist approach to parenting in which mothers and daughters are friendlier at an earlier point. Williams observes Julie and Samantha, aged 19 and 50: a duo that has mastered the art of making nice by replacing typical tensions with openness and trust. They travel, gossip, swap wardrobes, and divulge their secrets. They’re buddies, soul mates, equals, BFFs.

Williams briefly compares the authoritative relationship she has with her own mother to the bizarrely smooth one between these two women: “Watching Julie and Samantha felt a little like seeing a fantasy come to life. My mom hasn’t let me finish a sentence since 1975.” In the aftermath of the women’s movement, the sexual revolution, and the Vietnam War, Williams supposes, a parent can stray from traditional societal norms and choose the tone they’d like to set with their children without fear of judgment.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and New York Times’ columnist Anna Quindlen similarly acknowledges the inherent generational disparity in regards to parenting in her newly released memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. She writes from the perspective of a 60-year-old mother of three: “With all the technological changes of the last half century, it’s the women’s movement that has provided the greatest change in the way we live now. My daughter once asked me if a man could be secretary of state, a job I grew up believing would only be held by men.” As wife, mother, daughter, in-law, and writer, Quindlen -- like many women her age -- finds herself playing caretaker to most people in her life. Doubtful her own mother wore so many hats.

Both Williams and Quindlen make mention of how one generation moves past the other. Williams concludes her story by asking: “What will it mean to Samantha’s generation to be a good mother?” Quindlen explains the disparities are cyclical: “We have all been part of the great unbroken generational chain of younger people who believe they could do much better than those who came before them. And then one day we wake to discover that we are the older women we once discounted, and our perspective shifts. Younger people came along to criticize their elders, and their elders happened to be us.”

Curious about how other 25-year-olds, such as myself, perceive themselves as future parents -- I asked a few young women to explain how they’d differ from their own mothers. These were there answers:

I wouldn’t do a thing differently than my mom has done.  I’d mother my own children with 1) more equality and 2) similar standards. When I say similar standards, I mean that I understand now the purpose of the restrictions I had when I was younger ... When I say equality, I mean that my mom definitely treated me differently because of my gender. I think I’d be more like a mix of my mom and dad. I would like to be quicker to admit my own faults to my own children. When I have my own children, I really am going to try not to editorialize on their personality to strangers. I think a strained marriage between my parents made things harder for her and I’d hope for myself that I’d be in more of a partnership than my parents when I’m a mother. Maybe this is because I’m the youngest, but I feel like (and I am certainly grateful) my parents, my mother, babied me and spoiled me. I think I will end up mothering my children extremely similarly to the way that my mom did, although I think I will have a different relationship with my husband than my mom does with my father, which I’m sure will have an effect on the way I mother my children and the example I set.

Women in my generation recognize what they perceive as their mothers’ weaknesses, but do so while also acknowledging their strengths. Most 25-year-olds I talked to explained their relationships with their mothers are more open than their mothers are with their grandmothers. “We’re more blunt about our feelings for one another,” a friend explains. “My relationship with my mom is a lot easier and kinder than the one she has with her mom,” says another. On the whole, mothers and daughters are more expressive, more liberal with their emotions, and quicker to outwardly support one another. Chances are “I love you” is said more frequently than in years prior.

How you mother your child, I can only imagine, is subject to a number of extenuating factors: your financial means, your marriage, your career, etc. And it’s difficult to generalize -- on behalf of millennials -- how we’ll move past our parents. What is obvious, however, is the increasing degree of communication between parent and child. Whether or not our own children will be better off because of it is yet to be determined.