Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Mothers and daughters

Upon my college roommate Marianne's recommendation, I read psychotherapist Nancy Friday's My Mother My Self. Originally published in 1977, this was the first work to explore the mother-daughter interaction. It addresses how mothers serve as a role model for daughters' self-esteem, attitudes words men, and attitudes towards sexuality.

While I found this book somewhat dated (for instance, in its casting of the mother as the homemaker with frustrated ambitions) and somewhat unscientific in some its wishful "just-so" descriptions (Friday makes a weak connection between repressed anger and cancer), it helped me to examine and to better understand 1) my relationship with my mother and 2) how I derived some of my views on life.

In particular, Friday makes the following thought-provoking points:
  • Mothers often start out (and often continue) to see daughters as narcissistic extensions of themselves. Friday says this explains the degree to which mothers fuss over their daughters' appearance, reputation, etc. and why mothers are often so critical of thier daughters.
  • Society* tells women they are not complete without a man, without their children, etc. As a result, mothers often cling to their husbands and to their children, especially to their daughters. As a result, daughters are not "let go" in the same way that sons are. For this reason, many women have symbiotic relationships with their mothers. (Friday points out that it is not necessarily bad to have these symbiotic relationships, but it is important to recognize them for what they are.)
  • Often as a result of not being "let go" by their mothers, many women go from having a symbiotic relationship with their mother to having a symbiotic relationship with their husbands. Friday points out that it is good for women to live on their own and have independent lives after separating from their mothers; this helps them realize that they can be on their own and not die.
  • It is not usually acceptible to acknowledge the competition (general and sexual) that almost always exists between mothers and their adolescent daughters. This competition often causes many problems between mother and daughter; it helps to understand the competition as the root of the problem.
  • Women often (consciously or subconsciously) adopt their mothers as a model for how they behave domestically. Many women will have fabulous and independent single lives in their 20's and then become quite similar to their (homemaking*) mothers after they marry. Friday's explanation for this is that these women can invent their own models of how to live while they are single, but they default to patterns they learned from their mothers once those apply. Recognizing this is step towards breaking out of the patterns.
  • Our attitudes about our bodies and towards sexuality have to do with our mothers' attitudes and things she taught us when we were very young. It is helpful and h to reflect on our mother's attitudes.
My Mother My Self was helpful to me because it provided another world-view in which to frame issues I often think about regarding mother-daughter relationships, gender roles, etc. I would recommend reading this book with a healthy level of skepticism. (I have found the phenomena that Friday describes to be true; I am more suspicious of the reasons she provides for their occurence.) If nothing else, it is interesting.

* This is one of the places where (I hope) the book does not age well.

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