An Intro to the Mother-Daughter Relationship

After a couple of posts about fathers and daughters, I thought it might be time to talk about mothers and daughters. 

In this particular article, as I talk about mother-daughter relationships, I write addressing the group of women whose painful childhood relationships and experiences with their mothers have gone on to warp their adulthood in ways they may not recognise.

These daughters, and I am one of them, are often unaware that it’s possible to not only resolve an unhappy mother-daughter connection, but also go as far as to understand and, God-forbid, empathise with them.

Some of you may be asking how. 

To achieve this ‘resolution’, we daughters must have the courage to examine our mother-daughter relationship with a desire to make sense of it and to heal the wounds, rather than react to it, either through toxic guilt, resentment or rage. We need not see our mothers as falling short of maternal perfection, but as human beings and by-products of their times and own family-life experiences.

Facing a painful path with our parents, and in particular our mothers, is a task we all seem to want to avoid for as long as possible. It’s too scary and too uncomfortable, there are too many reasons why we are not naturally inclined to free ourselves from the confines of an unhappy mother-daughter relationship. 

“The problem is that the pain we were made to feel when we were children, lives in our unconscious and subconscious mind: we cannot run from it” (Stella’s Mum Gets Her Groove Back, p. 26). 

What we don’t realise is that when a difficult mother-daughter relationship is unresolved, it has the potential of jeopardising and even wrecking other relationships in our lives with friends, lovers, spouses, colleagues, children and grandchildren. Even more so, the lack of resolution almost certainly keeps us distant from our mothers and can distort our perceptions - we may find it hard to trust, or we might trust far too easily. When we delay resolving the tension that sits at the core of a difficult mother-daughter relationship, our intuition in most areas of our lives becomes muffled and unclear.

When growing up, we may find it hard to understand our own mothers for what they did or didn’t do to and for us when we were little, judging them and the circumstances as illogical and unforgivable. When I chose the road less travelled and explore the past with the intent of resolving it rather than swimming in it and getting stuck there, I recognised things that helped me to move forward in my life. I was able to eventually restore my relationships, firstly with myself, then my mum and other men and women, and wonderfully, with my own daughter.

  image by Kelly Sikkema

image by Kelly Sikkema

I still remember when I wrote these words…

“I realise with sadness, how many times my mum must have found herself in a similar situation to mine. Her mind full of smoke and her entire being filled with toxic guild and shame. How many times did my mum find herself unable to understand why she behaved so inhumanly and out of control? On how many occasions did she feel that she couldn’t ask for help, presuming she would be judged and labeled by others who would not understand her?”
(Stella’s Mum Gets Her Groove Back, p. 41). 

My mum’s drama was my own drama. Her mum’s drama was her drama and mine. And if I had not looked back and recognised this cycle and taken responsibility, the chain of abuse and neglect would have continued on.

As a little girl, I vividly remember not understanding what was happening to my mum and why she used to behave the way that she did. When I grew up, things got worse because I couldn’t find ways to have a decent relationship with her, which is what I wanted above all else. This went on until I decided to face that which remained unresolved and was damaging my life and relationships, particularly with men.

Some of the consequences of choosing not to face what really happened between ourselves and our mums may look like: 

  • We may unfairly or impulsively hurt or reject people who remind us of our mums
  • We may try to build the loving relationship we never had with our own children by trying to be their friends instead of being a source of parental firmness and nurturing
  • We may attract friends who demonstrate many of our mum’s destructive behaviours
  • We may be unable to draw the line and set limits with our mothers, subjecting ourselves and our families to inappropriate behaviour and lacking boundaries
  • We may find it hard to build a healthy intimate relationship and/or keep attracting dysfunctional partners

The biggest challenge for us daughters (which we tend to forget we are once we become mothers ourselves), is to separate from our mothers in a way that helps us gain a healthy perspective about our mothers, ourselves, our relationships and our choices. Yes, separation. I fully separated from my own mother only recently, when I fully understood her journey and finally accepted it. It is about finally cutting the emotional umbilical cord.

Separation doesn’t mean firing one’s mother from the family or excluding her from your life (although in extreme cases it may mean not seeing her for some time or taking a long-term break). Separation means not having our self-esteem depend on our mother’s approval and instead learning how to approve of, and understand, oneself.

I always invite clients and friends to achieve that separation (a goal that might be set in our coaching session for example) so that they can find a way to be friends with their mothers or at the very least, recognise and accept that their mothers did the best they could, even if it wasn’t ‘good enough’, and stop blaming them. 

Bob Hoffman’s book, No One is to Blame, supports this very idea that parents are responsible but not to be blamed. Why? We feel so passionately about the pain we were put through we forget that they are as human and fallible as any other person and even as ourselves.

How can we start the process of reconciliation? How can we reshape our relationship with our mothers?

  image by  Meghan Holmes

image by Meghan Holmes

  • By understanding how a daughter’s attachment, or non-attachment, to her mother influences and colours all her other relationships
  • By analysing why it’s more challenging for daughters to emotionally separate from their mothers than for sons, as well as why daughters are more subject to a mother’s manipulation
  • By recognising the difference between a healthy and a destructive mother-daughter relationship
  • By acknowledging our childhood experiences, pain and losses and comprehending why they happened rather than continuing to minimise and deny the reality
  • By spending time to consider the ‘bad mummy taboo’, that is to say why our culture is more interested in protecting the sanctity of maternity than it is in protecting emotionally abused daughters / children
  • By recognising the huge part a mum plays in keeping her grown up daughter dependent and off-balance
  • By recognising and denouncing that we daughters receive a similar pay-off in being emotionally enslaved by or hating our mothers, playing the co-dependency game on our side as daughters
  • By starting to redefine the mother-daughter relationship, so that each can learn to see and accept the other as she is today, appreciating each other’s good qualities and not being triggered by the negative sides
  • Finally, by demonstrating that a redefined relationship with our mother, adult-to-adult, ultimately frees us from the past, whether that re-definition results in friendship, an affectionate truce or finalising divorce.

Unfortunately some schools of thought suggest it’s better for us to forget the past and it’s healthier to be quick to forgive and ‘move on’. But after almost 20 years in my profession and my own journey that brought me to where I am today, fully aware and responsible, I would dare to say that we might be doing ourselves a deep disservice by forgetting and forgiving too quickly. Dr. Scott Peck calls it ‘cheap forgiveness’, when we forgive and forget in order to survive our childhood and teenage challenges and traumas that we go through whilst still being totally dependent on our parents. But to recover from traumatic and heavy childhood and teenage experiences at home, it is essential to begin remembering and that of course means remembering both the good, and the bad.

Steps to Remembering, Forgiving and Resolution

  1. Recollection: for this I recommend a skilled and empathetic therapist able to make such ‘recollections’ safe and fruitful. 

  2. Allowing the feeling of loss to surface rather than being unconscious, or sometimes even consciously, re-routed in other relationships
  3. Relinquishing our childish expectations, which normally persist into adulthood in our compulsive need to win our mother’s approval or alternatively to hate her

The first step, which asks us to recollect the facts and recognise and understand what really happened is essential. It means getting out of denial, minimising and/or other mechanisms such as comparing and idealising, which Carl Jung affirms were protective tools during our childhood but personal prisons as adults. 

The second step is also fundamental, and of course the most feared. It’s when we recognise that we are not responsible for our childhood deprivations and that we are fully entitled to feel anger, without necessarily acting upon it (being aware doesn’t give us the license to kill, it gives us the power to know better). Only then are we in a position to let go of toxic anger, and no longer be controlled by it. 

The third step is also final and indispensable, it’s about developing compassion for ourselves and our mums and making changes within ourselves so that a healthy relationship with one’s mother can be established on some level.

In short, dealing with our Mother-Daughter relationship, as well as our Father-Daughter relationship, be it from the position of a mother or a daughter, is an act of true responsibility for us women. It’s about no longer pointing the finger at our mothers or our daughters and starting to take our lives into our own hands. Awareness and change are therefore key.

Awareness can be achieved through education. However, unfortunately we are not as widely educated on these topics as we need to be to make a seismic change. There are many examples of how this lack of education has gone onto damage lives. Some of the women who I mentioned in my previous blog, An Intro to the Father-Daughter Relationship, such as Whitney Houston and Maria Callas, had their lives crumble not only because of an unhealthy father figure but also by a damaging and over-controlling relationship with their mothers that remained unresolved until their untimely death. You can see dynamic plainly played out once again in the fate that Whitney’s own daughter faced.

If we can’t receive education from the outside regarding these incredibly pertinent and powerful dynamics, then we need to educate ourselves. And like I’ve said in many articles before, I promise you that it’s worth it.


The following blog posts go into more detail on some of the topics and themes touched on above:
The Purpose of Addictive Relationships
Why Am I Addicted to Toxic Relationships?
Parenting Skills I: Becoming a 'Different' Parent


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