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Celebrating Our Daughters' Relationships With Others

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Excerpt from The Mother-Daughter Project: How Mothers and Daughters Can Band Together, Beat the Odds and Thrive Through Adolescence by SuEllen Hamkins, MD, and Renée Schultz

A time comes in almost every daughter's life when spending time with friends and intimate partners seems more compelling than time with families. This often leaves mothers feeling bereft. What happened to that little girl who thought hanging out with mom was such a treat? Sometimes we mistakenly interpret this shift as a daughter's need for separation instead of an exciting and positive development in her autonomy. Negotiating and accepting our daughter's new connections can be a difficult process, as it was for Sarah and her daughter Maggie, when Maggie was sixteen.

Right up through the teen years, Sarah and her daughter Maggie almost never fought. Maggie is adventurous and independent but very easy-going and gets along well with just about everyone, including her mother. Sarah and Maggie could talk about anything and enjoyed learning new things together. As Maggie got older and wasn't home as much, Sarah looked for fresh and more mature ways for them to have satisfying time together. She taught Maggie to drive and traveled with her to explore new places, like the fantastic day trip they took to Boston to visit an MIT exhibit on artificial intelligence.

The biggest challenge to their relationship occurred when Maggie had her first serious boyfriend, Simon. Sarah said, "I never had to share Maggie before--I was used to being major in her world." When our daughters have strong relationships with others, as mothers we can feel left out or jealous. However, relationships with coaches, teachers, friends, and others don't take away from the love a girl has for her mother. Each new positive relationship is an opportunity for a daughter to learn more about her self. Sarah mustered up her faith in her ongoing connection to Maggie, despite the change, and, as she put it "realized I had to str-e-e-e-tch to make room for him - without pulling away from her." Sarah's commitment to Maggie allowed her to make room for her daughter to fall in love without having to let go of mom.

Giving space to our daughters while still remaining emotionally close, in contrast to the theory of separation, is a central value of the Mother-Daughter Project. When girls say "I want my space," they don't mean distance. What they are asking is for us to make space in our hearts and in our lives for them to develop in new ways and try new things. They still want us to be there, noticing, supporting, and cheering their development into adults. Hundreds of college women have reported to author SuEllen Hamkins that they deeply appreciated when their mothers allowed them as teenagers to explore new facets of their identity while still staying connected.

In general, our contemporary society does a poor job of creating this kind of positive space for teens. Instead, as Elliot Currie writes in The Road to Whatever: Middle Class Culture and the Crisis in Adolescence (Henry Holt, 2004) youth are banished to a teen world that "combines harshness and heedlessness in equal measure." Mothers can help create a more nurturing place for teenage daughters to grow. By staying close with our daughters and being open to their increasing maturity, we give our girls the space they need without bowing to the widespread presumption of mother-daughter antipathy and disconnection.