Currently, mothers and daughters are suffering from an epidemic of relationship conflict. Mothers and daughters of all ages are struggling to listen to each other, respect each other's differences, honor each other's boundaries, and emotionally support each other. I hear on a daily basis how hurt and frustrated mothers and adult daughters feel about the lack of emotional connection between them, and how their relationship is being defined by incessant arguing, unwarranted criticism, and a general lack of mutual support.
Why is this happening? What is causing so much misunderstanding and conflict in this vitally important female relationship?
The answers I hear all-too often to these questions is that mothers and daughters fight because their relationship is highly complicated, or their personalities are too different or too similar, or it is hormones that are making mothers and daughters angry with each other. Yes, I still hear the age-old sexism of hormones being used to blame women for being angry. And from colleagues I hear how mental health diagnoses are used to explain why mothers and daughters fight.
It is true that differing personality traits and mental health issues will influence how well a mother and daughter relate to each other. They are however, not the root cause of why mothers and daughters fight. And they also do not explain why mother-daughter relationship conflict is such an epidemic today. What I have learned over the last twenty-plus years I have listened to thousands of mothers and daughters talk about their relationship issues is that there are two main explanations for today's epidemic. The first is the changes in women's lives and roles over the last few generations that have increased women's opportunities, choices, and freedom. And the second is women's generational experience with sexism.
Women's lives have changed dramatically over the last two or three generations. When my grandmother was a teenager in Holland, women got the right to vote. When she married, my grandmother had to leave her job because the law dictated that married women could not work in government jobs. My mother did not get the educational opportunities I did, and she also became a mother during a time in New Zealand when mothers were criticized and shamed for taking paid employment.
My life looks entirely different to my mother's, which is where the rub lies. For some mothers and daughters, change is embraced as a challenge. They incorporate the increased opportunities, choices and freedoms women are winning into their lives and relationship as they grow and change together. But for other mothers and daughters change feels like a problem. In the past daughters would step into their mother's shoes and walk a repeat of their mother's life. Similarity was the mainstay of the mother-daughter relationship. But today, mothers and daughters have to navigate their different lives, opportunities, and views about being female, and for some mothers and daughters this causes conflict, as they fight over who is right and who is wrong.
This dynamic is complicated by women's generational experience with sexism. One of the key issues I see over and over again is how our female history is defined by how women have been silenced. In our mother's and grandmother's day women were not asked what they needed, felt, thought or wanted. This conversation was entirely silent. I see in my clients' mother-daughter history maps how our mothers were not heard or emotionally supported, and how this theme causes conflict and misunderstanding, and how it is passed down from mother to daughter.
What I see happening between mothers and daughters when women's needs and feelings are not heard or honored by their family and culture, is that mothers and daughters are being set up to fight.
"When women are not heard, mothers and daughters fight over who gets to be heard. When women's emotional needs are silent, mothers and daughters fight over whose needs get to be met. And when women's lives are restricted by sexist gender roles that limit their choices and freedom, mothers and daughters fight over their lack of freedom."
Finding the reasons for mother-daughter relationship conflict requires a much deeper exploration than women's personality traits, mental or emotional health issues, and hormonal problems. It requires an understanding that it is between mothers and daughters that we see the harm sexism and gender inequality inflicts on women. We see how sexism is internalized and passed on from mother to daughter, and how this disempowerment causes conflict. We see that mother-daughter relationship conflict is a symptom of families and societies that do not care-for and support women to be fully voiced and free. And we see how powerful the mother-daughter relationship is to challenge and change sexist beliefs and harmful cultural practices.