Why We Need to Stop Romanticizing the Mother-Daughter Relationship

Happy elderly lady knitting
Happy elderly lady knitting

Mother's Day is coming up, which means that most people I know will post smiling Polaroid photographs and doting statuses about their mothers, while others will leave bittersweet messages of grief for the women they've lost. I can't imagine that sort of unending grief, but I have been mourning in my own way. I confess; these statuses leave me feeling annoyed, and when the annoyance settles, I realize it wasn't annoyance at all, but a persistent and vulnerable envy.

The truth is this: I always feel the need to post my own photographs, to assimilate, to show that I, too, am "normal." I want to prove that I know that warm and easy joy of being a daughter. But it hasn't been warm or easy -- and, perhaps if it were it wouldn't mean so much to me.

My mother is a wonderful human being and I'm blessed to still have her in my life, but our relationship is mostly backwards. I often play the role of mother and more often than not, she is young and fragile. I see her trying to work it out, but she always learns the hard way, and it's hard to watch. So, I wonder, what do I do?

I will not lie: This is a point of contention. Over the years, she's repeatedly made the same mistakes, not because she is bad, but because she is human. Her mother wasn't perfect, either. In fact, both sides of my family have deep roots in alcoholism and drug abuse, and so there were no "real" role models -- not for me, and less so for previous generations of women in my family.

My father wasn't in the picture for most of my life, so my mother worked long hours to make ends meet. She made sure we were cared for, in her own way. We didn't have an air conditioner. We didn't have a car. We couldn't afford school photos. For a few years, we didn't even live with my her. She dated childish, abusive men. I watched this happen, over and over and over. I tried to give "pep-talks." The resentment grew in me, until one day I realized my idea of motherhood was entirely based in what she wasn't instead of what she was.

I am ashamed to admit a lot of this, which is probably why I've written this piece. We are taught to never talk ill of our elders. The other day, I was told to never write about the living; you might break their hearts. We are taught to view our mothers as free of sin, clean-hearted and pure. A mother's love is this and that. All of that. But parenting isn't about being "good" or "bad." Mothers aren't "pure" or "un-pure." Motherhood and daughterhood is not that black and white; it's nuanced and strange and at times, the roles are fluid.

It is odd and difficult to view your parents as human. It's almost as though you need their identity to be fully defined by parenthood, but it doesn't work that way for everyone. Dr. Peggy Drexler, psychologist and gender scholar says, "There's a hierarchy that exists -- or should -- between moms and daughters that doesn't exist between friends. You're not equals and you're not supposed to be." While I agree that this hierarchy should ideally be in place (or at least we are taught so), there are times when it just isn't.

There may come a day when you see your mother crying, failing, lost or alone. There may come a day when you see her allow a man to treat her poorly. There may come a day when she makes the worst decision possible -- and even though she may be a hypocrite, weak or naive, you must allow her to move through the life she leads. You must forgive your parents for their humanity.

A child will typically be fiercely defensive of his or her mother, as a mother is for her child, but it is rare to see a child give up on their mother, simply out of emotional exhaustion or the realization of helplessness. We are not taught to behave this way.

I say all of this not out of self-pity or sadness, but out of the recognition that though these issues are painful and real, we ought not, as women, romanticize our mothers. We owe them a much deeper understanding.

As a child and adolescent, many of us were fed two polarizing images of motherhood; first, shows like Gilmore Girls, which present the mother/daughter relationship as some friendly, bubbly thing -- and second, Disney's depiction of the mother as absent, punishable or abusive. In Charting A New Course for Feminist Psychology, author Lynn H. Collins says, "Attachment theory participates in the romanticization and concealment of oppression by glorifying the mother/child relationship as primary, determined, determining, and ideal." Collins writes that if our mothers fail to meet the needs society has set up, she is instantly pathologized. I think we should, in some ways, detach.

I gave up on most expectations a long time ago. It may sound like a defense mechanism, but expectations do more harm than good. There really weren't any cookie-cutter slumber parties or graduation trips. I was never grounded. My mother was -- and is -- stunted in her own ways, and I have to be selfless enough not to begrudge that or feel abandoned by her. Do I wish I grew up with more discipline? More "conventional" attention? Yes, but I have to stop comparing myself to others and judging my own worth by the life I did not have. If this is your story, you do too.

There were many years during college that I could have used an extra $100.00 dollars. Friends would say, "Can't your mom help?" Nope, she can't, I'd tell them. That story got old, fast. This quiet societal judgement enforces some rigid idea that is, well, fairly destructive. If and when I become a mother, I'd like to be afforded some room for imperfection as well.

It works both ways, though. My friend Tania says conversations with her mother have been reduced to, "When are you gonna get married?" and "When are you gonna make me a grandmother?" Marriage and babies are joyous, sure, but if we can't stop living vicariously through our (autonomous) children, the pressure often ends up feeling like just that: pressure. Everything organic just disappears.

Sometimes when I sit with my mother on her porch in the afternoon and I look at her tired eyes, I think, "God, I wish I could help you."

But I can't help her, and she can't help me -- simply because she isn't equipped to do so, and maybe I'm not either. Between that lacking is an understanding and a love that may not be conventional, but definitely is real.