Most mothers make a conscious effort to “do a better job” at parenting than their own mothers did—or at least try to do some things differently. They vow not to make the same mistakes—Yet, despite these conscious efforts, mothers often find themselves repeating the same familial patterns (perhaps in different ways) and are shocked when they hear their mother’s words coming out of their own mouths, or when their daughters end up rebelling in the same way they did.
Consider Ann’s story:
The image is vivid in her memory. Ann’s mother Barbara is standing in the front yard and she’s holding a letter in her hand—a letter she’s about to put in the mailbox—She holds it up and forcefully says, “I’m divorcing my mother!”
At the time, Ann was in her early 20s and her mother was in her mid 40s, and her mother’s actions didn’t surprise her. It was no secret that her mother and grandmother didn’t get along.
Ann’s mother was constantly making the point that she would never treat Ann the way her mother had treated her.
Ann thought that she and her mother had “typical” mother-daughter conflict, but that their relationship was different. As her mother often said, “We are close. We are friends. I never got to have that with my mother and I want things to be different for us.”
What Ann didn’t know at the time was that she and her mother were not “close”—they were codependent and enmeshed.
Fast-forward 25 years later and there Ann was, divorcing her mother, but instead of a letter in the mail, it was an email. Ann’s mother had unwittingly passed down attitudes and behaviors, and when Ann wanted to strike out on her own and have a life separate from her mother, their relationship turned toxic. Ann’s mother started manipulating her just the way Barbara’s mother had.
In spite of mothering with the best of intentions, it is what mothers model that makes the biggest impression. Dysfunctional patterns, negative stories and destructive behaviors, if not noticed and acknowledged honestly and compassionately, get passed on.
These patterns arise from what is sometimes called the “mother wound,” which is the pain of being a woman in a patriarchal society and the dysfunctional coping mechanisms used to process that pain. This is the main source of dysfunction between mothers and daughters and it shows up in a variety of ways such as:
Mothers criticizing their daughters in an effort to keep them safe
Daughters playing small so their mothers will love them
Body image issues; disordered eating
Lack of boundaries; people pleasing
Self-sabotage; fear of failure (or success)
Chronic worry or anxiety
Seeking approval and validation from others
Being a “control freak”
Never or rarely putting oneself first
Feeling chronically disappointed, frustrated, guilty, ashamed, or downright angry
When we become aware and truthful about these patterns, we can begin to release them, not just for ourselves, but also for past and future generations. This is why it is so essential to take an honest and compassionate look at our relationships with our mothers and ask ourselves what we have chosen to take on, what we are willing to release and heal, and what we would like to pass on.
If we don’t take the time to heal, the legacy of pain will be passed onto the next generation—Being a conscious parent requires being a conscious daughter.
Here are some steps adult daughters (who are now mothers) can take along with some questions they can ask themselves, to become a conscious daughter:
- Pay attention to the stories they tell themselves, about themselves, as a result of their relationships with their mothers. Stories like: “Because she was an alcoholic, she wasn’t truly available, so I had to take care of her and I’ll never get to do what I want.”
- Our mothers were our first teachers. What beliefs, values, and lessons did she teach directly (by telling us) and indirectly (via modeling)? What did we learn about our bodies? About food? About men? About money? About friendship?
- What do WE believe and value? Are they the same as what our mothers taught? What do we want to believe and value?
- What agreements (usually silent) have we made with our mothers without realizing it? Agreements like: “I won’t shine too brightly because I am afraid she’ll feel threatened.”
- Where did our mothers fall short? What didn’t we receive that we needed and/or wanted? How can we start to acknowledge, honor, and meet our own needs (or get them met)?
- In what areas of our lives are we not kind and gentle with ourselves? How can we demonstrate to ourselves (and thus, our own children) that we matter?
- What are the consistent, negative thoughts running through our minds? Are they our own thoughts or are they our mother’s? Consider that those thoughts contribute to negative emotions, which drive negative behavior.
- And finally, remember that children are far more influenced by what we model than what