I WAS 29 YEARS OLD when I lost my mom. Ten days after she died, my first daughter was born; three years later, daughter number two arrived. Recently, my history and my heart compelled me to start a yoga class for moms and daughters, celebrating that special bond while spending time with my own girls.
They weren’t interested.
I’d fill a room with the sweet energy of mom/daughter pairs who created partner tree poses and held hands in savasana, while my own daughters yawned, watching the clock. Was this the start of that “thing” that comes between a mother and her daughter? Is it inevitable?
“Especially in the teen years, often a mom is trying to exert control and a daughter is trying to rebel,” says Shilagh Mirgain, senior psychologist at UW Health and frequent BRAVA contributor.
Turns out my daughters weren’t distancing themselves. They just weren’t keen on an hour of yoga with me.
“On the positive side, connection might be easier between mothers and daughters because women are socialized to be emotionally tuned in and relationally skilled,” says Carol Faynik, licensed clinical social worker with the Family Therapy Center of Madison. But those skills can also add too much intensity in negative circumstances.
Deana Turner, director of project management at Findorff, a commercial building company, with her daughter Carson started a mother-daughter group to nip misunderstandings in the bud.
“I was listening to NPR, and two women authors were asking, ‘Is it really true that a teenage girl has to pull away from her mother?’ Are kids meant to get kicked out of the nest or can you change the dynamic where you never lose that connection?” Turner wondered.
She turned to the book “The Mother- Daughter Project: How Mothers and Daughters Can Band Together, Beat the Odds, and Thrive Through Adolescence,” by SuEllen Hamkins and Renée Schultz. Turner recruited other mother-daughter pairs to discuss the book at monthly meetings, starting when Carson was 7. She’s now 15, and they still gather.
“The whole concept is challenging the idea that your daughter has to separate from you during adolescence,” Turner says. “There are other ways to achieve independence.”
Turner’s group follows the book with age-appropriate discussions on different themes, such as friendships, changing bodies, drugs and alcohol, relationships and self-defense.
They find creative ways to talk about tough topics. At one meeting, the girls matched slang with real anatomy words. “We wanted the girls to hear slang in a safe environment, not when the words would hurt their feelings,” Turner says. They’ve also watched movies then discussed the portrayal of female characters. When broaching the topic of body image, the girls cut pictures from magazines to compare them to real life girls and women. The mom-daughter duos also spend time together at movies or dinner out.
“My daughter loves the group,” Turner says. “We keep discussion of heavy topics short. The book and the group are just about finding other women and daughters the same age who want to stay connected through tumultuous years.”
Faynik says as children enter adolescence, societal pressure could cause turbulence between mothers and daughters. The continuing fight for equity, along with portrayal of women in the media, can strain relationships. She adds, “What disempowers and diminishes all women can divide mothers and daughters. Mothers should always work on their own empowerment to set a good example.”
A clinical neuropsychologist and assistant professor in UW’s Department of Medicine, Carey Gleason also formed a “Mother-Daughter Project” group to avoid disengagement from her daughter.
Gleason and 12-year-old Annika find that communication alone can diffuse relational anxiety, as evidenced by Gleason’s worry that she works too much and Annika’s response: “My mom is an important figure in my life, and she’s a role model for me. I admire her for being a working mother.”
Gleason says, “The reason the book works so well is because we’re reading it in a group. Girls and moms both feel normalized as we work through issues together.”
But mother-daughter pairs need not bond formally, says Faynik. “Spending time together is key. That’s what kids want, and that’s what builds the connection.”
Moms and daughters can take walks or just hang out. They can spend time doing arts and crafts, gardening, volunteering, playing sports or reading and discussing books. Fitchburg Public library has a mother-daughter book club, for example. During any together time, Faynik encourages mothers to use praise, positive reinforcement and nurturance to build and maintain healthy relationships.
But while moms strive to stay connected, Faynik says, “You still want to give that young person independence and influence appropriate to their age.” Mirgain adds, “Let them fail and learn. The best gift you can give an 18-year-old woman is to tell her, ‘I know you’ll figure this out.’ In reality, the mother-daughter bond is one of a gentle letting go.”
My oldest daughter has four more years of school before she leaves for college; letting go is on the horizon.
Like other moms, I do my best to build in bonding time with my girls.
My outgoing 11-year old and I share a love for animals and nature. We take hikes and ride bikes and care for her flock of chickens together. My reserved 14-yearold? We have lovely car conversations, go to the mall, downhill ski and share quiet, spontaneous hugs. And of her own accord, my teen practices yoga in one of my adult classes, in the front row.
– Lisa Bauer