Like Mother, Like Daughter – Is it Your Destiny or Decision?
On the big screen, Mama Mia, Here We Go Again! sings it out loud and clear – Oh yes, I’m sure my life was well within its usual frame the day before you came. Every mother could sing this refrain about life before children. Moreover, the hit movie showcases the ideals and patterns that daughters acquire from their mothers, sometimes following in their footsteps, other times veering as far away from them as possible. All that song and dance reminds us of the choices we get to make thanks to, and often despite, the ones our mothers made.
In the spotlight of today’s energized women’s movement, what was once a bland subject has become a highly intriguing matter of discussion. It’s the complex dynamic of you and your mom, or as a blog title once noted – “If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.”
As young girls, we often parade around in her high heels and pearls hoping to be like her one day. As teens, we fiercely seek to disassociate ourselves from the woman who seems to be making a spectacle of herself at a school event. Later, as partners or even mothers ourselves, we swear we will never be like her. Do the similarities between you two lie outside of your control, or can you choose and change them? Is it possible to keep the traits you love and transform those you don’t?
The mother-child relationship is not only the first and most existential relationship we have as humans, it is also often rich in conflict. Being grateful for all that she has given you in life, guidance, support, and love, or releasing resentment if she has not, goes a long way toward your own emotional health. Distinguishing yourself from her, doing the inner work around this relationship is vital. Recent studies indicate that mothers and daughters are more connected emotionally than other parent-offspring combinations due to the neuroanatomical wiring of their brains. (The Journal of Neuroscience, 2017).
Whatever the quality or intensity of the relationship you have with your mom, that connection influences you powerfully, from birth to death and in every life phase in between. So how can you navigate such a strong current that at times carries you swiftly along and at others feels like it will drown you?
Let’s take a look at it. As kids, we obviously do not have a choice about the daily training we get for the first decade or so of our lives. We don’t ask to please assimilate our parents’ beliefs, behaviors, and body images like parched ground soaks up a drenching rain. We just do, whether we like it or not.
The point here is not to engage in the disempowering act of finger-pointing or parent-bashing. Your mother may be amazing, or really challenging, or maybe both at the same time (like the rest of us)! You may love all, some or none of what you learned from your mother. The point for your growth, health and happiness is to be able to distinguish who you are from who your mother is and live into and out of that self fully. Easier said than done.
Our Mother’s Body Image
Whether from the clothes she chose to wear, the way she walked into a room, or how she spoke about her body and sexuality, we gleaned our body image from the one our mother had of herself. If you are in your 40’s or older, chances are that your mother was taught to present herself according to very specific societal standards.
These demands that your mother experienced as a young women held her to a certain ideal of presenting herself in order to be acceptable to a man, to be appropriate for a job, to be acknowledged as a professional. It was not a consideration to be guided by her own desires, her inner sense of what to eat, what to wear, and how to attend to her fitness or sensuality.
Like today’s young women, our mothers were subject to societal norms and the media’s dictates of what was in and out: dieting to achieve the perfect body; high heels to give our legs the illusion of going on forever; facelifts and tummy tucks to appeal to what “they” found desirable.
In the documentary film Embrace, Terry Brumfitt explores the self-loathing women across the globe have for their bodies. Brumfitt’s own transformation actually took place in reverse, the reason her initial posts went viral. After slimming down from her birthing body of extra weight and tired organs to a bodybuilding beauty, she found herself unhappy and frustrated. So she gave herself permission to enjoy more rounded curves and a heavier weight. In doing so, she not only found her joy and self-love, she found her voice. Now, she encourages millions of women to embrace all of themselves, just as they are.
Sadly, this is the freedom that most of our mothers did not enjoy. And, like our mothers, we learned to work for that required body, even if we never got there. We keep ourselves on a diet-fitness-hamster wheel instead of listening from within, to what our bodies need for nutrition, exercise, and rest. We learned to view and push ourselves from without, rather than to feel and honor ourselves from within, in order to create a self that others may appreciate, but we may grow to resent.
Our Mother’s Behaviors
We do not learn from what our parents say; we learn from what they do. Our mother’s behaviors, in her relationships, work, and private affairs, formed our worldview and image of our self. We watch and learn and then rinse and repeat, sometimes to the extreme.
As a behavioral therapist, Dr. Kathleen Perkins attests that the mother-daughter relationship is crucial. “Being abandoned by our parents and especially the mother, either emotionally or physically, lays the groundwork for much mental illness and/or substance abuse issues.”
Dr. Perkins’ experience stems not only from her many years of practicing therapy but from being in therapy as well. Perkins’ mother was raised on a farm in rural Idaho and, young and naïve, sought happiness by marrying a man who turned out to be an alcoholic. She became the quintessential co-dependent in her relationship and in her role as a woman.
Perkins claims to have learned well the victim mentality from her mom. “I had not been parented. My mother had not been parented and, consequently could not fill the role as a parent to me. She emotionally abandoned me and I, in turn, abandoned my own children in a desperate attempt to find my self.”
As a result of her decade-long odyssey in re-parenting herself, Perkins finally returned to the three children she had left at the ages of 12, 8 and 6. In her book Flight Instructions – A Journey Through Guilt to Forgiveness (Perkins, 2015), the deep shame and guilt she endured guide the reader through the maze of Perkins life, first as a daughter lost in her mother’s identity on to an individual seeking to create her self as an independent, free-thinking woman and mother. Through forgiveness, both of herself and from her daughters for the painful and punishing unfolding of her journey, she miraculously reunited her family after 30 years into an unusually healthy whole. Transformation is possible.
Our Mother’s Beliefs
Thankfully, for most women the identification with their mothers is not as dramatic as Kathleen Perkins’ story. Mostly, absorbing the beliefs our mothers hold takes place at a trickle’s pace. It is the small daily remarks and attitudes that build our belief structures about the world around us, our relationships and about our selves as women.
Comments uttered unintentionally, or thrown at us purposefully in the hope to save us from the reality behind them, anchor themselves deeply. “Men just want to use you.” “Women have to take a back seat to get ahead.” “Don’t make ripples by having an opinion, dear. Use your other gifts to get what you want.”
In her extensive work with women and health, Dr. Christine Northrop, the bestselling author of Mother Daughter Wisdom, acknowledges that although “the culture at large plays a significant role in our views of ourselves as women, ultimately the beliefs and behavior of our individual mothers exert a far stronger influence. In most cases, she’s the first to teach us the dictates of the larger culture. And if her beliefs are at odds with the dominant culture, our mother’s influence almost always wins.”
It is precisely this identification with our mother, or rather lack of differentiation from her, that extends its challenges beyond the relationship we have with her. Like an alarm bell we often hear from friends or partners, “you are just like your mother,” declared as a complaint rather than a compliment. “That is so not true!” we insist, as an uncomfortable recognition slithers up our spine. “Nope, there’s no way I’m like her.”
Since our relationship with our mother is at the core of so many aspects of our selves and our lives, how do we distinguish our body image, our behaviors and our beliefs from hers? How do we keep what we admire and love about her while carving out for ourselves an identity that speaks to our own values, beliefs and to a life we want for our very own?
A Daughter’s Choice
If you have a great mother, fantastic. You can still distinguish your flavor of awesomeness from hers. And if you have a challenging mother, you can break the cycle and become who you want to be. Your wellbeing and transformation is not dependent on circumstances or substances.
There are many paths to breaking the cycle of unaware identification. Some paths may come to you, like the death of a parent, a jarring experience, a comment from someone. Or you may seek to break the cycle by choice through a seminar, therapy, or physical distance. Either way, engage in changing the cycle with intention. The fact that you get to choose can be your greatest motivator. Tap into it.
Awareness: Awareness is the first step of any change. Become aware of the relation you have to your mother. Establish what you want for yourself as opposed to what your mother, or others for that matter, want for you. Tap into that part of yourself that senses what is possible for you. Get crystal clear about what is.
Wants: Then identify first what you do not want, whether it is a habit, limited self-talk, poor body image. Pinpoint it, but don’t stop there. Suffering is often involved when we try and escape from what we do not want. Flip your Don’t Wants into a Wants. Make them real and specific. Write them down and then move toward them, one step every day. There is more power in moving toward what you do want than away from what you don’t want, especially since facing forward makes moving forward easier!
Uniqueness: Identify the parts of you that are special about you. What are your gifts, talents and preferences? If your mother wants to claim them – “You are just like me.” – take possession of them as uniquely your own. “We may be similar in XYZ, but this is MY personal style of XYZ!” If you struggle to separate on your own, do the necessary conscious work. Find a coach, therapist or discussion group. Decide to rise above the challenge and find your way with help.
Practice: Choose to feel good. If feeling good – happy, at peace, at ease, without suffering, without sadness – is your priority, you will be glad to do the work. Put energy into taking steps toward being you as you want to be. Prioritize feeling good. Whatever patterns you have groomed, you can practice new ones. It is literally that simple.
Give Yourself Permission To Be Yourself
The mother-daughter relationship is the most important one in our early lives and, as not only research but our own experience and hearts show, it remains at the center of all of our relationships. Honoring what you have received from your mother and being grateful is key for the health of the bond you have with her, even if she is no longer alive. Distinguishing yourself from her and her life path is paramount to your happiness and well being in all aspects of your life. In short, give yourself permission to be yourself, independently from your mother or anyone else for that matter.
At the end of Mama Mia, Here We Go Again!, on her wedding day, Sophie’s mother Donna (played by Meryl Streep) sings a poignant parting song to her daughter that expresses well the emotions of most mothers toward the daughters they so love:
Yes, I know I don’t posses you
So go away, God bless you
You are still my love and my life
Still my one and only
And what we daughters do with what our mothers give to us is definitely a choice that we get to make. It is our decision, not our destiny, to be the person we want to be.
Core Success’s Leezá Carlone Steindorf is a crisis management expert, an executive coach, and motivational keynote speaker, she has an extensive background in world-class multinational corporations, trade-unions, nonprofits, and educational institutions in over 35+ cultures. With her experience, she helps leaders make a consistent forward movement, especially during the most extreme of circumstances. Contact Core Success today to learn how you can benefit from Leezá’s strategic guidance.
Journal of Neuroscience, The (Jan. 2016) Female-Specific intergenerational transmission patterns of the human corticolimbic circuitry.
Retrieved from http://www.jneurosci.org/content/36/4/1254
Mosavel, M., Simon, C. and van Stade, D.. (2011) The mother–daughter relationship: What is its potential as a locus for health promotion?
US Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3248691/
Northrop, C., M.D. (2018) Mother daughter overview.
Retrieved from https://www.drnorthrup.com/mother-daughter-overview/
Perkins, K., PhD. (2015) Flight instructions. A journey through guilt to forgiveness.
Mill City Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Troll, L. (1987) Mother-daughter relationships through the life span
Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232578551_Mother-daughter_relationships_through_the_life_span