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Worlds Apart: Mothers and Their Adult Daughters

How to bridge the gap

Mother's Day

— Photo by Alamy

Virginia Christoff, 80, often has trouble relating to her 49-year-old daughter, Cathy Christoff. They squabble over many things, big and small, but the root of their problems trace back to when Cathy started her own family.

Although both women raised their families in Fort Wayne, Ind., the starkly different ways they went about it created a lasting disconnect. Virginia was a stay-at-home mother and has been married to the same man for 56 years; Cathy is an attorney and has been a single mother of three children since she divorced nearly two decades ago. And that is just the beginning of their contrasts.

Differences between grown women and their mothers are hardly new. For example, the flappers of the 1920s rebelled against their staid, Victorian-era mothers—shedding their corsets for knee-length dresses, cutting their hair into bobs and socializing unsupervised, with men. But the tensions between women and their mothers over careers and family priorities have never been so complicated, says Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families.

Case in point: the Christoffs.

Career and finances

Cathy inhabits a world very different from the one in which Virginia raised her. Unlike postwar America, today’s parents often need two salaries to get by. In 1960, about 18 percent of married women with preschool-age children worked outside the home, compared with two-thirds of married women with children under 6 in 2000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Women who have spent years in school preparing themselves for careers often want to continue working once they have children. But families are fragmented, putting many new mothers far from relatives and support networks and forcing them to cope with costly child care. Still, women are expected to be both uber-parent and ideal spouse.

Virginia recalls baby-sitting for her granddaughter and hearing her scream “Mommy, Mommy!” when Cathy headed for the door. “It made me heartsick,” Virginia says.

From Cathy’s perspective, “My mother maintains to this day that I’m very selfish. I don’t think she has a clue as to how expensive it is to be a single mother with three kids and how hard I have to work to make ends meet.”

Motherhood in the 21st century is simply more expensive, more stressful and more complicated. It can be all but unrecognizable to Virginia’s generation, women in their late 60s and beyond who raised their children in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. Their daughters—many now career women between 25 and 50—are inclined to shut them out, assuming they just don’t get it.

“Daughters have made such different choices than their mothers have made, so it’s really hard for mothers to relate to them, understand their choices and refrain from giving their opinions or offering unsolicited advice,” says Roni Cohen-Sandler, a clinical psychologist in Weston, Conn.

Overextended and misunderstood

As mothers like Virginia Christoff look at their daughters’ hectic lives, they can’t help but worry. That’s what Deborah Carr, a sociology professor at Rutgers University, found in a study of women in their 60s and 70s. She presumed postwar mothers would be envious of their daughters, beneficiaries of the feminist movement with high-powered careers and fat paychecks. Instead, she found that they’re not jealous. They’re concerned that their daughters, in their quest to “do it all,” are just plain exhausted. And when a mother expresses concern, “the daughter interprets that as a sign of criticism, and that’s the problem,” says Carr.

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