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Worlds Apart: Mothers and Their Adult Daughters

How to bridge the gap

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.

Margaret Dominguez, a 77-year-old living in Carlsbad, Calif., thinks her 42-year-old daughter, Michele Dominguez, is running herself ragged. Michele, a teacher and mother to 9-year-old twins and a 5-year-old, carts her kids to sports and play rehearsals, and doesn’t have time for what her mom considers the basics, like sitting down to a family dinner and having more time alone with her husband. Margaret, who was a stay-at-home mother, never hesitated to leave her children with a babysitter so she and her husband could have a routine date night.

“I think being together without kids is very important,” Margaret says. “These dates help spouses continue enjoying each other’s company,” especially when the children are long gone.

Michele admits that date nights with her husband are rare. “I believe being a good wife is important, but my work and kids’ schedules come first,” she says.

Bridging the gap

Those mothers and daughters fortunate enough to have a healthy relationship say there’s nothing better than that bond. In the book Secrets of a Jewish Mother, coauthor sisters Lisa Wexler, 49, and Jill Zarin, 46, pay homage to their mother, Gloria Kamen. Though Zarin doesn’t hesitate to spar with her costars on the reality television show The Real Housewives of New York City, she has nothing but praise for her mother, seeing her advice as well-intentioned. As working women, Wexler and Zarin spend less time with their children than Kamen did with them, but Mom doesn’t judge.

“I know that if they could have cooked dinner, they would have,” Kamen says.

Advice for mothers

It’s difficult to stand back when you see your daughter grappling with life’s challenges. So what’s a mother to do? Here are expert recommendations on steps to a more harmonious relationship.

1. Embrace your daughter’s choices. “The things that brought you joy and satisfaction may be very different from your daughter’s wants and needs,” says psychologist Diane G. Sanford, coauthor of Life Will Never Be the Same: The Real Mom’s Postpartum Survival Guide. Supporting her in the path she chooses will go far in forging a friendship.

2. Be empathetic. Of course you have an opinion, but how you convey it makes a difference in how it’s received, says Renee A. Cohen, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Southern California. She suggests acknowledging your daughter’s viewpoint, then offering a suggestion in a nonthreatening way, like, “Would you consider this alternative?” Stress collaboration and teamwork, rather than dictating.

3. Let go. Mothers may want to rush in, take over and tell their children what to do, hoping to spare them heartache and difficult situations. But children have to learn for themselves, says Cohen, because “having the experience is what makes them grow.” Mothers should recognize that if they’ve done a good job raising their daughters to be smart and independent, the parents have to trust that their children will make thoughtful choices.

4. Pitch in. Consider ways to ease your daughter’s stress without provoking defensiveness. Tell your daughter that you see how hard she’s working, then think of ways to assist, like baby-sitting. Assure her you know how tough it is to juggle and let her know you want to help in a way that works best for her.

5. Convey your appreciation. Mothering can be a thankless job. A daughter cherishes an occasional pat on the back from the woman who raised her. So tell your daughter that she’s a great mom or that you love her—and not just on Mother’s Day.

Advice for daughters

You cringe every time your mother walks in your house, assuming she’s sizing up the kids running wild and the sink overflowing with dishes. Here’s how to chip away at the wall of tension.

1. Make friends with your mom. Grown women tend to revert to their teenage selves in their mothers’ presence, but moving to a peer relationship is a better alternative. Conduct an oral history, asking your mother questions about her past that give you a window into her world as a young mother. This will help move you toward a friendship instead of a domineering relationship.

2. Share your frustrations. Mothers don’t intend to seem judgmental. Letting your mother know, in a gentle way, how her words make you feel will help her become aware of the impact of her actions, allowing for improved communication.

3. Schedule a regular date with Mom. Adult daughters are so busy today that it’s tough to fit in time with their mothers. But mothers cherish that opportunity. So find time for her, even if it’s just for an hour after you’ve tucked in your children. She’ll appreciate the effort and the chance to reconnect with you.

4. Accept Mom’s help—or request it. It’s not a sign of weakness to need assistance, and mothers miss feeling needed. So take your mother up on her offer to baby-sit or help clean the house. And listen to what she has to say, just as you would a close friend—they can be a valuable resource. “Chill out,” and react like a peer, “not a touchy 12-year-old,” says psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, M.D., author of Raising Kids With Character. There are times when Mom really does know best.

5. Say thanks. We often take our mothers for granted and rarely take the time to tell them how much they mean to us. Nothing makes a mother happier than to know she’s appreciated by her daughter. So tell your mother you love her often, so you can cherish your time with her.

Julie Halpert, who cowrote Making Up With Mom with sociologist Deborah Carr, lives in Michigan.