Opinion

Elizabeth Warren has just shown us that tricky mother-daughter relationships can affect everyone

2020 US Democratic Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren showed everyone that no matter how sensible and confident you are, your relationship with your mother can be your undoing, says Alicia Lutes.   

Who among us has a perfect relationship with their mother? If you do, feel free to write an essay all your own, because I simply cannot relate. A person with said perfect relationship is an anomaly to me. A unicorn. A liar? Because sometimes, even the most put-together, seemingly perfect, on-top-of-it people with a plan for everything, have complicated and imperfect relationships with their parents. 

Watching Elizabeth Warren share the realities of her own earlier this week in a video posted to Twitter, was, perhaps, her most humanizing moment of the entire presidential race. Because whether you want to admit it or not, there’s something so uniquely vulnerable and complicated about the relationship between mothers and daughters, and it’s not only touching, but powerful, to watch Warren, an extremely Has Her Shit Together Woman, break down and open up about what her mother perceived as her shortcomings and failures.

Earlier this week while in Iowa, a 17-year-old named Raelyn asked Senator Warren, “I was wondering if there was ever a time in your life where somebody you really looked up to maybe didn’t accept you as much? And how you dealt with that?” It was in this moment Warren decided to recount her own relationship with her mother, and what it was like disappointing her when Warren’s first marriage fell apart. 

Immediately, Warren’s voice went a bit warbly, her hand gripping her chest: here, clearly, was a woman who desperately loved her mother and was heartbroken to have ever disappointed her. This was a different Warren than the one we’ve seen before. And it was incredibly powerful and evocative to watch, particularly as a woman with an extremely complicated relationship with her mother.

Sometimes it feels like mothers are given the daughters they need: the daughters that are polar opposites of them, or exhibit characteristics the mother doesn’t like within herself. The daughter that will help them grow and vice versa. Two complementary parts if only they’d just see that in one another. Except it doesn’t always happen or work out that way. Maybe because the mother is too proud, too stuck in her ways, or too convinced that she has nothing left to learn. Maybe the mother is too wrapped up in keeping up with the Joneses or making sure her children—her legacy—live up to the social expectations of the time and don’t make her look like a bad mother. Maybe she has her own trauma and shit from her own relationship with her mother. Maybe she’s just tired and wants things to be easier for her daughter than they were for her and this, she feels, is how to secure that. Maybe she just wants to protect her kids. There are an infinite number of reasons, which is why Warren’s answer is so deeply relatable to all the women I know who’ve watched it.

By Warren’s mother’s standards, she had failed to do the right thing—well, what Warren’s mother believed was the “right” thing given the times. But Warren knew that the right thing for her was divorce, and that even though her mother was deeply disappointed, to end her first marriage was the best thing for her, which flew in the face of her mother and the era’s expectations. 

“My mother and I had very different views of how to build a future,” she explains, visibly emotional. “She wanted me to marry well, and I really tried, and it just didn’t work out,” Warren said, her voice cracking ever so slightly. She continued: “And there came a day when I had to call her and say, ‘This is over. I can’t make it work.’ And I heard the disappointment in her voice. I knew how she felt about it. But I also knew it was the right thing to do and sometimes you just gotta do what’s right inside and hope that maybe the rest of the world will come around to it. And maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but you gotta take care of yourself first.” 

And then Elizabeth Warren nearly started to cry. I nearly did, too.

Because here was this woman—this brilliant, accomplished, incredibly thoughtful and prepared woman—crying because of her relationship with her mom. This unshakeable force with a plan for everything, couldn’t foster the perfect relationship. It’s, perhaps, the most humanizing thing Elizabeth Warren has ever done because, again, what woman hasn’t fretted and obsessed over trying to make sure her mom was happy and their relationship was copacetic? Who hasn’t wished for a stronger, more bonded mother/daughter deal? After all, movies and TV series show mothers as either best friends or mortal enemies—isn’t it nice to see the reality of it put so plainly and clearly full of love? There’s power in imperfection now, and I think we all need a bit more of it, or at least to see it in others, to know we’re not alone in our complicated familial relations.

Mother/daughter relationships are inherently imperfect, because women are constantly pitted against one another. Socialized expectations and depictions of the relationship are often toxic and antiquated and patriarchally minded: a woman’s place is in relation to her man and how she fits into his world. But pushing against those expectations—let alone outright defying them—is a scary, isolating action, particularly when it comes to defying our mothers. Because we all know, for the most part, our mothers care about us, and all their anxiety, neuroses, and badgering often comes from a place of fear and care. They know the world is hard and rigged against us, so they want us to follow in their footsteps down a safer, well-tread pathway. 

Warren is running for presidential in 2020
Warren is running for presidential nomination in 2020

But Warren knows that doesn’t help any of us, not really, if we want to push the world and roles of women forward. To make it better for one of us, you kinda have to focus on all of us—and whether your mom realizes it or not, doing so is an act that makes it better for everyone. 

In order to live a life as good or better than our mother’s, we have to break the rules that they set out and helped protect when they were battling the patriarchy (knowingly or not). We grow by doing what’s best for us, even if that means not listening to the most important people. Our entire species is built on the idea that we all work towards making a future that’s better than the last one. Which means sometimes you gotta defy Mom, and that’s never not going to hurt: growing pains always do.

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