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Relationships

Mother and daughter relationships: women with complicated relationships with their mums share how they feel

For many women, not having the perfect relationship with their mum can be hard. We speak to women with complicated relationships with their mothers about how they manage.

When you have a great, or at least pleasant, relationship with your mother, Mother’s Day is a chance to express appreciation for your mum. But if you have a difficult relationship then Mother’s Day can be problematic.

For those of us whose mothers have passed away, or aren’t in our lives anymore, Mother’s Day is an inescapable reminder of that. And it’s not just on Mother’s Day. All year around we live in a society where there is still a pervasive myth that the perfect family is the ‘nuclear’ one – one with a hetero mum and dad and where mums and daughters are best friends. We see this enforced all the time in ad campaigns and on TV. We read about it all the time on social media and in articles like this one in New York magazine entitled My Mom Is My BFF.

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TV shows like Ginny & Georgia, Jane The Virgin, Once Upon A Time, Gilmore Girls, and Modern Family, and even films like Freaky Friday, Mamma Mia, and Hairspray all depict beautiful mother/daughter relationships where they are more like best friends than parent and child. It’s hard to escape this depiction when it’s so prevalent. 

Such is the barrage at this time of year many brands now allow their customers to opt out of receiving Mother’s Day-related marketing emails if they so wish – Mark & Spencer’s, Bloom & Wild, Boots, Tesco, Waitrose, and Oliver Bonas are just a few of the retailers offering this option to people who may not want to be reminded of Mother’s Day. 

Even still, it is hard to avoid Mother’s Day. Although we are in lockdown, even in supermarkets and essential shops, it’s everywhere. Shops display Mother’s Day banners, presents and cards, all encouraging you to purchase gifts for your mum.

According to a survey by Global Data, spending for Mother’s Day gifting saw consumers spend around £1bn in 2019, making it a lucrative industry for businesses to capitalise on.

Gilmore Girls
The 'perfect' mother/daughter relationships we see on TV shows like Gilmore Girls are often idealised versions of the truth

On social media, businesses promote their products with statements like “show her you care on Mother’s Day” in the weeks leading up to the day. Additionally, logging on to big retailers’ websites, the first thing you see are pop-up ads to more Mother’s Day flowers and gifts, telling you to “send mum the perfect gift”.

Other sites also have ads to buy chocolates, flowers, or spa treatments for our mums, all reminding you to treat your mum in the lead up to the ‘holiday’.

Sometimes, it feels like we’re being sold a narrative that if we don’t have a close relationship with our mothers, where we get manicures together, go shopping, and gossip about relationships, there’s something wrong.

Relationships, particularly that between a parent and a child, are complicated and while it’s great if your relationship with your mum is that of a role model or bestie, many of us may have difficult relationships with our mums. It’s not bad if your mum isn’t your best friend, it’s just different.

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Jenny

Jenny’s* mum left her in the care of her father, who was “violent towards her and us”, when she was eight years old and didn’t reconnect with her mother until she was 16. She is now 31 and in light of this, her relationship with her mother is very different to what a ‘normal’ mother/daughter relationship is: “I don’t see her as hugely mothering. We are friendly, we talk once a month or so, but I don’t treat her like my mother.”

While Jenny and her mother were largely able to get past the fact that her mother left, Jenny still feels like her mother wasn’t there for her for much of her life and “gave up” on fighting for custody of her. She said, “It was really hard because when she left our family, she lived in the same village but after a while she moved abroad and we didn’t hear from her at all.”

“Because she wasn’t there when I was a kid, she’s not like my mother. She’s only been here when I’m an adult so it’s a really different relationship,” she says.

Jenny believes that she still seeks her mother’s approval, saying she feels “the need to make her want me to this day.” Jenny herself has children and “overcompensates” for the love that she feels like she missed out on.

Regarding this idea of a perfect mother/daughter relationship, Jenny thinks that the whole thing is “really fake” because “even if you have a good mother/daughter relationship, there are so many different ways you can care for someone and it can be different from what society is telling us.”

Jenny does feel “shitty” that her mum isn’t her best friend, but she has come to terms with it now and takes as much as she can from the relationship while focusing her energy on being a good mother to her own children. She says, “To her credit, my mum has tried. We’re friends, but we don’t talk a huge amount, and that’s good enough for me.”

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Lucy

Unlike Jenny, the last time Lucy, 22, saw her mother was eight years ago, and her mum “hasn’t really tried to keep in touch.” She said, “I’d rather have no relationship with her than just having one message a year if she’s not going to try to visit me or take me out anywhere.”

Lucy feels wistful about the relationship she could have had with her mum: “She left at the time I needed her most. It’s hard being a woman without a mum because there’s a lot of things you need them for, like when I got my period or wanted to start wearing make-up. I just had to learn it all myself.”

Luckily for Lucy, she doesn’t feel like she’s missing out on her mum because of a positive relationship with her father and her paternal grandmother but “it’s the fact that everyone else has got a mum and I don’t, that’s where I feel like I wish she was there for me.”

The most difficult thing for Lucy is that her mother refuses to apologise or accept responsibility for what happened, which means Lucy isn’t “willing to forgive her.”

As she has ventured into adulthood, Lucy is now ok with the fact her mother isn’t her best friend, or even in her life at all. This year is the 10-year anniversary of her mother leaving and Lucy says she simply feels “sorry” for her mother that she’s missed out on her kids’ lives.

Ellie

22-year-old Ellie’s relationship with her mother is complicated by the fact that she has a “narcissistic mother,” which refers to a mother that “places her own self-esteem above all else and lacks the ability to relate to others in a stable way.”

Ellie has increasingly distanced herself from her mother since she was a teenager. She said, “I’ve realised that I don’t want someone like that in my life. I have minimal contact with her, just friendly small talk. But, we’re not friends, and we don’t have the same relationship other girls might have with their mums.”

Ellie has come to terms with it now but she has before felt that it was her fault, particularly when a friend told her that she was “difficult to get along with,” excusing her mum’s behaviour as a result. That moment has stuck with her, and the feeling persists when she sees people pushing the narrative of a best friends mother/daughter relationship onto her.

“Especially with TV, like Gilmore Girls, or any show about family where there’s a great mother/daughter relationship, it does affect me. I sometimes look at it and wish I had that, and it’s tough because it’s all around you.”

Ellie finds it “annoying” how much society forces us to be close with our mums when, in her situation, “it’s impossible”. She says, “I wish we could move away from that because relationships and family are complicated and some people can’t control what has happened with their mums and feel that it’s in their best interest to step away.” 

Kirsten

Kirsten*, 21, is not “close” with her mum in the traditional sense. For Kirsten, this is largely due to their cultural backgrounds and the stark differences between Kirsten’s liberal attitudes and her mum’s conservative ideals. Both Kirsten and her mother are women of colour, but Kirsten has lived in the UK for eight years, while her mother grew up in the Philippines and often does not have the same perspective that Kirsten does.

“One of the things that stop us even trying to be closer than we are is the fact that I’m more liberal and a part of the queer community, a community she doesn’t necessarily understand. We have separate identities and no matter how much we try to reach out, that’s always going to be there,” she says.

While Kirsten’s relationship with her mum isn’t “gossip or mani-pedis,” it’s not a poor relationship as her mother is there for her when she needs it – Kirsten compares the relationship to that of Lady Bird’s (Saoirse Ronan) relationship to her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) in the 2017 film. In the film, Marion says, “Of course I love you,” to her daughter and Lady Bird responds, “But do you like me?”

“I do wish we were closer,” Kirsten explains. Growing up, “watching all these shows and movies, I think there is such a glamorisation of those mother/daughter relationships even though many of us don’t have that bonding experience.”

Dr Gemma Parker, a clinical psychologist and the director of family counselling services Raising Relationships, tells Stylist: “There isn’t a lot of research on mother/daughter relationships in adulthood. But we do know that relationships change over time. Some parent-adult child relationships will be close, reliable, and with a healthy balance of reciprocity. Others, however, will not be all of these things, and some, sadly, will be none of them.”

Dr. Parker agrees that societal views shape our concept of what an “ideal” mother/daughter relationship might be. “People who have difficult or distant relationships with their mothers are at risk of experiencing shame, and complicated grief when they compare their relationship to what they might think of as the ideal mother-daughter relationship.”

Dr. Parker advocates for compassion, both for ourselves and our mothers, even if they haven’t been ‘good’ mothers or aren’t in our lives anymore.

She says: “Adult children might consider whether they could facilitate some kind of repair to the relationship, which could help to move them into a process of forgiveness and acceptance about the relationship.”

In her work, Dr. Parker will focus on the process of “acceptance, compassion and forgiveness” when working with adult children who have parent-related trauma.

While Dr. Parker offers some tips on how to repair a fractured relationship with your mum, and maybe move towards a future of becoming friends, sometimes that is not possible and people may “make the decision to step away from a relationship” and “cut ties in order to prevent further suffering.”

Dr. Parker says that one way of coming to terms with the end of a relationship with your mother, if you feel that is the best choice for you, would be to write a letter, including “what you love about that parent” while making “a clear but compassionate statement about what you are no longer prepared to tolerate from them and outlines the impact those behaviours have had on you and others around you both,” and looking at what could change for possible future reconciliation. This letter doesn’t have to be sent, but it is helpful to write down your thoughts and feelings.

Although a letter will help many accept this choice, others may turn to therapy or sharing their experiences with others who have gone through something similar, which are also positive ways of handling their situations.

While pop culture and the media may have made many of us feel like we must have a picture-perfect relationship with our mums, ultimately, it is not as common as one might think. To feel okay about this is not the aim, however. Dr. Parker says,“It is more about being ok with not being ok about it,” while making small strides towards acceptance.

Images: Getty/Massimiliano Finzi. Still from Gilmore Girls.