A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Amy Chozick, How Parents Became Cool, describes the parental paradigm shift (as seen on TV) from loving but firm (think: The Brady Bunch) to best friends (think: Pretty Little Liars). We’ve all heard stories of (and some of us have witnessed up close) moms who are trying so desperately to be cool that they opt for the role of BFFs to their daughters instead of moms. It’s an easy line to cross; after all, every woman wants another friend—and moms, especially, want to connect with their teens and tweens and not be thought of as old hags. But can a mother be a daughter’s best friend?
Apropos of Mother’s Day, I asked my colleagues, Linda Perlman Gordon and Susan Morris Shaffer, authors of Too Close for Comfort: Questioning the Intimacy of Today’s Mother-Daughter Relationship (Berkley, 2009) to address that question in a guest post. Here is what Gordon and Shaffer had to say:
There is an old Chinese proverb that states “One Generation plants the trees; another gets the shade,” and this is how it should be with mothers and daughters. The intimate nature of the relationship between a mother and daughter is sometimes confusing. If close, the relationship can simulate friendship through the familiar characteristics of empathy, listening, loyalty, and caring. However, the mother/daughter relationship has unique characteristics that distinguish it from a best friendship. These characteristics include a mother’s role as primary emotional caretaker, a lack of reciprocity, and a hierarchy of responsibility. This hierarchy, combined with unconditional love, precludes mothers and daughters from being best friends.
Because the essential ingredient for friendship is equality and there is always an imbalance when one person in the twosome is the parent of the other, mothers and daughters naturally can’t be best friends. Marina, 27 years old says, “I love spending time with my mom, but I wouldn’t consider her my best friend. She’s MY MOM. Best friends don’t pay for the dress you covet in a trendy clothing store that you wouldn’t pay for yourself. Best friends don’t pay for your wedding. Best friends don’t remind you how they carried you in their body and gave you life, and sometime gas! Best friends don’t tell you how wise they are and trump your opinion because they have been alive at least 20 years longer than you. I love my mom, and I want her to remain a mom.”
This doesn’t mean that the mother/daughter relationship can’t be very close and satisfying. While some adult relationships are still troubled, many find them to be extremely rewarding. So many moms spoke to us about how happy they are to be finished with the “eye rolling” and look from their adolescent daughters, a look that says, “You must come from a different evolutionary chain than me.” Daughters also adopted the famous Mark Twain quote about aging, with some slight alterations, and their feelings about their mothers. Mark Twain said, “When I was a boy (girl) of 14, my father (mother) was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man (woman) around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man (woman) had learned in seven years.”
This generation of mothers and adult daughters has a lot in common which increases the likelihood of shared companionship. Mothers and daughters have always shared the common experience of being homemakers, responsible for maintaining and passing on family values, traditions, and rituals. Today contemporary mothers and daughters also share the experience of the workforce, technology and lack of a generation gap, which may bring them even closer together.
Best friends may or may not continue to be best friends, but for better or worse, the mother and daughter relationship is permanent, even if for some unfortunate reason they aren’t’ speaking. The mother and child relationship is, therefore, more intimate and more intense than any other. As long as that hierarchy exists, it’s not an equal relationship. Daughters should not feel responsible for their mother’s emotional well-being. Not that they don’t care deeply about their mothers, it’s just that they shouldn’t be burdened with their mother’s well being. As one mother said to her daughter, “I would gladly dive under a bus for you and there is no way that I’m diving under a bus for my friends.” Her daughter responded, “And I’d gladly let you dive under the bus to save me!”
The mother/daughter relationship is so much more comprehensive than a best friendship. It’s a relationship that is not replaceable by any other. This unique bond doesn’t mean that when daughters mature they can’t assume more responsibilities and give back to their mothers, but it’s never equal and it’s not supposed to be. Mothers never stop being mothers, which includes frequently wanting to protect their daughters and often feeling responsible for their happiness. Mother always “trumps” friend.
Category: Family friends