By anyone’s reckoning, Jennifer Forbes* had a difficult childhood. Although her mother left an abusive husband, her new partner was no better, and Forbes says that her mother’s reaction was a passive one. After she had moved out, Forbes eventually cut off relations with her mother, hurt that she wouldn’t acknowledge or take responsibility for the abuse her daughter had weathered. “Every time we spoke on the phone, I would end up crying,” she recounts. “I was angry and hurt so I wrote her a letter saying, I can’t talk to you anymore.”
When she became pregnant with her first child, she felt compelled to talk to her mother, though the two hadn’t spoken in four years. “It seemed like to not tell her would be worse than anything that had happened.” She says that after her daughter was born, she understood her mother in a new way. “I felt so overwhelmed with one kid, how must she have felt having three kids and an abusive, unsupportive husband? I was able to at least understand, in a small way, how her life was and the pressures she felt.”
And so it goes with the making of each new mother. As we find our feet in the province of motherhood, our relationship with our own mother undergoes a metamorphosis. We become both mother and child, and gain the insight that this role change brings; in acknowledging our own human frailties, we have to acknowledge our mother’s, too.
“Your mother can be a preview, or your worst nightmare, of who you’re going to be and how you’re going to be different,” says Martha Manning, an American psychologist and author of The Common Thread: Mothers, Daughters, and the Power of Empathy. “The mirror is there.”
That mirror can reflect an already strong relationship deepened by the shared experience of motherhood. “I find myself thinking at least once a day, I am so much like Mom,” says Whitehorse mother, Buffy Sias. “That’s something I am very proud of.” Because of the distance that separates them (Sia’s mother lives in Saskatchewan), the two see each other only a few times a year, but talk on the telephone several times a week. Sias uses the word “guide” to describe her mother’s support. “She gets it,” Sias says. “If I call her and say, ‘Why did I have kids?’ she laughs.”
That shared experience sometimes offers a new place to connect for relationships gone sour. Forbes says that the baby gave her and her mother a meeting ground. “It was a really convenient way to make peace with each other. It’s a big deal, a major life event, and it was a good way for us to uncomplicate things by speaking to each other again. It might not seem complicated to not speak to someone — but it is — it’s always in your mind. I never forgot that she was my mom; I never stopped feeling.”
Forbes says that although the issues that divided them haven’t been resolved, the new baby has refocused their attention. She also thinks that her mother might be trying to make amends. “She’s been more supportive than she had ever been in my entire life.”
No one would deny that mother-daughter relationships are complex. By the tender age of five, my own daughter had already informed me on several occasions that she planned to do certain things differently than I did. She would allow her children to have as many pets as they wanted, for example; she would not impose the cruel and unusual punishment of snow pants in winter. She was already weighing my parenting choices and realizing that she would be making similar choices one day.
“My mother made some choices that I wouldn’t have made,” says Angela Hughes, whose mother was a single parent. “If I had to be alone with my son, his needs would be a priority for me.” But she says that she’s reconsidered her “poor opinion” of her mother since the birth of her own son.
“I’m certain that my children won’t think that I’m perfect either,” muses Hughes.
Part of growing up is deciding which parts of our personal histories to keep and which to discard, and those decisions become clearest when we begin raising our own children. No matter how secure a new grandmother is, there’s no escaping those judgments.
For the relationship to thrive, says Margaret Spicer, a Peterborough, Ont. mother of four daughters, new grandmothers must try to resist feeling rebuffed. New mothers, she says, are trying to prove themselves. “Especially with the first child, you have to prove that you know exactly what to do,” remembers the grandmother of seven. She recounts a frustrating period when one of her daughters adopted a child and was having difficulty comforting the baby; Spicer felt she could see what her daughter was doing wrong and kept trying to intervene. “No matter how diplomatic I tried to be, it was never right,” she remembers. “I had to come to the realization that, sure, she’s going to make some mistakes. Because when I think back, I made a few, too.” She says that she’s learned to step lightly, saying, “That’s not the way I would do it, but it seems to be working for you.”
This new phase in the mother-daughter relationship felt like maturity, says Spicer. She remembers how it went with her eldest daughter. “I think the relationship became less complex because she was operating at a more adult level. Because she was able to reach out to me, I think I, in turn, acknowledged her strengths.”
Sias says that early in her pregnancy her mother gave her this advice: Listen to everyone and then take what’s right for you. “I’m assuming she included herself in there!” Sias laughs. “But she’s never come back and said, ‘I told you so’ if I didn’t listen to her.” Sias feels free to disagree with her mother. “She knows the world has changed since she raised her three girls. Some of her advice is very helpful and some of it’s a little too old-fashioned.”
Grandmothering has become a tricky business, says Manning, because as a society we question the wisdom of our elders. “Grandmotherhood has been devalued and made peripheral in a Hallmark greeting-card kind of way.” Part of the problem, she says, is the shift in attitude toward raising a child; where past generations of children were accepted as a natural part of married life, this generation chooses to have children and views raising them as an achievement. “There’s a great anxiety about the most banal of details of a child’s life,” she comments. In their desire to succeed in this child-raising endeavour, new parents feel more secure accepting advice from psychologists and other paid experts than from their families. “Oftentimes grandmothers don’t come out as major sources of wisdom.”
And yet, there’s no denying the primal impulse that connects us to our mothers, especially when we become mothers ourselves. In her novel Swann, Carol Shields delineates this conflict well. “We want to please our mothers, emulate them, disgrace them, oblige them, outrage them …between mothers and daughters there is a kind of blood-hyphen that is, finally, indissoluble.”
*Names changed upon request.
Signposts for the journey
One of the biggest mistakes that new mothers make, says Martha Manning, an American psychologist and author of The Common Thread, is assuming that they will do better than their mothers. “No matter how good their mothers are, they make the totally presumptuous statement to themselves and other people, ‘I am not going to do things the way my mother did.’ And that might be true, but it’s said without any kind of sense of how hard it is to be a mother.”
That’s where empathy comes in, she says. “Are you able to see her as a person, other than your mother?”
She’s quick to point out that personality also plays a role in how complicated your post-baby relationship is. “Some mothers and daughters like each other better than others. That really says very little about loving each other. Some mothers and daughters just do better far apart. And that cuts down on a lot of pretending.”
For mothers who feel that they’re getting too much advice, Manning suggests setting clear boundaries. “Have some ground rules, like ‘Don’t tell me what kind of diapers to get anymore.’ ” She says that new mothers can still allow their mothers into their lives by defining the way they can be together. “You can say, ‘Would you like to walk with me?’ or ‘Let’s play with the baby.’ ”
She also suggests that new mothers try to view their own mother’s advice as part of the landscape, just another opinion. This feat is easier said than done; because the mother-daughter relationship is a primal one, we do tend to react to our mother’s advice more intensely than we would to a friend’s advice, feeling more criticized and defensive.
As for grandmothers, Manning has this advice. “You can’t take your daughter through motherhood, just like you couldn’t take her through childhood,” she says. “But you can accompany her. It’s like walking a kid to school. You pace yourself, you look out for certain things when she’s too overwhelmed. But you don’t presume to know better, even though you know a lot.”