Mothers and Daughters, A Lifelong Relationship.
The relationship between mothers and daughters affects women strongly at all stages of their lives. Even though not all women become mothers, all are obviously daughters, and daughters have mothers. Even daughters who never become mothers must counter the issues of motherhood, because the possibility and even the probability of motherhood remains. Yet this relationship is so often taken for granted that it is all but ignored, even by mothers and daughters themselves.
For any daughter, the relationship with her mother is the first relationship in her life, and may also be the most important she will ever have. David Lynn of the University of California, has pointed out that ?little girls may have a particularly difficult time separating from their mothers because they are of the same sex?, and therefore identify most deeply with the very person from whom they must ?psychologically? separate themselves. Dependency has played a particular part in the social role of women; the daughter who remains dependent on her mother will transfer her dependency to her husband and will expect her daughter to be dependent on her, repeating the cycle. These roles are no different in the African-American community, except for the fact that they are magnified to larger proportions.
In the context of her relationship with her mother a daughter first learns what it means to be a person but finds that she is not encouraged to develop a sense of her own separate identity. In the Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison shows what can happen to a person alienated from positive black traditions. Pauline had lost her inner self, and the beauty of her own people. She tries to fill an aching void with the films, and makes efforts to look like Jean Harlow. Her daughter, Pecola, is further removed from community strengths and longs for ?the bluest eyes? to gain entrance into a world that doesn?t accept her. Through her mother a daughter first begins to learn about the cultural expectations of feminine role behavior. ?Emotional independence is less easy to define than physical independence, but it is equally crucial? asserts Edith Neisser. A mother?s emotions can have a powerful effect on a daughter and can become part of the ?glue? that binds a daughter to her mother from guilt and fear.
Also through her mother?s responses to and initiatives toward her body and its needs, a daughter begins to form her developing sense of sexual identity. The social climate in which girls discover what kind of value is placed on their being girls, as opposed to being boys, will strongly affect their sense of their sexual identity. Perhaps a girl?s mother creates the most important aspects of this social climate. It is in the context of her relationship with her mother that a daughter will learn whether she is free to explore and enjoy the potential of her own body. From her mother she will get her first cues as to how she should feel about her sexuality, cues that may become clear only when she has matured. We could see in The Family as well as The Bluest Eye, that the two main characters, Gwendolen and Pecola lack this trust with their mothers because both of them get raped by their own fathers, and are afraid of telling their mothers because of fear of them not believing them.
The lives of women are changing. The generation of women who are now in their late twenties, thirties, and early forties are women who have been raised in a traditional way and who must themselves begin to make changes in their own lives and the lives of their daughters. The problem many new mothers are facing is how to help their daughters develop a strong sense of self, so that they don?t grow up expecting to ?lose themselves? in relationships with other people because they never ?found themselves? in their relationships with their mothers. Young mothers are beginning to change their modes of mothering and their ways of relating to their daughters, but this does not happen without some conflict and perhaps confusion. Contrary to Pecola, Claudia and Frieda, have learn their life lessons from their mother. They have learn how to be strong black females who can fight back and not be overwhelmed by standards of beauty imposed by white and black women.
Every generation has hoped for a better life for its children, but many mothers with small daughters today seem determined to alter, by the very patterns of their mothering, the nature of the mother-daughter relationship and the ways in which their daughters define themselves as girls and women. ?Mothers of young children today see motherhood as part of their identity, but not the whole of it? claims Paula Caplan. They are trying to construct a style of mothering in which their own needs as persons are not submerged in the needs of their families and in which the identities of their children, and particularly of their daughters, are not subordinated to their expectations.
One of the biggest generation gaps in history may be in the making; like the children of immigrants, who created their own identities in a new culture, many mothers are creating, as adults, new identities for themselves and for their daughters. Historically there is good reason why relationships between mothers and daughters have been ignored. ?The conscious and unconscious ways we think about ourselves and other people are inexorably structured by social forces, which in turn have been structured by the conscious and unconscious mind? claims Edith Neisser.
In Western cultural tradition women are regarded and portrayed largely in terms of their relationships with men. The idea of the individual self developed slowly; from the beginning, the hero and the adventurer have been masculine. Idelisse Malave states that ?mothers have been placed in a no-win situation with their daughters: if they teach their daughters simply how to get along in a world that has been shaped by men and male desires, then they betray their daughters? potential. But, if they do not, they leave their daughters adrift in a hostile world without survival strategies.? As a society, we have viewed relationships from a masculine perspective; women have been considered important only in terms of their roles as the wives and mothers of men. Because society expects a mother to raise her daughter to be a wife and mother in turn, most of what passes between a mother and daughter falls outside the ?acknowledged social context? of men-women relationships.
If women are seen as wives and mothers, and daughters as potential wives and mothers, it is hard for mothers and daughters to see themselves or each other as separate people, as individuals. A mother is the first mediator of the environment for a daughter; through very subtle cues from her mother, a daughter first learns what is expected of her by her culture. She will combine these cues with her own responses and begin to form an image of herself and her relationship to the world. A mother does not merely pass on the messages of her culture; she also passes on her responses to the messages she received from her mother. Thus, every transaction between mother and daughter is in a sense a transaction among three generations.
The social influences on mothers and daughters have been strongly affected by rapidly changing social conditions. Before industrialization, the boundaries between home and work were less sharply defined than they are today. Women were workers as well as mothers, and their roles were broader. They had available to them a wider range of real and economically necessary activities than is available to middle-class women today. Life was difficult, but at least there was a coherent sense of expectation and opportunity extending from childhood into adulthood. Given this continuity and the broader range of concrete activities available to women, it may have been possible to develop and sustain a positive sense of female identity, supported by the family and the community. Mrs. McTeer realizes the value and the necessity for the role she serves for her family and community and therefore she does not allow her self-worth to be defined on the terms of others. The sociologist Nancy Chodorow has suggested that ?in primitive communities, where work and home are less sharply divided than in modern middle-class Western civilization, women may have the opportunity to develop a clearer, more defined sense of self than has been possible for them in our society.?
With the evolution of today?s nearly absolute split between home and the world of productive work. Women have been caught in a double bind that has expressed itself in the ?double message? that so many women feel was passed on to them by their mothers, and that, with the rise of contemporary feminism, has been brought into the open. Quite simply, home and work are now considered to be ?mutually exclusive,? and our society has not been in a hurry to reconcile them. Being feminine has come to mean attracting a husband and raising his children. The scope of activity allowed for in the feminine role has narrowed to the point of near nonexistence, except for childcare.
As the scope of women?s work diminished, the idea of childhood, and the importance of good mothering developed. And here we have another paradox claims Paula Caplan, ?women who themselves are not allowed to assume adult roles as persons in our society ? as individuals engaged in productive work and with interests of their own ? are expected to socialize the new generation.? This has presented a particular problem for daughters. She goes on to say ?a vicious cycle has developed in which women are not encouraged to grow up either.? It is not surprising the ?femininity? has a disparaging ring for many women. As Clara Thompson wrote in 1942, ?being a woman may mean the negation of her feeling of self, a denial of the chance to be an independent person.?
Mothering should involve both taking care of someone who is dependent and at the same time supporting that person in his or her efforts to become independent. This dual function is difficult to accomplish with sons; when a mother has a daughter, with whom she strongly identifies and whom she knows will never be encouraged by society to become independent, it is hardly surprising that she encourages her to remain dependent. Quite often the mother is the shaping and driving force of children specially African-American.
We are finding out that things are changing. Partly through the influence of feminism and partly as a direct response to the conditions of their lives, more and more women are finding ways to resolve the ?double message.? They are insisting that they can work without losing their femininity, that they can be adult women without becoming mothers. It is not easy, but many mothers today are finding ways to enable their daughters to grow up with a strong sense of themselves as persons who are women.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: 1997.
Caplan, Paula J. ?Don?t Blame Mother? Mending the Mother-Daughter Relationship. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1986.