Mothers or a mother figure are our primary source for learning the daughter role. A daughter’s individual identity depends on her capacity to adopt her mother’s characteristics, much of which happens subconsciously.
A daughter’s natural inclination is to identify with the same-sex parent. It is from our mothers we build our sense of self, our security and level of competency. Infants thrive well when they are offered nurturance, support and eventually, autonomy. Daughters learn from and are influenced by their mothers, mirroring and matching the behaviours exhibited by her. It is from our mothers in subtle ways as well as spoken ways we learn to deal with stress, illness and unexpected traumas. We look to our mothers to gauge a sense of who we are.
Grandmothers, aunts and older female siblings will also have an influence on us if we spend a lot of time with them. Influences on how to be a woman comes by many different means including classic fairy tales such as Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. The characters are beautiful, innocent, subservient, ‘good daughters’ or victims of their own circumstance who live in the hope one day of being rescued by a knight in shining armour or a fairy godmother.
Before the age of six, we soak up information through our senses from a variety of sources, including our mothers. Female fantasy fiction characters in story books further compound beliefs about mothers, daughters and relationships generally. “If only life was like a fairytale’’ we might say to ourselves. By handing over responsibility to someone else to love, approve of and accept who we are, we are not strengthening the inherent ability we each have to meet our own needs.
The daughter’s self-image will start to form at birth and sometimes even before birth, when her mother fantasises about how her daughter will be.
A daughter’s self-image and identify is often fourfold
1: How the daughter views her mother
2: What behaviours and beliefs become her own through identifying with and modelling her mother
3: How the mother views her daughter
4: How the daughter responds to her mother based on expectations and/or responding to conditional love
Identity is complex and individual based on these influences. Cultural influence will also play a part in shaping a daughter’s identity and beliefs about who she is and who she can be. Daughters not only identify with their mothers (as their mothers did with theirs), they also absorb society’s message about women in general being the main person who should meet an infant’s needs over and above any other care giver. Many mothers have shared with me that they feel like empty vessels with little time to care for their own needs and are left feeling depleted, angry and drained, with little sense of balance or equality in the parenting roles. Daughters see this and think they have to be similarly self-sacrificing.
Female friendships are also influenced by our mothers. If at any time, we felt abandoned by our mothers, we might find it difficult to form lasting bonds with other women and also experience a lack of trust as to how reliable a friendship can be. We might find ourselves shying away from women who seem like our mothers, before giving friendship the chance to develop.
Like what you've read so far? Check out Mothers and Daughters the book for more information about relationships
Helen Case Study
Helen came to work with me initially to manage work stress and to plan returning to work after a period of sick leave
Helen shared with me she hated her female boss and was stressed because of the way the woman treated her. When I asked ‘who does she remind you of’, Helen broke down and shared it was like being with her mother all over again believing what she did was never good enough which equated to not feeling worthy of love. Although Helen didn’t intentionally look to her boss for nurturance she was projecting unmet needs from childhood onto her. This role of mother could not be met by Helen’s boss as it was inappropriate and unrealistic.
We used The Spotlight Process (as featured in my first book - Find YOU, Find LOVE) and explored the limiting beliefs Helen had formed about herself. We then used EFT to clear past emotions and feelings of not being good enough. Helen realised what seemed like her mother’s criticism was really encouragement to help her do well at school and later in life. She was able to re-frame her experience into one which made her feel more confident not only at work but in personal relationships too.
Kathie Karlson highlights the point, In Her Image, the primary relationship between mother and daughter is the birthplace of a woman’s ego identity where she learns about the world and her sense of security in it. There is often the expectation on both mothers and daughters where mother is martyr and the daughter dutiful. In trying to meet those demands, both mother and daughter deny true aspects of who they are in the process. It’s believed a mother should be immortal, invincible, loving and giving when we need comfort and security. In reality, mothers can’t cope with the demands of motherhood and do abandon and reject their children. How we react to our mothers who are not living up to our expectations impacts not only our personal identify but how we view and identify with our mothers generally. As daughters, even through to adulthood, we may request our mothers to be a certain way making demands of her which she may not want to meet, but feels she has to.
Daughters are sometimes viewed by mothers to have no adult identity of their own, this is especially so when mothers have not been able to separate from their daughters. Even when a daughter becomes a mother herself, the daughter’s mother will invariably attempt to pass on her views about parenting even if the daughter doesn’t want to parent this way. This will also apply to being raised with step mothers, foster and adoptive mothers. Mother-in-laws may also fall into this category, disagreeing with your style of parenting and preferring their own.
It will be fair to say in childhood a daughter views her mother only as a mother and not a woman with a separate identity. For some, this need for a mother’s nurture may continue through to adulthood where the daughter is still trying to get her childhood needs met. Daughters, whose mothers have died during their childhood or been emotionally unavailable, may find the identification process is delayed or indeed they never had the opportunity to mature. Many of those motherless daughters who go on to be raised by another female role model will find the identification process will begin again.
Some daughters may fear turning out like their mothers. This is a very real fear called Matrophobia, as Adrienne Rich explains in Of Women Born. A daughter who has witnessed her mother’s flaws and weaknesses feels helpless believing these shortcomings will become her own. This fear can create intense emotional distress until the dynamics of what has been internalised is worked through.
Pippa Case Study
Pippa came to me seeking support for emotional overwhelm
Pippa was a perfect example of someone with Matrophobia. Feeling emotionally overwhelmed raising two children, running her home and also studying for a degree, she voiced her worst fears; “I’m worried I will get mentally ill like my mother. What if I get so stressed I get angry like my mother? I’m worried I will lose control and harm my children.’’
Her thought process and fears of becoming like her mother had been concerning her more than bringing up the children. She was in a cycle of fear based thinking, rather than acknowledging how she wasn’t like her mother and how well she was doing juggling so many balls, as well as recognising the times when she was loving and responsive to her children. We simply explored new ways of thinking using The Spotlight Process and used EFT to reduce fear and anxiety to help bring her emotions back into balance.
Like Pippa, now might be the perfect time for you to begin to discover who you really are.
Paula Case Study
Paula came to me to work on improving self-esteem
Paula shared with me, how her mother was controlling, interfered in her relationships, career choices and even bringing up her children. There was a constant dialogue of criticism and very little praise or acknowledgement of Paula as a daughter or a mother.
Using EFT, The Spotlight Process and also working through boundary setting by writing a letter to her mother, Paula was able to take back her power and start the relationship with her mother afresh. It took a while and several reminders to her mother, to reinforce her desire for long-term change. Paula is coming on in leaps and bounds in terms of assertiveness and confidence and her mother is now aware of when she becomes controlling which is no longer appropriate in their adult relationship. I later worked with Paula to discuss finding out more about her mother to gain a greater understanding of her behaviour. It turns out her mother never felt loved as a child and would act in a clingy and needy way towards Paula, expecting Paula to fulfil her unmet childhood needs.
Once Paula understood her mother’s attempts to make up for her own deficit in love, they planned to spend quality time together and talk things through, This has given Paula’s mother a new lease of independence to do new things and to meet new people on her own. With their relationship re-balanced in this way it’s been a win, win for both Paula and her mother. They now spend time enjoying each other’s company more than ever before. It surprised both of them how much happier they are by creating some distance and yet when they are together they feel all the closer because of it.
Many women want to break free from the old roles of mother and daughter as well as severing ties from the expectations placed on us by society. We want to ditch the need to be ‘superwoman’ and give up the desire to be liked by our mothers and be accepted as who we are. For many daughters the yearning to be free from her mother’s control is paramount if she is to fare well in her life and in the same way, we can set our mothers free from the dutiful mother role and enable her to live her life anew. It might seem like a harsh reality for a mother, that her daughter is fully dependent on her at birth for food, shelter, warmth and nurturance and then no sooner has she moved into her teens, she no longer wants this level of attention and care. Rebelling against what she depended on, can cause conflict in the identities of both daughter and mother. The cry for independence while still wanting a mother’s comfort can be confusing for both parties and the balance is difficult to get right on both sides.
The role of mother and daughter ideally adapts over time. As both woman age, the dynamics and expectations change to one of equality and both mother and daughter can meet as adults. With understanding and maturity on both sides, a new kind of relationship emerges when both mother and daughter interact honestly and freely. The defined roles of mother-daughter are no longer necessary when both women are able to act with maturity. Each woman emerges as herself, with her own unique identity.
Questions for Reflection
In what way have you developed your identity according to your mother’s expectations?
What did your mother teach you about who you could be as a woman, daughter and mother?
What did you learn from your mother about yourself, your body, motherhood, marriage, relationships and how to succeed in life?
What do you have in common with your mother in terms of your personal identity?
What aspects of your identity, personality, the way you look and your life choices has your mother asked you to change?
What are the positive and negative aspects of having your mother as role model?
What elements of her behaviour and sharing of knowledge have not been a positive experience for you?
In what way is your self-image and identity distorted in relation to what you were told about yourself, or the beliefs you have formed based on your experiences? (How do you view yourself?)
Thinking about the last question, are your distortions the same as your mother’s view of herself?
What healthy and unhealthy behaviours have you modelled in relation to your mother?
How do those behaviours impact your life positively or negatively?
Describe your mother as a woman, not as your mother
How would your mother describe you as a woman, not as her daughter?
Reflect on what you have learnt from reading through these questions and in doing so, know this is a further opportunity to understand yourself, your mother and a way of transforming your relationship.
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My daughters, your daughters, our daughters deserve safety, protection, and freedom to make their own choices about their personal lives and their physical selves - Carre Otis