Separation may be one of the hardest experiences mothers and daughters go through.
The intimate attachments formed at birth, are past their sell-by date, as a daughter nears adolescence and the complex love a daughter experiences during the separation process with her mother, may cause confusion, frustration, guilt and sadness. I have known mothers who find the pain of separation too great to bear and they wonder who on earth they are without their daughter.
Many mothers do not feel the need to separate from their sons in the same way they do with their daughters. If they have created a “mini me” this bond is like no other as their daughter represents their sense of self and womanhood.
During infancy, mother and child are very much at one. Time is spent nursing, gazing into the infant’s eyes and the sensations of closeness and warmth experienced by mother and daughter continue to bond them together. The child constantly looks for connection, reward and satisfaction, its main aim is survival in a brand new world.
It is common for daughters in their teenage years if not before, to want to separate from their mothers for many reasons. She may feel she can no longer talk to her mother about certain aspects of her life as she develops into a woman and may find herself seeking out alternative mother figures to talk to - whether this be a same sex friend, the mother of a close friend or a stepmother or family relative during the separation process. At this stage of a daughter’s life, she may also rebel against authority figures who remind her of her mother. Working recently with a teenager who was in conflict with a teacher at school, when I asked ‘who does this teacher remind you of?’ the young woman said ‘my mother’. We were able to discuss her projections and how she was reacting to the teacher’s tone of voice, mannerisms and requests which were similar to her mother’s and then to recognise the teacher was in fact a completely different person.
As a daughter moves through childhood into her teens, it’s also natural for a mother to re-experience aspects of her own adolescence. Any unresolved emotions and internal conflicts may surface at this time and become part of the complications of separation. Separation covers not just the physical separation of mothers and daughters no longer living under the same roof, but also the desires of daughters to separate emotionally. Both daughters and mothers will need time to adapt to these changes. As adult women, it is unhealthy when the mother or daughter become over dependent on the other for a sense of feeling valued, gaining happiness and self- esteem.
In an ideal world a daughter discovers her own needs independently from her mother. Moving on from infancy she grows and develops her own character, first at nursery followed by school, she makes new friends and finds personal interests. Some adult daughters still provide for their mothers unmet needs (and vice versa) in terms of conversational intimacy, affection, attention and closeness. If neither mother nor daughter have close external relationships outside their bond it is even harder for them to part. In this dynamic, they become the centre of each other’s world, enmeshed and each expecting the other to fill the role of soul mate, mini-mother, sister, friend and husband.
Generally, though not always, the more a mother clings to a daughter the more the daughter will struggle to break free. In my work, it’s become apparent that the adult separation process often begins in a moment of conflict when the daughter may have been trying to assert her views and opinions without her mother’s approval. It might take a disagreement or several squabbles of this kind for the mother to realise her daughter is growing into adulthood and wants her independence. Some mothers may also take the daughter’s wish to become autonomous as a personal attack. As mirrors of each other, a daughter too may feel rejected when a mother wants to move on from her traditional role.
Mothers can sometimes become overly attached as to how their daughters turn out. This can have both positive and negative connotations. If there is an element of unhealthy narcissism, the over binding attachment can be damaging to a daughter as some mothers do not want see their daughters as being separate. They are unable to love and accept their daughters in their own right because the mother’s focus is inward and their motivation is one of control and dominance. Self-centred mothers are mostly concerned with personal gain and keeping the daughter for as long as possible. Narcissistic mothers are unable to fully let go and allow the separation process to complete, this frequently leaves the daughter feeling like she doesn’t know her own mind and ‘mum knows best’. There is often internalised anger, frustration and rage for those who feel powerless against their mothers. The behaviour loop of the mother demanding and the daughter giving into her mother’s demands sets up a chain reaction and only one person’s needs are being met, namely the mother’s.
As a result of this, daughters may go on throughout their lives to have a series of limiting beliefs and fears such as:
It’s not OK to be me
My feelings don’t matter
I don’t know what I want
I’m scared I’ll make the wrong decision
No one will love me unless I do as they say
It’s not safe for me to leave this relationship
No one listens to me
I feel small and insignificant
I can’t stand up for myself
I don’t matter
I can’t get it right
I have no control
Millie’s Words of Wisdom - as taken from Mothers and Daughters, the book
‘‘I carry my mother’s voice around inside my head, berating myself as if she were right beside me. I have to catch myself when I’m going into her judgements and criticisms of me. Although she is no longer on this earthly plain, her voice, her view of things, her mannerisms and behaviours are still a part of me. I just need to turn her voice down and turn mine up.’’
In the same way a daughter may be eager to separate from her mother, many mothers may long for this separation too. Others may not want to lose their daughters and will become reluctant to let her go or vice versa. Generally, a daughter may feel safe in her early years, being like her mother and having a solid bond with her. In the case of conditional love, many daughters may fear separation as the underlying beliefs are ‘love will be taken away’, ‘I will be disapproved of’ or ‘I will make mummy angry’. Many of these beliefs have not been tested out for accuracy but still run in our thought loops as we are projecting our past into our future and imagining our worst fears. Utilising The Spotlight Process (Chapter Six), you will be able to uncover where your limiting beliefs come from and gain an opportunity to examine your thoughts, re-directing them and in doing so, find a more balanced approach when it comes to letting your mother go.
When a daughter develops into her teenage years, moving through puberty and towards forming sexual relationships of her own, it can be a trying time for both mothers and daughters, each having their own ideas about what’s acceptable behaviour and what isn’t. This can relate to what the daughter chooses to wear, who her friends are, what time she comes home - as well as her choice of partner. Mothers might see this as the final rejection as their daughter becomes a woman and replaces her need for a mother with the need for a partner.
Evelyn Bassoff, shares in Mothers and Daughters, Loving and Letting Go, how as a mother’s child turns outwards and away from her, the mother faces a void which forces the mother to reorganise herself emotionally. For many mothers, losing the exclusive relationship can create a physiological crisis with mild and transitory depressive symptoms, while for others there is a feeling of relief as they anticipate new found freedom releasing themselves from obligations and childrearing.
The mother might find she is unable to cope with letting her ‘little girl’ go. She may find herself reacting negatively to her daughter’s choices and becoming a critical and controlling parent, wanting to be the one who makes the final decision about how her daughter should live her life. This may be because a mother sees herself in her daughter and might not like what she sees. She may be envious of her daughter or dependent on her daughter to meet her own childhood needs. Her own sense of self, identity and self-esteem are tangled up in this relationship with no beginning and no end.
Daughters may regress back to childhood when their mothers become controlling and demanding. If these types of demands come into play the daughter will act out the earlier role of being a dutiful daughter much younger than her years or may report back to a moody teenager and throw a tantrum when the mother becomes overbearing. When boundaries between mother and daughter aren’t clear, it’s an unknown quantity for a daughter to comprehend what is her own experience and what is her mother’s. This will change when a daughter is confident in her identity and strong enough not to react from the hurt parts of her younger self then she will be able to pull away from the need to please her mother and accept her mother’s beliefs and ideals are no longer hers.
Ideally, an adolescent daughter will form a separate identity from her mother and in doing so, become a unique individual with a firm sense of self, who she is and what she wants from life. Separation at whatever age comes about when mother and daughter recognise themselves as two different people and they understand their identities do not have to be merged. Separation includes forming one’s own beliefs and value systems, as well as having the freedom to choose one’s own hopes and dreams. Mothers with a healthy view of this division will promote their daughter’s separation, allowing them to make their own choices while still keeping a connection as an individual. The separation process may happen many times over before mother and daughter can be together as equals. Ideally, this process will happen during a daughter’s adolescence, allowing a girl to blossom into a self-confident, autonomous and independent woman.
Depending on the age of your mother after the separation process has taken place (whether you still live with her or not) she may learn to enjoy the extra time she has for herself and look forward to pursuing her career and personal passions. Sadly for many mothers, that time may never come, if she feels unable to let her children stand on their own two feet, is frightened of not having a purpose, or is needy in her own behaviours and fears being alone. It’s natural for both mother and daughter to want to be mothered at times and a healthy relationship can allow for this, each woman nurturing the other with willingness, expecting nothing in return.
Separation can occur at different stages of a daughter’s life dependent on her personal situation.
Separation during childhood/teens/adulthood
Separation through adoption, fostering or going into care
Family separation, divorce or re-marriage
Separation through personal trauma
Separation through illness, emotional or physical unavailability
Separation through estrangement
Separation through death
My wish for you, is that you experience the gift of separation. In doing so, you will understand yourself as a unique and beautiful individual, not only a daughter but also a woman. If you have not already separated from your mother, make this something which you strive for and in doing so, you set her and yourself free from the chains which bind you.
It is possible to have a more positive relationship with your mother, once you have both adjusted to living your lives differently. Setting boundaries about what is acceptable or not, and meeting your own needs, strengthens your relationship - even if the relationship doesn’t turn out to be the way you expected.
It may only be after the death of your mother that you wake up to the fact that you are now an individual in your own right. You may feel hesitant at first as to how to express yourself, how to reconsider your life and what you want from it. Separation through death gives you back your own life, enabling you to live it on your terms without the need for your mother’s love or approval.
It is my hope, having read this far, you are now beginning to understand the complexity of your mother-daughter relationship and have learned new things about your mother and yourself. Reflecting on what has resonated with you so far, take a moment and acknowledge your progress.
When you’re ready to fully understand your relationship with your mother, Mothers and Daughters: the guide to understanding and transforming the relationship with your mother will aid you in doing just that. Whether your mother is alive or deceased, it’s never too late to heal your mother stuff.
Are we separate enough to see our mothers whole, as people who are both good and bad? - Nancy Friday