by Eleanor Barkhorn
Elizabeth Bennet and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Violet Weston and her daughters in August: Osage County. Olivia and Maya Pope in Scandal. The history of popular culture is riddled with examples of tense mother-daughter relationships.
Why are these relationships so difficult? Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, analyzed hours’ worth of conversations between mothers and daughters for her book You’re Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. She discovered a central tension in the mother-daughter relationship: mothers want to protect their daughters, so they offer advice that they think will make their daughters’ lives easier. Daughters, on the other hand, want approval from their mothers, so they interpret this advice as criticism, as proof that they’re imperfect.
“Here’s the person you most want to think you’re perfect. Because her opinion matters so much,” Tannen says. “So if she thinks you’re doing things wrong then you must be fatally flawed. And underneath we all worry that we’re fatally flawed.”
These conflicting desires — the mother’s desire to protect vs. the daughter’s desire for approval — set the stage for painful misunderstandings and arguments. The well-meaning mother gives advice; the approval-seeking daughter takes offense and tells her mother to leave her alone; the mother throws up her hands and says she feels like she can’t say anything that won’t upset her daughter.
In an interview, Tannen discussed the rise of mothers and daughters who say they’re “best friends,” what mothers and daughters fight about, and — crucially — how they can fight less.
“My mother is my best friend”
A distinctive characteristic of the millennial generation is that we’re closer with our parents. The president of MTV announced in 2013 that the network is overhauling its content because young people today are “not rebelling against their parents at all. They’re moving in with them. They don’t want to leave.” A therapist wrote in The Atlantic a few years ago that she keeps seeing clients who call their parents their best friends.
Tannen, too, has noticed an increase in the number of women who say their mother or their daughter is their best friend.
“I think it’s a fairly new development that you hear women saying, ‘My daughter’s my best friend, my mother’s my best friend,'” she says. “I think that would have been unheard of years ago and is probably still pretty unheard of in most cultures of the world.”
Tannen claims that women mean something quite specific when they call their mother or their daughter their best friend: “It isn’t the same as what they mean when they say, a woman who’s my best friend who’s my peer.”
In a mother-daughter relationship, the “best friend” designation means that they talk frequently and tell one another everything. “The idea that this is someone who is interested in the minutiae of your life. We consider that a sign of closeness, and we treasure it.” This constant contact is made possible by the myriad communication technologies at our disposal today: phone calls, text messages, emails, Facebook updates, instant messages.
But this closeness has its drawbacks. In You’re Wearing That?, Tannen offers several examples of mother-daughter conversations that turn into conflicts because of the fuzzy line between friend and mom. A daughter will begin a conversation in friend mode, telling her mother how tired she is. The mother, also in friend mode, will respond by sympathizing with her daughter. But soon the mother switches into mom mode, peppering her daughter with questions like, “Are you getting enough sleep?” and chastising her to take better care of herself. The daughter then clams up, wishing she’d never told her mom she was tired in the first place.
“Because they talk to each other more, and talk to each other about more personal things, there are more opportunities to say the wrong thing,” says Tannen. “Because you’re so close, there’s more opportunity to get on one another’s nerves.”
What mothers and daughters fight about: the Big Three
Tannen identifies the three most common sources of friction in mother-daughter conversations: hair, clothes, and weight. Each of these, of course, is related to physical appearance — which reflects the problems women face in society at large.
“Women in our culture are judged by appearance far more than men are,” Tannen says. Men, Tannen argues, are able to choose clothing and hairstyles without drawing attention to themselves: if they wear their hair short and put on a suit, that’s considered pretty neutral in our society, and no one will comment one way or another. But there’s no equivalent of a short haircut and a suit for women. Women have so many choices for how to dress and do their hair that it’s impossible not to make a statement.
As Tannen describes it: “How often have you looked at another woman and thought, ‘She’d look better if her hair were longer, shorter, curlier, straighter, pulled back, pushed forward, with bangs, without bangs, with shorter bangs, with different bangs, colored, not colored, colored a different color, blunt cut, styled differently, styled better.’ You could go on forever.”
Because women have so many hair- and clothing-related choices — and can expect to be judged for those choices — of course mothers are going to have opinions on which choices their daughters should make. And because mothers want what’s best for their daughters, of course they’re going to express those opinions. And that’s where the caring-criticism conflict arises: what a mother intends as well-meaning advice (“Your hair would look so pretty with a few highlights in it”) a daughter interprets as devastating criticism (“My mom thinks my hair is ugly”).
Another factor feeding the tension around physical appearance, according to Tannen, is that “mothers and daughters often look at each other with a layer of scrutiny that we otherwise turn only on ourselves. Because we feel we represent each other to the world.” So a mother who’s ashamed of her own mousy brown hair is likely to urge her daughter to get highlights. She’s trying to fix in her daughter something she dislikes in herself.
What daughters can do to fight less with their mothers
Though mother-daughter conflict is pretty much universal, it’s not intractable. Tannen says she’s spoken to several women who’ve improved their relationships with their moms, mainly by changing how they react to their mothers’ advice.
She gives the example of a woman who went to visit her mother in the hospital. She leaned over the bed to greet her mother, and the first words out of her mother’s mouth: “When was the last time you did your roots?” Tannen says that ordinarily this woman would have been annoyed at her mother’s fixation on her appearance. This time, though, “it just meant that her mother was okay, and she realized she was at risk of losing that and cherished it.”
Tannen recommends this approach toward motherly advice: “Yes, I hear criticism — that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a sign of caring.”
Tannen’s advice for mothers is similar to her advice for daughters: try to see things from the other person’s point of view. Mothers should recognize that daughters do take offense at motherly advice, no matter how well-intentioned it is.
“Then they learn to bite their tongues. And it’s hard, but it improves the relationship.”