Why Mothers Are a Girl's Best Friend

Who else will ever know us better, or love us more? Even as grown-ups, we crave their applause, their compassion, and their unending devotion.
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My Mother, My Friend

mother and daughter

These days, I call my mother every morning, somewhere amid the chaos of waking, washing, breakfasting, and remembering the lunchboxes, of driving my 14-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son to the bus stop or to school, of tackling the e-mail, voice mail, and snail mail when I finally get to my office. It's our ritual, one that began after my father's death three years ago. Every time she answers, I'm struck by the unmistakable delight in her voice at the sound of mine. There probably isn't anyone else in the world who is as glad to hear from me, who is as sincerely interested in the details of my life, in my firsthand reports of what I have to do that day, or even in my secondhand account of what my young son thinks about the latest Red Sox game.

What are we doing, my mother and I, with all these phone calls? Staying in touch, letting one another know that another day is beginning and all is well -- no small thing anymore, in the world we live in. We are establishing our places, too: Whatever else I may be, I'll always be your daughter; whatever else you are, you'll always be my mom. But we're also becoming friends, both of us adults, independent of one another, yet deeply connected.

I have to reach back a long way to remember another time when every day began with my mother's voice -- all the way to my early teens, when the two of us lived under the same roof and our connection was far more troubled. It turns out that both phases of our relationship follow a rather classic pattern.

"When girls are adolescents and launching themselves into the adult world, the relationship is demanding for mothers, but much later, when a mother's health declines, the relationship is demanding for daughters," says Karen Fingerman, PhD, associate professor of human development and family studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and author of Aging Mothers and Their Adult Daughters: A Study in Mixed Emotions. "However, during the period in between, which can last for decades, feelings of closeness between mothers and daughters reach their peak. At the same time, there are complexities and nuances in the relationship that allow both women to accept each other's negative qualities in the same way they might in a friendship. It's much more emotionally rich."

Part of the harmony stems from the fact that with the fractiousness of the early years behind them, both mother and daughter are on their best behavior, according to a 2001 study by Dr. Fingerman and Eva S. Lefkowitz, PhD, assistant professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. The researchers asked 46 mothers, ages 69 to 93, and their middle-aged daughters, ages 32 to 60, to look at a photograph of a mother-daughter pair and write a story about it; mothers and daughters were then brought together and asked to prepare a joint story.

The researchers, who monitored the pairs' conversations during the process, found that no matter how the women performed the task -- some daughters simply submitted their own version or suggested their mother do so, while other pairs wrote a new story together -- their interactions were far more positive than negative: Rating the amount of negative behavior on a scale of 1 to 5, the researchers gave a 1.2 overall score for the mothers and 1.3 for the daughters. "We found that middle-aged daughters tended to dominate the conversations, which is the opposite pattern of what studies have found with adolescent daughters and their moms," says Dr. Lefkowitz. "But even though they structured the conversations, middle-aged daughters gave their moms plenty of encouragement and support."

Continued on page 2:  Our Changing Relationship

 

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