Mothers and Adult Daughters: The Pushes and Pulls of Contact

Mother and daughter sitting on porchWhen Mommy’s little girl grows up and goes off into the world to have her own life, struggles with issues of separation and difference may occur. Eye rolls, hugs, tugs-of-war, and tears are familiar to those who have witnessed or participated in mother-daughter relationships. Frequently, in this new phase of their relationship, mother and daughter are unprepared to deal with their differing needs for the amount, form, and content of contact. Moreover, the impact of physical separation between mother and daughter is affected by the degree to which each needs to feel connected, or to not feel rejected or disconnected.

When adult children desire to individuate and develop autonomy, they may struggle to trust their choices and may fear being unable to withstand mom’s influence. Often, to avoid feelings of criticism or incompetence, the daughter will pull away. (These may be the daughter’s feelings and may not reflect the reality that mom feels critical or entitled to continue her earlier, authoritative role.)

From early childhood, mothers and daughters tend to identify with each other. As the daughter moves into adulthood, both may have difficulty with the daughter’s developing an identity that differs from a past shared view of being alike. For some mothers, this can be experienced as a rejection of the mother’s character, worldview, values, opinions, etc. Daughters may have a similar experience. Although we typically think of the daughter needing to pull away from mom to individuate, some daughters who are ambivalent about developing a separate life and sense of self may find they are being pushed by a worried mom to do so. These mothers may try to influence what they see as necessary individuation by reducing the amount and nature of contact with their daughters.

When Daughter Wants More Contact

Maggie began therapy at the age of 26 when her mother told her she didn’t think it was good for them to speak every day. She said Maggie should talk to someone to help her feel more confident and self-assured. Maggie sounded irritated when she told me she didn’t really want to be in therapy:

“I don’t see why I need a therapist. My mother has always been the one in my life who’s made me feel good about myself. She reassures me. I know my biggest issue is I wish I had a boyfriend. I know mom thinks I’m smart and cute and there is no reason for me not to find a man. I’m not so optimistic. There’s something about me that I can’t seem to find a relationship that works. It’s true; I don’t feel so good about myself. But if Mom hasn’t succeeded in helping me, I don’t know what you can do.”

I asked Maggie why she thought her mother wanted her in therapy. Maggie began to cry and barely managed to speak:

“This has never happened before. I guess I’m upset with Mom. How can she do this to me? I tell Mom everything. I rely on her for everything. She’s always there for me. Lately, she’s been pulling back. I feel so rejected. I don’t know what’s going on. She tells me I need to learn to rely on myself and trust myself. How can I do that if she rejects me? Doesn’t she know I need her input? I feel so abandoned. How can therapy help me? I just need my mother back.”

When you are the same or one, the relationship is symbiotic, with no space between the two. When you are two separate, distinct people, there is a space within which each can attach to the other. That may be the best contact of all.

Maggie and her mother had rarely experienced conflict:

“I always felt we were on the same page about things. She had great ideas and I was happy to do what she suggested. I took up piano, which we both love, and went to her alma mater when I decided on a college. I enjoy making her happy. I always feel safe that she knows what’s right for me. Now she seems to be telling me that what’s right is to be more on my own, have my own ideas. I do have ideas. They just happen to be the same as her ideas. How would I know what other ideas to have?”

Maggie decided to work with me and see if I could help her sort out her feelings about being more separate from her mother. She is beginning to realize she felt good as long as she was living the life her mother valued. She hadn’t recognized that she was so used to looking to her mother for guidelines for living, she paid little or no attention to her own wishes and desires. In fact, when we started working together, Maggie had no concept of her own unique needs, separate from what her mother believed would be good for her. The notion of differences between them was not part of her thinking or feeling.

Maggie has begun to think about how her reliance on her mother has limited her by preventing her from developing herself through her relationship to the world. She is considering that her mother may believe she had interfered with Maggie’s ability to individuate and was pushing Maggie away not to reject her, but so she could develop her sense of self. The challenge for Maggie is to move beyond her mother’s wish for her to individuate, and choose to grow her own desires and develop the capacity to feel self-confident and derive self-esteem from a variety of experiences.

When Mother Wants More Contact

Susan was beside herself. Her 34-year-old daughter, Isabel, who lived in another state, just had her first baby and wanted Susan and her husband to wait a month before visiting their new grandson. Susan had been seeing me for three years when she came into her session overwhelmed with feelings:

“I can’t believe this. You know how I’ve been so excited about going to visit Isabel and the baby and helping out. I assumed she would need me as soon as the baby arrived. I know she can bristle when I give her my opinions or suggestions about things. But I figured she doesn’t know anything about babies, so this was going to be different. Finally, she would let me be a mother.”

I asked Susan why she thought Isabel wanted her to wait. Susan let out a huge sigh and responded:

“I guess I should have anticipated this. Since she left home for college, she’s been keeping me at a distance. When I worried about her in college, she would take forever to respond to my contacts. I remember explaining that it’s a mother’s job to be concerned and she told me it made her feel like I don’t think she can take care of herself and I need to stop. She was partly right. I still don’t think she knows how to be a mother to a newborn and should welcome my input. But I fooled myself about this. I suppose I need to feel like I’m valued as a mother, and I do get worried that she is too independent and will get herself into trouble.”

I reminded Susan that she has been talking with me for some time about how distressed she is about Isabel. When she first came to see me, she was overwhelmed with anxiety that Isabel was about to make a mistake and marry Jake. She was hurt and angry that she had been given no clue that the relationship had progressed to the point of engagement. I recalled that early in our work she had told me she didn’t know why Isabel kept her out of the loop on everything, and I reminded her that we have been looking at that question in our work. Then I asked, “What have you come to understand about this?”

Susan shook her head sadly. “I know, I know. Isabel has to live her own life. Jake turned out to be great. I have to remember that my anxiety about Isabel’s life is about my own needs to feel like a good mother. When she was younger, I felt we were two peas in a pod and I always knew exactly what was right for her. That made me feel like a good mom. Now, she has such a different life from mine that I don’t always know who she is or how to be her mom.”

I recognized how painful this was for Susan, who wanted to feel like a good mother and desirable grandmother. I thought it important to remind her that lately she has been doing a good job thinking about what Isabel wants and being less intrusive. I told her I knew it was difficult to wait for Isabel to ask her on rare occasions for advice. I also hypothesized that perhaps becoming a grandmother triggered her feelings of wanting to be a good mother/grandmother and she was reverting to old patterns of wanting to be involved on her terms, not Isabel’s.

Hopefully, Susan will have an opportunity when she visits Isabel to practice what is so difficult to do: not attempt to influence Isabel’s thoughts and feelings. She knows the more she can admire and recognize Isabel’s differences, the more likely Isabel will learn to see her as uncritical and not controlling. Susan is working on this.

When mom and her little girl spend their early years thinking of each other as the same, the daughter’s seeking to separate can become a painful process for both. If the daughter wants to remain the child and not venture into the grown-up world, the mother who sees this as problematic faces the dilemma of how to help launch her daughter without creating feelings of abandonment and rejection. When the mother finds separation painful, she has to learn how to give her daughter space so they can attach in a new way.

Mother and daughter ultimately have to understand that being separate and different, rather than the same and enmeshed, facilitates a stronger experience of attachment: When you are the same or one, the relationship is symbiotic, with no space between the two. When you are two separate, distinct people, there is a space within which each can attach to the other. That may be the best contact of all.

Note: To protect privacy, names in the preceding article have been changed and the dialogues described are a composite.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Anna

    Anna

    March 18th, 2016 at 7:30 AM

    My mom and I really struggle to maintain this balance of wanting to be with each other and then not. It is hard when we both have lives of our own and yet you want to be able to spend time with each other too. It can be hard to sort all of that out, especially when your needs are so totally different at different points in time. I don’t know if there is an easy answer other than just to always try to remember that above all else you have to make time for each other.

  • maureen

    maureen

    March 18th, 2016 at 10:52 AM

    I was always so close with my mother that it is hard for me to even imagine wanting to go long amounts of time without seeing or talking to her.
    I know that this happens because I have friends who have not been nearly as close to their mothers as I always have been, but for me it just feels like the most natural and logical relationship in the world, that bond between mom and daughter.
    I only hope to one day have that same type of closeness with a daughter of my own.

  • Adrian

    Adrian

    March 19th, 2016 at 7:13 AM

    For mothers and daughters there is always the possibility of having a complicated relationship. It just seems to be what happens especially if both of them have strong personalities and think that they always know what is best for them.

  • Erin

    Erin

    August 6th, 2016 at 7:40 PM

    I feel this is a good word to describe my relationship with my mother–complicated. I actually resent her a lot and I’m not even sure of the root cause. I feel like she’s not on my side and in fact likes to always state the opposite of what I say or do. It’s quite frustrating to the point where you don’t even want to talk to her. She is sometimes there when I need her but not always. Most recently with the birth of my 2nd child she has only visited my house twice. With my first child she helped watch and babysit him so I could sleep and have child free nights. This child she has been MIA. She wants me to pack both kids up and come to her. That’s not easy or supportive. She has also never been affectionate with me, that I can remember. She can be cold and distant. Maybe that’s why I resent her because I don’t feel that “loving” relationship.

  • MAC

    MAC

    March 21st, 2016 at 6:37 AM

    These could also be complicated between dads and sons and daughters. I think that any relationship between parents and their adult children can be rocky at times, especially when the kids are ready to spread their wings and fly but the parents aren’t quite ready to let them go. I think that there are also times when the parents want to step in and help and the kids just do not want or need that from them anymore and so that causes a little bit of contention.

  • Jane

    Jane

    March 21st, 2016 at 2:34 PM

    I’m the product of an enmeshed relationship with my now deceased mom. My twin, sadly, was marginalized. My twin and I both, ultimately, struggle with insecure adult attachment style though I was blessed to develop secure attachment through therapy. I love the visual of space between mother and daughter to allow for healthy attachment.

  • Hope

    Hope

    March 22nd, 2016 at 12:41 PM

    I can really relate to this article. My mother and I struggled through this and eventually came to a place where we were both separate, had better boundaries, but were still close (just in a more healthy way). I remember a time when I felt that I would die and not be able to live if my mom wasn’t around to support me. I’m glad we got to a place where we both had more independence. She passed away in 2014, and while it was the hardest thing that I’ve ever experienced, it did not destroy me (like I thought it would when we fused together).

  • Melinda

    Melinda

    March 23rd, 2016 at 11:10 AM

    Going through this with both of my teen daughters right now and I think that we are all three feeling a little bit of growing pains.

  • Angie

    Angie

    October 28th, 2016 at 10:56 AM

    This coming Wednesday will be my daughters 21st. Birthday . I feel so disconnected from her. She has recently been pulling away from me and the rest of the family. She tells me how much she wants to move out and be on her own but can’t afford it so she’s miserable and keeps to herself in her room. When we go out to shop or do something together she quickly gets annoyed with me and cuts our time short. I feel so hurt and rejected by her and we have always been so close.

  • Jeff D

    Jeff D

    March 26th, 2016 at 5:46 AM

    I am so glad that I don’t have children.
    Everything that I see seems to indicate that they might cause me a lot of hurt, and I don’t want to have to deal with all of that.
    Seems like I made the right choice.

  • chrys

    chrys

    March 28th, 2016 at 3:20 PM

    I am so lucky that with my children we have always been close. Of course there have been the moments where they did not want me to be around as much and I have bee fine with giving them their space.
    I think that there are many parents who get offended when they see that their kids don’t need them quite as much, they think that they never were like this with their parents?
    We all have these growing pains, but when it all is said and done there is no one who can replace the role of family, and it is the best thing in the world for them to know that you will always be there for them to rely on.

  • Lucy t.

    Lucy t.

    July 24th, 2017 at 7:59 AM

    I have just suffered a year of cancer and it’s treatment and for various reasons my life has been awful. My only child, daughter, accused me of emotional manipulation but I don’t know what she thinks I was manipulating her to do. We lived too far from each other for her to visit me or I her more than once or twice a year. She is married, has 2 children and works very hard which I entirely respect. I was not manipulating her to visit me, or to do anything for me. We spoke on the phone about once every 3 weeks which doesn’t seem excessive to me. We moved to be closer to her and our grandchildren but still, about 2 hours away, I do not want to impose or interfere. Then she e mailed me to thank me for presents sent to our grandson. It was very short the just said ‘I need space’. I don’t get it. I hardly ever phoned her, only if I hadn’t heard for ages. I have tried to offer help with the grandchildren or anything but she hasn’t wanted that. It seems particularly rough that she has chosen this moment when I am not that well (I have never had a serious illness in my life before), am in the middle of moving house and all sorts of things went wrong with selling and buying new house, my husband and I live in one room with our 2 cats and this is dragging on. I think I do expect my daughter to care about me if I’m having a rotten time just as I would for her but all I’ve felt is rejection. I guess I am feeling sorry for myself but I am also feeling real grief and much worry that she might be going through all sorts of emotional difficulties. Maybe her relation ship with her partner is breaking down, maybe she is depressed, maybe….but I can do nothing. She told me not to get in touch.

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