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 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Beverly Amsel, PhD, Individuation Topic Expert Contributor

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • 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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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.

    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.

  • sharon

    April 28th, 2019 at 7:56 PM

    How ‘right on’!!!

  • Jody

    May 3rd, 2021 at 12:16 PM

    My daughter and I were always very close. I raised her as a single parent and finished two degrees with just my mother helping me as her father was always broke and couldn’t be depended on. Though he did visit with her sometimes on the occasional weekend, and his parents also have had a close relationship with her.
    Last year things came to a head when she was confronted at work about some kind of past trouble, and she was let go. She decided that she needed to move as far away from here as she could, and before she left, she told me I was toxic, and that I treated her like shit her whole life. She said that her husband’s family didn’t judge her for the things she did. She obviously felt judged by me because I didn’t say how wonderful she still was despite all of her poor choices. I never stopped telling her I loved her, and never mind that I had just paid 100 thousand dollars for her home, and paid off her car and credit, offered her every kind of help over the past few years since inheriting money from my mother’s boyfriend of 40 years. He left her nothing because she refused to accept him with his flaws, and she would only contact him when she needed help financially.
    I assume she blames me in part for the bad things that have happened in her life.
    Our separation began when her fiance from Canada came to the US and began living with us. I was working full time, so it wasn’t much trouble for me, and when I finally started dating (I had not started dating after I ended the relationship with her father because I didn’t want to bring another person into our over busy life. I went four or five years without dating at all), I had a long term boyfriend that I did some traveling with once she was 17-18 and she eventually brought her fiance along for one trip, but that guy I dated wouod stare at her and was somehow inappropriate. That relationship ended and I met someone that I moved in with and became engaged to.
    I continued to pay the rent on the apartment for nearly a year (my daughter says she doesn’t recall that), and she met another young man that she left her husband for, he was very young, and so that caused her problems with her work reputation. Unfortunately, she had to move out of town because she needed to start new. And by the way, I watched my grandson almost very day after work, on non-work days, and for overnights. He and I had formed a close bond. She didn’t even say goodbye on her way out of town, and after an argument we had over the phone after she left, we haven’t spoken at all.
    I honestly wish she had been raised by a better mother. I did really well though. Unfortunately I spoiled her awful.
    At this point, I have been so hurt by her words and for tearing my grandson out of my life, I don’t even have any words for her. I am grieving the loss of a daughter that was much kinder. After a year of emotional troubles (I continuously offered to pay for a psychiatrist, and she even cancelled an appointment she had.
    It’s devastating to see how some Millenials behave towards their parents and those that my generation treated with respect.
    I hope she comes with an apology someday.

  • Cheryl

    November 1st, 2021 at 4:28 PM

    Jody, I was so sad to red your post. I hope things have gotten better with your daughter. Your post is the first I’ve seen that mirror my relationship with my 37 year old daughter. For the past 8 years I’ve been struggling with our relationship and as my granddaughters get older, I’m afraid I’m losing them too. It doesn’t help that we don’t live in the same state, but for years I’ve traveled to see my daughter, before and after her girls were born. I’ve offered similar support to my daughter that you have and I guess now that she doesn’t need anything from me, she doesn’t seem to care if I’m in her life. I’ve felt abandoned for the last 7 years basically. I have 3 girls and I’ve never been an intrusive mom, never disapproving of their decisions, always tried to be supportive. I’ve tried to get my daughter to talk to me but she just won’t. The last time we were estranged for a few years and finally talked, she said she would
    work harder on our relationship but that never happened. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been through and going through similar to what you have and my heart breaks for you because I can relate so much.

  • Sandra

    January 19th, 2022 at 12:18 PM

    Jody and Cheryl, I could relate to both your articles. My 42 year old married daughter with 2 children is acting the same way. We were so close when she was growing up. At age 15 her father had an affair and I made the decision to divorce him. He married his mistress and they both lavished both my daughters with gifts and trips over the years. They even had then join them on their honeymoon! Her father passed away 6 years ago from stage 4 lung cancer and his wife inherited 1 million dollars in addition to all their other assets. His wife has continued to lavish my daughters and grandchildren by taking them on all expensed paid trips to Italy, France, Costa Rica totaling 8 since he died! In addition she gave them each 50K dollars! I moved to a different town when my daughter moved away to go to college and said she did not want to move back home. I lived about an hour away. She then moved back to our home area where her father and wife lived, so she has lived much closer to them since she has been married and had children. The hardest thing was she had breast cancer this past fall and did not tell me about it. She finally told me when I flew to attend my granddaughter birthday. She told me in the car 5 minutes after I arrived! I found out her sister, step-mother and other friends all knew. My mother died of breast cancer 2 years ago, so I was devastated to hear the news. Now she is upset because it was her choice to tell me or not to tell me and can’t understand why I would be upset. We have not talked since 10.20.21. I have reached out via phone, text, email, gifts and no response. When I sent after New Years that I would like to meet with both her and her sister to just talk, she responded that she was not on my schedule and did not want to talk now. She won’t let me talk to the grandchildren either.
    So, I’m respecting her wishes but I’m having a hard time, especially not talking to FaceTiming with my 4 grandchildren ages 2-9.
    I just found this website today and could totally relate to your stories. My heart breaks for you too.

  • Jeremy

    March 12th, 2022 at 2:40 PM

    My mom she keeps talking to me and I would like her to stop talking to me right now. And she keeps coming in my room I would like her to stay out of my room and to stop with this ridiculous bug and parasite nonsense right now.

  • Jeremy

    April 1st, 2022 at 1:13 PM

    My mom still going on with ridiculous bug nonsense and there is no bug saying they’re on Piper there is no bugs on her. And she is still talking to me and I would like her right now to stop talking to me and to no longer be coming in my room stay out of my room.

  • Jeremy

    April 16th, 2022 at 1:14 PM

    My nutcase mom who believes she’s seeing bugs she is still talking to me and I would like her no longer talking to me and to stay out of my room right now and I would like her no longer to make me anything to eat and I would like her no longer to be saying my name anymore and no longer call me on my cellphone and no longer be telling me where she’s going. I would like my mom today to talk to a therapist her mental illness is getting bad she lies to her whole family telling them she’s seeing bugs and she’s not.

  • J

    May 5th, 2022 at 9:51 PM

    Have you tried to be kind to your mom and show her respect, especially with Mother’s Day soon this Sunday? That’s the best way to help your mom. Moms need to know they are valued. Call a pastor or counselor to get help for your mom.

  • Richard

    May 9th, 2022 at 1:09 PM

    My mom she is still talking to me I would like her right now to stop talking to me and stop saying my name and stay out of my room.

  • Jeremy

    May 11th, 2022 at 3:52 PM

    My mom she is still talking to me and I don’t want her talking to me anymore right now and to stay out of my room and quit with her ridiculous bug and parasite nonsense right now. There’s never been any bugs or parasites here my mom has a mental illness it’s making her think there is.

  • Jeremy

    May 19th, 2022 at 6:17 PM

    My mom I want her no longer talking to me right now and stop saying my name.

  • Jeremy

    June 5th, 2022 at 10:55 PM

    All God pray sites all their interested in doing is scamming people saying the ridiculous nonsense sent us money to support our ministry it’s all a scam so they can empty out our bank accounts. And all pastors talk about is Jesus Christ it’s stupid. And counselors they only care about people’s money.

  • Jeremy

    August 7th, 2022 at 11:49 AM

    I want my mom right now to stop talking to me to stay out of the basement I keep telling my mom to stop talking to me and she keeps talking to me and I want her to stop talking to me right now and I want her to no longer be coming in the basement.

  • Tina

    November 13th, 2022 at 6:06 PM

    Been there done that and I’m so over ungrateful children. Estranged from daughter for 7 yrs over “words” we had over the phone first time ever because we always got along. Alas what I’ve discovered is once they start having love interests they don’t want to hear anything parents have to say anymore because now they think they know it all. Glad I’m the kind of person who doesn’t care if you talk to me or not because my parenting job was done well. I raised her to adulthood now I’m doing me!

  • JB

    December 8th, 2022 at 2:53 AM

    My story mirrors pieces of everyone’s above.. was a great loving caring supportive mother, once the kids settle down with a spouse the relationship is so different, I’m now on the outside, which is hard, and now being pushed away because it’s now about the spouse and they don’t want any mom influence, so now I just keep quiet unless asked but then I get accused of not caring, can’t win. Most of my family has passed away and my kids resent having a small family now so don’t want to participate in anything with me anymore.. it sucks you love, raise, support, nurture these babies then they want nothing to do with you, and everything is so personal to them now, nobody has a Seanad of humor, nobody can just talk things out, it’s always putting up a wall/boundary and then you’re out by yourself. Now after 30 yrs of raising kids I’m forced to do life alone, it’s hard because I don’t want to be around anyone but my kids..

  • Patricia

    February 21st, 2023 at 5:22 AM

    JB, I understand. Our deepest instinct is to keep our grown kids and grandkids in our lives, to keep some relationship with them, but it is so hard to feel rejected by the ones we love the most. Just keep loving and have no expectations of how she will behave toward you.

  • Lorie

    February 23rd, 2023 at 8:01 AM

    My 23 year old daughter and I have always been close, or so I thought. I grew up with a narcissistic mother, who I do not have a good relationship with today, and worked my whole life to be the opposite of her. I tell my children all the time I love them, and they know we support them, and we pray for them all the time. A month ago on my daughter’s 23rd birthday, we had a great call over facetime. But since then, she’s pulled away for an unknown reason. She screens my texts, and doesn’t answer for hours or a day. She’s short with her answers if she does respond, and I have no idea what has happened, but I FEEL something in her life isn’t right. I don’t know what to do except pray for her, to work through whatever is going on in her life. I’m feeling split in two completely, and just cannot pull myself out of the worry, doubt about what kind of mother I’ve been.

  • Dee

    February 28th, 2023 at 2:46 AM

    It was so nice to hear a statement like this, because Ive always admired close families (and also big families)…People “can and label” everything now a days, thats whats wrong with the world! So kudos to this lady as follows : 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.

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