Adult Daughters and Their Mothers: A Tenuous Bond
by Shonnie Brown, MFT

For many adult daughters, the mother-daughter bond is a tenuous balance of both positive and negative feelings, connection and autonomy. And for some, the bond is greatly affected by conflicting individual needs. After a particularly tumultuous weekend with my own 92 year-old mother, I began thinking of the many stories I have heard from my clients of their struggles for both love and autonomy with their mothers. These stories fall primarily into three groups: abandoning mothers, narcissistic mothers and symbiotic mothers. Here are some examples:

Diana grew up in an inner-city neighborhood. She never knew her father, and her mother was involved with a series of boyfriends, drugs and alcohol. When Diana was a young child, her mother went to jail and Diana entered the foster care system. She grew up in several different homes, never feeling that she had a home with parents who valued or loved her.

As an adult, Diana takes pride in her professional accomplishments, but feels like a complete failure in relationships. She is extremely needy and undifferentiated in intimate relationships, requiring constant attention and proof of her partner's devotion. In the work that we have done off and on over several years, she has learned that she is clearly looking for what she didn't get as a child, but that another healthy adult will never give her the complete attention that she seeks.

Looking at Diana, it is clear that she never had the healthy early symbiosis (oneness with her mother) that is necessary for optimal separation or differentiation from a parent. A loving, positively reflecting parent is essential for a child to feel valued, to feel safe and trusting. No wonder Diana tests her lovers constantly and is subject to panic and deep depression when she doesn't get the focused attention and admiration she needs to feel buoyed up. She had not one, but two abandoning parents.

Connie and her two young daughters live with Connie's aging, chronically ill mother. When I ask Connie about the stress of this relationship, she sighs with frustration. Recently divorced and excited about the possibilities of a new life, Connie feels "sucked on" by her mother. She tells me that she "never had a self" before, having gone from her parents' home into an unhealthy marriage. She never felt differentiated from her mother or her ex-husband and is just now beginning that process. Her mother's inability to support Connie's differentiation because of her own neediness makes for a tense situation in which Connie feels hostage.

With Connie I see that there has always been an overly enmeshed mother-daughter bond. Connie has come to understand this in therapy and is now working hard to become her own person. However, it can be very painful for both mother and daughter when the adult daughter is coming into her own self and the undifferentiated mother feels threatened by the "loss" of their bond. It also takes a mother's willingness to work on understanding that the differentiation process is a healthy one and doesn't have to mean loss of love.

Paula is a young single woman with an extremely narcissistic mother. She has never felt safe setting appropriate boundaries because Mother can't tolerate boundaries and all hell would break loose, leaving Paula desperately alone. It has taken many months of work for Paula to truly feel the pain of having compromised autonomy. Now her attempts to set even tiny boundaries with her mother feel like pushing against an impenetrable wall of resistance. Breaking an unspoken agreement with a narcissistic parent can feel simply hopeless. For Paula it has often been easier to fill the emptiness with various addictions.

Many undifferentiated adult women have mothers or fathers who are narcissistically toxic. An adult daughter of a narcissistic mother will report feeling empty inside with no sense of self. She often feels treated as if she was her mother's "possession", as if her "job" is to glorify her mother. Narcissistic parents reward children for being like them, but may condemn, judge or criticize a child for his or her true uniqueness.

Paula feels that she is in a "no win" situation. If she makes her own choices, she risks Mother's hurtful criticism and her rage. If she complies, she remains a child, an appendage of her mother. Autonomy is a very slow and painful battle.

Additionally, a mother's response to a daughter's trauma will most certainly affect their bond. Even a securely bonded daughter will feel tremendous abandonment when her mother denies the reality of childhood physical, emotional or sexual abuse. The mother is supposed to be the protector in every instance, but sometimes mothers would literally rather die in denial than acknowledge the possibility that something bad happened to a child for whom they were responsible.

Shelly, for instance, tells me that her mother finally admitted on her deathbed that Shelly's childhood sexual abuse was real. And, for Shelly, this admittance held enormous healing power in their relationship. Petra, on the other hand, recalls that her mother died refusing to admit the possibility that Petra suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a family member. This denial only confirmed the deep abandonment and isolation Petra has felt since childhood.

These client examples are, of course, only a few of the many ways that mothers and adult daughters relate. Every individual brings with them into any relationship specific developmental and attachment needs, and every mother-daughter relationship has its unique struggles.


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