Of all human relationships, the mother-daughter relationship is the most apt to stay close over time. But when it does become fractured, both parties are likely to be distressed. Mother's Day is the perfect time for estranged mothers and daughters to make peace and rebuild their relationship.
There are more cases of estrangement between parents and their adult-children than most people realize. One study found that seven percent of adult children were estranged from their mothers. But because such estrangement carries a stigma, it is often kept secret. That secrecy can make Mother's Day an even more painful occasion.
Family estrangement is also poorly understood. Eight hundred adults participated in a UK study, “Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood.” Some of the results are surprising. For example, it's usually the younger generation that cuts off contact. The parents almost always say that they don't know what they did wrong.
How to Handle an Estranged Daughter on Mother's Day
When mothers and daughters don't get along, they often cycle in and out of estrangement, probably because both mothers and daughters may have a hard time permanently giving up on the relationship.
What causes mother-daughter conflict? Serious rifts can develop when there are unresolved issues from the daughter's childhood. These issues are most intractable when there has been abuse or neglect, but parental divorce is also a source of resentment. Often children blame one parent or the other for the divorce.
In the absence of serious issues in the past, experts say there are several other reasons why even good mother-daughter relationships can become fraught.
- When a daughter becomes a wife and a mother, she is entering her mother's territory, and sometimes competition develops between them.
- A mother's role for many years has been to guide her daughter, and it's hard for her to give up that role. This is why adult daughters sometimes complain, “You still treat me like a child!”
- Mothers and daughters may have different value systems, either because of individual preferences or because of generational differences.
- Women's relationships are heavily based on talk, which means that there is ample opportunity for someone to say the wrong thing.
Should Mothers Apologize?
The UK study shows that adult children want their mothers to admit it when they have done wrong — and therein lies the rub.
Much of the time, the mothers don't think they did anything wrong. Take the case of the mother who was taking photographs at a family gathering. Somehow she neglected to include her daughter's partner in any of the pictures. The daughter and her partner were upset and asked for an apology.
The mother has two choices. She can refuse to apologize, saying that that she did nothing wrong because the omission of the partner was unintentional. She can apologize, acknowledging that she should have been aware of the importance of including the partner.
Of course, this situation also works in reverse. Sometimes it is the daughter who has to decide whether or not to apologize.
Which choice is best? As one of my friends would ask, “Would you rather be right, or be loved?” Those who cling to the correctness of their position may sacrifice a relationship.
How to Ask for a Reconciliation
In the absence of a specific triggering incident, it can be hard to know how to initiate a reconciliation. Here are some things to say that work for both mothers and daughters:
- "I love you and I want you back in my life."
- "I'd like to put the past behind us and start fresh."
- "Please forgive me for my mistakes and give me another chance."
- "I'd like to be a better mother (or daughter) to you. Please tell me how."
The key to making these statements work is that they have to be sincere and heartfelt, and the person making them must resist defending or justifying her actions. Those who can't pull it off may not really be ready to make up.
Apologies are best offered in person, but if the estrangement is complete, that may not be a possibility. In that case, a letter or email, or even a text message, is another option. Those who have the chance to deliver their message in person should choose a quiet time and place.
How to Handle the Offer to Make Up
If you're approached by an estranged daughter or mother, it may take you by surprise — and you may not know how to react at first. Those who are offered a reconciliation and are ready to make up can say something like this:
- "I don't enjoy being angry with you. Let's forgive each other and make a fresh start."
- "I'm not sure I can forget the past, but I'm ready to focus on now and on the future."
- "I love you, too, but we still need to work on our relationship. Let's try harder."
How to Keep the Peace Going:
Achieving a mother-daughter armistice is just half the battle. Both parties will need to keep the peace. Here are some strategies that will help.
- Remember to love and praise your daughter.
- If she's a mom, compliment her parenting skills, even if her parenting style is different from yours.
- Don't offer unsolicited advice.
- Don't dote on your grandchildren and ignore their mother.
- Make your son-in-law or your daughter's partner feel like part of the family.
- Don't take the things your mother does for you for granted.
- Thank your mother for something special she did in the past.
- Remember to say, “I love you.”
- Practice saying, “Thanks, Mom, but we've decided to do it this way.”
- It's great to be close to your mother-in-law, but try to avoid making your own mother feel displaced.
Mother-daughter relationships tend to be primal and intense. It's hard to give up that relationship without feeling that something significant has been lost. That's a good reason to try to make peace before Mother's Day.
This post was written by Susan Adcox, a writer specializing in family relationships. She is the author of Stories From My Grandparent: An Heirloom Journal for Your Grandchild.