What Do We Do Wrong with Our Daughters?

The Facts About Mothering Girls

  • Ninety percent of mothers today believe that mothering daughters is much more loaded than mothering sons.
  • More than 80 percent of mothers wonder if they can do better with their daughters.
  • Seventy percent of mothers say they haven’t set enough limits with their daughters.
  • More than 70 percent of mothers question whether they are teaching their daughters proper values.
  • More than 50 percent of mothers admit their hands-on approach to mothering smacks of overkill.

“My twenty-four-year-old daughter’s life hasn’t turned out the way we both thought it would,” sighs Terri, forty-nine. “She’s lagging behind her friends at work, with boys, and it’s all because of her anger toward me. She hates me and she’s never listened to anything I say. She figured she’d find things out for herself. She’s always thought that I didn’t know anything, and this has been going on since second grade. She relies on me emotionally but she doesn’t respect me, and I only hear from her when there’s a problem—her love life, her job, her roommate. I’m there to put out the fires and to support her while she is mean and awful. I jump for her every time. I feel so responsible for everything. . . . I try to convince her to assume some responsibility, if it’s not too late. I wonder, What am I really doing and what have I done? Why am I still spoiling her and why is my daughter such a heavy?”

The Tricky Game of Mothering Daughters

As the mother to two daughters, twenty-nine and twenty-two, I, like most of us, have caved in to their needs, jumped through hoops, and wished I had a magic wand to set the world straight for them. I opted to be a mother who said yes rather than no, and I believed that this would instill independence and trust. From the start I was aware that I treated my daughters differently than I treated my son. This was not only because I identified with them so strongly in that mother-daughter way, but also because I knew too well through my own research how females of every age often fight to be heard, to hone their place, and doubt themselves along the way. And so with my girls I re- canted more often, worried more, and shopped with them more. My aim was to please, and in this quest I did not, unfortunately, become more seasoned as my younger daughter grew up, and enough times I remained at a loss. There were occasions when I racked my brain for why this feeling of helplessness on my part surrounded my relationship with both daughters; it seemed to me it had begun as early as kindergarten or even preschool with each of them.

Over time, I began to second-guess my style of mothering, and what I expected to be the best approach fell short. Through- out these challenges, I was hearing comparable concerns not only from close friends but also from women at the gym, at business lunches, at social gatherings, in women’s groups, and from my pool of interviewees for other projects. For years, I have listened to mothers express concern about issues with daughters of all ages—from first grade through adulthood.

Many of the women’s stories were eerily alike; an eight- year-old daughter who manages always to get her way, a sixteen-year-old daughter repeatedly swearing at her mother, a twenty-three-year-old daughter quitting her job after three weeks, a daughter whose anorexia surfaces in grad school, a daughter who is obsessed with her appearance, a daughter who endures a failed romance by leaning on her mother, an engaged daughter who morphs into bridezilla, a recently married daughter whose mother describes herself as walking on eggshells.

What was universal in the voices of the mothers with whom I spoke was their despair, their sense that it should be differ-ent, that their efforts seemed in vain when they considered the results. And the haunting questions: Had they done what they could for their daughters? Had their decisions and guidance been helpful or a hindrance in the long run?

With each year that passes, the bar is raised and the expectations for the mother-daughter bond are greater, set as they are now against the backdrop of a technological, media-saturated, celebrity-driven culture, where traditional values are entwined in the latest trends. Past generations’ rigid rules for mothering girls have been replaced by rules encouraging a mother who is more of a pushover—cushy, with a coddling mentality. Even the mothers who think that they can micromanage their daughters’ lives and seem to have an edge struggle to achieve boundaries. While these mothers appear tougher or collected to the outside world, they share the same frustrations and insecurities as mothers everywhere. Thus the template of mothers who have the best intentions, greatest determination, and highest hopes—but suffer for their mistakes with their daughters—has become a phenomenon.