You and me against the world
The mother-daughter bond is always a complex one, but in the emotional aftermath of divorce or bereavement, the females of the family often forge a new intimacy with all the passion - and the pitfalls - of a love affair. Hettie Judah reports
Sunday 22 March 1998
"Difficult" fathers are commonplace and the relationship between mothers and sons an Oedipal cliche, but we are accustomed to think of the bond between mother and daughter as unproblematic. Passionate, turbulent and profound are not words we associate with cosy sorority. In fact, as Emma Thompson remarks, the mother/daughter bond is as fraught as any other - even more so if the mother is also the sole parent. In Thompson's case, mother and sisters became intensely close because of her father's long illness. But there other kinds of absence, caused by death, divorce or a father's emotional remoteness.
Hanna's parents divorced when she left school, and she and her mum moved out together. Now in her mid-twenties, bright and extremely beautiful, Hanna has realised that every relationship she has, whether with friends or boyfriends, has ended in disappointment for her because nothing can equal the intense relationship she has with her mother. "She is too indulgent," Hanna admits. "She spoils me; not materialistically, but with time and effort. I just think that's what a loving relationship is like, but no boyfriend could ever live up to it, not a chance."
The fierce love we like to think exists between a divorced or widowed mother and her daughter can conceal more complicated feelings and sometimes holds problems all of its own. With the bulk of the parental bond compressed into a single parent, the fear of jeopardising that relationship may prevent either party from voicing anger or discontent.
Rosie's parents split up when she was a young child. The oldest of three, she says that she was always aware of how well her mother was coping in a very difficult situation. "Instead of allowing myself to be a child, throwing tantrums and being spoilt, we got to be more like a partnership. Bad feelings had to be repressed and buried. When I was growing up we were very, very intimately linked; it felt kind of suffocating. The irony is that you would think such a powerful relationship would be able to withstand knocks and rows but because it is so important in your life you don't dare put it under those sorts of strains." According to Maggie McKenzie of the Spectrum counselling practice, this kind of scenario is the classic development of a co-dependent relationship. The daughter grows up trying to maintain familial harmony and learns to automatically repress her own feelings and be adaptive to those around her. In her twenties Rosie went through a kind of late teenage rebellion and made the essential split from her mother; their relationship has remained very loving but is less loaded.
In some cases, however, this strength from adversity seems to go horribly wrong, and the resulting acrimony can be as powerful as the love that it mirrors. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to damaged relationships during divorce. "Teenage or early adult mother/daughter relationships are difficult because the young woman is trying to assert herself as a separate individual and so she misinterprets everything her mother says to her as trying to maintain the old control," says psychologist Dr Elizabeth Mapstone, author of War of Words; men and women in argument, a chapter of which is titled simply "Hating Mother". "If you don't make a rupture at some stage, you can't actually separate yourself, and then come back. Something major like divorce would be very disruptive this normal development."
When a family splits, children are often privy to information and bursts of emotion which would otherwise have remained concealed. Sometimes older children almost step into the place of the absent parent in providing emotional support and making decisions for the family. This can cause problems when their prematurely adult responsibility is removed from them upon the arrival of a step parent or new lover.
Anna's father left her family when she was nine and her sister Lisa was eleven; Pippa, their mother, remarried five years later. "Lisa did kind of step into my dad's role," remembers Anna. "She got very close to mum and had a very mature relationship with her, maybe before her time. It made it difficult for her when she had to reassume a little daughter role." Pippa agrees that Lisa developed an adult role in the family. "I depended on Lisa from when she was eleven until she was about fifteen for things like coming shopping with me and deciding which house we were going to buy. I put a lot of responsibility on her." She describes the effect that her new marriage had on Lisa as "reasonably disastrous" but admits that she probably handled the situation in "a very shoddy way" because she was so besotted at the time. Lisa was constantly unpleasant to her step- father and would scream at him proprietorially "This is my family; what do you think you are doing here?"
Pippa and Anna now have what they regard as a mature and open relationship with one another, but Pippa refers to her relationship with Lisa, now nearly thirty, as "strained - not argumentative but very distant; there are all kinds of things that I am aware she feels, that she can't seem to communicate to me." Anna feels that Lisa may have missed out on the traditional stroppy adolescence; while she herself was behaving "like a little shit", Lisa had already been flung straight into adulthood.
These extremes of intense love and rejection between mother and daughter can switch back and forth during the changes of their relationship in the times of turbulence after a divorce. After years of considering one's parents as stable and invincible, the shock of suddenly seeing them break down can be too much to cope with. Marie admits that she pretty much abandoned her mother when her marriage broke up; "in her eyes absolutely everybody left her at the same time." She went away to university, but even then could not bear to speak with her on the `phone; "in the beginning it was too upsetting, then in the last few years it just became boring." Marie was busy having a great time and getting on with her new life; this new, needy, emotionally raw, mother was an impediment to her creating a life for herself away from her family.
At university, Marie was able to create a new self, and afterwards she had the strength to return to her home town and move back in with her mother to forge a new relationship with her. She feels that their relationship now is pretty strong, but admits; "every time we have a row it's still about the same thing; `you all left me, everybody left me on my own, I don't have a family anymore," As far as she can see, her mother has become more emotionally stable in the last few years and she thinks that this is partly due to her moving back into the home; her main concern now is what will happen if she wants to move out.
The bond between mother and daughter during adolescence and young adulthood is a peculiarly complicated one, as the daughter attempts to break off and create her own identity as a grown woman. It is a process fragile to childhood trauma, and the failure to make the rupture away from the mother can be as damaging to the relationship as the most violent break. What seems impossible is for either party to actually let go; mother and daughter are left in thrall to one another and their passion is as strong whether loving and supportive or infused with unhappiness and betrayal. Fashionable she may be, but the mum as best friend is not necessarily as wholesome as she seems.
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