Sometimes conflicting expectations come from a mother’s experience of her own mother. “My mother always took care of her mother,” said one woman, disappointed that her daughter had moved far away and was not interested in her life at all. “They talked on the phone or saw one another every single day of my grandmother’s life.”
And sometimes these expectations come from a daughter’s beliefs about what her mother should be doing. This was the case for Liz*, who wanted her mother to pay attention to her grandchildren. “She was never a child-focused person,” Liz told me. “I always hoped she would give my children what she wasn’t able to give me.”
One of the dynamics I hear repeatedly in my work is that mothers and adult daughters have difficulties accepting that they do not — and cannot — meet one another’s expectations. I often suggest that in adulthood it is helpful to think of your mother or your daughter not as someone who is supposed to do anything, but as you would a friend, whose limitations are something you accept as part of her personality.
A friend might disappoint you for any of a number of reasons, but you are likely to cut her some slack if you think it is because she is having difficulties in her own life, or because she is extremely busy with things other than you, or because she simply cannot do something the way you’d like her to do it. Thinking of your mother or your daughter in this way makes it easier not to take her behavior personally — in other words, not to make it about you — and can improve the chances that the relationship will continue to be meaningful for both of you.
2. Mutual Respect
Following closely on the heels of expectations, mutual respect means accepting that there are things about your mother or daughter that you appreciate. Trying to remember those qualities, even in the middle of an argument or a disagreement, can go a very long way to protecting your relationship.
3. Respect for Difference
Mothers and daughters often fall into the trap of thinking that they should think and feel the same way — about almost everything! Yet in adult relationships, while similarities might provide the glue, differences are often what provide interest.
Try to find out why and how your mother or adult daughter thinks about something, and try not to fall into the trap of thinking that you already know. Because while you have a long history together, you certainly do not know everything about how you each think, feel, or understand the world.
One of the areas that mothers and adult daughters often struggle with has to do with recognizing that in adulthood we don’t have the same rights that we had when one of us was a child. Isabel Allende has written about her struggle to find boundaries with her daughter’s family in her memoir The Sum of Our Days, where she describes her need to walk into her son-in-law’s home to rearrange things.
For her, the bond was with a daughter who was no longer alive, but a gentle reprimand from her son-in-law was all she needed to remind herself that there were still important boundaries that she needed to respect. While the connection is all-important, separateness is crucial to protect the links.
Different expectations on the part of a mother and daughter, of course, leave lots of room for hurt feelings over boundaries. Mothers may expect their daughters to do certain things (like bringing their grandchildren over) without asking, but daughters may feel that they need to know that they aren’t imposing. This was what happened in both Jeanette and Liz’s situations, but neither of them found this out until the hurt feelings and resulting anger had created a serious rupture in their respective relationships.