It’s an intriguing relationship, that of mother and daughter. It brings to mind a time — say around the mid-20th century — when sitcom moms and daughters trotted about in perky twin dresses and shared confidences while merrily creaming butter into the oatmeal-raisin batter.
Real-life mothers and daughters, on the other hand, follow a rich assortment of real-life scripts.
When I came of age, the generational divide parted just wide enough for girls to reject most of their mothers’ values, codes of conduct and style cues — enough, at least, to justify the “gap” that social commentators and other trend-watchers chatted about in endless magazine articles. The miniskirt, the Stones, Woodstock, and sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll all mixed mercilessly to create an “us vs. them” world.
Yes, there were cool, in-the-loop moms around — my own included — but you wouldn’t find them donning the everyteen jeans-and-T-shirt uniform and grooving to John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band.
Today’s moms are different. Just ask them. They’ll tell you they’re more hands on, involved and tuned in to the twists and turns of their daughters’ lives than their own mothers were.
The women we spoke with for this story range in age from mid-30s to early 50s, with tween through teen daughters. Their mantra: “Generation gap? What generation gap?”
Closing the gap
The truth is, no one should be surprised to see a shrinking “gap.” Maybe when you were a kid, you read Teen magazine while your mother leafed through Life. But the last time you stood at the supermarket checkout counter with your daughter, chances are you — and she — thumbed through People or In Style or Us Weekly. Maybe you saw Enchanted together, share strong opinions about Simon Cowell, and caught the last segment of Entertainment Tonight.
And it’s possible you even — dare we say it — buy the occasional Three Dot shirt or the pair of (tolerably) slim, low-rise jeans, or wear those form-fitting Juicy Couture sweats to bikram yoga.
This was not your mother’s wardrobe, fitness regime or reading list.
Getting older doesn’t mean getting frumpier, says Barbara Mackoff, a consulting psychologist and author of five books, including Growing a Girl. “Mothers today are working, traveling, staying in shape and enjoying active social lives,” Mackoff says. “Middle age doesn’t mean what it once did.”
Thanks to popular culture and today’s split-second mouse-clickable, downloadable access to it, mothers and daughters simply have more to dish about, whether it’s High School Musical, the latest Britney antic or what Miley Cyrus wore on Oprah.
“What happens in the culture pervades the culture,” says Mackoff. “Between mass media and the Internet, there’s an enormous infusion of information.” While that information may consist of gossip, hearsay and sheer fiction, it creates openings for conversations that can happen in casual and less studied ways, she says. “Fashion, music, movies and people — it’s a kind of currency for women.”
A generation or so ago, kids weren’t quite as receptive to sharing TV time — let alone confidences — with their parents. The times, they were a’changing, thanks to a quickly morphing and highly charged political and social climate. “People doubted the authority of government and came away with the cliché of not trusting anyone over 30,” says Mackoff.
What’s more, today’s mom often hails from a different demographic than moms of decades past, notes Flora Coughlin, a Seattle social worker. Today’s mom could be working, single, in college, dating — or all four at once. “It used to be your mother was passé, done with her career and with her sexuality — or at least it seemed so,” Coughlin says.
Sometimes Mercer Island resident Wendy Rosen listens to the same music as her 13-year-old daughter. And why not? It often ends up on her iPod. “Some families have one music library,” explains Rosen. “That way, you can see what your kids are listening to.”
Rosen and her daughter, Olivia, share tank tops, look-alike jeans (Olivia’s are cut lower) and saw Juno together. The movie — many of the moms mentioned it — gave them the chance to talk about teen pregnancy.
While Rosen’s own mother was “pretty in touch,” the two rarely had the kind of open, sometimes uncomfortable conversations she has with Olivia. “We talk about sex, about drugs, about behaviors at parties and dances,” says Rosen. “You have to keep the lines of communication open and not panic if they bring things up.”
Rosen gets the ubiquitous eye roll every so often, but she simply plays through . . . and keeps talking. “You want to know what’s going on, what’s bothering them,” says Rosen. “Whether they like it or not, that’s your role as a parent. No topic should be taboo.”
Jane Davis moved to the Seattle area with her family in 1991. A design consultant, she loves that her daughters, Lauren, 16, and Julia, 13, like spending time with her. “We really enjoy each other,” says Davis. She and her husband maximize family time with vacations and outings such as cross-country skiing, hiking and swimming. “They love their friends, but they also like taking a reprieve from that world and just kicking back with Mom and Dad,” she says.
Her own mother, now 77, was “not in the loop,” she says. “I don’t remember hanging out with my mom or having long talks. I don’t think that generation thought a lot about their relationships with their kids.”
Davis gives it considerable thought. She organizes mother-daughter book groups (“We talk about books, life and each other”), makes sure she attends her kids’ sports events and knows the names of all their teachers.
It’s a recurrent refrain: These mothers cherish spending time with their girls, schmoozing and sharing thoughts on themes they were unable to raise with their own moms. Kim McDermott, a Bellevue pediatrician, says she and her 13-year-old daughter chat it all up — their values, their beliefs, what makes the world spin. “I feel like I really know her as a person and appreciate who she is,” says McDermott.
Works in progress
While relationships like these would drive the Gilmore Girls wild with envy, sometimes things get a bit more complex in Momland. Any mother who’s ever enforced curfews, offered make-up advice (my mother’s: “You could use a little rouge ...”) or bickered with her daughter over screen time, phone time or study time knows this: Mom-daughter relationships are works in progress.
In her book You’re Wearing THAT? Deborah Tannen notes that conversations between mothers and daughters can be both healing and hurtful. “The mother-daughter relationship is the source of the deepest love and the deepest anger that most women experience,” she writes.
Too often, moms openly scrutinize the way their girls look, dress or wear their hair. This, Tannen says, doesn’t resonate well with daughters. “Mothers want so much to help and protect their daughters that they continuously give advice and tell their girls how to improve. They forget that what they say carries so much weight and that their daughters feel criticized, like ‘nothing I do is right.’”
Then there are the buddy-moms, the ones who cross that invisible maternal line and try — too hard — to be one of the girls. Maybe they dress a bit too teeny or converse in kid-speak. “It looks like a cartoon,” says Davis, who’s watched moms embrace their kids’ school prom with over-the-top gusto. “They’ll order a bus, order the dinner . . . it’s like they are having the party with their kids.”
Who doesn’t love it when your daughter and her friends think you’re cool and hip? It’s great to be Top Mom — as long as you don’t blur the parent/child boundaries, says Mackoff. “It’s not fun to be the one who says the skirt is too short or that you have to be home by curfew. It’s painful and difficult to set those limits. But it should always be clear who’s in charge.”
And where, it’s fair to ask, are the sons when all the conversing and the scrutinizing and the curfew-setting are going on? Do boys get free passes? Not really. It’s just that, according to the mothers we spoke with, guys communicate differently. That difference colors the way mothers and sons interact.
“With my daughter, we talk about friendships and relationships,” says McDermott, whose son is 10. “My son doesn’t really think about all that. He just hangs out.”
Cynthia Tanis, ParentMap’s events coordinator, lives in Kent with her husband, her 8-year-old-daughter and 6-year-old son. Her daughter, she reports, is “female, moody and sensitive.” Her son “stomps around.” Tannen says these kinds of gender differences — and the way we perceive them — lead parents to treat sons and daughters differently.
“Mothers expect more from their daughters,” she says. “They expect to talk more and to be told more. And because of that, moms have a greater opportunity to say the wrong thing.”
The techno divide
Moms today feel fortunate. They’re connected with their daughters. They share Michael Stars T-shirts with their daughters. They like Beyoncé.
But the smart ones understand what’s coming around the bend. It’s the new generational divide; one that took a breather as we collectively explored the wonder of iPods, iBooks, BlackBerries and MySpace.
Call it the technology gap. Heck, just call it technology. Think you’re keeping up with it? Think again.
Like every age group before them, this one’s found a way to separate from its elders. As Seattle psychologist Barbara Mackoff says, “A daughter has to develop her own separate and unique identity.”
Thanks to Facebook — or whatever network’s the hot thing this week — she can. And for some parents, that’s an unsettling thought.
No sooner do you master Evites, MySpace and email, and the kids switch to Facebook, IM-ing and texting. They’ve developed a shorthand that serves two purposes: speedy transmission and impossible translation. YM (“your mother”), POS (“parent over shoulder”) and NTW (“not to worry”) are some of the more printable acronyms.
Don’t be too worried, says Mercer Island mom Wendy Rosen. “Ninety percent of the time, what they’re saying is, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Nothing,’ with a lot of abbreviations.”
But it does pay to keep up. Kathy Henken, an Edgewood mom with two daughters, is well aware of the widening techno gulf. Between the Internet, endless TV and radio options and unlimited music downloads, their media exposure is close to infinite — and infinitely broader than hers. “We have to stay involved,” says Henken. “The more ignorant we are about the impact these things have on our kids, the greater risk we have of creating a wider gap.”
Pam Schwartz of West Seattle says her daughters text day and night. “I call my friends, they text theirs,” says Schwartz. “It’s important to make an attempt to understand it.”
What moms want
Regardless of what kind of relationship women had with their own mothers — or possibly because of it — most mothers dream of forging a lifetime of enduring, enriching bonds with their daughters.
How will they feel when their daughters eventually (and inevitably) leave the nest? “It’s going to be hideous; I know it will hit me hard,” says Davis. While she left New York to “grow up and get away from my parents,” she’d love her own kids to stay close by.
Schwartz wants her daughters to feel they can always approach her with the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, in short, everything. “I’d like to continue the relationship I have now; to always be open and able to communicate and interact; to be able to yell and shout but then say to them, ‘I love you.’”
Kathy Henken feels it’s crucial to forge those solid, deep-rooted connections early. “My goal is to be the best parent I can be, because I want to have the best relationship I can have when my daughters are grown,” she says. “If I don’t earn their respect now, they won’t choose to be around me when they are adults. And one thing we know: As a parent, you always want to be around them.”
Linda Morgan, associate editor of ParentMap, lives on the Eastside, as do her mother, daughter and two granddaughters.
Originally published in the May, 2008 print edition of ParentMap.