Why daughters fight with their mothers

A Georgetown linguist explains

by Eleanor Barkhorn on May 9, 2014

story,interview

Elizabeth Bennet and Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Violet Weston and her daughters in August: Osage County. Olivia and Maya Pope in Scandal. The history of popular culture is riddled with examples of tense mother-daughter relationships.

Why are these relationships so difficult? Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, analyzed hours' worth of conversations between mothers and daughters for her book You're Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. She discovered a central tension in the mother-daughter relationship: mothers want to protect their daughters, so they offer advice that they think will make their daughters' lives easier. Daughters, on the other hand, want approval from their mothers, so they interpret this advice as criticism, as proof that they're imperfect.

"Because you're so close, there's more opportunity to get on one another's nerves"

"Here's the person you most want to think you're perfect. Because her opinion matters so much," Tannen says. "So if she thinks you're doing things wrong then you must be fatally flawed. And underneath we all worry that we're fatally flawed."

These conflicting desires — the mother's desire to protect vs. the daughter's desire for approval — set the stage for painful misunderstandings and arguments. The well-meaning mother gives advice; the approval-seeking daughter takes offense and tells her mother to leave her alone; the mother throws up her hands and says she feels like she can't say anything that won't upset her daughter.

In a recent interview, Tannen discussed the rise of mothers and daughters who say they're "best friends," what mothers and daughters fight about, and — crucially — how they can fight less.

"My mother is my best friend"

A distinctive characteristic of the millennial generation is that we're closer with our parents. Last year the president of MTV announced the network is overhauling its content because young people today are "not rebelling against their parents at all. They're moving in with them. They don't want to leave." A therapist wrote in The Atlantic a few years ago that she keeps seeing clients who call their parents their best friends.

Deborahtannen-head_shot__1_

Deborah Tannen

Tannen, too, has noticed an increase in the number of women who say their mother or their daughter is their best friend.

"I think it's a fairly new development that you hear women saying, 'My daughter's my best friend, my mother's my best friend,'" she says. "I think that would have been unheard of years ago and is probably still pretty unheard of in most cultures of the world."

Tannen claims that women mean something quite specific when they call their mother or their daughter their best friend: "It isn't the same as what they mean when they say, a woman who's my best friend who's my peer."

In a mother-daughter relationship, the "best friend" designation means that they talk frequently and tell one another everything. "The idea that this is someone who is interested in the minutiae of your life. We consider that a sign of closeness, and we treasure it." This constant contact is made possible by the myriad communication technologies at our disposal today: phone calls, text messages, emails, Facebook updates, instant messages.

But this closeness has its drawbacks. In You're Wearing That?, Tannen offers several examples of mother-daughter conversations that turn into conflicts because of the fuzzy line between friend and mom. A daughter will begin a conversation in friend mode, telling her mother how tired she is. The mother, also in friend mode, will respond by sympathizing with her daughter. But soon the mother switches into mom mode, peppering her daughter with questions like, "Are you getting enough sleep?" and chastising her to take better care of herself. The daughter then clams up, wishing she'd never told her mom she was tired in the first place.

"Because they talk to each other more, talk to each other about more personal things, there are more opportunities to say the wrong thing," says Tannen. "Because you're so close, there's more opportunity to get on one another's nerves."

What mothers and daughters fight about: the Big Three

Tannen identifies the three most common sources of friction in mother-daughter conversations: hair, clothes, and weight. Each of these, of course, is related to physical appearance - which reflects the problems women face in society at large.

"Women in our culture are judged by appearance far more than men are," Tannen says. Men, Tannen argues, are able to choose clothing and hairstyles without drawing attention to themselves: if they wear their hair short and put on a suit, that's considered pretty neutral in our society, and no one will comment one way or another. But there's no equivalent of a short haircut and a suit for women. Women have so many choices for how to dress and do their hair that it's impossible not to make a statement.

"Mothers and daughters often look at each other with a layer of scrutiny that we otherwise turn only on ourselves"

As Tannen describes it: "How often have you looked at another woman and thought, 'She'd look better if her hair were longer, shorter, curlier, straighter, pulled back, pushed forward, with bangs, without bangs, with shorter bangs, with different bangs, colored, not colored, colored a different color, blunt cut, styled differently, styled better.' You could go on forever."

Because women have so many hair- and clothing-related choices — and can expect to be judged for those choices — of course mothers are going to have opinions on which choices their daughters should make. And because mothers want what's best for their daughters, of course they're going to express those opinions. And that's where the caring-criticism conflict arises: what a mother intends as well-meaning advice ("Your hair would look so pretty with a few highlights in it") a daughter interprets as devastating criticism ("My mom thinks my hair is ugly").

Another factor feeding the tension around physical appearance, according to Tannen, is that "mothers and daughters often look at each other with a layer of scrutiny that we otherwise turn only on ourselves. Because we feel we represent each other to the world." So a mother who's ashamed of her own mousy brown hair is likely to urge her daughter to get highlights — she's trying to fix in her daughter something she dislikes in herself.

What daughters can do to fight less with their mothers

Though mother-daughter conflict is pretty much universal, it's not intractable. Tannen says she's spoken to several women who've improved their relationships with their moms, mainly by changing how they react to their mothers' advice.

She gives the example of a woman who went to visit her mother in the hospital. She leaned over the bed to greet her mother, and the first words out of her mother's mouth: "When was the last time you did your roots?" Tannen says that ordinarily this woman would have been annoyed at her mother's fixation on her appearance. This time, though, "it just meant that her mother was okay, and she realized she was at risk of losing that and cherished it."

Tannen recommends this approach toward motherly advice: "Yes, I hear criticism — that doesn't mean it isn't also a sign of caring."

Tannen's advice for mothers is similar to her advice for daughters: try to see things from the other person's point of view. Mothers should recognize that daughters do take offense at motherly advice, no matter how well-intentioned it is.

"Then they learn to bite their tongues. And it's hard, but it improves the relationship."

Eleanor Barkhorn: Something that seems to be distinctive about the millennial generation is that we're closer with our parents. The president of MTV is overhauling the network's content because young people today are "not rebelling against their parents at all. They're moving in with them. They don't want to leave." A therapist wrote in The Atlantic a few years ago that she keeps seeing clients who call their parents their best friends. What's going on here?

Deborah Tannen: It think it's a fairly new development that you hear women saying, "My daughter's my best friend, my mother's my best friend." I think that would have been unheard of years ago and is probably still pretty unheard of in most cultures of the world.

Now, that isn't the same as what they mean when they say, a woman who's my best friend who's my peer. They know it's different because there still is that hierarchical relationship. They mean, "We talk to each other frequently, we tell each other everything." I love to quote the woman who said, "Who else can I tell that I got a good deal on toilet paper?" The idea that this is someone who is interested in the minutiae of your life. We consider that a sign of closeness, and we treasure it.

Eleanor Barkhorn: Mothers and daughters still fight, of course. The mother-daughter relationship might be the most explosive type of relationship. Why do you think that is?

Deborah Tannen: Sometimes when people ask me, "Why is the mother-daughter relationship especially fraught — more than mother-son or father-daughter?," I say, "It's because they're both women. And because they talk to each other more, talk to each other about more personal things, there are more opportunities to say the wrong thing. Because you're so close, there's more opportunity to get on one another's nerves." Another thing I like to quote is the woman who said about one of her daughters, "We used to talk every day, but now she doesn't call so often: I understand that she felt she needed to loosen the bonds." And that expression "loosen the bonds" I found very interesting because of the double meaning of bond: the closeness of a close bond — or bondage. And any time there's a close bond, there's a risk of your feeling bound, tied, not free.

Eleanor Barkhorn: You write about how mothers and daughters tend to fight about the Big Three: hair, weight, and clothes. Why do you think there's so much tension around appearance?

Deborah Tannen: Women in our culture are judged by appearance far more than men are. The range of clothing styles and hair styles, makeup — whether or not to wear it and what type and how much — are all so vast for women, not for men. Men can choose hairstyles and clothing styles that are pretty neutral.

I wrote an essay called "There's No Unmarked Woman." It refers to a linguistic concept of markedness, which means you have a basic meaning and then you can add little things that change the meaning. In English we mark verbs for past tense. "Visit" is present, if you want to say past, you mark it: "visited." You mark it for future by adding "will": "will visit."

So this concept of markedness is, something that adds meaning. There are clothing and hairstyles for men that are neutral, they don't add any meaning. There's no such thing for women, because the range is so vast. So what are the chances that any style you pick is going to seem to anybody else the perfect one?

When I talk about this in groups I always say, "Look around the room. Look at the range of hairstyles for the women and the men." And of course for the men, there might be a ponytail but for the most part it's all unmarked. And for the women, no two are the same. You've got every possibility. How often have you looked at another woman and thought, "She'd look better if her hair were longer, shorter, curlier, straighter, pulled back, pushed forward, with bangs, without bangs, with shorter bangs, with different bangs, colored, not colored, colored a different color, blunt cut, styled differently, styled better." You could go on forever. But we don't say it out loud.

Eleanor Barkhorn: But mothers and daughters do say these things out loud. A mother will tell a daughter that she should do her hair differently.

Deborah Tannen: Mothers and daughters — daughters to mothers and mothers to daughters — often feel like they not only have a right but an obligation to say it. Because you want things to go as well as possible for her.

So part of it is I think the inevitable result of that situation. It's this tremendous irony from the perspective of the mother: here's the person who you most want to help make sure everything goes well, but she may be the one who least wants to hear your advice because — from the point of view of the daughter — here's the person you most want to think you're perfect. Because her opinion matters so much. So if she thinks you're doing things wrong then you must be fatally flawed. And underneath we all worry that we're fatally flawed. So that's one layer of it.

And another layer is that mothers and daughters often look at each other with a layer of scrutiny that we otherwise turn only on ourselves. Because we feel we represent each other to the world. And in a way we do. Women are judged by how their kids turn out, and for girls that's appearance.

Eleanor Barkhorn: In addition to the Big Three, you add a fourth source of tension in mother-daughter relationships: how daughters raise their own kids.

Deborah Tannen: Mothers see their daughters raising kids and they think they shouldn't do it that way. Parenting styles change. So it's not surprising that there are ways that mothers see their daughters raising their kids and think it should be different. But maybe they're listening to experts. Maybe the experts have changed. Who knows if the way it was being done 30 years ago is better than the way it's being done today.

Eleanor Barkhorn: Another flashpoint seems to be work-life balance: mothers telling their daughters they work too hard and should spend more time with their families - or the other way around.

Deborah Tannen: Just as with the hair and clothes, there's no perfect balance because there's so many options. And also we look at each other with a level of scrutiny we otherwise turn only on ourselves. We're always looking at our own lives, and women who both work and raise kids are always frustrated. What I hear from them is, "Whenever I'm with my kids, I feel guilty I'm not working. And whenever I'm working I feel guilty that I'm not with my kids." So the outsider's view that you've got the balance wrong is probably just a reflection of one's own view that one may have the balance wrong. Because there is no perfect balance.

Eleanor Barkhorn: What's one thing daughters can do to improve their relationships with their mothers?

Deborah Tannen: Daughters tell me that just realizing the double meaning of caring and criticizing can help. So, yes I hear criticism -- that doesn't mean it isn't also a sign of caring. I love the example of a woman who told me, thanks to me, she had a visit with her mother and for the first time there were no fights. And I asked her what happened, and the example she gave me was, she was visiting her mother, and she bought two pairs of socks -- one black, one navy. Her mother said, "Are you sure you aren't wearing one of each color?" She's about to get angry: "I have a master's degree and you think I can't match my socks? How insulting!" Then she stopped and said, "Wait a minute. Who else is going to care about the color of my socks?" And her feeling about it changed. She felt a wave of tenderness instead of wave of anger. So you can reframe your interpretation.

A story I like: This woman whose mother was in the hospital. She leans over the bed and her mother says, "When's the last time you did your roots?" In the past that would have annoyed her, but at this point it just meant that her mother was okay, and she realized she was at risk of losing that and cherished it.

Eleanor Barkhorn: And what's one thing mothers can do to improve their relationships with their daughters?

Deborah Tannen: When they finally understand why their daughters take their advice as criticism, then they stop thinking, "There's something wrong with her -- I know I mean it caring, so how can she possibly think it's criticism?" Then they learn to bite their tongues. And it's hard, but it improves the relationship.

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