The Family

Women and Their Mothers

Jeanette Winterson’s upcoming biography (a great read by all accounts) is the latest in a long line of memoirs that put centre stage the relationship between author and mother. The content of Why be happy when you could be normal? occupies a similar
emotional context to that portrayed in Nancy Friday’s classic My mother my self, a book that explored the often fraught dynamic between mother and daughter. Although Winterson’s own history may be at the more extreme end of those stories, it nevertheless reflects the clash of generational needs and anxieties evident in Friday’s work.

Cover of "My Mother My Self: The Daughter...
Cover via Amazon

These biographies seem to echo a more common refrain in the broader psyche, that of an emotional crisis at the heart of the mother-daughter relationship. This crisis is the focus of Rosjke Hasseldine’s book The silent female scream (2006), which asks the question ‘why is mother-daughter conflict and misunderstanding so common? Why do so many daughters recoil at the suggestion that they are turning into their mother?’

Hasseldine expands on the significance of this question:

“Mother-daughter relationship conflict is far too common to be explained away by just individual disagreements or adolescent daughters being ‘hormonal’ or argumentative. There are just too many daughters admitting to having a difficult relationship with their mother. Too many daughters feeling misunderstood, invisible and hurt by the emotional distance between them. Too many adolescent girls are reacting with anger and too many new mothers are mourning the lack of connection and support they need from their mothers, for this to be explained away as stemming solely from their unique individual problems and issues”.

Hasseldine is correct to take ‘psychologism’ to task in this assessment. She is also correct, to some extent, to locate the explanation in patriarchy – displaced resentment caused by the mother’s invisibility and lack of acknowledgement for her role as emotional carer. Combined with the learnt inability to acknowledge their own emotional needs (again as a result of patriarchy), a compelling argument is put forward to explain the daughter ‘recoil’ phenomenon.

Compelling, up to a point. Family dynamics are convoluted, complex and a mish-mash of intense relational emotions, which no amount of reverse patriarchy could ever possibly overcome. The relationship between parent and child, regardless of gender, is not one of equals, but instead couched in domination, authority and control. Adolescent
girls will often express hatred towards their mothers, because they are their mothers. The same principle in reverse applies to mothers themselves, resentment and jealousy over youth, beauty and potential an intoxicating and corrosive mix. When you add regret and the generalised anxiety of motherhood to this mix, the passionate nature of the ‘recoil’ mentioned above becomes much easier to comprehend.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.