When we move into an apartment of our own, when we find a job, take a lover, get married and have a child of our own — in all these important rites of passage away from her, as we take one step forward, we take another one back, and find ourselves doing things her way. Becoming like her overcomes our separation anxiety. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many — or most — women. For one thing, my father, Robert Firestone, has written extensively about the ambivalence inherent in every mother-daughter relationship.
His descriptive accounts of the dynamics operating in the mother-daughter bond were published in Compassionate Child-Rearing and are explained in a chapter in our forthcoming book, co-authored by Joyce Catlett, The Self Under Siege: A Therapeutic Model for Differentiation.
What are some of the less-than-beneficial aspects of the mother-daughter bond? For example, if their mother acted victimized and helpless, they often have tendencies to relate to life as passive victims. If their mother saw men as weak, indifferent, or degrading of them as women, the daughters internalize these views and take them on as their own. As a result, many women fail to distinguish between the internalized negative maternal point of view and their own views.
Their personal narratives led Rheingold to conclude: A woman may bring any number of assets to marriage — compassion, wisdom, intelligence, skills, an imaginative spirit, delight-giving femininity, good humor, friendliness, pride in a job well done — but if she does not bring emancipation from her mother, the assets may wither or may be overbalanced by the liability of the fear of being a woman. Women who pull back in these ways feel bound to their mothers, not by a genuine sense of closeness, but by an imagined connection or fantasy bond that was a substitute for the warmth and attunement that was missing in the early attachment with their mothers.
As women struggle to become their own person, to develop their own identity, to feel confident in their personal and professional goals, and to keep passion and love alive in their relationship, they often experience a kind of anticipatory fear that their independence and sexuality will threaten the illusory connection with their mother.
It can also injure their self-confidence and ability in relation to their personal goals and successes. This unwelcome trend could be a sign that they are becoming more like their mother, especially if their mother gradually gave up her identity as a sexual woman after she had children.
A friend of mine told me about an evening that she spent recently with her boyfriend where she felt more loving and passionate than usual. She said that she also felt very happy when he told her how much he loved her. It dawned on her that their relationship had become very meaningful. Later in the week, however, she began to have doubts about how he really felt. There is a way to challenge this fantasy bond with our mothers.
I have known many women who challenged the harmful attitudes and maladaptive views that they took on as their own at an early age during painful interactions with their mothers. As they came to understand the division within themselves between their desire for independence and sexual fulfillment and the debilitating psychological tie to their mothers, they were able to break this fantasy bond by changing negative traits in themselves that were imitative of their mothers.
Differentiating from the destructive aspects of maternal influence enabled them to experience more satisfaction in their relationships and to manifest a stronger personal identity.