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The Complex Mother-Daughter Relationship

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Mothers and daughters of all ages are in increasingly complex relationships, warns gender studies author Susan Shapiro Barash -- and we use shopping as a misguided panacea.

That warning nagged in my mind this past weekend as my mom and I went shopping and had lunch in the restaurant of a big department store, joining scores of mother-daughter pairs enacting in the same ritual. It's the quintessential bonding experience, but just past the shared dressing rooms and Cobb salads are often fraught relationships that will keep therapists in business for decades to come.

In her new book, "You're Grounded Forever ... But First, Let's Go Shopping", Barash offers a new twist on the age-old topic of mothering, arguing that expectations for mother-daughter connections are greater than ever before -- and we're falling short. All too often mothers make excuses for their daughters, fail to set limits and in turn hold their daughters back even if they have the best of intentions. Daughters, meanwhile, learn early to manipulate the situation and sneak in that extra pair of shoes at the end of the shopping trip (or a whole lot worse).

Barash's book is full of both approachable research and clear advice for mothers and daughters of every age. If you are a mother of a young daughter, consider it preventative medicine.

Barash advises:

  • Do your best to separate money and love early on. Instead of mother-daughter shopping events, bond over museums or sports, lunches or fun with friends.
  • Don't make excuses or overindulge her, make sure that you, "The Mom," are respected for your wisdom, experience and support.
  • Make sure you know who you are as an individual and adult: What are your values? Is your husband or partner on the same page?
  • Understand the bad mother-daughter examples around you, the materialistic pressures and bribes -- and set your own goals for mothering that match your values.

I'm an adult daughter with no children of my own yet, so Barash's book reads like one big warning of all the pitfalls ahead with motherhood. It's a call to mothers to act like adults, be consistent with rules and be a mentor and guide, not a BFF. And while having a little girl sounds divine, according to her interviews, Barash reports that 90 percent of mothers today believe that mothering daughters is much more "loaded" than mothering sons. "The gender identification is so strong, and memories of what we endured in our earlier days make it all the more painful and meaningful to raise a daughter -- and to deal with an adult daughter's experiences," Barash said in an interview.

Indeed, the line between mother and daughter, adult and child is more blurred than ever. "There is a sense that mothers and daughter today are pals, peers," mused Barash. "Their wardrobes are eerily similar whether the daughter is seven or 27. Oftentimes, both mother and daughter are single and dating, they may share the same taste in music and they often confide in one another in a new and more revealing manner." If we lack a clear hierarchy between parent and child, Barash worries, we undermine the authority of the mother and risk distorting the daughter's self-image in the process.

Your grandmother and great-grandmother wouldn't know what to make of today's moms sharing jeans with their daughters or competing for who looks the "hottest." Sure, mother-daughter relationships have always been fraught, but what's new, argues Barash, "is the extent to which we enable our daughters in all arenas, second-guess ourselves and find ourselves consumed with our daughters."

"You're Grounded Forever" isn't preachy -- Barash is the mother of two adult daughters herself and has struggled with many of these issues personally -- and it's full of stories to which mothers and daughters will instantly relate. We all know that a mother should guide, but not cover for or make excuses for her children: You can set up and help with, but not do your daughter's science project. Fine. But what happens when the stakes are higher? What happens when the deadline for college applications is looming and the mother wants to swoop in and take over the process? Through interviews that both mothers and daughters will relate to, Barash repeatedly draws the line between enabling and appropriate parenting.

Indeed, Barash might consider setting up shop at the entrance to a department store restaurant: "You're Grounded Forever ... But First Let's Go Shopping" is food for thought for every mother-daughter duo.

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