Mothers and Daughters: A Crucial Connection After Divorce

08/29/2013 03:32 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2013

I've written extensively about fathers and daughters and felt compelled to do so since this relationship is usually impacted the most by divorce. If you've read my articles on this topic, you'll find that most daughters don't have the advantage of a close connection with their fathers after divorce. While this has changed somewhat in recent years, many experts believe that we still have a long way to go. After writing a book with my daughter Tracy, followed by a period of personal reflection, I set out to learn more about the mother-daughter relationship. Too much closeness, misunderstandings, conflicts -- there are many ways to describe this relationship and not a lot of evidence to draw from.

Since nearly one third of all daughters have parents who are divorced in America, and most of them reside with their mothers after the breakup, I figured there would be plenty of studies. However, I was surprised to find out that this isn't the case. Perhaps it's because we live in a culture that author Harriet Lerner refers to as mother-blaming. In The Dance of Connection she writes, "Also mothers are less likely than fathers to disappear in the fray, and are therefore a "safe" target of attack."

Most of what we know about this topic comes from psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington's landmark study of 1,400 divorced families over a period of thirty years. Clearly, she considers the connection between mothers and daughters to be a protective factor after divorce. After extensive examination, she concludes that preadolescent girls develop close supportive relationships with their mothers but that this shifts during adolescence when there is more upheaval in their lives. In For Better or for Worse, Hetherington writes "In adolescence, there is a notable increase in conflict in these relationships, particularly between early maturing daughters and their mothers." She concludes, "In addition, divorced mothers and their adult daughters are closer than divorced mothers and sons, and sons feel somewhat closer than daughters to their fathers."

It makes sense that the mother-daughter bond would intensify after divorce since girls spend much less time with their fathers. Linda Nielsen, author of Between Fathers and Daughters, writes "Sadly, only 10-15 percent of fathers and daughters get to enjoy the benefits of shared parenting." Nielsen recommends that mothers and fathers encourage their daughter to spend close to equal time with both parents and give her messages such as "Both your dad and I made mistakes in our marriage, but we are good parents."

Based on more than two decades of research on fathers and daughters, Linda Nielsen notes that many mothers lean too heavily on their daughters for advice and caretaking after divorce and this can turn the daughter against her father. Another point made by Dr. Nielsen that I noted in my own research, is that daughters are more upset about and negatively impacted by parental conflict than sons post-divorce.

Why exactly is the mother-daughter relationship so complicated? Dr. Peggy Drexler notes that many mothers like to feel connected to their daughters and, in many cases, their daughters' friends. She writes, "At a time when there is so much societal pressure to stay young, this helps keep us feeling youthful. It also helps us feel appreciated long after our children stop "needing" us to survive. Dr. Drexler makes the point that many mothers seek validation through their daughters. In my opinion, this need could be exaggerated after divorce when the mother's coping skills might be strained. In fact, the mother-daughter best friend idea doesn't leave room for the more traditional role of mom and could even lead to a competitive edge between them. Andrea has been divorced for over two years and she often goes on shopping trips with her 16-year-old daughter Maggie. While they both enjoy many aspects of these outings, Maggie admits that her mom may be living vicariously through her. Maggie says, "My mom likes fashion and always wants my opinion on her new outfits and I don't have the heart to tell her what I really think."

Lauren, a 20-something redhead that I interviewed recently stated, "Sometimes, I don't know what the boundaries are between my mom and me -- I guess you can say they seem fuzzy. I don't like it when she confides bad things about my dad or stepfather to me because it makes it hard for me to like them. Boundaries are an important part of any relationship, but they are especially critical for mothers and daughters after the breakup of a family.

As mothers, we want our daughters to grow up to be independent and self-confident. When we are overly involved and encourage them to tell us all of their deep, dark secrets, this may make it problematic for them to break away and to establish their autonomy -- a crucial development task of adolescent identity formation.

Here are some things I've learned about the mother-daughter relationship:

• Love means letting go. Try not to lean on your daughter too much. Give her space to grow and to develop her own identity.
• Your daughter is not your friend. Don't confide in her when it comes to personal information that doesn't involve her. You can enjoy each other's company and be connected, yet be autonomous individuals.
• You will always be a model for your daughter. But in order to find her way, she'll need to question your decisions and personality at times.
• Don't ask too much of her. Keep your expectations realistic and realize she can't make up for what you didn't get from your mother or other relationships.
• Have faith in your daughter. While it may be hard to let go, you can delight in watching your daughter grow into a self-confident person.

Lastly, accepting that your daughter is different from you and has her own personality, interests, and choices will help you to stay back while she learns from her mistakes. You can't live through her or save her from the pain that comes with growing into womanhood -- but you can delight in her joys.

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