“The oppression of women has created a breach among us, especially between mothers and daughters. Women cannot respect their mothers in a society which degrades them; women cannot respect themselves.
- Judith Arcana (Our Mother’s Daughters)
The possibility of the visual image which appears in our minds when we hear the words, “the mother-daughter relationship” is often of complexity, conflict, and complication. The mother-daughter relationship has been interpreted and portrayed from various perspectives throughout history, literature, and the media. However, a handful of such interpretations have fallen short of representing the nuances and structural factors that shape this relationship.
An excellent place to start reading about the role of culture and structural frameworks in sculpting the mother-daughter relationship is this article from Scientific America by Monica Das Gupta which analyzes the devaluation of daughters, and mothers who bear daughters in Asian cultures.
Voicing the Unspeakable — Indian Daughters Writing Mothers by Sucharita Sarkar, explores the long history of South Asian culture which glorifies mothers who bear sons and view daughters as liabilities. Due to the devaluation of daughters, the mother-son relationship overshadows the mother-daughter dyad. In her paper, Sarkar explores storytelling and voicing women’s stories as a form of resisting the trivialization of mother-daughter relationships.
“This relationship has been minimized and trivialized in the annals of patriarchy. Whether in theological doctrine or art or sociology or psychoanalytic theory, it is the mother and son who appear as the eternal, determinative dyad. Small wonder, since theology, art, and social theory have been produced by sons. Like intense relationships between women in general, the relationship between mother and daughter has been profoundly threatening to men.”
- Suzanna Danuta Walters in Lives Together and Apart
An Endless Winter’s Night (An Anthology of Mother-Daughter Stories) by Ira Raja, and Kay Scouter as well as The Dark Holds No Terrors by Shashi Deshpande are novels we’d recommend in the spirit of resistance through storytelling. The Dark Hold No Terror in particular will be an interesting read as the plot follows a female protagonist reflecting on the impact of her mother preferring her son over her daughter.
“Why didn’t you die? Why are you alive and he dead?”
(Mother to daughter following her son’s drowning) — The Dark Holds No Terror by Sashi Deshpande.
An inevitable threshold of the mother-daughter relationship is the rocky period of the daughter entering her adolescence as well as the mother entering her menopausal years. These biological factors are often uncounted for and denied the due credit they deserve in our understanding of the mother-daughter dynamic.
The Existing Pattern of Mother-Daughter Communication of Sexual and reproductive health (SRH) matters among Sinhalese adolescent girls aged 14–19 years, in Sri Lanka is a study highlighting the existing barriers to communication between mothers and their daughters.
Factoring in these biological realities opens a wider discussion on the importance of open communication between mothers and daughters regarding their physical and mental wellbeing which will result in better understanding and increased empathy between the two stakeholders.
“Mothers and daughters existing as wretched mirrors of each other: I am all you could have been and you are all I might be” — mothers and daughters are often seen as extensions of each other. This recurring idea occurs due to the similarity of gender which often leads to confusion and blur of boundaries, which is explored in the essay, The Conflict between Nurturance and Autonomy in Mother-Daughter Relationships and Within Feminism by Jane Flax.
The blurring of boundaries leads to the possibility of mothers living through their daughters due to the life they never had or lost due to socio-economic factors and gender obligations. I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy is an autobiographical memoir exploring the complexities of this phenomenon through her lived experiences as a former child star. In her interview with Drew Barrymore, both women discuss the book, their shared experiences, and more.
A common phenomenon that often occurs within the mother-daughter relationship is the prevalence of body-shaming, commenting, and over-policing of daughters’ behaviors, choices of clothing, and physical appearances due to the implicit blurring of boundaries. This article by Narmata K. from Feminism in India attempts to dive into the root cause of why mothers body-shame their daughters.
Gayle Kirschenbaum in her TedTalk “No more drama with Mama” explores the impact her mother’s constant criticism had on “many aspects of” her life including her “personal and romantic relationships.”
“According to my mother, I couldn’t do anything right and my brothers couldn’t do anything wrong. My nose was too big; my hair was too frizzy and my butt too fat.”
— Gayle Kirschenbaum
Kirschenbaum continued to explore her experiences of being body-shamed by her mother, producing a Short Film titled “My Nose.”:
“My mother always thought I’d be happily married and successful if I had a nose job.”
My Nose (Short 2007) - IMDb
My Nose: Directed by Gayle Kirschenbaum. With Gayle Kirschenbaum, Albert Maysles.
Lady Bird (2017) is an essential watch on our Mothers & Daughters Reading List. A particular scene we found heartwrenching and true to life was the “dressing room scene.”
Work And Marriage: Mother-Daughter Similarities in Sri Lanka by Anju Malhotra and Amy Ong Tsui is a study exploring the relationship between Mothers and Daughters and their influences on each other’s outlook on careers and relationships in Sri Lanka.
“In relating to her daughter she unconsciously replays many of the ambiguities and identifications she experiences with her own mother. The mother thus often tends to relate to her daughter more as an extension of herself than as a separate person. . . . The mutually reinforcing identification of mother and daughter results in the girls acquiring a sense of separate identity later than boys, and never acquiring a sense of separation from others as strong as the boys.”
- Iris Young summarizing Nancy Chodorow (“Is Male Gender Identity the Cause of Male Domination?” in Treblicot, Mothering)
The prevalence of negative experiences within the mother-daughter relationship results in the fear of becoming “just like their mother” in daughters, which is referred to as Matrophobia by feminist theorists. Umma is a haunting-thriller film that explores this theme.
Grey’s Anatomy is a Television series that often features the theme of Matrophobia;
“Meredith Grey: ―Do you think we‘re like them? Our mothers?
Christina Yang: (says nothing, but stares back at Meredith with a look of disgust”
In order to overcome the blurring of boundaries between mothers and daughters, allowing and encouraging women to develop a sense of identity, individuality, and personhood is vital.
As a society mothers are often reduced to their role as a mother, and as daughters we reduce them to their role in relation to us without recognizing that they have their own lives, their own stories, and memories. The need to differentiate each other as individuals can be fulfilled when we attempt to see women as individuals instead of their responsibilities and obligations towards us, which we feel entitled to.
Everystory’s Reading List on Care Work and Motherhood presents works that explore this idea in a comprehensive manner.
“Accept and integrate and strengthen both the mother and the daughter in themselves, and to reintegrate the mother-daughter bond.”
— Adrienne Rich
Despite the constant overshadowing and negative outlook of mother-daughter relationships, as feminists, we must attempt to uncover the role of the structural frameworks which has led women to be unappreciative of other women and suffer from internalized degradation. This idea is often explored by feminist theorists such as Adrienne Rich and Juditha Arcana.
“Many daughters live in rage at their mothers for having accepted, too readily and passively, ‘whatever comes.’ A mother’s victimization does not merely humiliate her, it mutilates the daughter who watches her for clues as to what it means to be a woman. . . . The mother’s self-hatred and low expectations are the binding rags for the psyche of the daughter.”
The Patriachy’s Damage to Mother-Daughter Relationships by Alexandra D’Amour is a reflection that explores this idea.
It is important for us to recognize that this relationship is a key to breaking the cycle of women’s oppression under the patriarchy and it plays a vital role in breaking the cycle of generational trauma. The Film, Saving Face (2004) follows the story of a Chinese mother and daughter resisting social expectations together, through this journey of resistance, they mend their broken relationship.
“Thousands of daughters see their mothers as having taught a compromise and self-hatred they are struggling to win free of, the one through whom the restrictions and degradations of a female existence were perforce transmitted. Easier by far to hate and reject a mother outright than to see beyond her to the forces acting upon her.”
-Judith Arcana (Our Mother’s Daughters)
English Vinglish (2012) is an excellent film we recommend in order to help us identify our mothers as individuals with their own lives, worthy of respect because they are an individual, and not on the premise of them being a mother. The film encapsulates the quotation;
“Often father and daughter look down on mother (woman) together. They exchange meaningful glances when she misses a point. They agree that she is not bright as they are, and cannot reason as they do. This collusion does not save the daughter from the mother’s fate.”
- Bonnie Burstow, Radical Feminist Therapy: Working in the Context of Violence
We found Brown Skin Girl featured in The Lion King: The Gift (Deluxe Edition) album, sung by an African American mother to her daughter, empowering her to embrace her skin and heritage to be a powerful message.
At Everystory, we believe that the lived experiences of women are one of the strongest forms of resistance. In this spirit, we recommend the article; “Three Women Describe Their Complicated Mother/Daughter Relationships” published by “Cup of Jo.”
The comic “Growing Up With a Mom With OCD” is a reflection by Ruth Chan.
We asked our audience to send in their own stories about their relationship with their mothers; these stories can be read on our Medium Account.
For our “Mothers & Daughters” Reading List, we recommend the following;
- Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) — Jeanette Winterson
A coming-of-age story about a lesbian who grows up in an English Pentecostal community, struggling with the complicated relationship she shares with her mother. (Available at Lakmahal Community Library)
- The Waiting Earth (1996) — Punyakante Wijenaike
Punyakante Wijenaike is a Sri Lankan author, and the novel follows the hardships faced by an agrarian family amidst the 1960s resettlement.
The novel features compelling female characters, and we found “Intimate Enemies: An Analysis of the Mother-Daughter Relationship in Punyakante Wijenaike’s The Waiting Earth” by Neshantha Harischandra to be a harmonious accompaniment to compliment the book and this month’s theme.
- Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
- Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
- Little Women (1868) — Louisa May Alcott
- The Joy Luck Club (1989) — Amy Tan
- Difficult Daughters (1998) — Manju Kapur:
For anyone who takes an interest in the literary analysis of novels, we found “Mother-Daughter Relationships in Manju Kapur’s Difficult Daughters” by P. Samuel and P. Hephzibah to be insightful.
- “Everyday Use” (1973) — Alice Walker, published in the collection In Love and Trouble
The Oscar-winning film Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) acted as one of our main inspirations for the theme of Mothers and Daughters.
“I Have Felt Everything Your Daughter Has Felt And I Know The Joy And The Pain Of Having You As My Mother.”
— Jobu Tupaki
The Lost Daughter (2021) follows the journey of self-reflection an older woman experiences, upon meeting and recognizing herself in another woman and her young daughter while she is on a trip in Italy. The story explores the theme of mothers and daughters through the lens of maternal guilt and shame. “How ‘The Lost Daughter’ Addresses Maternal Guilt” is an article from Collider that we’d recommend reading.
- Little Women (2019)
- The Joy Luck Club (1993)
- Lady Bird (2018)
- Coraline (2009)
- Brave (2012)
- Autumn Sonata (1978) -
“The mother’s injuries are handed down to the daughter. The mother’s failures are paid for by the daughter. The mother’s unhappiness will be the daughter’s unhappiness. it’s as if the umbilical cord had never been cut.”
Watch Documentaries Online | Promote Documentary Film
This one-hour documentary takes an unconventional look at the mother-daughter relationship. Mirrors that Bind features…
- Gilmore Girls (2000–2007)
- Grey’s Anatomy (2005 — Ongoing)
- Big Love (2006–2011)
- The Golden Girls (1985–1992)
Audience Engagement with Mother-Daughter Relationships in Prime-Time Television of the 21st Century: A Qualitative Analysis of Interpretation, Sensemaking, and Perceived is a study highlighting the reactions and responses to the TV Shows listed above by mothers and daughters with testimonies.
Further Reading — Feminist Theories on Mother-Daughter Relationships
- Lives Together and Apart by Suzanna Danuta Walters: Introduction to Feminist Theories, their Shortcomings, and Criticisms — Explores the Evolution from the Freudian Model to the feminist takeover, introduces the significant and revolutionary pieces of work by Feminist Theorists, while also pointing out the shortcomings and criticisms within them.
- It is hard to write about my mother by Adrienne Rich