- Why are daughters scared of “becoming just like their mother”?
Bonnie Burstow in Radical Feminist Therapy wrote-
“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, cannot reason as they do. This collusion does not save the daughter from the mother’s fate.”
When I read this for the first time, I realized how most girls, including myself, are afraid of becoming their mothers. You laugh at a joke your father makes over the dinner table, only to someday be at the receiving end. Does that scare you? I can admit it scares me.
I think we all bear witness to how on some level, our mothers are disrespected and ridiculed. In Sri Lankan households especially, would it be the same for our fathers? Whether said or not, there is always a line you will never cross when it comes to dealing with the men in your family. I really do believe the frustration that ultimately builds up manifests through anger at “small” things like a teacup left in the wrong place. Everyone says its irrational, crazy behaviour. I suppose you will only understand when you grow older and think about having the same fate, the thought of which scares you. What if you someday have children and your partner doesn’t separate you as someone who is worthy of respect as a mother? This realization is an excellent eye-opener, it’s good practice for you to learn to be a better daughter by standing up, with small acts or small words to support your mother. Or by choosing not to contribute to her humiliation, solidarity can look like many different things.
In addition to this, there’s also a wide fear over becoming like your mother. Identifying common characteristics. For example, you’re watching a couple fight in a show or a movie. And then a boyfriend, to really hurt his girlfriend, to really get her to stop, will say “You’re behaving like your mother right now.” And then she suddenly stops, her whole world has just crumbled. That’s such a complex situation to unpack because it is the fear that she has been behaving badly, irrationally, emotionally, everything that she believes her mother has been, which strikes her first. Essentially, her mother has been a woman, a person. And then it’s also the realization that with adulthood, she has ended up reflecting more of her mother’s character than previously thought possible.
In your perspective, how has the culture of Sri Lanka and South Asia impacted the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship?
Speaking solely from my experience as a daughter, I think there are huge barriers contributed by cultural and social ideas here. For instance, in Sri Lanka, parents are often perceived as gods. There is a popular Sinhala line that every child hears at some point, which says “dhemapiyo deiyo wage” (your parents should be revered as your gods). In some ways, it may be a good way to teach young children that their parents deserve respect, kindness, and love. However, the danger of this is that the idea stems from a tradition and culture of parents being infallible and are owed respect as a right. What we’re taught is that our parents are incapable of doing wrong.
Some of the biggest struggles people have with their mothers is coming to terms with not receiving apologies. I have always failed to understand why a mother (or parents and older adults in general) can’t apologize when she has done something wrong. Now I realize it’s Sri Lankan society that constructs this idea of parents never needing to apologize for their actions because it’s the common belief that mistakes are not possible or intended. It’s that inability to accept that you can do wrong for your kids sometimes. That is why daughters and mothers can’t have that conversation, especially in South-Asian households, where mothers are very reluctant to examine whether they’ve let their daughters down sometimes. Further, whether in some instances, they’ve let themselves down as people. There is usually no self-reflection. Not everyone will want to fight for an apology or demand for this self-reflection to happen, and for good reason. It is more mentally exhausting than it should be. Now, I will go up to my mother, and ask her to think about when she’s done something wrong, but I will also allow myself to pick and choose my battles. The ability to do that also arrives when you reach a certain age or level of maturity, when you have the resources and freedom to examine your boundaries.
- Why is it that mothers are critical of their daughters, or why does it feel this way?
I would like to preface my response by saying that all mothers were once girls, and they were most likely also criticized in the same ways. For South-Asian girls especially, the whole world is critical, and it begins in many cases at home. It’s a complicated concept because your mother is directly held responsible for your behaviour, and whether or not you grew up into the type of woman that warrants respect. Her duties are clear on this, and should she fail, the criticism is directed towards her. Family and strangers alike would say that she has failed in her responsibility of raising a girl that befits our cultural standards. This is the case for sons too. When you consider language for instance, the phrase “son of a bitch” is a shining example of this. There are equivalents to this in Sinhala as well of course. Here, the world shifts the blame of character and responsibility to the mother, it’s because the traditional understanding of parental roles set out that she is entrusted with the responsibility of building character, personality, your ability to go out into the world and behave well in society, your appearance, among other things. Apparently, all of these are the mother’s responsibilities, and the father is supposed to build the physical and financial space for this to unfold.
The world, South-Asian society especially, in its criticism divides us into daughter and woman, where you are first and foremost criticized as a daughter. While this is happening, it’s also a simultaneous criticism of your mother. An example of this that has always stuck with me was what happened when I was sixteen. I had terrible acne, and my limited knowledge of skin meant that I kept picking at my face which led to the most obvious scars. I don’t know why it was such a big deal for people. But wherever I went, the first thing I would be asked is, “Oh, are you not doing anything for your face like this?” When I went to my grandmother’s house, the first thing she asked my mother was, “Aren’t you doing anything for this poor girl?”. Instantly, it was highlighted that it was my mother’s responsibility. Nevermind that my mother had taken me to three doctors, nevermind, she already spent a small fortune on getting the medication. She had done everything possible yet people were criticizing her for my appearance, which then became a personal battle for her as well. Indirectly or directly, there was then further stress for me to fix my face since everyone believed that my mother failed her first responsibility, which is to make sure that I look good.
The danger in this cycle of criticism is that it teaches people that it’s a “normal” parenting skill. Your mother might be ingrained to criticize because that’s what she has seen her whole life as a parenting skill. For many generations of mothers, the conversation of how dangerous over-critiquing your daughters can be has rarely happened. I’ve seen this wherever I’ve been, at dinner parties, at friends’ houses. Constant criticism, followed by full reviews of everything a daughter is supposed to be and what she isn’t, ranging from the dryness of her skin to bald spots on her head. This is unfortunately such a big element of mother-daughter relationships, which leads to a lot of young girls not wanting to be vulnerable or open with them. They might even limit the amount of time they spend with their mothers because no one wants to be criticized so often, especially when it’s from someone they love.
Moving away from this cycle unfortunately might have a lot to do with what resources and what spaces you have access to in order to have reflections about what kind of parent you want to be (should you want children). For instance, in my friend groups at school, I remember constantly having discussions about what kind of mothers we want to be to our daughters someday. It is an enormous privilege to have the space and means to be able to have these discussions. Having the capacity to have that reflection, whether that’s done through professional counselling or by yourself is a luxury. I do like to hope Gen Z mothers would be excellent mothers because, in our generation, it’s normal to have these conversations. I love it when girls talk about motherhood — not as a given, but about what kind of mothers they might like to be, reflecting on what their own experiences were like and whether they want to be mothers or not.
- What are some feminist approaches and thinking on the subject that might help us view the mother daughter relationship differently?
Looking at motherhood through a feminist lens allows women of all ages, especially young women, to understand that you are allowed to be complicated. It allows girls to have conversations about how motherhood is a choice. It was Gillian Flynn that wrote in “Sharp Objects” —
“I just think that some women aren’t meant to be mothers. And some women aren’t meant to be daughters.”
Some mother-daughter relationships aren’t meant to be. As women, we’re forced to think that motherhood is our purpose. That’s the burden of being a woman living in a patriarchal world. The moment you start letting go of those things is when the world is yours. This is of course dependent on a variety of social and economic factors, with many never having the luxury of making this choice. However, applying feminist thinking to how we view motherhood is essential, because it allows it be a choice rather than a punishment. This means that more women are allowed to live a life of their own choosing. I remember reading what Rupi Kaur wrote, “In a dream I saw my mother. With the love of her life and no children. It was the happiest I’d ever seen her.”
Feminist ideas also bring a wider and necessary conversation on how the patriarchy has structured motherhood to place immense and unfair burden on mothers. Parents in Sri Lanka especially don’t share equal responsibilities. We’ve discussed here what its like to be held responsible for the perfect children, the pains of which affect both mother and child. The emotional and physical labour of raising daughters are unimaginable, particularly in the context of South-Asian households. Questioning how structures are built are crucial in our journeys as young feminists, and asking how society pits mother and daughter against each other is a difficult, yet important discussion. For instance, consider the media, consider common ideas. We’ve also talked a lot about recognizing how your mother is a woman too, and how her circumstances affect her in fundamental ways. I keep talking about empathy, because that’s one of the most important feminist traits you can apply when thinking about mother-daughter relationships.
Do you think biological factors play a role in shaping mother-daughter relationships?
I remember our Co-Founder Sharanya Sekaram talking about this once, the biological factors which affect the phases of your relationship with your mother. Having had that conversation, I took some time to reflect on what my own experiences have been like, and I realized that the most chaotic phase was when I was a teenager, and my mother was nearing menopause simultaneously. I didn’t understand it at the time, but now that I’m older, I realize how difficult it must have been for her too, which was why our relationship was immensely rocky at the time.
The best way I can put this into context is by discussing Kristen Scott Thomas’ soliloquy on the pains and joys of a woman’s body in Fleabag. Here, she says “I’ve been longing to say this out loud — women are born with pain built-in, it’s our physical destiny — period pain, sore boobs, childbirth, you know. We carry it with ourselves throughout our lives…just when you feel you’re making peace with it, what happens? The menopause comes, the [expletive] menopause comes, and it is the most wonderful [expletive] thing in the world. And yes, your entire pelvic floor crumbles and you get [expletive] hot and no one cares.”
Our mothers are also women, and we forget that, I know I did. There are years when you’re angry at your body, starting from roughly 13–17, being stuck in a complex situation where you’re unable to understand your emotions. This predicament is all well understood and recognized as “normal” when you’re a teenager. So when I was younger, I inherently thought of myself as “rational”, and thought that my outbursts and my complications were okay because that’s how teenagers were supposed to act. I lacked the ability to step back and understand that what my mother was going through was very similar to my experience as well, the acceptance of which would have helped our relationship in many ways. As a child though, you don’t have the capacity or the strength to take these and separate your mother’s behaviour as a situation beyond her control. Just like how yours is when you’re a teenager.
I do think there’s a danger of growing up and doing the same, forgetting what you went through as a teenager. It is difficult to be retrospective of your childhood, thinking about what you went through and making sure you don’t repeat the same mistakes as your mother. Being empathetic about each other’s internal and biological conflicts is the key, which is of course easier said than done, but discussing it is a good place to start.
- Do you think older female figures or others compensate for the love, care, and attention you never got from your own mother?
Sometimes you will gravitate towards other women in your life, especially older women. I have noticed I’m a bit of an over-sharer when it comes to older women, instantly I have a lot of affection and admiration for them. For example, teachers. Now I realize that it was me actively seeking out a space where I could open up and explore my emotions, something I didn’t have when I was a teenager. I constantly saw it in other people my age as well. In retrospect, I understand now how it can be quite dangerous because you’re confiding in a random adult in your life. When someone is going to give you emotional support and they come from positions of power, there will undoubtedly be some sort of hold over you. You will also automatically attach importance to their opinions, which is dangerous because at a young age, you don’t have the capacity to think critically about whether they are right or wrong. Eventually if they want to, people you confide in at that age can use your personal information against you, or they can make you feel like you owe them something. I am of course, not saying everyone is like this, but as young girls especially, we need to be extremely careful about how you navigate relationships with adults, because the hard truth is that a relationship with someone else will not fill that maternal gap you feel have. Now that I’m older, I’m consciously making sure that it’s not maternal support I’m searching for, if at all, its that base of sisterhood that I will look for.
What I always say to whoever reaches out to me if they’re younger is that as much as your mother is not who you ideally need or want at the moment, please do not go out there looking for a replacement. I don’t view it as a betrayal to your mother, rather its a betrayal to yourself. Your safety. I will add here that it is different if you would like to confide in a trusted adult like a counselor, your emotions are valid and you deserve a safe space to have discussions.
Minadi Gunawardena is a feminist, student, and amateur writer. She is currently the Social Media and Communications Manager for Everystory Sri Lanka. She also works with other non-profits/organizations in the capacity of part-time roles, while she reads for her LLB. Her passions primarily lie in work in feminist advocacy and development, which she hopes to further pursue post-degree.