Mothers, Daughters, and Relationships

Drifting off to sleep, I thought about her. How nobody is perfect. How you just have to close your eyes and breathe out and let the puzzle of the human heart be what it is.” ~ Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

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As mothers, there is only so much we can control in our daughter’s choices in life. The amount of influence we have can either send her looking for a relationship that reflects what she may have always admired about our own or it can send her running in the opposite direction.

Once they reach the “age of interest” how do we teach our daughters what to look for in a relationship — no matter how good or bad our own choices have been in life? Pressure to be popular with the opposite sex often begins earlier for girls than for boys, but rarely do we see the seemingly uncomplicated, innocent boy-girl friendships found in old movies like My Girl or the soul-searching bonds portrayed in Perks of a Wallflower. Teen relationships are usually a case of who-likes-who more and who is willing to give up time with their other friends to hang out as a couple. Then — POOF. It’s over. As moms standing on the sidelines, we philosophize, cheer our daughters on, offer a shoulder to cry on or make the mistake of telling them they were better off or were too young to pair up in the first place, which gets us nowhere.

While we don’t want to shield our daughters from life pitfalls, it’s often a sticky wicket to talk about these things without sounding as if we are lecturing. So we do that dance we have learned to do so well in order to  earn and keep our daughters’ trust as the most apparent and in-your-face example of womanhood in their young lives. We avoid having a discussion, hoping a succession of days and events will push it to a later date or we will someday be able to fall to our knees thanking the stars our daughters somehow found out on their own.

In researching the talk I SHOULD have had with my daughter, I was drawn to a Woman’s Day article by Jenna Birch, 11 Love Lessons Every Mother Should Teach Her Daughter, where she admits, “…it’s up to Mom to initiate a heart-to-heart about matters of the heart. Although it can be a difficult subject to broach, your greatest gift to your daughter might just be the knowledge to face tough times and come out stronger.” Her advice includes talking to our daughters about self-esteem, respect, the habit some of us have to “lose” ourselves in a relationship, entering and staying in a relationship for the right reasons, and even recognizing that failed relationships pave the way for more knowledge about ourselves and others. 

Whether or not we cover all the bases with our girls in one discussion or 100 of them is not the point. In my mind, the ideal maternal conversations include an unequivocal plea to never let anyone else define you, limit you, or make you feel small. Good relationships see two individuals walking along life’s path together, wandering off from one another to find out more about themselves, but always coming back together in love without judgement of the other. It involves listening to but not always agreeing with the other, all with an undercurrent of support. Explaining this to a teenage girl, however, may not be a cakewalk. So if I had the opportunity to explain all this in my rearview mirror, I think I would use stories a kid could relate to instead of psycho-babble terms. Those stories could be about what I or others experienced, always trying to present both sides of the issue a relationship might experience. Some research and mental preparation might be in order so that you are not caught flat-footed.

One of the most telling things we can do, however is to model good couple behavior. That means not only showing open respect for our husband/partner, but also demonstrating our comfort with the other’s goals and aspirations, hobbies, and even the level of playful affection we give and receive while our daughters are within sight/hearing range. Apart from my parents, when I was growing up there were countless fictional couples on TV that had fun relationships, endlessly working together to be loving couples even in a comedy format. Nowadays, however, there are fewer role models to point to outside of immediate family, since Hollywood prefers to depict conflict, unusual pairings and drama instead of harmony to entertain us and keep our attention.

While raising my own daughter, it was only years after I left her dad (she was 17) that I realized how the almost daily conflict her father and I demonstrated toward the end of our marriage had affected her. When her dad and I finally made the decision to end things, she began to see another side of me she had never sampled. She watched as I got back in touch with the people and things I loved but had been suppressing so as not to “make waves” at home, took stock of my looks and health after years of having felt diminished and unattractive, and looked for new and exciting opportunities I would never have considered when we had all remained at home as a small nuclear family. As I blossomed, she also saw me enter a relationship with a man very different from her father who would eventually become her stepfather. 

Your daughter will have only one mom to look up to and look back on as she navigates relationships in her life. That mom should be her teacher and mentor — not necessarily her friend. Girls can look elsewhere for those. The fact that you, as a mom, have weathered a number of storms makes you her biggest resource, able to look at big picture scenarios in your daughter’s budding life like no other. Use those memories, mistakes, triumphs and lessons wisely to prepare your daughter for the road ahead, but try hard not to stereotype or lay blame. 

No one is treated badly in a relationship without implied permission, so if your daughter is in a rocky pairing, tell her to look within herself to see why she would ever allow herself to be in one that does not feel empowering, life-affirming and fairly conflict-free. It’s also important to warn her that relationships with “bad boys” — no matter how fun the verbal banter and challenges — get old quickly if you try to make them permanent. 

Instead, get her talking about her goals in life that have nothing to do with being in a relationship.  Regardless of biological clocks, it seems obvious that young men do not sit around dreaming of coupling up as much as girls do and stay very busy looking to their futures. There is no reason we can’t raise our daughters to do the same, and if a good and loving partner comes along who wants to be a witness and cheerleader to her life and vice-versa, it is the sweetest icing on the cake — not the cake itself.

Talks about relationships and what a good one looks like are awkward. There is no doubt about it. Not having them, however, may someday find you wishing you had.

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