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Winter Books

Mothers and daughters undergo ‘transition into equality’


By Ann F. Caron
Henry Holt and Company, 288 pages, $13 paper


“Every girl yearns to know her mother. The longing may touch a woman at any time of her life,” wrote Ann Caron in 1991 in Don’t Stop Loving Me: A Reassuring Guide for Mothers of Adolescent Daughters. She ended that book by writing: “It is never too late because [mothers and daughters] have not stopped wanting to love each other.”

As a follow up to her earlier book, after two volumes about raising sons, Caron has now published Mothers to Daughters in which she re-focuses on the mother-daughter relationship as the younger woman enters her 20s and concentrates her attention on that decade in the relationship. “Their generational influences differ, their manner of speaking differs, their goals differ, but their dreams of finding themselves through connections are the same.”

Caron moves chronologically through most of the book from the daughter’s transition into college to her wedding day. Along the way, however, she addresses such topics as boyfriends, grandmothers, mentors, effects of parents’ own divorce, and religion.

Besides what you might expect to find in a chapter on the college years, such as how the relationship was altered by the daughter moving out of the home, how mothers respond to their daughters’ new exposure to more permissive attitudes toward drinking and sexual activity, this and other chapters develop an ongoing theme, what one respondent called “the transition into equality.” Both mothers and daughters must adjust to new ways of relating as their lives evolve apart from one another.

Independent young women today are forming fierce friendships with one another, more so than their mothers did at the equivalent stage of life, probably because mothers married earlier and frequently put a higher value on male relationships (dates) than on their female friends. Today’s young women see relationships with one another as a benchmark of their generation and a strength to be celebrated.

Another strength of today’s young women, Caron suggests, is their ability to balance competition and cooperation. They are competitive; they want to advance, but not at the expense of one another. Women’s cooperative nature is not unique to this generation, but is fine-tuned by them to create as many opportunities and promotions as the combination will net them.

To help them progress along the career path, many young women have sought out or fallen into mentoring relationships in the workplace -- yet another person, usually an older woman, besides friends and boyfriends, for a mother to share her daughter with. Wise mothers know when not to press for their daughters’ attention and confidences. And whereas mothers and daughters can and should be friends, daughters cannot supply their mothers with a peer friendship.

Women in their 50s today often did not make the kind of close friendships their daughters have, (the Ya Ya Sisterhood notwithstanding,) perhaps because of marriage and frequent career moves with their husbands. Many envy their daughters this kind of friendship; some may try to replicate it with their daughters. This friendship issue is especially apparent in the case of divorced women who have reached out to their children, especially daughters, to be a sounding board and to fill an emotional void. Interestingly, a parent’s divorce seems to impact not at all a young woman’s decision to marry.

What is not necessarily contentious between this generation of mothers and daughters is organized religion. Of course there are mothers who are dismayed that their daughters do not hold steadfastly to the religious practices of their youth, but more and more older women are themselves feeling at odds with the religions they practiced all their lives. “Mid-life women and their daughters fall through the cracks of the foundations of major religions. ... They and their daughters sound astonishingly alike as they discuss their dissatisfaction with traditional religions that fail to offer a direction at this stage of their lives.” What is sad but true is that most congregations do not know how to attract educated young women, but this is not to say that women of any age are not seeking spiritual fulfillment. They are just finding it in alternative ways.

Whatever the relationship between a woman and her 20s-age daughter today, short of total estrangement, it will probably be mirrored in this book. Caron writes in her conclusion that the “voices of young women heard in these pages clearly speak of their desire for connections, connections to friends, boyfriends, co-workers, spirituality, families (including fathers) but especially mothers. … Daughters in this new generation do not turn away from mothers, even those who are difficult.”

Caron touches on a wide range of topics, more than can be covered here, and uses a plethora of voices and anecdotal material, but she never describes her sample. She acknowledges using research completed by the Wellesley College Center for Women, and presumably she conducted some interviews herself, but how geographically, ethnically and socio-economically diverse were they?

Whereas there are opinions and situations that cover the continuum, just to use an easy example: Some mothers still take the leading role in planning their daughter’s wedding, while some daughters are retaining that privilege for themselves. There is no way within the context of the book to place one’s self in relation to the whole and to assess what it really means. How many mothers and daughters were, in fact, interviewed? Did birth order or only-child status make a difference? To what degree does education factor in? Caron stresses that today’s young career women are leading different lives from their mothers. Could that not be said of any generation of young women? My own mother was born in the horse and buggy era, but as a young employed woman with some college, owned her own car and spoke highly of a woman who had helped guide her career. Furthermore, she did not marry until she was 30. So my point is, without any statistical differentiation, couldn’t much the same have been written about any set of mothers and daughters in any given era as each strained not to be the other?

What I do agree with wholeheartedly, however, besides the idea that daughters yearn to know their mothers, is found in Caron’s conclusion: “In each phase of their lives, mothers and daughters will find new connections.” And what I hope for mothers and daughters everywhere, best put in Caron’s own words: “A young woman and her mid-life mother are just beginning their long friendship.”

Judith Bromberg is a regular reviewer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999