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How close is too close for mother-daughter relationships?

A best friends forever (BFF) mother? Well, this situation carries with it the risk that over time it will develop into a mutual rivalry, loss of respect, confusion of roles and invasion of privacy

Betty Muindi @BettyMuindi

As a little girl, Davince Atieno, 23 would spend hours looking at her mother’s beautiful dresses and sorting through her jewellery drawer. She thought her mother was the most amazing woman living some sort of magical adult life. “I wanted to emulate her, be like her and receive her love.

I even remember the joyful moment she bought me a sweater that matched hers, and still treasure a photograph of us together in our matching sweaters, jeans and boots,” she recounts.

As she grew older, they would swap clothes and share information about her dates, something that was unheard of among her peers. To a generation raised with clear distinction between mothers and daughters, seeing them acting like sorority sisters, speaking freely about sexual partners and frequenting dressed scantily together seemed odd.

Slippery slope

Parenting expert Susan Wanjiku agrees that mothers and daughters in noticeable numbers want to be best friends forever. “Just look at the relationship between singer and business woman Akothee and her daughters and then the TV shows we now have; from the popular Gilmore Girls to the current tween smash Pretty Little Liars.

Such shows leave some of us wishing at least a little bit that we, too, could be just like Lorelei and Rory. Exchanging amusing chitchat, enjoying each other’s company for days on end, chatting on the phone three times an hour,” she says.

But can intense togetherness have negative effects? Is being a Best Friends Forever (BFF) with a daughter positive thing or a negative slippery slope that could compromise a daughter’s development?

Researchers argue that this friendship causes a dangerous blur between the traditional roles of parent and child. An article in the Wall Street Journal by Amy Chozick in 2010, How Parents Became Cool describes the parental paradigm shift from loving, but firm to best friends.

“We’ve all heard stories of mothers who are trying so desperately to be cool that they opt for the role of BFFs to their daughters instead of mothers. It’s an easy line to cross; after all, every woman wants another friend, and mothers, especially, want to connect with their teens and tweens and not be thought of as old hags,” she wrote.

Authors of Too Close for Comfort: Questioning the Intimacy of Today’s Mother-Daughter Relationship (Berkley, 2009) by Linda Perlman Gordon and Susan Morris Shaffer quote an old Chinese proverb that states, “One Generation plants the trees; another gets the shade,” and this is how it should be with mothers and daughters.

The balance

“The intimate nature of the relationship between a mother and daughter is sometimes confusing. If close, the relationship can simulate friendship through the familiar characteristics of empathy, listening, loyalty, and caring.

However, the relationship has unique characteristics that distinguish it from a best friendship. These characteristics include a mother’s role as primary emotional caretaker, a lack of reciprocity, and a hierarchy of responsibility.

This hierarchy, combined with unconditional love, precludes mothers and daughters from being best friends,” the authors argue.

Wanjiku explains the essential ingredient for friendship is equality and there is always an imbalance when one person in the twosome is the parent of the other. Mothers and daughters naturally can’t be best friends.

She says the problem with this type of relationship is that the healthy limit of the mother-daughter relationship starts to disappear. In principle, this link must be of companionship and educational.

However, a friendship transforms it into a controlling and overprotective relationship towards the daughter. The consequence of this is that a model of respect and authority cannot be built because the mother is perceived as being on an equal pairing.

“This doesn’t mean the mother-daughter relationship can’t be close and satisfying. While some adult relationships are still troubled, many find them to be extremely rewarding.

Best friends may or may not continue to be best friends, but for better or worse, the mother and daughter relationship is permanent, even if for some unfortunate reason they may not be speaking,” she says.

The mother and child relationship is, therefore, more intimate and more intense than any other. As long as that hierarchy exists, it’s not an equal relationship.

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