Mothers vs. Daughters: Why Can't We Just Get Along?
by Jennifer Allen
You love each other...yet one of you is always saying the wrong thing! How
to improve the conversation-and the relationship.
I sometimes think of my daughters as my own personal Thought
Police. Both are deeply attuned to everything I say and how I say it. Recently,
my older child, who's 21, came home for a visit: "Hi, honey," I said,
giving her a hug as she walked through the door-to which she replied, "Why
aren't you happier to see me?" I thought to myself, How did she pick up on
the fact that I'm distracted? What I also thought was, Can't I get away with
In her new book, You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in
Conversation, Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., describes the intense connection between
mothers and daughters-and how we press each other's buttons. A best-selling
author (You Just Don't Understand) and a professor at Georgetown University,
Tannen had a sometimes strained relationship with her own mother, who died
almost two years ago, at 93. "My mother," says Tannen with a smile,
"was kind of an extreme case of needing to be the center of attention."
Over tea at her home in suburban Virginia, Tannen answered questions and
described how she finally learned to appreciate her mother, to whom her latest
book is lovingly dedicated.
Why do mother-daughter conversations often seem so complex and
Deborah Tannen: Women talk more than men. Talk is the glue that holds a
relationship together for us. But the more you talk, the more chance there is
to put your foot in it. And unlike men, women love to exchange secrets and talk
about their troubles. So we make ourselves more vulnerable.
What are the hot-button topics for mothers and daughters?
DT: I came across so many examples of mothers making critical remarks about
their daughters' hair. After all, isn't it a mother's prerogative, if not her
obligation, to make sure her daughter looks her best?
But where the mother sees caring, the daughter sees her mother's scrutiny as
confirming her own fears-that she's flawed. If a mother says that her daughter
should lose 15 pounds, the daughter thinks she should probably lose 20. So it's
important, as a mother, not to offer advice or criticism-especially about
appearance-unless you are asked. And even then, be careful. And don't forget
the power of praise.
A lot of grown-up daughters feel that their mothers are trying to meddle
in their lives, with too many comments, too many questions. Is that
DT: A mother may ask a question or say something because she's trying to
connect with her daughter. But the daughter hears the remark as trying to butt
in. In researching the book, I heard from so many mothers: "I can't open my
mouth! Why is she so sensitive?" The mom is thinking, I see what she should
do-it's so obvious-but I can't get her to do it. One of my students broke up
with her boyfriend and was upset and thought that maybe her mother might have a
unique perspective. So she told her, and the mother gave her point of view,
which the daughter appreciated. But then the daughter realized why she did not
do this more often-the mother kept bringing it up. "How are you feeling?
Have you met anybody else interesting?" she would ask. Finally, the
daughter had to say, "Please don't bring it up; you're making it
harder." Her mother was hurt.