By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Mother’s Day is a perfect time to reflect on how my divorce changed my relationship with my daughter. When I was a young teenager, I used to make lists of the things that I would teach a daughter – if I was lucky enough to have one. Since I’m a natural born coach, I’ve been thinking about what lessons I want to pass on to my daughter. In the meantime, it struck me recently how much my daughter has taught me about love, letting go, and resiliency.
Being a mom has always felt like an honor, a gift – something to feel proud of! However, no one prepared me for how much my relationship with my daughter would be altered by my divorce. Too much closeness, misunderstandings, love, and conflicts – there are many ways to describe this relationship and not a lot of research to draw from.
Since nearly one third of all daughters have parents who are divorced in America, and most of them reside with their mothers after the breakup, I was surprised to find so few studies on this topic. Perhaps it’s because we live in a culture psychologist Harriet Lerner refers to as mother-blaming rather than supportive of mothers. In The Dance of Connection Learner writes, “Mothers are held responsible not only for their own behavior (which is fair enough) but also for their children’s behavior, which they can influence but not control.”
Some studies posit that the mother-daughter relationship becomes more intense after divorce due to proximity and amount of time spent together. Psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington studied 1,400 divorced families over a period of thirty years. She considered the connection between mothers and daughters to be a protective factor after divorce. After extensive examination, Hetherington concluded that preadolescent girls develop close supportive relationships with their mothers but that this shifts during adolescence when there is more upheaval in their lives. In For Better or for Worse, she writes “In adolescence, there is a notable increase in conflict in these relationships, particularly between early maturing daughters and their mothers.” She concludes, “In addition, divorced mothers and their adult daughters are closer than divorced mothers and sons, and sons feel somewhat closer than daughters to their fathers.”
It makes sense that the mother-daughter bond would intensify after divorce since girls spend much less time with their fathers according to Dr. Linda Nielsen, author of Between Fathers and Daughters. She writes: “Sadly, only 10-15 percent of fathers and daughters get to enjoy the benefits of shared parenting.” Nielsen is a supporter of shared parenting, whenever possible, and recommends that parents encourage their daughter to spend close to equal time with both parents. Giving her messages such as “Both your dad and I made mistakes in our marriage, but we are good parents” will help your daughter to avoid loyalty conflicts and will strengthen her connection with both of her parents.
What are some concerns about the mother-daughter bond after divorce? Based on more than two decades of research on fathers and daughters, Linda Nielsen concludes that many mothers lean too heavily on their daughters for advice and caretaking and this can turn the daughter against her father. Another point made by Nielsen that I noted in my own research, is that daughters are more upset about and negatively impacted by parental conflict than sons post-divorce. Specifically, high parental conflict before and after divorce, was associated with lowered self-esteem for girls more so than sons in my study. Since girls tend to be more focused on relationships, and spend more time with their mothers post-divorce, it makes since that they would internalize feeling of low self-worth during times of conflict and take it personally when their father is absent or inconsistent in his contacts.
Some mothers may get too involved in their daughter’s lives after their divorce and have difficulty setting boundaries. An expert on parenting and gender issues, Dr. Peggy Drexler notes that many mothers want to feel connected to their daughters and, in many cases, their daughters’ friends. She writes, “At a time when there is so much societal pressure to stay young, this helps keep us feeling youthful. It also helps us feel appreciated long after our children stop “needing” us to survive. Dr. Drexler makes the point that many mothers seek validation through their daughters. In my opinion, this need could be exaggerated after divorce when the mother’s coping skills might be strained. In fact, the mother-daughter best friend idea doesn’t leave room for the more traditional role of mom and could even lead to a competitive edge between them.
Like many divorced Moms, Rita is a woman who craves closeness with her daughter, Shana, and this intensified after her divorce four years ago. During a recent counseling session, for instance, Shana talked about needing space from Rita: “I love my mom but sometimes things get a little stressful between us.” Rita described shopping trips with her seventeen-year-old daughter Shana and her friends. While they both enjoy many aspects of these outings, Shana admits that her mom may be living vicariously through her. Shana says, “My mom likes to go shopping with me and my friends and I don’t have the heart to tell her it’s not cool.”
Boundaries are an important part of any relationship, but they are especially critical for mothers and daughters after the breakup of a family. As mothers, we want our daughters to grow up to be independent and self-confident. But when we are overly involved and encourage them to tell us all of their deep, dark secrets, this may make it problematic for them to break away and to establish their autonomy – a crucial developmental task of adolescent identity formation.
Another important aspect of raising a daughter after divorce is to transmit a message of optimism about relationships. Be careful not to bad-mouth her other parent or to make disparaging comments about love or marriage. Hopefully, the legacy you’ll pass on to your daughter will be one of resiliency and hope.
7 lessons I learned from my daughter:
• Learn to let her go and try not to lean on her too much. Give her space to grow and to develop her own identity – this will strengthen your bond.
• Be her mother and mentor but realize this isn’t the same as being a friend. Don’t confide in her (when it comes to personal information that doesn’t involve her). You can enjoy each other’s company and be connected, yet be autonomous individuals.
• Honor your daughter’s boundaries. Try not to take it personally if she doesn’t want to invite you to join her and/or her friends for social activities.
• Be a strong and supportive role model. But in order to help her find her way, she’ll need to question your decisions and personality at times. Lead by example.
• Don’t ask too much of her. Keeping your expectations realistic will improve your relationship with your daughter. She can’t make up for what you didn’t get from other people.
• Have faith in your daughter. While it may be hard to let go, you can delight in watching her grow into a self-confident person.
• Send out a message of hope about relationships. Be careful not to pass on a pessimistic view of love or mistrust of partners. Encouraging her to spend close to equal time with you and her other parent will help to restore her faith in love!
In sum, respecting the differences between you and your daughter will strengthen your connection in the years to come. Letting go means accepting that your daughter is separate from you and that she has her own personality, interests, and choices to make. She needs to learn from her mistakes just like you did. You can’t live through her or save her from the pain that comes with growing into womanhood – but you can delight in her joys.
I’d love to read your comments on this page. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome The Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”
Terry’s new book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was be published by Sounds True in February of 2020 and can be ordered here.