Daughters: Strict Mothers, Kind Fathers

Quite a different image of mothers emerges in the interviews with the women of this generation. The women do not see their mothers as weak; quite the opposite, as they see them as very capable and hardworking people. Mothers were the first to rise and the last to go to bed. In most cases, mothers are described as competent, strong and healthy, often stronger than the many fathers who fell ill or died of exhaustion. Johanna, who grew up at a small farm, says that her mother did much of the ‘men’s work and that the mother tried to conceal this from her husband, who suffered from weak health. Her mother’s proficiency in household work and Johanna’s participation in this are described in detail, almost as bodily memories, and with considerable enthusiasm:

Mother had a great knack for all kinds of work, apart from using the axe; she didn’t know how to do that, no, no. But with food and cooking, and I really liked to be close to her when she was dealing with food, and know what she added here and there, and learn it all, also how to bake bread. I really liked being with her, because I had the impression that she knew what she was doing, her housework, and I got to learn it. She sewed shirts too, we didn’t buy them at that time, she made working shirts for the men. She weaved often, and then she sewed, and then I learnt how to sew, and that was the best of all! (Johanna, b. 1910)

Especially for the farmer girls, but also, as we have seen, for an urban working-class girl like Martha, femininity is positively associated with an ability to work, something that is also seen in the female informants’ depiction of strong, clever and nice grandmothers and aunts. These were in fact nicer than their own mothers, who are often described as rather strict and short-tempered. The mothers are the ones who smack them, and they seem to be the primary agents who convey the mentality of work and frugality to their daughters. So even if the relationships between mothers and daughters are close in practice, and the daughters identify positively with the skill sets they gain from their mothers, we also find some relational ambivalence towards these powerful, competent and often quick-tempered mothers. In cases where the mother insisted that the young adult daughter should stay home and help out against her will, we find traces of bitterness that are quickly disowned as soon as they surface in their stories. However, bitterness is expressed with less reservation against ‘selfish sisters’ who just went away and left it to their younger sisters to stay and help the parents. This was the case for Ingrid (b. 1910), whose mother owned the shop carrying the father’s name. Her mother needed a helping hand in the shop and the daughter stayed on from she was 14 and until she married at 25, working from 8 am to 8 pm with very little pay. Her sisters ‘just left, leaving me behind, and then I had to stay, she says, still resentful.

Compared to these strong and strict, clever and hardworking mothers, the father emerges as the kinder person in their memories of childhood and youth, calmer in his temper and often associated with fun and pleasure. He took time to talk with them and made toys for them. Ingrid remembers her father making skis and sledges for her and her sisters, and she describes her father as a calm and balanced man, who was never angry. He was also seriously engaged in moral questions and in the society around him. As with the sons, the daughters take pride in the fathers’ positions in the local community; however, they offer more elaborate descriptions of the father as a person. Most of the women say they felt closer to their fathers than to their mothers, resembling their fathers more in terms of their mindset. Johanna, who we just heard enthusiastically describe how much she learnt from her mother, says with pride that her father always preferred her to help him with the work outside because she was so strong and persevering. While they worked side by side, her father told her many things about politics and about his travels around the world as a young man—‘he was quite an encyclopaedia', she says. They never disagreed on anything: ‘I felt very much ... on the same wavelength. However, she also understood that the political world was reserved for men. Girls could accompany their mothers to religious meetings or meetings in the farmer women’s union, but not their fathers to political meetings.[1] Even if the women in this generation felt attachment to and identification with their fathers, they do not consider their fathers’ skill sets as models for themselves. Thus, their idealisation of him may be an expression of aspirations they had to abandon. The farmer’s daughter Helga (b. 1918) conveys this indirectly when describing how she experienced the deaths of her parents: ‘It was terrible when mother died, of course, but it was even worse when father died.

The relational ambivalence towards the mother never makes the farmer girls question their mothers’ proficiency, and we do not find the competitive drive that is present among the men. On the contrary, the farmer girls stress that they themselves as adults never even came close to their mothers’ level of proficiency and diligence. Among the rural working- class girls we find a more ambivalent evaluation of the mothers’ work and a sadder tone in the descriptions of their admired, but often more distant and tired, fathers (see Lucey et al. 2016). Here the mother’s proficiency is more often associated with perfectionism and exaggerated frugality than with the relatively high status of female work in the farming culture. Gerd, who grew up in a poor rural working-class family, mentions her mother’s neglect of the children because she was so intensely occupied with housework:

She was good at it [housework], she sort of had, she pottered around and sort of made the housework last the rest of the day [laughs], I have to say that. Because Im the type that has to be done with it quickly and then sit down to do something else. But she pottered around, ironed everything she didn’t have to iron, ironed no-iron sheets and duvet covers, and all the undershirts. It was always ironed, she ironed at night, and it wasn’t necessary, because you see, if you iron these things, they stretch. If you didn’t iron them, they’d fit better. I’ve never done that, ironed like that... They never knew what we were up to, oh no, we were by the lake, we lay by the lake all summer, and my youngest sister, she almost drowned. I don’t understand that mum dared this, I wouldn’t have dared. (Gerd, b. 1927)

In this case Gerd comes close to a disidentification with her mother. She explains her own choice of having only one child with reference to this: she wanted to have time for the child. She also mentions her own mastery of fine needlework, one of the few things that her clever mother was not good at. In contrast to this ambivalent description of her mother, she describes her father with tenderness and compassion, but also portrays him as a weaker figure who died early of the hard work. ‘Father was too good to live’, she says, still sorrowful after so many years. She has fond memories of how she sat on his lap as a little girl when her mother was away and that he had sweets in his pocket. When she came of age, their relationship became more distant, but she still treasures one memory from her youth when her father took her in a cab to the nearest town to buy her clothes for the upcoming confirmation: ‘you can decide for yourself, he said, yes, both shoes and a hat and gloves, and I... yes, he gave me that.

What we see in the stories of all these women are variations of a tension between an ambivalent identification with the strong mothers’ world, to which they belong, and a positive but socially impossible identification with the idealised fathers, who live in a bigger world that is inaccessible and sometimes even unthinkable for them as girls to strive towards. This psychological tension may have been intensified in this generation of youth through the signs of a new and bigger world brought to the most remote farming communities in this historical period by budding communication technologies: radio, films, magazines and the first traces of youth culture and youth fashion. The rural working-class girls, who were not to the same degree protected by the high status of female work that characterised the traditional farming culture, seem to have been attracted to this modern world quite early on. Thus, they dethrone their mothers in a way that we will see became the general pattern in the next generation. Another sign of an emerging bigger world at this time was the increased geographical mobility. Many of the women talk about aunts and sisters who made it to the city or even to America. They may criticise and envy these women, especially if they were their sisters, but also criticise themselves for not being bold enough to do the same. For some it was because of external restrictions, while for others it was their own fear or ambivalences that kept them back. Johanna says that listening to her father’s adventures had made her want to get out there, maybe get a job, see how other people lived, ‘but no further than I could get back home .

The least degree of ambivalence towards mothers and the least idealisation of fathers are found among the middle-class girls. They also see their mothers as strong and competent, but rather than focusing on her skills to run the household, their emphasis is on her persona as intelligent, educated, mild, caring and loving. ‘ There are no weak women in our family, Dagny claims with pride. Dagny also adored her father and she was often allowed to visit him in the bank nearby, where he worked. In other middle-class families where the fathers were not much at home, the fathers are depicted by their daughters as rather vague figures, living in a different world. They may be described as good-looking and charming men and thus as attractive ‘others’, but seldom present enough to compete with mothers as objects of identification. This seems to represent less of a problem when the mother, as in these cases, is seen as both strong and caring and also associated with a broader repertoire of skills than merely household work. However, as we shall see later, these selfconfident girls were partly out of sync with the social possibilities of the time: even for them, there were few routes out of their families other than through marriage.

The emotional relationships with the parents expressed by the women and the men in this generation display both complementarity and asymmetry. Both women and men identify positively with the knowledge and skill sets of the same-sex parent. However, the ambivalence that often comes with this identification appears to be of a different kind. For the men, it is connected to competition between men, the question of whether they managed to become the equals of their fathers. Their identification with their mothers is split off, maybe because it represents their own weakness and dependency on them, except in their legitimate need for food. For the women, the skill sets of the same-sex parent are inflected by the mother’s strictness and sometimes her perfectionism, which stand as contrasts to the father’s kindness and calmness. They belong to their mother’s world, but there is also a world outside that may hold more attractions and that has a much stronger contour and presence in their narrative about their fathers than the men’s muted depictions of their mothers’ world. Thus, the ambivalence towards the same-sex parent and the idealisations of the opposite-sex parent appear to have different psychological dynamics. For the women, the question is not whether they became their mothers’ equals, but was being like her actually anything to strive for? Was mother clever or was she a too hardworking, nagging and overachieving perfectionist? In the case of the women, the identification with the gender order is thus undertaken with some emotional reservation that we do not see among the men.

  • [1] Martha is an exception here. Political Labour had a strong history and position in the town whereshe grew up. Her father was active both in the union and the party and her mother joined LabourDay marches and meetings about legalising abortions. Martha herself joined Labour’s youthorganisation.
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