Daughters: Weak Mothers, Rational Fathers

The warm emotional tone in this working-class boy’s description of his chief-housewife-mother stands in striking contrast to the chilly tone of the following account from Inger, a working-class girl born in 1950. She is the daughter of Ingrid, who had to help out in her mother’s shop until she was 25 and then married and became a housewife. Inger says about her mother:

A very skilled housewife, perfect, you know ... newly polished silver and... all that, and homemade bread on Saturdays ... and that type of thing ... She is kind of living a lie, she hasn’t done anything sensible with her life other than being a stay-at-home wife. (Inger, b. 1950)

The mothers that emerge in the accounts from sons and daughters in this generation are very different indeed. Also among the female informants, the critique of the outdated mentality of work is directed mainly towards their same-sex parent, but as girls they were much more exposed to their mothers than the boys were to their fathers. Jorun grew up on a farm, just like her mother Johanna, but we find nothing of Johanna’s enthralled description of how much she learnt from her mother when Jorun speaks about her mother:

The only thing that counted was working, working all the time. And she didn’t work at a normal pace, she had to work furiously. I don’t think I remember how old I was when I decided that I would never become like that... and that I was waiting to get out of there ... Im not sure she needed to do that, to do everything 110per cent, 100 would have been enough ... She even monogrammed my father’s handkerchiefs. (Jorun, b. 1944)

This is a pattern of which we saw traces among rural working-class/lower middle-class women in the previous generation, but in the middle gen?eration the contempt really explodes. The mother’s skill sets are hardly seen as important at all and she is rejected as a model for the daughter’s life. Even the mothers’ advice to their daughters about getting an education, not marrying too early and becoming economically independent is remembered by many of the women as yet another example of the mothers’ occupation with control and facade: ‘She always went on about getting an education ... we were better than others, et cetera, and that was complete horseshit, says Jorun. They rarely connect the advice from their mothers to their own successful educational trajectories, and thus tend to make this intergenerational link invisible. The tone of the daughters is often angry or contemptuous and it has a considerably higher temperature than the men’s bland critique and disappointment in their fathers. More than half of the women report negative or clearly ambivalent relationships with their mothers and very few mention her as the parent they felt closest to. Few think they resemble her—and if they do, they do not see it as something to their advantage. Some of them admit that the mother had a potential for doing something else, getting an education or a career, but, in contrast to the men, they often blame the mother herself for not having done anything with her life. The open negative identification with the mother is also supported by a more liberal tone in ideas of child rearing and a more psychological orientation. The daughters talk through the modern psychological discourse when they criticise the mother’s emotional closure, mixed signals and endless occupation with keeping up a neat and proper facade. In this we can see a parallel to the men’s critique of their fathers’ emotional indolence, but with more emphasis on the mothers’ emotional messiness.

Some of the farmer girls in this generation still acknowledge their mothers’ strength and proficiency, and some of the middle-class girls see their mothers as kind and cultured, and may also remember with gratitude their mothers’ interest in their education. For a few of them, identification rises from compassion with the weak mother. The upper middle-class girl Olaug says that she became a feminist when she was seven years old by seeing her mother struggle with the laundry in the basement: ‘she was standing in a black hole, doing laundry . Olaug is one of the few daughters in this generation who helped out at home:

I felt that she had a lot to do, and I felt that I ought to help her from I was very little, because I felt sorry for her ... Yes, I was therefor her, I was, all the time. My sister wasn’t and my brother wasn’t. They didn’t understand. They didn’t see what it was like for her—and Im still the one who understands. (Olaug, b. 1946)

But not even these good daughters take their mothers as role models anymore. The farmer girls do not want to stay in the rural areas and the middle-class girls tend to identify more strongly with their fathers, whether emotionally or as models for their own lives. This is also the case in families where the mothers worked full-time. The mothers have lost authority both culturally and psychologically. Those who had mothers who stayed at home felt surveilled; those who had working mothers complain about having been overloaded with responsibilities. In the eyes of the girls in this generation, mothers just couldn’t get it right.

The father is the admired parent for almost all the girls in this genera- tion.[1] Only in cases where the father was violent or very moody did the daughter resort to the mother, who was then seen as a victim in need of the daughter’s protection. The overwhelming pattern is that fathers are idealised as either very rational and modern (compared to the mothers’ intolerance and manipulative ways), or calm and generous (compared to the mothers’ stinginess and perfectionism), or sensitive and creative (compared to the mothers’ superficial sociability or boring rationality), or as knowledgeable and oriented towards a bigger world (compared to the mothers who are only occupied with their own house). The daughters share the fathers’ interest in the bigger world and want to become like them: ‘I’d say I was a Daddy’s girl, yes, I was ... Mother was a homebody, she mainly stayed at home [speaks quietly], says Solveig (b. 1945), who grew up at a smallholding. There is something at stake here between mothers and daughters that is different from the relationship between fathers and sons, and between mothers and sons. The combination of increasing individualisation and the strong gendered provider/carer model in their families seems to present the daughters of this generation with a very difficult psychological dynamic with their mothers, and the relationships with the fathers must be understood as part of this. There are several aspects to this.

One is that the provider/carer model positions the mother with less status and power in the family than, for instance, women in the farmer or fishing culture, or in the old middle-class family, where she represented and transmitted the educational and cultured values in the family. As a housewife, the mother becomes more like a servant in the family. This is not only the case in relation to the husband, but also represents a displacement of power between mother and children, especially for the daughters: from being one who assisted her mother, the daughter now may see herself as her mother’s only task in life: ‘I am the most important thing that happened in her life, that she gave birth to me is kind of her main feat, says Gerd’s daughter Crete, a rural working-class girl born in 1946. This places the daughter in an ambiguous gender position: she is of the same gender as the weak mother, but is at the same time her superior.

Another aspect is that this weak mother’s everyday presence in the family also gives her another kind of power—an emotional and psychological power over the children. This is an issue that is much more elaborated upon by daughters than by sons. The women’s recollection of their mothers’ greater indulgence with their brothers may indicate that the mothers were less controlling and more service-minded towards their sons than towards their daughters. Sons may also to a greater degree have been able to receive the mothers’ care without feeling caught in it because their gender safeguarded the psychological separation from her. The two men who described psychologically labile mothers seem to distance themselves more from the relational problems than the daughters do. Compared to this, the daughters’ high level of conflict and strong ambivalences between anger and feeling guilty, between the craving of freedom and the longing for endless care and love, indicate that they have struggled more with upholding the boundaries and their own identity as a separate being. This double-sided face of weakness and power is what comes through in the daughters’ description of their mothers’ manipulative and psychologically labile behaviour and the way in which the mother drew the children into the psychological tensions and conflicts in the family:

One couldn’t speak of anything, and we mustn’t ... nothing could ... see the light of day, and I guess I understood later that this was a big mistake. We should’ve talked about all those things, gotten things aired out and ... been done with it all. (Jorun, b. 1943)

My mother has rather ... in a way disciplined, or has had to stoop much in her life, so that it has become a bit more . she has found other ways to maybe get back at people, or to survive, right. (Grete, b. 1946)

The daughters’ idealisation of their fathers can be seen in relation to this: they were needed as psychological liberators from the emotionally chaotic relation to mothers and to grow out of the dependency on the mother (Chodorow 1978). The different variations we see in the general pattern of negative/ambivalent relation to mothers and idealisation of fathers, then, will rely, among other things, on the father’s ability to fill this role as the liberator from the mother.

A third aspect is that the daughters of this generation are expected, by parents, teachers and politicians, to get higher education and head in a different direction from their mothers (cf. Chap. 4), and their fathers are the only available models for a life outside of the family. We find no mention of weak and ill fathers in this generation: fathers are, almost by definition, strong and secure.

In spite of the strong gendering of work and care in the environment in which the middle generation grew up, the psychological consequences of the very same arrangement seems to have gone in the opposite direction. The disidentification with their same-sex parent triggered complicated processes of cross-gendering and potential degendering. The values of the opposite-sex parent’s world became more visible and attractive. For the men, this does not entail a full identification with the mother’s work and status, and they do not demarcate themselves from their fathers in the same intense, emotional way that the women do from their mothers. In this sense the men are the ones with double identifications in this generation. For the women, the identification with the father is more unambiguous, but there are emotionally unsettled issues at stake in their relationships with their mothers and in handling the fact that they are of the same gender as her. Considering the life project of their fathers—to refine gender complementarity in order to save their wives the struggles their mothers had endured, and to secure their children a safe and good childhood—and the sacrifices both men and women of this generation made to accomplish this dream—it is painful to see how little acknowledgement and understanding their children had for this project. But this generational drama also created the emotional energy that made it possible to enter the difficult process of transforming the complementary gender order.

  • [1] Bengtsson also finds a change from women born in the 1930s who identified with their mothersto a more diverse pattern among those born in the 1950s and 1960s. Like us, she finds that thewomen who identified with their fathers were daughters of stay-at-home mothers (Bengtsson 2001:88).
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