Daughters: Responsible Mothers, Warm Fathers

The talking and the doing are not quite as divided by gender in the young women’s descriptions of their parents, but the ways in which mothers and fathers combine doing and talking are seen as different. Mothers are described as accessible for talk and practical care, but also as important conversation partners and advisers to their daughters. The mother emerges more as a separate person in the women’s narratives compared to the men’s. Mothers are seen as competent at their work and in organising the family, as well as responsible and engaged in a lot of things. For instance, two of the women from the middle generation, Jorun and Crete, who reported very angry or difficult relationships with their mothers, have daughters, Jenny and Curo, who relate in a completely different way to them as mothers:

My mother is very nice when you meet her, and very professional in her work. And she gets very angry when people don’t do what they are supposed to do. There is no suffering in silence, or bending down your head; I can be like that too. I admire the way when she is stuck in somethingg, then she really commits herself to carrying it through, not trying to escape from things like my father often chooses to do. But Im not sure that what is right for her is right for me. (Jenny, 18)

Very spirited, not a typical [laughs] stay-at-home housewife, you could say, she doesn’t fit being at home, she is the kind of person who needs to be out and about, and she is very young at heart. (Curo, 18)

Most of the young women say that they take their mothers’ combination of career and family as a model for their own lives, but they want better education, different jobs, less stress, fewer divorces and more equal sharing of housework. Like the eldest generation, and in contrast to the middle generation, the women in the youngest generation place themselves in their mothers’ world—however, since it is a world of both talking and doing, it is a world that is no longer so clearly defined by gender. In this way, the young women’s identification with their mothers appears to be less gendered than the young men’s identification with their fathers. It is also likely that the mothers’ own borders vis-a-vis their daughters have become clearer than in the previous generation, not only because of the mothers’ lives outside the family, but also because the daughters are allowed to test these borders through quarrelling.

A huge majority of the women in this generation report a good relationship with their mothers, but we still find more women than men who have difficulties with their parents, especially mothers. In these cases the mother is seen as selfish in the sense that she does not meet the needs of the daughter because she has prioritised her own career or a relationship with a new partner at the expense of her children. The daughters experience this as a betrayal and they often express ambivalent feelings of resentment and longing. One of the middle-class daughters feels abandoned by her parents after their divorce, but her sore feelings come up especially in her relationship with her mother:

Maybe she doesn’t care about itlike, doesn’t care about my life ... I imagine that... she has the ability to understand me and I have the ability to understand her because we are quite similar. But at the same time I feel a lot of the time like we don’t understand each other too.

Also in this generation, difficult relationships between mothers and daughters seem to be about boundary conflicts. The daughter feels that the mother is either too controlling or too detached—or both. Inger’s daughter Ida said at 18 that she felt her mother overwhelmed her with her own problems. At 30 Ida described her as ‘a typically emotional social worker who feels and reacts and thinks afterwards, and I don’t really like that type of people, because I like people who don’t explode all over other peoples boundaries—but of course I love my mother too’. The relative power balance between the parents is also important: if the mother complains about and is frustrated because of a dominant or non-participating husband, the daughter tends to see the mother as the problem and describe her as nagging and controlling. Other psychological studies of mother-daughter relationships have also found that there is no automatic link between working mothers and autonomous daughters, but that this depends partly on the mother’s capacity to combine autonomy and intimacy with regard to the daughter and partly on an equal relationship with the father in the family (von der Lippe 1988).

Almost all the young women in this generation talk about good relationships with their fathers too. Like the young men, they remember having lots of fun and doing activities with fathers. Middle-class daughters also identify with their fathers’ knowledge. If the father has higher education, he is often the one who emerges as the knowledgeable and intellectual person in the family, even when the mother has the same level of education. Jenny at 18, who is the granddaughter of Johanne who compared her father’s knowledge with an encyclopaedia, identifies strongly with her father’s intellectual skills tells us that she was given the nickname ‘the encyclopaedia in her class in secondary school. She sees herself and her father as the intellectuals in the family, and her mother and sister as the more social and emotional ones. Ida, who had a difficult relationship with her mother, says at 18: ‘I am a clone of my dad—they share a taste in music and are both rational and stubborn.

Quite differently from what we heard from the sons, fathers are often described as emotionally accessible by the daughters. They are more often depicted as warm, emotional, temperamental, generous, fun or a bit charmingly grumpy (see also Bengtsson 2001). This adds a tender tone to the young women’s descriptions of their fathers. Hilde, who otherwise identifies with her more intellectual mother, says: ‘I have a lot of tenderness for my father, like. I always have. It’s a little strange...’, whereas the description of her mother is more straightforward: ‘I’m pretty happy with my mother. To put it like that.’ Compared with the previous generation, the roles of mothers and fathers seem almost reversed in the eyes of the daughters, but with the important difference that a close father is less threatening to the girl than a close mother. Vilde, who has a father who worked part-time in order to share the care for the children, uses almost the same phrase about her father as Crete in the previous generation did about her housewife mother: ‘I have kind of... been the biggest thing in his life, I’m kind of everything to him, and he does absolutely everything for me. But the meaning has changed and now exemplifies how good the relationship is between father and daughter. In some cases the young women describe themselves as ‘daddy’s girls when they were little, but say that they identified more with their mothers when they came of age. Still, the tone is seldom as tender and loving when they talk about their mothers—here we also see a repetition of the experience of the eldest generation. The ambivalence towards the same-sex parent is also present in case of the young women in this generation: while it is always seen as a positive thing to be like one’s father, being like one’s mother is not always so. Middle-class girls characterise their parents as relatively equal in power and status (even if they may also criticise the father’s laziness with regard to housework) or dominant in different areas. Conversely, we heard the working-class girl Beate put it more directly in that ‘mum is kind of the boss’ and describe with tender irony her father as ‘cowed or somebody who ‘accepts everything. We may here see the return of the fragile masculinity of the grandmothers’ stories, this time caused by the competence of mothers and daughters in fields that earlier belonged to men. Especially in the cases where the mother also exceeds the father in terms of education, the daughter describes the father with a mixture of irony and compassion. In cases where the father has little education, the young women often support him when he is criticised by their mother. Hilde feels that her mother tends to use ‘dirty tricks’ against her father even if she is often right in terms of the point she is making. Stine says that her working-class father is not so clever in discussions: ‘ then I end up on mums side, but other times I kind of feel like dad is so stupid that I have to help him along a bit, right’. Keeping up dignified masculinity seems to be a project that the daughters and the sons share.

The tenderness towards fathers may to some extent disturb the young women’s equality projects, for instance, through producing excuses for fathers’ blameworthy neglect of housework or for not following up as divorced fathers. However, when we meet the daughters as 30-year-olds we hear more critical voices towards these fathers, sometimes in parallel with a process of sorting out relational problems with the mother. Only those fathers who were in fact good fathers—even if they did not do their share of the housework—have kept their adult daughters’ admiration and love. The reworking of parental relationships between the first and second interviews is much more salient among the women than among the men. It may of course reflect the fact that more women reported problems in the relationships with their parents at the age of 18. Yet it also applies to some of the girls who thought the relationship was fine when they were 18, but later found out that things were more complicated. As a result of this, we find a majority of women who at 30 either identify with both or with none of their parents.

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