The Changing Psychological World of the Women

Mothers and Daughters

The relationships between mothers and daughters are almost never characterised with the same pride or enthusiasm we have seen between fathers and sons in the oldest and the youngest generations. The mother-daughter relationship seems to be experienced as most emotional when it is conflictual, whereas it is taken more for granted when the relationship is positive. The changes across the three generations in the relationships between mothers and daughters indicate a move away from relationships being generally positive and admiring to being quite conflicted in the middle generation. In the youngest generation, we see a pattern of friendly and respectful relationships, where the daughter sees her mother as smart and proficient, and to a large extent as a model for her own life when it comes to combining work and family.

As with the changes in the father-son relationship, it is easy to see the connection to the changing family forms. In the eldest generation the mother’s proficiency occupies an important place in the household economy, and this allows for the daughter’s positive identification if the mother is not too strict or perfectionist. Yet, especially in the rural and working-class families, the mother also represents the ordinary everyday life; she is frugal and sensible, not a figure of admiration and wonder like the father. The ambivalence in the identification with the mother also reflects the gender hierarchy of the family: the mother may be capable and strict, but still comes in second in terms of authority to the father. This lends both positive and negative dimensions to the daughters’ identification with her (see also Bengtsson 2001; von der Lippe 1988, who find that the power relation between the parents is important for girls’ identification with their mothers). The ambivalence in their maternal identifications is seen in a frequent split in their relationships with other people: nice aunts are admired more than mothers, and selfish sisters allow for a more direct critique and a projection of their negative identification. The tendency towards bitterness in the old women and their characteristic wavering between uttering critical hints and quickly taking those hints back may connect to their ambivalent identifications, in addition to being demanded by a strong cultural norm that prohibits talking badly about other people.

In the middle generation the daughters find themselves restricted by a mother whose main job is to take care of them, and the ways in which the women talk about this indicate unclear borders between themselves and their mothers. They feel monitored by the mother’s omnipresence and sucked into her problems and frustrations in a way that the sons of this generation do not. The weak mother becomes the suffocating mother and the daughters are more psychologically vulnerable to this because they cannot use gender as a criterion for separation. Even when their mothers encourage them to follow higher education or not to marry too early and become financially dependent on a man, the mothers are seen as intrusive. As Lynne Layton notes in connection with patients with housewife mothers, the message ‘don’t be like me’ is rarely a successful injunction (Layton 2004: 36). The many stories about brothers in this generation who were granted privileges may of course be a projection of the daughters’ anger towards their mothers; however, from the sons’ description of the attendance they received from their kind mothers, it may also very well have been a fact of the intersubjective world, leaving a narcissistic wound in the daughters of this generation (Layton 1998: 56), as well as a greater sensitivity towards injustice. The ambivalence towards the mother that we saw in the oldest generation has grown stronger in the middle generation. The daughters here do not even see the mother’s work as important anymore, but as something that reduces her to a servant of the family. This seems to have tipped the balance towards a more negative identification that has been very difficult for the daughters to handle and also for the mothers to hold. The women who are the angriest with their mothers suffer from feelings of guilt because they can also see that the mother’s situation was difficult and because of the unclear borders between them. Yet it is only when their fathers are unusually authoritarian or violent that the daughters side with their mothers and we see the pattern that Chodorow (2012) calls ‘weeping for the mother’ (see note 1). If becoming a woman means giving up one’s own agency, it is a repulsive process, but there are few other alternatives to becoming a woman and a subject in this generation. The ‘policy for the daughters’ of the emerging welfare state that encouraged girls to do well in the educational system (see Chap. 4) amplified this psychological tension. Since many of the women in our sample did pursue higher education, we see some of the same relational trouble connected to class journeys between daughters and mothers as between sons and fathers—only that it becomes much more emotional for the daughters, and also implies a stronger identification with their fathers than the sons have with their mothers. Thus, the psychological consequences of the class journey often imply a cross- gendered identification for women that is not the case for men. This may be the reason for the much stronger ‘degendering’ of personal qualities among women than among men in this generation. Femininity is disparaged and projected onto their mothers. But crediting men with all the good things and women with all the bad things leaves them with a negative identification with their shameful mothers, something that again will lead to problems with self-esteem (Chodorow 1999: 83).

In the youngest generation the mother’s agency and subjectivity make her a more suitable object of positive identification. The mother emerges as an independent subject because she has other things to do than merely taking care of the daughter and has a position in the world that may even induce pride in the daughter, almost like between fathers and sons—but never quite. The mother represents the bigger world to her daughter in this generation, and gender does not seem to play an important role in this. Too much focus on gender, like ideas of sister-solidarity and female networks, seems to threaten a sense of subjectivity and individuality among the daughters, but their relationships with their mothers do not. Identification with the mothers’ qualities is much less gendered for the daughters than identification with the fathers’ qualities was for the sons of this generation. This predominantly positive and gender-neutralised identification with the mother has an everyday and sensible character and appears to be based on basically safe attachments. The borders between mothers and daughters may also have become clearer due to the more equal relationship between parents and children where aggression from part of the child has lost its taboo. However, the psychological balance between autonomy and closeness will vary in different families and this explains why there is no direct connection between a mother’s work outside the family and a daughter’s development of psychological autonomy (see von der Lippe 1988). If the mother becomes too absorbed in her own world, she is experienced as neglectful by the daughter and this may cause a narcissistic wound of not feeling seen or loved, which in turn may inhibit the feeling of autonomy. Conversely, as we also saw in the case of the sons, the mother’s care may also be something that is taken for granted, a ‘mother blanket’, that goes unnoticed or rather noticed only when it is absent. Even though they are a minority, there are more women than men in this generation who report conflictual relations with their parents and in particular their mothers, and this may indicate that the borders between mothers and daughters are still more potentially vulnerable than the borders between mothers and sons.

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