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'My biggest critic': Navigating the adult daughter-mother relationship

Aug. 6, 2013 at 8:11 AM ET

Maybe this sounds familiar: Theresa Roma, a 27-year-old employee benefits administrator at an insurance agency, says her mother, who works with her, judges her "on everything."

If she wears her hair down, her mother tells her it looks better pulled up. She advises her to wear makeup and high heeled shoes at meetings to look more professional. She says her house is never clean enough.

"My mom is my biggest critic," says Roma, who lives in Buffalo, N.Y. 

Her mother, Lori McDermott, 48, responds: "I've been there and done that and I know what works."

While people like Sheryl Sandberg in her book, “Lean In,” say that women need to work harder to become leaders in the workplace, one overlooked factor is that women often get the most judgment from the people who matter to them most: their mothers.

Raised a generation ago, when few women juggled demanding careers with child rearing, the mothers of today's working -- as well as non-working -- women often find it difficult to relate to their daughters' hectic lifestyles or support their choices.

The conflicts are more difficult, since this generation of daughters is so hard on themselves, says Diane Sanford, a clinical psychologist in St. Louis, Mo., specializing in women's health and wellness. She says today’s moms already feel inadequate.

“They can't be the career person they want to be and the mom and wife they want to be, so they feel like they're failing," she says. So when a mother steps in with comments that reinforce that, it becomes a significant stressor, she says.

She adds the previous generation didn't learn how to communicate in healthy ways without it coming across as criticism. This leads to well-intentioned advice being poorly received, Sanford said.

That was the case for Jessica Jones, a 32-year-old English as a Second Language educator in Houston, Texas, who requested that her name be changed to protect her privacy. She hardly speaks to her mother anymore. The philosophy of her mother, age 66, is that you should get a job that pays the bills, work for 40 years and retire. 

So when Jones found it hard to find a job after college as she held out for one that ignited her passion, she says her mom would say, "McDonald's is hiring" or "Your other friends have jobs. Why are you struggling?" Jones says she needs her mom to be in her corner “and accept the fact that I would like to chart my own path."

Dr. Linda Mintle, a marriage and family therapist in Lynchburg, Va., and author of “I Love My Mother But...” suggests that Jones not act defensively and say to her mother, in a calm voice, "When you say those things to me, I'm sure you really don't mean to hurt me but that's what happens."

Then she could ask whether she’s worried about her daughter being able to support herself. If that's the case, she can thank her for her concern, then reassure her that she can take care of herself.

If her mother repeats the behavior, she should reiterate that statement to break the pattern. "You can't control your mother but you can control your reaction to your mother," she says. Fran Walfish, a psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, Calif., says if the mother won't heed the advice, establish boundaries, minimizing phone calls and visits.

In order to have the most harmonious relationship, Larchmont, N.Y. psychologist Jacqueline Hornor Plumez says, "Moms who offer the least advice fare best.”

Exceptions should be made for life-threatening or medically-threatening situations.

Florence Kaslow, a family psychologist in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., says it's acceptable to ask your daughter permission to provide advice, saying "I have some thoughts on the matter. “

Christine Nicholson, a clinical psychologist in Kirkland, Wash., tries to lead with her own vulnerabilities, so her advice does not come off as "all knowing." Her daughter, Karen Nicholson-Muth, says the two have a really good relationship. Her mother will often use "displacement," saying "I know my friend does it this way and it seems to work for her."

Her advice for moms: be the woman you want your daughter to model down the road. "My mother did a very good job of that," said Nicholson-Muth, who like her mother, is a therapist.

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