This Mother’s Day, get in­sight on your re­la­tion­ship with Mom

Cecil Whig - - ACCENT - By J ill Cluf f

Since Mother’s Day is com­ing up, I have nat­u­rally been think­ing of my own mother, and the ways she has helped and loved me over the years.

Ours is a hard-won re­la­tion­ship that still has its rocky mo­ments. Cu­ri­ous to learn more about why, I read a fas­ci­nat­ing book given to me by a friend called “You’re Wear­ing That?: Un­der­stand­ing Moth­ers and Daugh­ters in Con­ver­sa­tion” by Deb­o­rah Tan­nen.

Tan­nen as­serts these re­la­tion­ships are the most fraught with dif­fi­culty be­cause 1) we are women, who crave con­ver­sa­tion 2) our moth­ers are the women we (prob­a­bly) talk to most of­ten and whose opin­ion we value highly, and 3) that cre­ates the most op­por­tu­ni­ties to give and take of­fense. I my­self have had more than one oc­ca­sion where I had a sud­den emo­tional out­burst be­cause of some­thing my mom said to me.

Tan­nen ex­plains that “a daugh­ter’s re­sponse to her mother’s words of­ten seems out of pro­por­tion to the cur­rent slight be­cause it really isn’t a re­ac­tion to the words just spo­ken; it’s re­sponse to the weight of her mother’s opin­ion.” She ex­plores this theme from many dif­fer­ent an­gles, us­ing anec­dotes taken from her own stu­dents (she’s a pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity) and from oth­ers she ei­ther recorded or in­ter­viewed.

Ac­cord­ing to Tan­nen, con­ver­sa­tion is where all the prob­lems start – not the words them­selves, but the “metames­sages” be­neath them. This ex­plains why “daugh­ters and moth­ers agree on what the trou­ble­some con­ver­sa­tions are; they dis­agree on who in­tro­duced the note of con­tention, be­cause they have dif­fer­ent views of the metames­sages their words im­ply. Where the daugh­ter sees crit­i­cism, the mother sees car­ing: she was only mak­ing a sug­ges­tion, try- ing to help, of­fer­ing in­sight or ad­vice. Most of the time, both are right.”

I found this in­sight in­cred­i­bly help­ful in my own con­ver­sa­tions (not just with my mother). How of­ten am I hear­ing what I per­ceive and not what is ac­tu­ally said?

Tan­nen ex­plores this (of­ten com­i­cally) in an en­tire chap­ter ded­i­cated to hair. Ap­par­ently, this is a phe­nom­e­non so com­mon that she lit­er­ally had hun­dreds of ex­am­ples to chose from. Ap­pear­ance is of­ten the source of con­tention and mis­un­der­stand­ing largely be­cause rather than rec­og­niz­ing the event (or the achieve­ment or the change or what­ever), the mother is fo­cused on her daugh­ter’s hair or clothes or lip­stick. The moth­ers lit­er­ally don’t see the daugh­ters – just how they look.

But the door also swings the other way, and Tan­nen is quick to point out that if daugh­ters try to “fix” their moth­ers by chang­ing their ap­pear­ance (to look more “with the times”), they are guilty of the ex­act same my­opa­thy.

All this made me stop and hug my two boys a lit­tle tighter – grate­ful I had not yet ex­pe­ri­enced that mine­field. But Tan­nen doesn’t leave us hang­ing, and pro­vides many use­ful in­sights through­out the book to help make the way eas­ier.

One sug­ges­tion may seem ob­vi­ous: avoid the dif­fi­cult top­ics. If you really can’t talk about Sub­ject A with­out get­ting emo­tional, best not to bring it up. And if the other party brings it up, best to move on quickly. Her ad­vice spe­cific to moth­ers is to give more ap­proval and less ad­vice. And to daugh­ters, it is to try and see the car­ing be­hind ev­ery­thing the mother says.

I leave this book a bit more wor­ried about my fu­ture re­la­tion­ship with my daugh­ter (if I am lucky enough to ever have one), but much more se­cure in my re­la­tion­ship with my own mother. Turns out be­ing a mom my­self has taught me just how lucky I am to have her as mine.

Jill Cluff is a some­times li­brar­ian who is mar­ried to one gi­ant and mom to two boys. She loves all things book- and food-re­lated – of­ten at the same time.

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