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