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Can Mother-Daughter Love Last?
An interview with Renee Schultz & SuEllen Hamkins


SB: Do you think that many people disconnect from their children during adolescence because it's a painful time to revisit?

SH: It is painful to revisit adolescence.

RS: But we cannot escape our pasts. We bring ourselves to parenting; it's not as simple as my adolescence is over and I can put it behind me without some reflection.

SH: It's critical to talk about our own experiences and issues. We did a lot of that with the other mothers. For me, as a smart girl who was ostracized for that, I got churned up when my eldest reached sixth grade. She was very into math and not terribly interested in things others were becoming interested in and her peer group shrunk considerably. Replaying my experience, I worried about her incessantly, although she was having a great time in sixth grade. As the other moms in our group pointed out, her social skills were great. I had to separate my experience from hers.

RS: We all had to sort through our own experiences, separate out our own struggles.

SH: For some of us, simply wanting our kids not to repeat our experiences was a powerful motivator for our deliberately working through past struggles.

SB: Were there surprises from the mothers over all of these years?

SH: The big surprise is that this group has worked so well, so easily for so long. It was easy for us to get together as mothers; it was easy to create essentially a subculture that ensured support for these girls to remain connected to their mothers through adolescence and to create support for all of us mothers.

RS: The longevity of our group has a lot to do with the fact that we stayed focused upon ourselves as women and as mothers. We didn't let personal crises overtake the group members' needs, not that we ignored personal crises.
SH: The five of us mothers are really different from one another as women, but we do share the same values that girls can be strong, and that there's great value to community, and that we believe our daughters should not only see us as moms but as women. We've supported one another through a lot.

RS: The foundation of the work was the mothers meeting together, us looking at what our needs are as mothers.

SB: Do you think that society understands mothers' needs at all?

SH: One thing that made me want to talk and write about our work was how fed up I feel with all these mothering books, you know the ones that tell you how to keep all of your children's problems at bay. How can anyone personally assure her daughter won't develop an eating disorder when we know that genetics has a role and the entire advertising industry that sells impossible images of women's bodies plays a role? If, as a mother, you tried to save your daughter from this without any support, without dissecting the media images, you'd have an impossible job. And if you failed, you'd be at fault.

RS: There is still literature saying anorexia is the fault of ice-cold mothers. When I was in college, I remember that same notion existed about autism, that it was cause by cold, distant mothers.

SH: Mothers are burdened by having to save their daughters.

RS: Mothers are supposed to be martyrs; that's one thing our work tried to do, to support each of us to take care of our own needs.

SH: Besides being better for us, we then model a better, happier, more realistic model of womanhood and motherhood for our daughters. This construct of perfect mother, perfect daughter, it's not real, not possible.

SB: Do your girls see you as anything other than mothers?

SH: That's one of the best parts: we were listening in on the girls when they were being filmed recently, and one girl said, "One of the things about this group is that I've come to see my mom as a person." All of the other girls agreed.

RS: A friend of mine said to me recently, "I didn't realize my mother was a person until I became a mother." It's been very powerful to have the girls see us having fun with each other, seeing us as friends to one another.

SH: Sometimes, when the moms are together laughing, the girls creep back to see what's so fun.

SB: Did the girls surprise you?

SH: The most pleasant surprise was that when the girls were 12-14, we asked if they wanted to continue the group. The girls said 'yes.' Through high school, rather than being less interested in the group, their interest and investment rose.

RS: Before we had that pivotal meeting, my daughter had been somewhat ambivalent but once we talked about what worked and what didn't work and the group became more committed and really shifted. We make sure that the group meets all of our needs.

SB: Do the girls all like each other still?

SH: These girls run the gambit in terms of style and interest from the math geek to the make-up wearing fashion queens. But they all like and respect each other.

RS: It's like an extended family model.

SH: The difference is that this extended family is matriarchal.

SB: Do you think the girls see themselves as feminists?

SH and RS: The girls own the values of feminism.

SH: The word, though, that is loaded, and they don't all accept it.

RS: There's hostility and antipathy for the word 'feminism.' In fact, we had to fight to get the word into the book at all.

SB: Did the girls have siblings? Was there jealousy about one daughter having this experience?

SH: There were two girls, my daughter and one other, whose older sisters were in this group starting when they were two. My daughter desperately waited for her turn. When we began -- the other younger daughter as well -- those little six-year-old girls were so excited, felt so grown-up to at last have their group begin. We knew some things that made the group work well from having learned through experience. We knew, for example, it was great to have the girls be similar ages, have a mix of schools represented, and to focus on the same theme for a year. We knew how important it was to talk about what worked for the group. And we knew the value of having fun with our daughters.

RS: We also learned, because when our initial group began there were some mothers with older daughters and they started a group for their older daughters, that by 11 or so, the girls are more self-conscious; it works better to start around age 7.

SH: The older daughters from that group didn't feel as if they'd missed anything especially important but the moms had a hard time, because they realized their younger daughters were having this valuable experience the older daughters didn't get to have.

RS: In our group, I had the only son. When the group met, he and my husband would have father-son time.

SB: Maybe because I have sons, I have found that sexism runs through boys' lives, too, that if feminism only takes on girls' issues, it isn't really addressing societal sexism. Do you think your model expands to sons, fathers, and mothers...?

RS: My husband has run groups for dads whose kids have special needs and it's hard to see what society tries to do to fathers and sons during adolescence. Men really need the support of other men, just as women do of other women.

SH: There are, I think, similar issues for fathers and sons. Making communities to support each other is something that helps us all. I really believe that maturity equals an ability to make more sophisticated attachments and more autonomy, but that you don't get healthy autonomy without attachments. This runs counter to what we hear in family therapy. The dominant view hasn't yet tipped in favor of this idea that gaining space within the framework of connected relationships is better than severing ties for everyone in a family.

RS: Adolescents also need more relationships with other adults through this time.

SB: Do you know of other groups?

SH: A group started locally a year ago, of mothers with seven-year-old daughters. Some people have been waiting until the book came out to start groups. We heard from someone starting a group in California.

SB: Do you have hopes for the book?

SH: I really hope mothers get the message that they don't have to lose connection to their adolescent daughters.

mmo : april 2007

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