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Can mother-daughter love last?

An interview with Renee Schultz & SuEllen Hamkins, authors of
"The Mother-Daughter Project: How Mothers and Daughters Can Band Together, Beat the Odds and Thrive Through Adolescence"

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

April 2007

Are mother-daughter relationships destined to grow more distant and conflict-ridden as girls make the transition from childhood to adolescence? It doesn't have to be that way, say mothers (and therapists) SuEllen Hamkins and Renee Schultz. The pair have co-authored new book about their experiences co-creating and participating in a longstanding mother-daughter group ("The Mother-Daughter Project: How Mothers and Daughters Can Band Together, Beat the Odds and Thrive Through Adolescence," Hudson Street Press, 2007). Their hope: to revolutionize how mothers look at parenting daughters.

How did they revolutionize their relationships with their own daughters? At first, a group of mothers of very young (age 6 or so) daughters held monthly, moms-only meetings. About a year in, the mothers added monthly meetings with their 7-year-old daughters. Initially, this was purely mother-daughter playtime, but their time together evolved, and mother-daughter group conversations became more intentional. Using a multi-pronged approach including field trips, art and cooking activities, storytelling and role-playing, specific topics were covered, such as menstruation, puberty, sexuality, power, and body image. The daughters in this group are now between 16 and 18.

As this interview reveals, these mother-daughter experiences have been powerful. Hamkins and Schultz hope that by sharing their process, they can offer a blueprint for other mothers to stay connected to daughters through adolescence.

Sarah Buttenwieser: What was the catalyst for beginning this group?

Renee Schultz: A friend called me and said, "You have to read this book called Mother Daughter Revolution (by Elizabeth Debold, Marie C. Wilson and Idelisse Malave). I want you to read it so we can talk about it."

SuEllen Hamkins: We mothers met for nine months, like a pregnancy.

RS: Our girls were six turning seven and after we discussed the book and had been meeting a while, we thought to include our daughters. The thing that inspired us was the power of community.

SH: We liked the idea that we could create a community where a strong mother-daughter connection is the norm.

SB: How did you find other mothers?

RS: One woman was at a Seder and she told me about a friend of hers she thought would be interested. The group consisted mostly of friends of friends. It turned out to be pretty easy to put out the word.

SB: Talk about what fueled those early conversations between mothers.

SH: One or two moms planned each meeting. They thought about questions such as what your relationship with your mom had been like or what happened during stormy times.

RS: We wanted to understand the disconnection we'd experienced with our mothers, to understand why that had happened, and to figure out how to do things differently with our own daughters.

SH: We asked ourselves what our mothers might have needed that they didn't get.

RS: It was really the first time we'd looked at our mothers as women, rather than just as our mothers.

SH: All of those questions really helped. When I began to think about what my mother did... She had six kids and not a lot of money. She worked very hard to make our family work. I gained new empathy for her. From that understanding, we realized that rather than wanting to push our mothers away, we had really yearned for their support, for connection to them. We wanted our moms to understand what we were going through more than we wanted them to leave us alone. I began to remember that as a young child, I'd felt very close to my mother.

RS: Our conversations were helped by the fact that we weren't all best friends with one another. We were connected, certainly, but have separate lives, too. Our kids were at different schools -- at least some of them were -- so they weren't all best friends either. The group existed as a separate entity from their usual social sphere and ours.

SB: Did you go into parenting as feminists?

RS: Yes. I certainly went into parenting believing my husband and I would co-parent. Our son has Down's Syndrome and his dad took much more of the day-to-day care on and I went back to work, and I think this strengthened my views about feminism and parenting.

SH: Medical school galvanized my feminism. Medicine is such a sexist institution. And once I became a mother, I began to think more about what it means to be a good mother versus what it means to be a good father. Why are men saints for pushing a stroller and women supposed to sacrifice everything without recognition? As Meredith Michaels and Susan Douglas write in their book, "The Mommy Myth," we're glorifying motherhood. This isn't good for us as women. I think this new push for women to stay at home, while that's a fine choice, really doesn't address how much work mothering is. A key question is what do mothers need in order to do to do the work that is asked of them? And why can't mothers have a life for themselves and care for children, too?

RS: I certainly felt judged at times for working outside the home. And while I was so appreciative that we truly co-parented, I was mad that in many people's eyes my husband was practically walking on water as the dad who stayed at home.

SH: There's this idea that if you really love your children enough then mothering isn't work.

RS: Mothering is invisible, undervalued work.

SH: And you have to do more for teenagers, different things. For small children, home can be their central spot in the world; teenagers need a safe world outside their homes. They need you to make sure there are options for them in the community.

SB: One of the things I find most powerful about your work is the way you introduce taboo topics that might become highly emotionally charged when they are "up" early enough that there's no charge yet. You also do this early enough that society might fault you for exposing children to certain issues too soon.

RS: Talking about puberty, the fun we could have because they weren't yet self-conscious about it.

SH: We wanted to ground them in positive discourses around girls and women, to create a multi-sensory experience. For menstruation, we began with the moon, everything we could think of, from baking crescent-shaped cookies to going outside at night and looking for the moon, to yoga poses saluting sun and moon... we even made a person out of fruit including the reproductive system. Only once we had done all of these things, over the course of months, did we bring out the tampons and get into the nitty-gritty, including introducing the idea that some people weren't so positive about puberty.

RS: We did the same thing for body image.

SH: We talked all about bodies, celebrating what bodies can do, what feels good, and even making these great goddess sculptures from natural materials in order to authorize the girls to create beautiful images of women for themselves rather than simply accepting society's images.

RS: You have to address body image issues earlier and earlier, because of the way that image is marketed younger, to 'tweens.

SH: We looked at media's values and our values to see whether they matched. Media places high value on how you look. We value friendship and feeling good and feeling strong... It seems essential to ground kids in values they can live by.

RS: And to do media analysis so they can see what's being pushed at them.

SB: Do you think that as this generation of parents is more into a hands-on model of parenting, they no longer sees disconnection during adolescence as inevitable?

SH: I was introducing myself to a new neighbor, who had her three-year-old daughter in tow. When she heard the ages of my daughters, she asked me, "Is it as bad as they say? Do your teenage daughters hate you? I'm so afraid of that."

SB: So you think people still accept that construct of disenfranchised adolescents.

RS: What's often unnamed sexism is so upsetting to teenage girls. Without a way to talk about this they find the easiest place to put their anger is upon their mothers.

SH: Middle school is very confusing. In the corridors, boys may be looking at girls in ways that objectify them.

RS: My daughter sometimes directed her anger toward me, anger that the world was this way. She wanted to cast me as a paranoid mother, but I was legitimately concerned for her safety.

SH: Sexism bears so many pressures. There's not a strong voice out there advocating women stay connected to their daughters, but when we talk about this work, a lot of mothers express relief. They do not want to sever ties with their beloved children. And we know that girls who can talk to their mothers and generally receive support for the hard things they face -- from violence against women to eating disorders to depression -- handle these challenges better. Sometimes, what a mother can do for a struggling adolescent is keep the real voice alive. For an anorexic concerned about how much she's eating or how much she weighs, it's important to have someone remind her that deep down she cares about more than this.

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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