What it means to be a “good mom” to your adult daughter

Deep sea curiosity.
Deep sea curiosity.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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To celebrate Mother’s Day, Quartz staff collected story ideas from our mothers and sought to answer them. This mother asks: How can I build a friendship with my adult daughter? Read more stories from the series here.

No mother has a perfect relationship with her daughter. ”Want to be “100% successful at it? Not possible,” says Peg Streep. But for mothers who want to maintain a good lifelong relationship with their daughters, the key is to be flexible.

“A lot of the tenor of the mother-daughter relationship over time has to do with the mother’s ability to grow and change in the relationship,” says Streep, the mother of a 30-year-old daughter and the author of several books on the relationship between parents and their children, including the Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. “The relationships that flounder are those where the mother’s mindset is pretty much made up, and she isn’t able to change according to the needs of the daughter at any particular age.”

Those floundering relationships have provided rich material for novels, movies, TV shows, and heart-wrenching advice columns. We envy mothers and daughters with good relationships, and find those with toxic ones endlessly fascinating.

Why? Largely because mothers occupy such a critical role their children’s physical and emotional growth. As a result, academic research has traditionally focused on the relationship between mothers and daughters during childhood, the most critical stage of development. But the significance and impact of this relationship does not stop when girls grow up.

“Of all familial relationships, the mother–daughter one is most likely to remain important for both parties, even when major life changes occur,” write the authors of a 2010 study on this relationship, led by Kathryn Bojczyk of Florida State University. “Multiple theoretical perspectives recognize the mother–daughter bond as lifelong, intimate, and developmentally important.”

Moms and daughters that have a positive connection, balancing autonomy with emotional support, are lucky. They’ve managed to not let their relationship be derailed by “generational change, conflict, secrets, and maternal pressures,” Bojczyk and her co-authors write.

That doesn’t mean those relationships are tension-free, says Streep.  “When a daughter’s voice gets stronger as an adult and she begins to make her own choices, sometimes those choices will be contrary to what the mother envisioned, choices she doesn’t think are appropriate,” she says. “You’re not going to do a happy dance if your daughter comes home with a partner you find unacceptable in every single way. But in a healthy relationship, the mother doesn’t have to tape her mouth shut, but does recognize that the daughter is an adult, and the mistakes are hers to make.”

If the relationship gets too tense, Streep advises mother to look inward. “Is she being overbearing, is she offering advice when none has been asked for? Is she too intrusive? Is she listening to her daughter?” Streep says. “An adult daughter has every right to put a boundary in place.”

It is these boundaries, set by both mother and daughter, that prompt Streep to advise against viewing the relationship as a friendship, even after daughters grow up. “The girlfriend model is not the appropriate model,” she says. “It encourages oversharing on the mother’s part about all manner of things that frankly are not your child’s business and are burdensome for her to know, no matter what age she is.”

For both mothers and daughters, the advice on maintaining a good relationship is the same as most adult relationships: Listen, spend time together thoughtfully and wisely, forgive and move on from conflict quickly, communicate clearly, and be generous in how your interpret the other person’s comments.

“Both daughters and mothers can remind themselves that the meaning they perceive is only half the story,” says Deborah Tannen, linguistics professor at Georgetown University, and the author of You’re Wearing THAT?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation. She advises that mothers check in with their daughters even when there is nothing specific they want to talk about, offer them compliments, and hold back on advice as much as possible. Often, daughters are more in search of a mom’s blessing than her feedback.

Tannen also advises that daughters tell their mom often that “she was a good mother—that’s most mothers’ biggest fear,” and to ask for advice about topics that aren’t personally sensitive. “Remind yourself how no one else would pay so much attention, because they don’t care as much,” Tannen says.