“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his,” opined Oscar Wilde.
As much as I love the sentiment, I am going to have disagree with Mr. Wilde’s claim that is a daughter’s tragedy. My mother and I have the same intonation, mannerisms, and worries. On my best days, I look like her. I love that —and I am not the only one.
I am part of a generation of women who increasingly consider their mothers to be in their circle of friends. Many of us have grown up reveling in sharing clothes and secrets with them, and Mothers’ Day is a great moment to celebrate this special closeness.
For example, in the 12 hours before I began writing this article, I had emailed my mother detailing a bad date I referred to as a “Commie bastard,” called her as I walked from the subway to my office, and texted her in despair when our mutually beloved The Mindy Project was canceled.
We are not the first mother-daughter generation to verge in best friends. Nearly 20 years before Rory and Lorelai Gilmore were drinking massive cups of coffee from Luke’s Diner, 1983’s Terms of Endearment showcased the complicated but deeply intimate friendship of Aurora and Emma Greenway.
Well before Terms of Endearment had us bawling in the aisles, intimate mother-daughter ties were immortalized in literature and mythology.
Especially for Americans, Marmee is the paradigm of the loving matriarch as she raises Jo, Beth, Amy, and Meg in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
According to Greek mythology, the reason we suffer through the chill of winter is because Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, was so heartbroken when Hades abducted her daughter, Persephone.
Six months of the year her daughter was forced to spend in the underworld, leading Detemer to turn the earth frigid and lifeless. The myth is a testament to the esteem for mother-daughter connections.
However, the rose-colored glow around mothers and daughters as friends has been shadowed in recent years with some trainwreck examples of how the bestie mentality can be taken to an extreme.
Dina Lohan was often (and disproportionately, when compared to her absentee husband) blamed for daughter Lindsay’s wild antics when they were seen hitting the clubs together.
Ironically, the movie that launched Lohan to teen stardom, Mean Girls, features one of the most iconic examples of a modern mom attempting (poorly) to be her daughter’s best friend.
Amy Poehler’s Mrs. George eagerly offers high school girls booze and a suburban mansion in which to sexually experiment to their hearts’ content, while her daughter and their friends walk all over her. It was a complete power reversal that probably resonated a bit too much with mothers and daughters in the audience.
Reality TV also provides ample examples of this kind of mother-daughter dynamic. The Gastineau Girls on E! was based on the buddy-buddy relationship of mother Lisa and daughter Brittany Gastineau as they dropped tons of money and partied it up in Manhattan.
Of course, they were replaced on E! by an even more extravagant gaggle of daughters and their unconventionally over-sharing relationship with their mother: the Kardashians.
Pretty much every half hour of Kardashian television features Kris Jenner gabbing about clubbing, boozing, or sexual escapades with her daughters.
One of the most cringe-inducing examples was when Jenner commiserated with daughter Khloe Kardashian about faking orgasms on her short-lived talk show. Kendall and Kylie Jenner (then 17 and 15 years old) watched this discussion from the audience.
Jenner and her daughters may serve as an extreme example, but there has most definitely been a change in parent-child, and especially mother-daughter, dynamics.
“My mom is my best friend and always has been,” says Lei’la Bryant, a 25-year-old graduate student in Washington state.
Her mother raised her as a single woman in a small, religious Missouri town, which made their relationship closer. She and her mom were a team against the judgmental gaze.
“I remember when I was really young, like five or six, people were whispering things about us. She went to Goodwill and got us long flowing dresses and had us do a séance to freak out the neighbors,” she recalls with a laugh.
“We’re very close,” says Shelby Knox, a 28-year-old woman in New York who grew up in Lubbock, Texas. “We never really went through that period that moms and daughters go through where they fight.”
While these closer, friendlier mother-daughter relationships aren’t brand new, some key societal changes have allowed them to flourish.
“You’re seeing that a lot more because the generation gap between mothers and daughters has shifted. There’s so much more sharing of the same popular culture,” explains Linda Perlman Gordon, a clinical social worker and co-author of Too Close for Comfort: Questioning the New Intimacy of Today’s New Mother-Daughter Relationship.
She and Deborah Carr, who is part of the faculty at Rutgers University’s sociology department and is the co-author of Making Up with Mom: Why Mothers and Daughters Disagree About Kids, Careers, and Casseroles (and What to Do About It), both brought up the significantly greater overlap in fashion, music, and general lifestyle tastes between the two generations, especially with women.
“There’s this sweeping youth culture,” explains Carr. “Today’s parents often listen to the same music. They have the same cultural reference. They wear the same clothes, [while] back in the old days, grown-ups and kids wore very different clothes.”
Think of television mothers. Marsha Brady would never trade her mini skirts to snag Carol’s dramatically patterned shirts and pantsuits. Meanwhile, Haley and Claire Dunphy don’t exactly dress like twins on Modern Family, but they’re both usually in jeans and form-fitting shirts that could be interchangeable.
“I think part of youth culture today means women in their forties and fifties face rigid pressures to be thin and look youthful,” notes Carr. “It’s yet another reason why the generations look more similar. Someone in their forties and fifties looks younger than they would have decades ago.”
However, it’s not just that mothers and daughters are more likely to share the same clothes and cultural references. They have more time before their daughters create their own families (if they decide to do so at all).
“This generation of women are now single throughout the bulk of their twenties. You have a decade when you’re just kind of out there starting your life as single a women, and your mom is out there. She is probably an empty nester, and there’s a lot of time to do girl stuff together,” says Gordon.
This generation of parents also came of age in an America that was dramatically more comfortable with “letting it all hang out” and discussing formerly taboo topics.
“The lines of communication and the range of topics is much wider,” says Carr. “I think late Baby Boom or Gen-X parents grew up totally after the sexual revolution. AIDS was part of the education. The notion that women should take control of their bodies is wholly in their conscience. Fewer topics were off the table or sacred or dirty.”
Well, maybe not all topics.
When I interviewed millennial women, sex was often named as the topic that was hardest to discuss with their moms—that probably goes both ways, based on my personal experience.
My mother called me when an article I wrote about female masturbation was posted. “I saw what you wrote, Emily, and I am not going to read it,” said the woman who valiantly watched every episode of the first season of Girls with me.
Still, many of us talk about sex and dating with our mothers with shocking candor.
Knox said that she doesn’t talk to her mother in detail about her adult sex life, but actually felt quite comfortable turning to her when deciding whether to have sex in high school.
Knox’s case is a little unique. Not only had she taken a very public virginity pledge, but she became an outspoken sex education advocate while a teenager (and a documentary was made about her crusade).
Still, like many daughters, she wanted her mother’s advice.
“She told me, ‘Someone who bought a car without taking a few test-drives would be an idiot,’” recalls Knox, chuckling a little now. “She had been supportive of my taking that pledge, but it turns out she didn’t think it was a good idea. She was grateful to have the opening of a dialogue.”
While Bryant said she didn’t talk to her mother about sex when she was in high school, now that she is an adult, they talk pretty freely about their personal lives.
“We had a conversation once about how guys fall asleep after they have sex and how it’s kind of funny,” Bryant says. “My mom and aunts and I were once doing a Cosmopolitan quiz, and we were trying to figure out how many people we had slept with. We were laughing. It took us like half an hour.”
Samantha Smith, a 26-year-old from Bryant’s same Missouri town, has taken things a step further with her mom.
“I actually bought my mom her first vibrator,” she tells me over web correspondence.
“My mom and I have no boundaries. As crude as it may sound, I’ve been known to call her after a one-night stand. When I tell her stuff like that she usually just says, ‘Be careful.’”
Her mother over-shares as much, if not more than, Smith.
“She [Her mom] has definitely told me about the guys that she sleeps with,” she says. “My parents have been divorced since I was nine. She has told me about the great sex she has had, the size of the guys’ penises. She has told me about the shit sex she has had—unfortunately, usually that is in the context of the sex she had with my father.”
Smith is ambivalent about whether she wishes her mother shared less with her. “I feel like I can tell her anything, but I’m not crazy about her telling me everything,” she says.
She also feels mixed about her mother’s choice to be more of a friend than a disciplinarian.
“My mom loved hanging out with my sisters and I and our friends, and it was always important to her to be seen as the ‘cool woman.’ If I do become a mom, I would like to be a bit more of an authority figure.”
Nevertheless, while these conversations initially seem cringe-inducing at best and relationship-ruining at worse, Smith emphasized that she feels immensely close with her mother and prefers this dynamic to an alternative, more distant one.
“At the end of the day, despite some of the awkwardness, I love that I feel comfortable enough with my mom to tell her about the men I’ve slept with or to admit I’ve seriously screwed up. I wouldn’t change that part of our relationship at all.”
Some daughters and mothers crave this far more open and intimate style of parenting, especially compared to how mothers and children have operated in the past.
There is what I think of as the Rose Kennedy-style of parenting that was held as the ideal in the earlier part of the 20th Century.
The famously aloof mother of nine kept a card file system to carefully monitor her children’s health, but wasn’t much for hugs and kisses and feelings. John F. Kennedy was apparently resentful of this, telling a friend “My mother never held or hugged me. Never! Never!”
But hey, she raised three of the most beloved politicians of the 20th Century. Maybe there was something to her method?
Besides, not all women have positive relationships from mothers who over-share.
When Katie Klabusich was growing up, her mother shared too much information. It wasn’t about sex but problems in her marriage to Klabusich’s father.
“She used to complain to me in high school about her relationship with my dad,” recalls Klabusich, a 35-year-old writer and reproductive rights advocate. “The stuff she doesn’t need me to know, she always wanted me to know. But I never felt I could tell her anything.”
Klabusich describes her mother as “a parent with zero boundaries who literally thinks of you as a part of herself. It leads to chronic over-sharing.”
Ironically, Klabusich grew reticent, fearing her mother’s reaction every time they disagreed. “Whenever I expressed an opinion that was different from hers, there would be tension,” she says.
Klabusich added during our conversation that the problem wasn’t merely over-sharing. She believes her mother has a clinical narcissism problem.
Still, maybe even in the best situation when the sharing and closeness are welcomed, is there something wrong about thinking of your mom as your best friend?
Is it a bad thing that I and many other women dish about our bad dates and friendship dramas with our mothers? That we enjoy throwing back a Cosmo or two or more with them?
I joke that my mother and I fall somewhere between Gilmore Girls and Grey Gardens. The jest has been my way of acknowledging the flack I have received from friends who think it’s “weird” or “unhealthy” for me to be sharing so many details of my life with my mom.
Does our relationships have a charming Rory-Lorelai Gilmore dynamic full of trust and respect or is there a sabotaging, crippling quality to our closeness, like Big and Little Edie?
Well, as with so many relationships, it’s complicated.
Both Carr and Gordon said it wasn’t good when mothers and daughters thought of each other exclusively as friends. “I think some disclosure is good, but I think mothers and daughters need to retain some privacy, and a younger daughter still needs an authority figure,” says Carr. “Openness is good, and honesty is good, but there are some things people should keep to themselves.”
Like maybe don’t invite your mom to your bachelorette party, something which Gordon has heard of—and not infrequently.
“I know a lot of mothers may have gone to their daughters’ bachelorette parties. They have a very healthy relationship, but some of the stories that came out… They said ‘It was a little too much information for me,’” says Gordon.
“I don’t think you have to spell it all out. I think it’s okay to say there’s too much information. Sex is one of those. Another instance, you could tell your mom you had a great time at a party last night, but you may not want to brag that you did three shots.”
Although my wonderful sport of a mother has seen me hungover, we haven’t crossed the above-described lines. Still, I realized in writing this article how defensive I am when it comes to my relationship with my mother.
I was surprised in interviews to hear that other women who described their mothers as their best friends felt just as self-conscious.
“I have friends a lot older than I am in their sixties, and one of them says it is ‘unnatural’ that I talk to my mother every day. It’s a sign we didn’t separate appropriately,” says Knox. “I get a little crap. Some say psychologically, we never separated. We never cut the apron strings.”
She recognizes that these comments often spring from concern, but she senses an edge sometimes, too. “It honestly pisses me when people stand in judgment of my relationship with my mother,” Knox says.
While guys often grow up with the fear of being labeled “mama’s boys,” women may harbor their own anxiety over how their relationships with their mothers are perceived.
“I’ve never thought about anyone judging my relationship with my dad,” notes Knox, who wonders if men analogously feel self-conscious about how their relationships with their fathers are perceived. “I’m wondering if this is another sexist, BS thing where women worry about being judged.”
At the same time, I recognize that it is its own luxury to fret that people deem your relationship with your mom is too close. Women who have strained or distant relationships with their mothers say they feel the burden of judgment even more so.
“For a lot of people, this time of year [Mother’s Day] is hard,” says Klabusich. According to her, her mother dis-invited her to Christmas three years ago after she (mistakenly) assumed her daughter was a lesbian when she saw LGBT groups followed her on Twitter.
Today, Klabusich sends her mother flowers for her birthday, but says she lets her start communication, because she has been hurt by her mother too many times.
“There’s no way to predict how she’s feeling. It’s like playing board games with a toddler. You never know when the rules change.”
During her career, Gordon has encountered a number of women who feel guilty for not being close to their mothers and putting up their own boundaries.
“I’ve noticed girls who have a lot of pain, and they’ve probably tried a lot to let their mothers in,” says Gordon. “There may have been many instances where they’ve been hurt, such as the mother could have been drunk at her wedding. As a result, they’ve created a boundary that is much stricter. Then, they feel guilty because it feels ‘how hard am I that I’m doing this? What kind of child am I?’”
However, she does not necessarily discourage these boundaries. “I talk to them about the fact that some of these boundaries keep them safe. It’s hard, but it’s self preservation.”