Can A Mother Be a Daughter's Best Friend?
by Dr. Irene S. Levine
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Amy Chozick, How Parents Became Cool, describes the parental paradigm shift (as seen on TV) from loving but firm (think: The Brady Bunch) to best friends (think: Pretty Little Liars). We've all heard stories of (and some of us have witnessed up close) moms who are trying so desperately to be cool that they opt for the role of BFFs to their daughters instead of moms. It's an easy line to cross; after all, every woman wants another friend---and moms, especially, want to connect with their teens and tweens and not be thought of as old hags. But can a mother be a daughter's best friend?
Apropos of Mother's Day, I asked my colleagues, Linda Perlman Gordon and Susan Morris Shaffer, authors of Too Close for Comfort: Questioning the Intimacy of Today's Mother-Daughter Relationship (Berkley, 2009) to address that question in a guest post. Here is what Gordon and Shaffer had to say:
There is an old Chinese proverb that states "One Generation plants the trees; another gets the shade," and this is how it should be with mothers and daughters. The intimate nature of the relationship between a mother and daughter is sometimes confusing. If close, the relationship can simulate friendship through the familiar characteristics of empathy, listening, loyalty, and caring. However, the mother/daughter relationship has unique characteristics that distinguish it from a best friendship. These characteristics include a mother's role as primary emotional caretaker, a lack of reciprocity, and a hierarchy of responsibility. This hierarchy, combined with unconditional love, precludes mothers and daughters from being best friends.
Because the essential ingredient for friendship is equality and there is always an imbalance when one person in the twosome is the parent of the other, mothers and daughters naturally can't be best friends. Marina, 27 years old says, "I love spending time with my mom, but I wouldn't consider her my best friend. She's MY MOM. Best friends don't pay for the dress you covet in a trendy clothing store that you wouldn't pay for yourself. Best friends don't pay for your wedding. Best friends don't remind you how they carried you in their body and gave you life, and sometime gas! Best friends don't tell you how wise they are and trump your opinion because they have been alive at least 20 years longer than you. I love my mom, and I want her to remain a mom."
This doesn't mean that the mother/daughter relationship can't be very close and satisfying. While some adult relationships are still troubled, many find them to be extremely rewarding. So many moms spoke to us about how happy they are to be finished with the "eye rolling" and look from their adolescent daughters, a look that says, "You must come from a different evolutionary chain than me." Daughters also adopted the famous Mark Twain quote about aging, with some slight alterations, and their feelings about their mothers. Mark Twain said, "When I was a boy (girl) of 14, my father (mother) was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man (woman) around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man (woman) had learned in seven years."
This generation of mothers and adult daughters has a lot in common which increases the likelihood of shared companionship. Mothers and daughters have always shared the common experience of being homemakers, responsible for maintaining and passing on family values, traditions, and rituals. Today contemporary mothers and daughters also share the experience of the workforce, technology and lack of a generation gap, which may bring them even closer together.
Best friends may or may not continue to be best friends, but for better or worse, the mother and daughter relationship is permanent, even if for some unfortunate reason they aren't' speaking. The mother and child relationship is, therefore, more intimate and more intense than any other. As long as that hierarchy exists, it's not an equal relationship. Daughters should not feel responsible for their mother's emotional well-being. Not that they don't care deeply about their mothers, it's just that they shouldn't be burdened with their mother's well being. As one mother said to her daughter, "I would gladly dive under a bus for you and there is no way that I'm diving under a bus for my friends." Her daughter responded, "And I'd gladly let you dive under the bus to save me!"
The mother/daughter relationship is so much more comprehensive than a best friendship. It's a relationship that is not replaceable by any other. This unique bond doesn't mean that when daughters mature they can't assume more responsibilities and give back to their mothers, but it's never equal and it's not supposed to be. Mothers never stop being mothers, which includes frequently wanting to protect their daughters and often feeling responsible for their happiness. Mother always "trumps" friend.
Unfortunately, narcissistic mothers are not interested in, nor do they have the skills to maintain the sort of healthy emotional boundaries that this article describes. This article talks about what it's supposed to look like, not about how it often looks instead. And perhaps what bothers me most of all is the fact that in all parental narcissistic relationships, these mothers aren't even actually interested in being their daughter's best friends...they are merely interested in maintaining the appearance that they are. After all, acting as though they are a young daughter's best friend means they get attention, while simultaneously fulfilling their unhealthy and unrealistic desire to remain youthful. (We all know narcissists detest the process of aging and wish to remain forever young).
In the end, not only do narcissistic mothers fail at being mothers, but they fail at being friends too. They disregard and ignore even the most basic of requirements that are necessary for even a decent friendship to exist.
Dr. Levine has her own website, where she answers questions that readers send in regarding friendship issues. I found the following two lists to be particularly poignant in their illustration about why, precisely, a mother can not be her daughter's best friend. In the first list, it's easy enough to simply change a few words in each point to make the question apply to a parent/child relationship, rather than a friend/friend relationship.
Twenty Questions: Spotting a Toxic Friendship:
1. Does scheduling time to see your friend feel like an obligation rather than a pleasure?
2. Do you ever feel trapped when you are together?
3. Do you feel tense in her presence?
4. Does she often show off at your expense?
5. Is she never reliably there when you need her?
6. Is she self-centered, sneaky, deceitful, or disloyal?
7. Does she have habitually bad judgment?
8. Are you giving more than you’re getting?
9. Does the relationship feel out-of-sync?
10. Do you feel emotionally drained when you are with her?
11. Do you come away from her feeling depressed?
12. When you talk, does it feel like she isn’t listening or just doesn’t get it?
13. Do you dread her phone calls?
14. Do you hate when you see her screen name online when you look at your buddy list?
15. Are her emails too long to read?
16. Does she always choose to spend her time with men, over you, given the opportunity?
17. Has she flirted with the man in your life?
18. Has she done anything to undermine your position at work?
19. Can you trust her to keep your confidences?
20. Has she betrayed you?
In this second list, I was again struck by the fact that narcissistic mothers are not only bad at being parents, but they make for the shittiest types of friends. How many of you have a narcissistic parent that is, quite simply put, not a keeper?
25 Ways to Make Yourself a Keeper:
1. If you make a promise, live up to that promise.
2. Be punctual, dependable, and reliable.
3. Show up when she needs you.
4. Be yourself. Who else can you be?
5. Accept that you are human and make mistakes. Apologize if you have said or done something wrong.
6. Accept that she is human and may make mistakes. Offer forgiveness.
7. Try not to moan too much.
8. Don't be guilty of giving out too much information (TMI) about yourself too soon.
9. Be loyal and trustworthy. Resist the urge to gossip or spread rumors about your friend.
10. Be a good listener, tune in to what your friend is saying, and try not to interrupt.
11. Let your friend know you are interested in her and make sure everything isn't about you.
12. Give her enough space so she doesn't feel boxed in.
13. Accept that you won't always be on the same page because you are two different people.
14. Be willing to make sacrifices and compromise.
15. Be a comfort blanket but don't smother her.
16. Remember if she detests olives in her salad or anchovies on her pizza.
17. Resist saying "I told you so" even if you did.
18. If she has three sick kids, offer to help out.
19. Don't sleep with her boyfriend or be overly flirtatious with her husband.
20. Share her successes and find ways to celebrate them.
21. Don't brag too much when she's feeling down.
22. Don't let too much time elapse between get-togethers.
23. Don't be shy about letting her know when her behavior is endangering her health or is likely to have other adverse consequences.
24. Don't harp and constantly remind her of her bad habits.
25. Let her know how much you value her friendship.
So, can a narcissistic mother be her daughter's friend? I guess the short answer would be no.