The five years I recently spent researching and writing a book about mothers and daughters also turned out to be the last years of my mother’s life. In her late eighties and early nineties, she gradually weakened, and I spent more time with her, caring for her more intimately than I ever had before. This experience—together with her death before I finished writing—transformed my thinking about mother-daughter relationships.
All along I had in mind the questions a journalist had asked during an interview about my research. “What is it about mothers and daughters?” she blurted out. “Why are our conversations so complicated, our relationships so tense?” These questions became more urgent and more personal, as I asked myself: What had made my relationship with my mother so 1)volatile? Why had I often 2)ricocheted between extremes of love and anger? And what had made it possible for my love to 3)swell, and my anger to dissipate in the last years of her life?
During the research, I discover that there is a special intensity to the mother-daughter relationship, because talk—particularly about personal topics—plays a larger and more complex role in girls’ and women’s social lives than in boys’ and men’s. For the ladies, talk is the glue that holds a relationship together—and the explosive that can blow it apart.
Daughters often object to remarks that seem harmless to outsiders, like this one, described by a student of mine, Kathryn Ann Harrison:
“Are you going to quarter those tomatoes?” her mother asked, as Kathryn was preparing a salad. Stiffening, Kathryn replied, “Well, I was. Is that wrong?”
“No, no,” her mother replied. “It’s just that personally, I would slice them.” Kathryn said 4)tersely, “Fine.” But as she sliced the tomatoes, she thought, can’t I do anything without my mother letting me know she thinks I should do it some other way?
I’m willing to 5)wager that Kathryn’s mother thought she had merely asked a question about a tomato. But Kathryn 6)bristled, because she heard the implication, “You don’t know what you’re doing. I know better.”
I interviewed dozens of women of varied geographic, racial and cultural backgrounds. The complaint I heard most often from daughters was, “My mother is always criticizing me.” The corresponding complaint from mothers was, “I can’t open my mouth. She takes everything as criticism.”
I know it is because a mother’s opinion matters so much, that she has enormous power. Her smallest comment—or no comment at all, just a look—can fill a daughter with hurt, and consequently, anger. But I learned that mothers who have spent decades watching out for their children, often persist in commenting, because they can’t get their adult children to do what is ( in their belief ) obviously right. Where the daughter sees power, the mother feels powerless. The power that mothers and daughters 7)hold over each other derives, in part, from their closeness.
On the other hand, mothers and daughters search for themselves in the other, as if hunting for treasure, as if trying to find the sameness, which affirms who they are. This can be pleasant: After her mother’s death, one woman noticed that she wipes down the 8)sink, cuts an onion and holds a knife just as her mother used to do. She found this comforting, because it meant that, in a way, her mother was still with her.
When visiting my parents a few years ago, I was sitting across from my mother, when she asked, “Do you like your hair long?”
I laughed, and she asked what was funny. I explained that in my research, I had come across many examples of mothers who criticize their daughters’ hair. “I wasn’t criticizing,” she said, looking hurt. I asked, “Mom, what do you think of my hair?” Without hesitation, she said, “I think it’s a little too long.”
Hair is one of what I call “The Big Three”, that mothers and daughters critique (the other two are clothing and weight). Mothers always feel entitled, if not obligated, to say that, “I think you’d look better if you got your hair out of your eyes,” knowing that mothers are judged by their daughters’ appearance, because daughters represent their mothers to the world.
But daughters want their mothers to see and value what they value in themselves; that’s why a question that would be harmless in one context can be hurtful in another. For example, a woman said that she told her mother of a successful presentation she had made, and her mother asked, “What did you wear?” The woman exclaimed, in 9)exasperation, “Who cares what I wore?!” In fact, the woman cared. She had given a lot of thought to selecting the right outfit. But her mother’s focus on clothing—rather than the content of her talk—seemed to 10)undercut her professional achievement.
Then again, a mother may seem to devalue her daughter’s choices, simply because she doesn’t understand the life her daughter has chosen. I think that was the case with my mother and me.
My mother visited me, shortly after I had taken a teaching position at 11)Georgetown University, and I was eager to show her my new home and new life. She had disapproved of me during my rebellious youth, and had been 12)distraught when my first marriage ended six years earlier. Now I was a professor! Clearly, I had turned out all right. I was sure she’d be proud of me—and she was. When I showed her my office, with my name on the door and my publications on the shelf, she seemed pleased and approving.
Then she asked, “Do you think you would have accomplished all this if you had stayed married?” “Absolutely not,” I said. “If I’d stayed married, I wouldn’t have gone to 13)grad school to get my PhD.”
“Well,” she replied, “if you’d stayed married you wouldn’t have had to.” Ouch. With her casual remark, my mother had reduced all I had accomplished to the consolation prize.
But now I think she was simply reflecting the world she had grown up in, where there was the one and only one measure by which women were judged successful or 14)pitiable: marriage. She probably didn’t know what to make of my life, which was so different from any she could have imagined for herself.
Years ago, I was surprised when my mother told me after I had sent her a letter beginning with the words, “Dearest Mom,”—that she had waited her whole life to hear me say that. I thought this a bit strange of her, until a young woman named Rachael sent me copies of e-mails she had received from her mother. In one, her mother responded to Rachael’s 15)effusive Mother’s Day card: “Oh, Rachael!!!!! That was so WONDERFUL!!! It almost made me cry. I’ve waited 25 years, 3 months and 7 days to hear something like that…”
该文作者Deborah Tannen是乔治敦大学著名的语言学教授，著有You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation，该书已被翻译成29种语言，在世界各地畅销。