We don’t know her name. Historical records only provide the name of her husband—Feodor Vassilyev, a peasant from Shuya in Russia. What we do know is that Mrs Vassilyev had 69 children, making her the world-record holder for the most births to one mother. How did she do it? Sixteen pairs of twins, seven sets of triplets and four sets of quadruplets.
What chance would this mum have had to get to know her children? Was there ever a time when she could play hide-and-seek, share the swings in a park or play dolls together? Did she ever get a break from cooking, washing, cleaning and changing nappies to sit and read a story, play hop-scotch or skip?
What sort of relationship might she have had with each of her daughters? Were there opportunities for her to get to know them personally? Did she have time to chat about their week at school, their new boyfriend or their worries? The daily demands for this family probably meant Mrs Vassilyev and her daughters missed out on something special.
Research continues to point to the fact there is something unique about a mother-daughter relationship—it’s in a class by itself. A mother can have a strong bond with her son, but her connection with her daughter can be especially close. Dr Christiane Northrup, author of Mother-Daughter Wisdom, describes it this way: “The mother-daughter relationship is the most powerful bond in the world, for better or for worse. It sets the stage for all other relationships.”1 Jennie Hannan, who heads up Anglicare WA, agrees: “How a woman sees herself, how she is in her adult relationships with partners, and how she mothers her own children, is profoundly influenced by her relationship with her own mother.”2
Those daughters and mothers who are able to build and maintain a positive, warm relationship are therefore very blessed. Despite potential conflicts and complicated emotions, they see the best in each other and seek out each other’s interests and support each other through both good and bad times. An anonymous daughter once wrote: “My mum is a lifelong smile in my heart, her voice a comfort to my soul, her hugs my ladder to the stars.”3 Chelsea Clinton certainly holds her mother in high regard! She described her mum as a listener and a doer. “She’s a woman driven by compassion, by faith, by a fierce sense of justice and a heart full of love. . . . She is my role model.”4
But sadly, not all mums and daughters are able to keep their close connection on an even keel. Sometimes mums and daughters just can’t seem to get it to work.
This broken relationship can start very early. One mother describes how her three-year-old had drawn a picture of her for a Mother’s Day card, and then the teacher at the preschool had written under it, “I love my mummy because . . .” The child asked the teacher to write, “she is an alien!” And things sometimes only get worse as the daughter grows older. Mum says something about her daughter’s weight, daughter doesn’t speak to her for three months. Daughter spends several thousand dollars on an overseas trip, mum is horrified and they don’t share recipes for a whole year!
While periods of distance might occur in even the best mother-daughter relationships, some mothers and daughters never seem to manage a warm and fulfilling one. No matter how hard they try, they seem to aggravate each other’s best attempts to get close.
Research points to a number of “ways of being mother” that regularly jeopardise the mother-daughter relationship. Each of these following styles of parenting points to the mother’s inability to express warmth, love and care.5
Daughters raised by dismissive mothers doubt the validity of their own emotional needs. They feel unworthy of attention and experience deep, gut-wrenching self-doubt, all the while feeling intense longing for love and validation.
Daughters can become determined to seek after the love they feel they deserve. They will inevitably feel driven to work hard to seek their mother’s approval (“I’ll get all A’s in school or win a prize, and then she’ll love me for sure!”).
Controlling mothers micromanage their daughters. They oversee every facet of their lives, refusing to acknowledge the validity of their daughter’s words or choices, and inevitably instil a sense of insecurity and helplessness in their child. The daughter gets the message that she is inadequate, can’t be trusted and will ultimately fail as an adult.
Mothers may be either physically or emotionally unavailable, and both can be very damaging to their daughters. They will fail to provide physical contact like hugging and comforting the child when they hurt, or be unresponsive to their daughter’s cries or displays of emotion, leaving daughters emotionally hungry and sometimes desperately needy. These insecurely attached daughters often become clingy in adult relationships, needing constant reassurance that they are lovable and OK.
Enmeshed mothers do not acknowledge any kind of boundary between themselves and their daughters. Daughters of enmeshed mothers aren’t listened to or respected, and are unable to find the freedom to explore their true selves.
Combative mothers are those who actively denigrate their daughters. They are hypercritical, or intensely jealous of, or competitive with their children. The combative mother uses verbal and emotional abuse to “win,” but can resort to physical force as well. She rationalises her behaviours as being necessary because of defects in her daughter’s character or behaviour.
The actions of the unreliable mother may be the hardest for a daughter to cope with, because she never knows if the “good mummy” or the “bad mummy” will show up.
The daughters of unreliable mothers understand emotional connection to be fraught, precarious and even dangerous.
The self-involved mother sees her daughter—if she sees her at all—as simply an extension of herself. This mother is incapable of showing empathy; instead, she is very concerned with appearances and the opinions of others. Her emotional connection to her daughter is superficial, because her focus is on herself.
Role-reversal mothering occurs when the daughter, even at a young age, becomes the helper, the caretaker or even “the mother” to her own mother.
While there is no such thing as a perfect mum, there are millions who are great, and many more who are good enough. These mums have the desire and ability to show love to their daughters. They know how to show empathy and respect, how to connect, how to invest in their daughters—how to be there for them. They know that they need to be intentional about being a mother and not just drift along, hoping things will be okay.
Be a loving, accepting presence
Great mums know that love is a verb: it requires action! Love will be expressed in a warm and inviting, non-judgemental presence. It will focus on accepting, not rejecting. Great mums will remember that their daughters need understanding and acceptance, but understanding doesn’t necessarily equal agreement; and acceptance doesn’t mean approval. These mums will let their daughters know they may not agree with their behaviour, but they’ll do their best to understand; they may not approve of what they do, but they will always accept them as their treasured daughters.
Trust your skills and insights
It’s tempting to believe that only the experts know how to raise a successful child. But great mums know that experts aren’t the only ones who know a thing or two about raising daughters. Believing that the “specialists” are the only ones with sound reasoning only intensifies a mother’s unfounded sense of inadequacy.
Keep the vision clear
Healthy mums know that while they will always be a mother, there will come a time when they cease to be a hands-on-mum; their highly-focused task is finished and they wave goodbye to their independent, maturing daughter. They know they have to let go! They dream of this day, scary though it may be! They have done all they can, given it their best shot and now they watch with pride as their daughter becomes the woman she has always wanted to be.
Get the balance right
Successful mums will always feel the pressure of the numerous shoulds and shouldn’ts of motherhood. They know the undue pressure on women to work or not to work, or be supermums! They know they can be wrong when they feel right and right when they feel wrong!
Successful mothers deal with these pressures with wisdom and a good dose of reality. They make their choices about what they can manage, what they believe is best for their family and get on with the job!
An unknown author wrote: “Being a mother means that your heart is no longer yours; it wanders wherever your children do.” A daughter will always belong to her mother’s heart.
Just ask Mrs Vassilyev, who may not have known her daughters as well as she might have wished, but every one of them would have been precious, and her heart must have wandered for a very long time!
Never make mistakes—so they never model humility and repentance.
Never make wrong decisions—so they don’t teach children how to be flexible and change what they are doing if it doesn’t work.
Never lose their temper—so they create tremendous guilt in their children when the children feel angry.
Never admit any wrong—so their children have impossible standards to live up to.
Always know what is right—so their children don’t get to discuss or debate the rights and wrongs of things. There is never any honest and open dialogue in the home.
Always correct children when they do wrong—so their children never enjoy that marvellous feeling that they have gotten away with something!
Always remember past mistakes—and hold them up to their children to see, so the children will strive to be perfect themselves.