How Children Change the Mother-Daughter Relationship

How to Avoid Conflicts When Family Roles Change

Three generations, a grandmother, a daughter and a grandson, enjoy time together.
When a mother becomes a grandmother, family dynamics change. LWA/Dann Tardif / Getty Images

When daughters become mothers and mothers become grandmothers, the mother-daughter relationship is forever changed. Ideally, mother and daughter appreciate each other more fully. The mother admires the way her child, now an adult, handles pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. The daughter appreciates more fully the sacrifices her mother made for her and the parenting job she has done.

That's the way it should be. The reality is often quite different.

What May Happen Instead

Mothers are accustomed to being in charge, in the family sphere at least. A mother who has begun to accept her daughter as an independent adult may lose that perspective entirely with the birth of a child. Instead she may see the daughter as a newbie in the domestic sphere, the sphere where the mother has years of hard-won experience and wisdom to share. And the force of her vision may be hard to resist. "Because a new mom is understandably not yet sure of her role, it is easy to let the older, 'wiser' mother start to take too much control," said psychotherapist Dorothy Firman, interviewed by email.

In some cases, the mother's impulses may go beyond a desire to help, according to some observers. In When You and Your Mother Can't Be Friends, author Victoria Secunda posits that for some mothers, seeing a daughter with a baby triggers old urges. "If she cannot have you-as-child, at least she can rekindle her mothering authority as a grandmother, telling you how best to do your parenting job," Secunda writes. "And that's when the trouble often starts, when there has been little, or none, until then."

Sometimes this time of transition leads to a blurring of boundaries. Grandmothers want to do things for their grandchildren that are best left for parents. Their need to control may be expressed openly or in more subtle ways. One grandmother, for example, insists on outfitting the grandchildren for each new season. The mother acquiesces, because it saves her so much money, but she really resents losing control of her kids' wardrobes.

How to Avoid Trouble

According to Firman, a healthy relationship often starts with a conversation about how the mother and daughter can support each other. "Mother, now grandmother, does need to let go of her primary identification as mother and become a 'mother-graduate," Firman writes. "Daughter, now mother, needs to let go of her primary identification as daughter to become an 'ex-child.'" Having this conversation and "noticing the slippery edges and calling attention to them" will allow the transitions to take place, Firman said.

Still, it is likely that both mother and daughter will disapprove of some of the other's choices, according to Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics and author of books about communication, interviewed by email. "A daughter may seem to ignore her mother's view, but the reason she may get really upset is that her mother's opinion counts a lot," Tannen writes. "There is no topic on which any mother is as sensitive as the question, 'Am I a good mother?'" Considering the young mother's vulnerability to criticism, Tannen has advice for the grandmother: She should choose her battles very carefully and bite her tongue most of the time. She should speak up only when she feels very strongly about an issue; even then she should limit her comments.

A Mother-Daughter Reunion

Firman writes about what she calls "reunion," a stage in which mother and daughter can meet as adults, free of most "hooks from the past." The birth of a child may make the reunion possible, but only when both mother and grandmother are secure and happy in their roles. Ideally, the reunion "unfolds into a mutual adult-adult and mother-child interaction, in which, both women can play adult, child or parent in relationship to each other."

Isn't that really what women want--the freedom to sometimes nurture like an adult and sometimes seek nurture like a child, and to always have the support of a mother and the adoration of a child? It's a scenario that is possible, if both parties are willing.