When Did We Start To Become Our Daughters’ Best Friend?

If you’ve noticed a generational shift in these parent-child relationships, you’re not alone. We went to the experts for a deeper understanding of this dynamic.

<p>Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images</p>

Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

One of the first things you learn in writing is to avoid cliché. Apologies to my former teachers, but there’s one seemingly trite statement that I use often: My mom is my best friend. This sentence may elicit an eye roll or a nod of agreement. I’m not trying to be a walking Hallmark card, but it’s the truth, and I’m proud of it. Over the years, my mom and I shifted from parent and child to best friends. I remember her commenting one time how it was not as common with her generation and their parents (and those before them) to be such close friends with their kids. Those connections remained parent-to-child throughout their lives. I’ve noticed this phenomenon amongst my friends and coworkers and their moms as well, so I wanted to reach out to a few experts to see if this was a projection or a real event occurring in parenting.

Karen Shaw Burch, a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in Augusta, Georgia, agrees that there have been changes in these bonds over generations, and she offers several suggestions why.

“The first being increased longevity. We are adults at the same time for a much longer time,” she says. “I am 72 with a 30 and 34 year old. My 72 is probably not the 72 of yore—I'm not gray headed rocking on the porch. I'm working, active and gratefully, very healthy. I expect (pray) that I will have grandchildren soon and do hope to be an active influence in their lives. Living longer, and having children later, has really created the sandwich generation where the middle generation can be caring for the older and younger generations all at once.”

As someone about to be sandwiched between two generations and having recently witnessed my parents care for theirs, this makes total sense to me. Burch’s other reasons behind this fluctuation have to do with our progressing society.

“For the most part, our roles in the world have changed—being professionals, as well as mothers,” she says. “And due to our mobile society, we don't necessarily live down the street from our mothers and therefore, have created relationships that are more than mother-daughter, but friend and confidant. This may hold true for the relationships with grandmothers, as well. I have a friend who pointed out that this generation of children and grandchildren expect the grands to visit them. No longer do they ‘go to grandmother's house.’”

As a future working mother who lives in a different city than my mom, this resonated with me.

“With the busy schedules of the working parents and busy schedules of the children, being visited, instead of visiting, is much more practical,” Burch says. “It has also been said to me in my practice as a marriage and family therapist, that making friends for many working adults/parents is difficult. They complain that there is no time outside of the professional responsibilities and parenting schedules to make and nurture friendships, therefore they rely on family—mothers.”

Next, I reached out to Allison Alford, PhD, Clinical Assistant Professor at Baylor University's Hankamer School of Business, who wrote a research article titled: “Doing daughtering: an exploration of adult daughters’ constructions of role portrayals in relation to mothers” and hosts a podcast called Hello Mother, Hello Daughter. Dr. Alford doesn’t boil the evolution of the mother-daughter bond down to simply “mother” or “friend” but looks further into the active roles of not only mothering but daughtering as well.

“Growing up, my mother was loving but quite strict. She instilled in me the belief that my ideas mattered, but I was aware that I was a child and she was the parent,” she says. “As I entered young adulthood, my mother launched me into the world and our relationship changed. She recognized and respected my autonomy and independence. The relationship became one of mutuality; though I would not call this friendship, it is a relationship based on equity and agency. I recognized my role to play in the relationship as a daughter.”

Though we often think in terms of mothering, Dr. Alford widened the lens to remind me that daughtering is part of the equation as well. They do say the phone works both ways, y’all.

“If I want a great relationship with my mom, I have to do the daughtering work,” Dr. Alford says. “I take the time to think of her, to plan for our time together, to organize events, select gifts she'd like, and I even spend time thinking about her future needs. My research shows that a lot of the work of daughtering in mid-life is about emotion, thinking, and identity.”

Maybe that’s why the importance and beauty of this mother-daughter connection has been on my mind lately. I’m expecting my first child (possibly a girl) as I write this, and I’m so excited to see how my mother and I continue to grow through this new experience for both of us, as mother and grandmother. Dr. Alford is experiencing an expectation of adjustment in her own family.

“As my mom ages, I anticipate the relationship dynamic changing again,” she says. “The daughtering work will continue as my mom needs more instrumental help and the work becomes more doing things to support her wellbeing.”

Dr. Aflord notes that whether you call your mom a best friend or a mother, you are always a daughter.

“Even after moms are gone, daughters continue to ‘feel like’ daughters as part of their identity,” she says. “Daughters are inextricably tied to our moms over a lifetime.”

Anyone else need a tissue? No, just me?

Working at Southern Living has given me a fun and endearing look into other mothers and daughters. Our readers and digital audience have always shown an incredible respect and love for their mothers and grandmothers (and rightfully so, of course). One of the first things women say to me when they find out where I work is, "My grandmother had a Southern Living subscription, and she gifted one to my mom, and my mom gifted one to me!" We've continually seen their enthusiasm for mother-daughter relationships over the years with pieces about passed-down recipes, and when we share a story about mother-daughter trip ideas, people immediately jump to the comments to tag their mamas.

I know talking about mothers can be difficult for so many. Not everyone is as lucky as me in that regard. But I hope that even if it’s not your birth mother, there is someone who you consider your built-in best friend like I do mine. Now about those tissues…

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