Lane Carsh of Walnut Creek, Calif., calls her daughter, Dawn, her biggest blessing. They are close, share the same wit and love of family. However, she is careful not to call Dawn her best friend. They tried that briefly when Dawn was 18, Lane says. They went shopping, dancing and talked about "everything." It didn't quite work.
"We would get into arguments like sisters," says Lane, 64. "It wasn't a good thing. A mother needs to have a certain amount of respect, but she has to earn it. How can you be the mother and the best friend?"
The relationship between mother and daughter is complicated. In some circles, there is an expectation that despite the parental connection, the two are also the closest of friends, especially these days, as many young women delay marriage and babies into their 30s.
It is that period of prolonged post-adolescence that has allowed some adult daughters to develop deep bonds with their mothers, according to Susan Morris Shaffer, co-author of "Too Close For Comfort: Questioning the Intimacy of Today's New Mother-Daughter Relationship" (Berkley). While closeness can be healthy and rewarding, she says it works only when parental boundaries are firmly in place.
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Without those boundaries, the enmeshment is so strong and suffocating that daughters don't get to express their independence and individuality, says psychologist Suzanne Dudeck.
"When you have a girl constantly seeking the approval of her mother, it impedes a maturation process that all of us have to go through," Dudeck says. "We want our moms to be there to hear us rather than act like our girlfriend where we're swapping the details of the story."
Shirley Jacks of Danville, Calif., and Jodina Ehle of Livermore have an example of how they maintained those boundaries. Jacks, 62, and Ehle, 29, have always considered each other a best friend. They are very much alike — down to their truthful nature and positive outlook on life — and have been particularly close since Ehle left for college.
"She would party with me and my roommates," Ehle recalls. "She was a friend to my friends. I got to see her true, fun self. But there was no fuzzy line. She had a balance between nurturing and protecting me. There were always high expectations and clear consequences."
And Ehle knew what they were. When she was 16, she took off for Santa Cruz with her girlfriends without telling her parents. When Jacks found out, she grounded her daughter for a month. Ehle challenged her mother.
"I thought you were my best friend," she said. "Don't kid yourself," Jacks responded. "I'm your mother first."
Mother, mentor, coach
After adolescence, however, the role of a mother should change to mentor and coach, says Morris Shaffer, executive director of the Maryland State Parental Information and Resource Center and a former educator.
What can make that challenging is that mothers now have a generation overlap — rather than a gap — with their daughters. Most of the women of Morris Shaffer's generation were married by their early 20s, so they didn't have time to go to yoga with their moms, she says.
"Now, we have much more in common with our daughters," she explains. "We went to college. We have jobs. We share popular culture. Thanks to technology, we have access to the same world. This creates an opportunity for closeness. It's a good thing as long as you value and respect each other's independence."
Morris Shaffer says daughters and mothers have to renegotiate the kind of relationship they want as adults.
"This generation is much more emotionally dependent," she says. "We were very indulgent with our children. We wanted everything to be perfect for them. We emphasized their emotional fulfillment over their financial independence. That's very different (from previous generations). But we need to do a better job of creating an objective distance. We want to be along on their journey. We just shouldn't control it."
The favorable archetype, Morris Shaffer says, is what she calls the Perfectly Imperfect Mother. She is realistic, flawed and allows her daughter to take risks and make her own decisions. Her role is to help her daughter adjust, cope and persevere, she says. The unhealthy mother, by contrast, still feels responsible for fixing everything, even when the daughter is grown up, she adds.
"Mothers feel responsible for their daughter's happiness, but when the impact is that the daughter feels she can't manage on her own, that's not good," Morris Shaffer says. "It is so important for us that our kids like us. But we really have to be mindful when it disables our daughters."
As a single mother, Kristin Anderson of Walnut Creek wants to raise her 13-year-old daughter, McKenna, with the tools to figure things out on her own, she says. It's tempting to be her daughter's friend, she adds, but she knows it's not her role.
"I want her to feel she can talk to me but I try to keep my personal life separate," says Anderson, 42. "She's not my confidante. That's a lot of responsibility for a teenage girl. I want to talk to her and laugh with her but even more so, I want her to have a best friend and many friends and places she can go that's not me. I'm not the end all."
Plus, Anderson adds, she likes having friends her own age.
"If you have a need to be your child's best friend, I think it says a lot about you," she says.