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Mothers, Daughters and Envy

I had a candid conversation with a friend recently. Christine, age 52, has a 15 year old daughter, Kaitlyn. Kaitlyn is becoming beautiful in a womanly way, but she really doesn’t know it yet. “She looks so fresh, her hair is silky and her skin glows… and men are looking at her!”, her mother says. Meanwhile, Christine laments that her own body is changing into that of a post-menopausal woman. Her skin loser, her face lined and she has put on weight around the middle. In a culture enamored with youth, it is challenging to be an aging woman. Add a teen or 20-something daughter into your life and emotions can get complicated.

Consider this: between 1970 and 2006 the proportion of first births to women aged 35 years and over increased nearly eight times. In waiting until later in life to have children, more and more mothers will be menopausal as their daughters grow into their sexuality and womanhood. So what? I believe this particular dynamic is making it more common for mothers to feel envious of their daughters. And I propose that this can create confusing and painful interactions between mothers and daughters, making already challenging relationships even harder.

Perhaps it doesn’t sound like a big deal to see your daughter turn heads while you deal with weight gain and chin hairs. Perhaps you see yourself as a psychologically developed, post-women’s-movement, modern day woman who knows that her true worth is not determined by physical appearance. But I can tell you that over and over, my female clients have confided in me that as they have aged, they feel a great sense of loss and grief – loss of social status, of power and yes, even self worth. The truth is that most of us have been acculturated to value our youth and attractiveness over other traits such as kindness, intelligence, creativity and so on. And many 40, 50 and 60 year old women struggle through a phase of feeling like they have become invisible to much of the outer world.

Meanwhile, teens and 20-somethings like Kaitlyn, capture the attention. They are the epitome of cultural attractiveness. The most sought after models in the US are, on average, about 21 years old. According to USA Today, the average runway model is 16 or 17 years old. The message is that this is what is desirable. It is only natural that envy is stirred.

Envy, in itself, is not a bad thing. It is a normal human emotion defined as “a longing to possess something awarded to or achieved by another”. Understandably, a mother may long for the youth her daughter possesses. When envious longing gets mixed up with resentment or anger, it becomes jealousy and can be acted out, often unconsciously, against the envied daughter. This is where it becomes a problem. This story from Christine: “I caught glimpse of myself in the mirror this morning, and registered ‘I have got to do something about this mousey hair. And my neck…’ Fortunately, I couldn’t see my thighs. Then I’m making breakfast and Kaitlyn saunters in. Her hair smells like flowers and swishes perfectly. Her eyes are bright, her belly is flat and her skinny jeans are, well, skinny. Without thinking about it, I grumble and say, ‘Are you really wearing those jeans again? Aren’t they getting a little small?’ She looked humiliated, then angry. And for a moment, I gloated inside, pleased to have knocked her down. Then I felt ashamed. It was just mean of me.”

Christine’s words “aren’t those jeans getting a little small?” were not just a comment about Kaitlyn’s jean size. It was a criticism. A mother’s unchecked envy becomes an attack on the daughter’s sense of worth and her emerging sexuality. Watch for the meaning underneath your words. My teenage clients often talk to me about how confusing it is to get so much attention for being sexy and attractive, then to be called a slut and told that they look cheap. A mother’s own mixed feelings about her daughter’s budding sexuality adds more confusion.

What can a mother do?

When so many women are struggling with their own body image and sense of worth, it is challenging to know how to teach daughters something else. I believe it is critical to start with your own self reflection. Consider your attitude toward your own body, sexuality, strengths, limitations, and aging. If you don’t like the way you talk to yourself, begin exploring the concept of self acceptance. If you can learn to do this, you can then teach your daughter to do the same. Perhaps you can even teach her to embrace all of who she is and who she is becoming – physically, sexually, emotionally, and socially.

Recognize the need to accept your own aging.

Teach her to love her body by loving your own.

Watch for feelings of envy.

If you say something shaming, apologize.

Celebrate your daughter’s development with her.

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