Constructing Motherhood and Daughterhood Across the Lifespan

by Allison M. Alford (Volume editor) Michelle Miller-Day (Volume editor)
Textbook XVIII, 374 Pages

Table Of Content

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Tables AND Figure


Table 5.1. Daughters’ Perceptions of Types of Turning Points in the Mother-Daughter Relationship.

Table 7.1. Ritual Type and Frequency.

Table 7.2. Frequency of Birth Family Member in Ritual.

Table 11.1. Descriptive Statistics for Predictors of Married Daughters’ Openness with Mothers.

Table 21.1. Sample Semester Schedule—15 Weeks.

Table 21.2. Sample Quarter Schedule—10 Weks.


Figure 19.1. Major Characters in the Narratives.

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Preface from THE Series Editor


Old Dominion University

In Constructing Motherhood and Daughterhood Across the Lifespan, Allison M. Alford and Michelle Miller-Day elegantly remind us that all communication is developmental and unfolds across the entire human lifespan. As a developmental and lifespan phenomenon, each and every communication transaction builds upon what has come before in order to create what is to come. In the unfolding narratives of mothers and daughters, like all family relationships, the heart and soul of “family” lives, literally, in the stories of our lives. In particular, Alford and Miller-Day’s volume sends a clarion call that in the course of human history mother-daughter narratives are a primary, central, and powerful force in human development. They and their team of accomplished authors have assembled a most excellent overview of the various aspects of this important genre of family discourse. Peter Lang’s Lifespan Communication: Children, Families and Aging series seeks to illuminate significant aspects of human communication development, and certainly mother-daughter communication is among life’s most significant aspects of communication. To understand human development and to empower families, the discourses of all of society’s primary forces is needed. The volume is a must-read for those in family communication, family studies, women’s studies, gender studies, as well as human psychological, sociological, and communicative development. Like all volumes in this series, and indeed all the volumes published by Peter Lang Publishing, this volume showcases world-class scholars sharing cutting-edge scholarly work for the benefit of us all.

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We would like to acknowledge the carefully cultivated contributions from our many authors and the participants in their research that made this manuscript possible.

Thanks to our respective departments for generously supporting the time and travel allocated to this project.

Thank you to Tom Socha for believing in this work and graciously allowing us to join his growing anthology. We are honored that our work is available alongside the many terrific texts in the Lifespan series which highlight the essential features of communication in families.

Thank you to our reviewers who gave critical feedback that surely made this manuscript better.

And thank you to our partners, whose unconditional support provides the platform from which we take big leaps.

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The Social Construction OF Motherhood AND Daughterhood

Clever men create themselves, but clever women are created by their mothers. Women can never quite escape their mothers’ cosmic pull, not their lip-biting expectations or their faulty love. We want to please our mothers, emulate them, disgrace them, outrage them, and bury ourselves in the mysteries and consolations of their presence. When my mother and I are in the same room we work magic on each other … It’s my belief that between mothers and daughters there is a kind of blood-hyphen that is, finally, indissoluble.

—SHIELDS (1987, P. 127)


Shields, C. (1987). Swann. New York, NY: Viking Press.

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The social construction of motherhood has been well-documented for years (e.g., Heisler & Ellis, 2008; Ruddick & Daniels, 1977; Tardy, 2000). Media representations of maternal relationships have constructed an array of complex and contradictory messages about mothering girls, promoting archetypes of “best friends” or “sacrificial mothers” while creating social norms and expectations for how women should enact these roles and perform their relationships (Walters, 1992). Tardy (2000) argues that over time, the construction of motherhood in public and private spheres has led women to feel an exorbitant amount of guilt and blame that can ultimately affect their opportunities and choices. The ideology of motherhood is powerful in shaping the lives of women over the lifespan (Cowdery & Knudson-Martin, 2005).

In contrast to motherhood, there is less research on the social construction of daughterhood (Baruch & Barnett, 1983; Hampton, 1997; Korolczuk, 2010). Daughters are often relegated to a passive, backseat role, while mothers are “semantically overburdened” in their role (Walters, 1992, p. 10), or as van Mens-Verhulst ← 3 | 4 → (1995) describes it, our language is missing a verb: “to daughter” (p. 531). What it means to be a mother or daughter is cobbled together “not only through the exigencies of family life, economic survival, and social policies, but through the systems of representation and cultural production that help give shape and meaning to that relationship” (Walters, 1992, p. 10).

As communication scholars, we believe that mother and daughter identities and roles are socially and communicatively constructed over the life course (Braithwaite, Foster, & Bergen, 2017). Relational connection between mothers and daughters is characterized, above all, by communication (Jordan, 1993). Women describe communication as the prime source of establishing their relational identity with their mother or daughter (Mann, 1998) and it is through “mutually responsive communication that mothers and daughters establish patterns of relational communication that link them to one another, shaping each woman’s sense of self” (Miller-Day, 2004, p. 10). Indeed, mothers, daughters, daughters who become mothers, and mothers who become grandmothers are women co-authoring their lives across the life course, co-authoring personal stories within the context of the mother-daughter relationship.

This book will explore what it means to be a mother and daughter across the lifespan in Western society and how both parties navigate, respond to, and negotiate cultural and familial discourses defining motherhood and daughterhood. The book will address the following questions:


The idea for this book was born out of discussions with a group of mother-daughter communication scholars who recognized the need to answer the above questions. In early 2015, on a whim, Allison reached out to the very best mother-daughter communication scholars whose work she admired, and the group agreed to present a panel on mother-daughter communication scholarship at the 2015 National Communication Association conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. That is where Allison and Michelle finally met in person. We both agreed that the best way to promote this important work and to encourage other educators to lead courses on mother-daughter communication would be to create a compilation of the emerging mother-daughter communication scholarship. Our backgrounds, though different, have led us both to pursue this area of study.

I (Allison) was raised by a mother who became a marriage and family therapist during my adolescence. I like to say that I was raised talking about talking. Indeed, my conversations with my mother have always been about more than facts; we discuss the tone of what was said, the intentions of saying it, and the ramifications of the communication. It took well into my adult years to realize that other mothers and daughters don’t dissect their talk in this way. And while my mother and I have an undeniable connection, and in general I tend to focus on the positives, I cannot help but notice that there are days (sometimes months) where we have a B+ relationship at best. That garden won’t tend itself; I must work diligently to keep it growing. As a mother of a son and daughter, my studies on relationships have transformed the way I raise my little people. Learning more about social construction, I quickly realized that I must plant messages before the world does, and I must carefully tend to the ideas that I want to take root. Spurred by my love of talk and fascination with relationships, I returned to graduate school with the goal of learning more about these complexities and the desire to share that knowledge in an accessible way. The result is this book.

I (Michelle) am both a mother and a daughter; I have been a stepmother to a stepdaughter; and I am currently the mother of two biological sons. These multiple roles have colored how I view the world and have influenced my scholarship. I first became interested in studying mother-daughter communication when I wrote a play on the topic. To write the play I interviewed more than 100 women about their mother-daughter relationships and the stories that emerged from those interviews provided insight into broader relational processes, highlighting the centrality of communication in managing, maintaining, and repairing relationships across the lifespan. In 2004, I published a book titled Communication among Grandmothers, Mothers and Adult Daughters: A Qualitative Study of Maternal Relationships (Miller-Day). I soon discovered that people were hungry for this information. While research on mother-daughter relationships existed in the disciplines of ← 5 | 6 → psychology and women’s studies, it was virtually non-existent in the discipline of communication. Since that time, I have continued my scholarly interest in the topic of mother-daughter communication; but, it was not until recently that felt—in a visceral way—the importance of the topic. In 2017 my mother passed away and I am now a motherless daughter. I look at what I have written in the past and what I write in this current volume and I can see clearly how much my communication with my mother over the years has created who I am as a person now.

These backgrounds are part of what shaped and molded us into the mothers, daughters, and researchers we are today. The topic is important to mothers, daughters, and anyone who has a female in their life. We are excited to bring you a book that provides insights for readers into salient topics central to understanding mother-daughter communication across the lifespan.


For ease of reading, you will find that all chapters in the book have been organized similarly. Toward the end of every chapter you will find the heading What does all this mean? Here the authors have synthesized the materials from the chapter into reader-friendly concepts. Following this, you will see a bulleted list labeled What do we still need to know? This section describes future directions that scholars indicate we need to explore. You will also see the bulleted list How does this work in real life? which describes application of the ideas in the chapter to relationships in real life. Each chapter ends with a section recommending ideas for Classroom Activities, suggesting discussion questions, class activities, and projects to reinforce learning from the chapter. The intention of this volume is to make information accessible and allow readers to put results of scientific research into practice in their everyday lives.


This book is organized into three parts. The first part, introduces readers to the concept of social constructionism and the social construction of social roles, reviewing literature on the social construction of motherhood, daughterhood, and cultural constructions through media. The second part is the majority of the book and it addresses a number of topics that scholars are currently studying in the area of mother-daughter communication, from pregnancy and maternal identity to end-of-life communication. Finally, the third part of the book is comprised of a single chapter that is intended to equip a course instructor to design and teach a course focusing on mother-daughter communication. ← 6 | 7 →

Part One: The Social Construction of Motherhood and Daughterhood

Chapter 2 explores the role of adult daughters in relationship with their mothers. Alford looks at social construction as daughter’s work and asks us to think about the value of daughtering to a mother and to society. While motherhood has received the lion’s share of attention in our scholarly literature, she asks us to consider where ideas about daughtering come from and explores the nature of daughterhood, or shared daughtering experience. Of note is a discussion of role performance as labor; for example, the emotional, love, mental, and kinkeeping effort that goes into daughter work.

In Chapter 3 motherhood and mothering are discussed from a social constructionist perspective. Frameworks and definitions are provided for motherhood and mothering, questioning the origins of these concepts. Alford describes how roles are communicatively constructed and points us to consider our views on birth mothers, social mothers, and caregiving mothers. In addition, she calls attention to the concept of mothering as valuable work product (labor) and explores how our valuation of mothers’ work lays a foundation for the labels we use to discuss it. Mothering styles such as tiger mother, bad mom, and free-range parent are explored, along with a discussion of good enough mothering. As you read, consider if daughtering is parallel to mothering? Can we distinguish between the characteristics of each and is it necessary to do so?

In Chapter 4, you will find a discussion of media representations of mothers and daughters from the 1950’s to 2017. Miller-Day, Tukachinsky, and Jacobs explore how media representations help give shape and meaning to the mother-daughter relationship. Media such as television and film provide societal cues for performing the roles of mother and daughter, while also socially constructing ideals. The authors point out that motherhood, daughterhood, mothering, daughtering and their meanings are not fixed nor inevitable. They convince us that seeing a woman outside her role of mother is an important stepping stone in making progress for women who may embrace several identities in their lifetime.

Chapter 5 is the final chapter in this section and it uncovers a variety of relational turning points in the mother-daughter relationship. Miller-Day discusses how memorable events between mothers and daughters over the life course can trigger an increase or decrease of intimacy in the relationship. These memorable moments, or turning points, signal a change in the status quo of the mother-daughter relationship. This chapter takes us through the most common types of relational turning points and provides an in-depth discussion of the role of social support as a turning point. Miller-Day found that both emotional and tangible forms of social support were most likely to serve as a relational turning point for daughters. It is important for both mothers and daughters to remember that social support communication is key to maintaining strong bonds. Daughters feel closer ← 7 | 8 → to their mothers when mothers talk with them, listen to them, and are present for them during hardship. Equally, daughters feel closer to mothers when they can reciprocate and provide emotional and tangible support to their mothers.

Part Two: Enacting the Mother-Daughter Relationship over the Lifespan

In Chapter 6, Lawler describes the intersection of pregnancy and disability. She reveals how women with disabilities have constructed a view of self since childhood, particularly incorporating messages from their mothers. Through their support, women with disabilities may create positive disability identities, which incorporate their disability but do not view it as a hinderance to a good life. Later, when she becomes a mother, a woman’s view of self can enhance her experience of pregnancy. Though there are many hurdles and communication challenges from those who see her as incapable, a woman with a disability can advocate for herself to be seen as independent and capable, rather than being seen as secondary to her disability. Lawler calls for us to question how we see ourselves and others related to our abilities, especially in relation to mothering.

In Chapter 7, Colaner, Horstman, and Butauski apply critical feminist theory to the topic of adoptive mothers’ ritual communication. They describe how family rituals honor past, present, and future, creating a valuable base for families to communicate about events, create family identity, and generate a sense of home. These rituals are particularly valuable for keeping a birth family connected to the life of their biological child who was adopted into another family. The work of rituals serves as relational maintenance, and can often be invisible, so is therefore undervalued for the effort it takes. Done primarily by adoptive mothers, this work, on behalf of an adopted child, is a unique aspect of mothering labor.

Chapter 8 dives deep into the topics of sex and sexuality, describing how these are communicated between mothers and daughters over a life course. Both conversations and silence are key forms of communication in family talk patterns, which is the primary site for sex education. Faulkner and Watson reveal the use of “metaphoric boundaries” in sexual discussions to mitigate risk and embarrassment. Additionally, they urge families to communicate both positive and negative information about sex and sexuality for the best outcomes related to health and healthy relationships. Daughters engaged in open conversations, the authors found, when their mothers offered reciprocal relationships, but remained quiet when there was a family pattern of ignorance, fear, or silence. Additionally, the authors explore how communication about sex may change as both mothers and daughters age. The unique relationship between mothers and daughters makes this an important space for disclosing personal details.

Continuing this discussion of health, Chapter 9 explores how mothers and adolescent daughters communicate about HPV, sexual health, and HPV vaccination. ← 8 | 9 → Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. affecting approximately one in four Americans throughout their lifetime. In this chapter Hopfer, Duong, and Garcia provide a thorough review of the research literature and discuss how mother-daughter conversations play an important role in the decision to vaccinate adolescents against this disease. Valuable insights for providers and mothers of adolescents are offered.

Chapter 10 begins the discussion of later adolescence and emerging adulthood. Emerging adults are those entering adulthood and often move away from home for college, a job, or a relationship. If you are a student, we ask you to grab your cell phone and look at your recent calls. When’s the last time you phoned mom? Or maybe you texted instead. Meadows and Harrigan discuss the various technological methods daughters use to communicate with their moms. Especially in situations where daughters are geographically distant from their mothers, technology becomes increasingly important. Coupling the many changes occurring in a daughter’s life during emerging adulthood with the increased geographic separation requires a renegotiation of communication methods. In order to explore how daughters use technology to communicate with their mothers and share (or conceal) private information, the authors report the results of their study investigating adult daughters’ choices when conveying information to their moms. They found that daughters who reported less everyday talk with their mothers had a greater perception of positivity about the mother-daughter relationship and reported less conflict.

Chapter 11 explores the mother-daughter relationship once the daughter is married. As daughters age and experience many changes in life, many will marry and thus experience changes in the relationship with their mother. This chapter examines closeness and distance in the mother-married adult daughter relationship. As daughters age, they experience a tension between having both a friendship and a parent-child relationship with mothers. Miller-Ott discusses the negotiation needed to manage that tension. She found that when mothers try to cross into the “friend zone” with daughters, and share information daughters feel is inappropriate or too friend-like, daughters report more distance. Additionally, after marriage, adult daughters in this study reported concern with mothers’ reactions to any shared information about their marriage or family life. Daughters reported being afraid of mothers’ unhelpful feedback and the possibility of promoting negative perceptions of their spouse. The chapter addresses the slippery slope of calling our mothers our friends.

Speaking of calling your mom, Miller-Ott and Kelly in Chapter 12 examine the preferred technology for communication between mothers and daughters. Not surprisingly, use of technology can be frustrating and cause some conflict. However, it is also a useful tool to maintain connection. With technological advances, there are many media for mothers and daughters to choose from. In their study, Miller-Ott and Kelly asked both daughters and mothers to report on preferred ← 9 | 10 → method of communication and describe the best and worst aspects of communicating via technology. They found that mothers and daughters seem to have a love-hate relationship with using technology to communicate with one other, and these opposing feelings seem to relate to autonomy and connection. Tension arose around perceptions of the benefits of constant contact versus uninhibited access.

In Chapter 13, Kellas, Holman, and Flood detail the many ways storytelling is at the heart of families and the mother-daughter relationship. Families tell stories to socialize one another to the beliefs, values, and norms that come to guide daily life, creating meaning-making maps of their shared relationship terrain. The authors conducted a study exploring meanings, values, and beliefs mothers pass onto their daughters about relationships and love in the stories they tell. Using the backdrop of mother-daughter shared connection and talk, the authors revealed the importance of mothers’ messages about love in the lives of their adult daughters.

Continuing along the life course, Chapter 14 explores daughters’ perceptions of their full-time working mothers in the United States and South Korea. Harrigan, Hosek, and Yang argue that ideas about motherhood in general and about effective mothering, in particular, are socially constructed through discourse. How daughters make sense of and evaluate their mothers could affect how the daughters enact the role of a mother, when they become mothers. The authors examine the identity construction of working mothers through the talk of their daughters and the role of culture in discussions of mothering. Through original research, the authors show how daughters’ talk about their mothers may impact how mothers see themselves. Whether daughters realize it or not, the things they say have an impact on their mothers. Talk about mothering may also impact how daughters behave in the future when they themselves become mothers. Notably, the authors report a great deal of positivity and pride when daughters’ talk about their working mothers.

In Chapter 15, Rittenour and Odenweller explore the underbelly of mothering, enumerating the challenges and complexities of this role. Social expectations can sometimes crush mothers in their paths. Many women combat these tensions by cultivating a feminist identity in themselves and their daughters. With this in mind, it is possible to fight against the Mommy Wars that divide mothers and see the underlying causes of the divisiveness. The authors review previous research and discuss how generativity and support networks enhance the experience of mothering.

Chapter 16 explores mother-daughter communication and health, specifically within the experience of breast cancer. Fisher and Wolf discuss a script of responsible womanhood that represents a blend of social discourses that inform family members’ expectations of the “right” way for mothers to cope with a breast cancer diagnosis. The authors show that the ways women react to—and fight—breast cancer are tied to greater social expectations of womanhood. Though it may surprise you to learn that even illnesses are subject to gendered ideologies, it is at the heart of breast cancer battles because this disease is so inherently feminine. The ← 10 | 11 → authors thoughtfully provide lessons learned from their research and offer potential responses for each.

In Chapter 17, Seurer explores the complexities and subtleties of communicating about mental health within the mother-daughter dyad. The chapter reveals how daughters of mothers with depression come to understand the meaning of depression and subsequently the meaning of motherhood. Through a discussion of struggles found in her study, the author takes a nuanced look at how notions of motherhood intertwine with embedded social ideologies. The author takes a look at ways the problem and the person can be disentangled, creating more supportive family relationships.

Even for those who have lost mothers, the identity of a daughter still beats inside her. In Chapter 18, Miller-Day and Grainger explore what it means to be a motherless daughter. Maternal loss is something experienced by most women as they age and out-live their parents. The authors examine digital messages shared by motherless daughters on Mother’s Day. Findings of this study suggest that while daughters post several different kinds of messages to help cope with a difficult holiday for them, the ties that bind mother and daughter are enduring, even past a mother’s death.

Though death is a challenging topic to explore, in Chapter 19 the authors allow us a personal view inside the difficult, but necessary, conversations mothers and daughters may have leading up to death. Whereas, in Chapter 20, Keeley, Lee, and Generous take us to the end of a mother’s life and explore final conversations (FCs) at the end of life (EOL). In their interviews with adult daughters’ who had these FCs with their mothers, the authors found six themes of FCs revealing that, while challenges exist, FCs leave adult daughters with lasting gifts from their departed mothers.

Part Three: Moving Forward to Develop Mother-Daughter Communication Courses

The third part of this book is a single chapter providing a guide for developing a mother-daughter communication course. With course instructors in mind, Miller-Day provides a sample course description, objectives, sample course outlines, weekly topics with accompanying readings from this text, and suggested course assignments.


Each of the following chapters has a section titled What do we still need to know? These sections point out future directions for research and ideas for future scholars ← 11 | 12 → to pursue. These recommendations mirror our own suggestions for future research directions including the need to examine the role of culture and diversity in motherhood and daughterhood, additional attention to the dark side of mother-daughter communication, increased attention to different developmental periods of the mother-daughter relationship across the lifespan, and the need for communication theory and clearly defined measures in mother-daughter communication research.

In soliciting chapters for this book, we approached male and female scholars from a variety of cultural backgrounds, inside the United States and outside, able bodied and disabled, and who study various family forms such as foster families, single-parent families, and blended families. Yet, the chapters in this volume are by and large not highly diverse. Happily, there are several exceptions including Lawler’s chapter on disability and pregnancy, and Harrigan, Hosek, and Yang’s chapter on discursive constructions of full-time working mothers from both American and South Korean daughters. Yet these authors also point out the need for more multicultural and multinational research attention to examine the role of culture in motherhood and daughterhood. Additionally, diverse perspectives are needed on the variety of family forms that exist, including but not restricted to multigenerational grandmother-mother-daughter relationships, mother-daughter communication in single, blended, and foster family forms.

Much of the mother-daughter communication research that exists tends to presume relational positivity and relational satisfaction between mothers and daughters. Scholars are encouraged to continue these investigations on communication to develop and maintain high levels of mother-daughter relational quality; yet, additional work is sorely needed on the darkside of mother-daughter communication. The research in many of these chapters point out that emotional distance, maternal criticism, conflict, familial obligations and expectations negatively impact relational quality. More research is needed to further examine imbalanced family systems, estranged mother-daughter relationships, and mother-daughter communication as a potential risk factor for negative physical and mental health outcomes. This also requires scholars to examine the darkside of mother-daughter communication across the life course.

There is still a great need to examine mother-daughter communication over the lifespan. As pointed out elsewhere in Socha and Punyanunt-Carter (in press), Miller-Day, Pezalla, and Chesnut (2013), Socha and Yingling (2010), children have occupied a marginal status in the field of human communication studies. We believe that truly taking a lifespan approach involves investigating the communicative experiences of children and adolescents along with emerging adults, mid-life adults, and older adults. This, of course, introduces complications with research ethics but we encourage communication scholars to join our colleagues in psychology, family studies and other disciplines who regularly include children’s development in their areas of inquiry. Communication is central to ← 12 | 13 → mother-daughter bonding, nurturing, discipline, and socialization, investigating emotional neglect and physical punishment are all issues that can be addressed by communication scholars. While there is growing research on mother-emerging and young adult daughters, research on newly married daughters such as that conducted in the chapter by Miller-Ott is still needed. What is the role mother-daughter communication plays in fertility and pregnancy decisions, decisions to divorce, family system adaptation once a daughter starts her own family, and relational maintenance using technology? Mid-life is a time when daughters and mothers may experience emotional distance and unexpected stress (Miller-Day, 2004). Research efforts are needed to examine how the relationship is recalibrated in mid-life to withstand this stress, especially if mothers are “sandwiched” between the needs of her daughter and her own mother. Lastly, as Faulkner and Watson point out in their chapter, there is a necessity to know more about women’s sexuality and sexual health in later life and the role that daughters play in that sphere of her mother’s world.

Finally, all future research endeavors would be well served to closely consider the theories guiding mother-daughter communication research and the clarity of definitions used when conducting that research. As Alford points out in her chapter on daughterhood, we have not had the language to describe the relational work conducted by daughters in the mother-daughter relationship until now. Our eyes have previously been focused on motherhood and mothering. It may require formative, qualitative research to explore daughtering more fully before operationalizing this as a construct. Yet, we believe that scholars should look closely at the theories being used to guide mother-daughter communication research or test hypotheses. Are those theories being borrowed from other disciplines? Are family communication and interpersonal communication theories sufficient to explain and predict what occurs in mother-daughter communication or should new theories be developed to extend our knowledge? These are all ideas, recommendations, and hopes for scholars conducting future research in the area of mother-daughter communication. We are excited to see what you can accomplish!


All told, Constructing Motherhood and Daughterhood Across the Lifespan is designed to build upon the publications of a range of scholars doing work in this area. This book takes up where these authors’ current published manuscripts leave off, synthesizing this body of work and moving in new directions, and linking this work to theories and concepts central to the understanding of relationships across the lifespan. Moreover, in addition to its focus on the mother-daughter relationship, we are hopeful that this book contributes substantially to an understanding of ← 13 | 14 → broad relationship processes. For theorists, therapists, and the rest of us, this theme is of immense significance.


Baruch, G., & Barnett, R. C. (1983). Adult daughters’ relationships with their mothers. Journal of Marriage and Family, 45(3), 601–606. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/351664

Braithwaite, D. O., Foster, E., & Bergen, K. M. (2017). Social construction theory: Communication co-creating families. In D. O. Braithwaite & L. A. Baxter’s (Eds.), Engaging theories in family communication: Multiple perspectives (pp. 267–278). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Cowdery, R. S., & Knudson-Martin, C. (2005). The construction of motherhood: Tasks, relational connection, and gender equality. Family Relations, 54(3), 335–345. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2005.00321.x

Hampton, M. R. (1997). Adopted women give birth: Connection between women and matrilineal continuity. Feminism & Psychology, 7(1), 83–106. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959353597071011

Heisler, J. M., & Ellis, J. B. (2008). Motherhood and the construction of “mommy identity”:

Messages about motherhood and face negotiation. Communication Quarterly, 56(4), 445–467. doi: 10.1080/01463370802448246

Jordan, J. (1993). The relational self: A model of women’s development. In J. van Mens-Verhulst, K. Schreurs, & L. Woertman (Eds.), Daughtering and mothering: Female subjectivity reanalysed (pp. 135–144). New York, NY: Routledge.

Korolczuk, E. (2010). The social construction of motherhood and daughterhood in contemporary

Poland—a trans-generational perspective. Polish Sociological Review, 172(4), 467–485. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41275175

Mann, C. (1998). The impact of working-class mothers on the educational success of their adolescent daughters at a time of social change. British Journal of Sociology Education, 19(2), 211–226.

Miller-Day, M. (2004). Communication among grandmothers, mothers, and adult daughters: A qualitative study of maternal relationships. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Miller-Day, M., Pezalla, A., & Chesnut, R. (2013). Children are in families too! The presence of children in communication research. Journal of Family Communication, 13(2), 150–165.

Ruddick, S., & Daniels, P. (1977). Working it out. New York, NY: Pantheon.

Socha, T. J., & Punyanunt-Carter, N. (Eds.). (in press). Children’s communication sourcebook: Managing legacy and potential. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Socha, T. J., & Yingling, J. (2010). Families communicating with children. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Tardy, R. W. (2000). “But I am a good mom”: The social construction of motherhood through health-care conversations. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 29(4), 433–473. https://doi.org/10.1177/089124100129023963

van Mens-Verhulst, J. (1995). Reinventing the mother-daughter relationship. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 49(4), 526–538. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.1995.49.4.526

Walters, S. D. (1992). Lives together, worlds apart: Mothers and daughters in popular culture. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

* Allison M. Alford, clinical assistant professor, Baylor University, allison_alford@baylor.edu.

Michelle Miller-Day, professor, Chapman University, millerda@chapman.edu.

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Daughtering AND Daughterhood

Adult Daughters in Communication with Their Mothers


I recently met my mom for lunch at a favorite spot where we routinely split a burger and the check. We laugh with each other, catch up on happenings in our lives, discuss various family members (such as my kids or my dad) and reconnect. Doesn’t that sound idyllic? In addition to these lovely things, I usually fix some settings on her phone, bite my tongue about a strange recommendation she has for my career, probe for medical updates and suggest healthy substitutions, respectfully listen to advice about parenting (it’s 50/50 whether I put it into practice), and one or both of us says, “It is so frustrating when you do that to me” or “Let’s not get into this today.” Sound familiar? Adult daughters have relationships with their mothers that are complex, beautiful, and frustrating; like other close relationships, this one is not immune to difficulties. Despite these convoluted issues, by and large, adult daughters find the relationship with their mothers to be valuable, imbuing it with meaning and sometimes angst. Whether or not you, reader, are an adult daughter, I bet this sounds familiar if you’ve seen mothers and their adult daughters in action.

The most enjoyable people in our lives require an investment of our time and energy and often require that we make sacrifices to keep the relationship going. Whether it’s our romantic partner, friend, child, or boss, we get out of a relationship what we put into it. However, for too long the mother-daughter relationship has ← 15 | 16 → been thought of in two categorically different ways—imagined as either a perfect pair who never argue or as bitter opponents. Do either of these characterizations describe the mother-daughter pairs in your life? It’s more likely that the mothers and daughters you’re picturing fall somewhere along a continuum between the two extremes of bliss and brokenness. Why don’t we see more examples of mother-daughter relationships that fall between the two extremes in contemporary media and scholarship? Although more attention has been paid in recent decades to the mother-adult daughter relationship across a variety of disciplines (e.g., Fingerman, 2001; Fischer, 1986; Fisher, 2010; Miller-Day, 2004; Scharlach, 1987; Schwarz, 2006), it remains an area ripe for further inquiry (Shrier, Tompsett, & Shrier, 2004).

As investigations of the mother-daughter relationship grow in number, our knowledge base expands, and we gather a complete picture of the intricacies of communication between mothers and daughters in adulthood. However, despite the increased attention to this family dyad, there remains a lack of attention paid specifically to the adult daughter’s role—not as one-half of a dyad—but as an individual. Relatively few studies foreground adult daughters’ experiences over mothers’ experiences. Rather, studies sampling adult daughter populations tend to solicit data on dyadic relational interactions, with this commonly resulting in more discussion dedicated to mothers’ past experiences and future outcomes than daughters’. The findings of these studies tend to provide us with information about the mother or about interactions between mother and daughter, rather than a sharp focus on daughters’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Contemporary scholarship about mother-daughter communication is still lacking investigation of daughters’ communication and their lived experiences in the mother-daughter relationships. I propose that it is time for a shift in the way scholars investigate daughters within families.

Consider the many investigations of mothers’ experiences of mothering which have resulted in data and recommendations for improved experiences of mothering, wellbeing, and role satisfaction (See for example, Arendell, 2000; Chodorow, 1999; O’Reilly, 2010; Ruddick, 1995). If daughters’ experiences are as salient as mothers’, scholars must first match the template for investigating daughters to the same employed for investigating mothers. Then we can begin to offer the best, most practical solutions to improve adult daughters’ everyday lives.

To be clear, the robust and ongoing investigations of mothers and daughters contribute a wealth of information about mother-daughter dyads, as you will read in the following chapters. However, when scholarship focuses primarily on the mother’s value-add, we miss a crucial component in our understanding of family roles when we deny daughters leading-lady status as an agentic member of the relationship. Much of what you may hear, see, or read (in scholarly or popular works) present daughters as vessels ready to be filled by their mothers; we think ← 16 | 17 → of daughters as waiting around, reacting to mothering when it crops up. Likewise, many portrayals of daughters nurturing their mothers rely on caricatures of the perfect daughter or the disgruntled daughter, leaving little room for common, humdrum daughtering. In this chapter, I offer some alternative ways to consider the daughter role and suggest preliminary definitions for the communicative behaviors that daughters demonstrate. Because these are nascent ideas, I solicit feedback to add, shape, change, and test these definitions to ameliorate and expand existing notions of daughtering.


Imagine a 30-year-old daughter’s cell phone rings, she looks down and sees that it is her mother. In your mind’s eye, how does she react? Personally, when I see my mom’s name I might be curious (Oh, what’s up with her today?), concerned (Uh oh, what’s wrong?), dismissive (Well she can wait until I call her back later), or happy (Aww, it’s so nice of her to reach out to me)—Yes, these are all MY reactions to MY mom at various times. When I answer that call, I am prepared to contribute to an interaction, but first I think about ME. What am I willing to give to this person today? I imagine that, when receiving calls, you do that too. Whether it be a call from your mom or your friend, you must assess what you’re willing to give of yourself to that conversation before you pick up the phone (or ignore the call). When a friend is on the line, these giving behaviors are called “friendship.” If a child, partner, or boss is calling, you might be performing “parenting,” “loving,” or “working.” Thus far, there’s no adequate word for what a daughter is doing when interacting with her mother.

The first to state the need for new verbiage was van Mens-Verhulst (1995), who said that the language we use is missing the verb: “to daughter” (p. 531). Over the past two decades, some scholars have begun to take up her request and use descriptors like “to daughter” or its accompanying form of “daughtering” when describing behaviors daughters enact. But, what is that? The current go-to word for those who are caretaking others is “mothering” (whether male or female, older or younger relational partner)! Lucy Rose Fischer, who was in the vanguard of mother-daughter scholars (1986) said that behaviors enacted by daughters and mothers toward each other that showed reciprocal responsibility were “mutual mothering” (p. 58). This term has proliferated and leads a frustrating neglect toward daughters’ role participation.

Co-opting the behavioral term associated with the mothering role continues the cycle of subordinating daughters’ experiences to mothers’. Daughters, then, have no label for the behaviors they enact or the ways they put effort toward relationships with their mothers. Daughters have been relegated to a passive, backseat ← 17 | 18 → role, while mothers are “semantically overburdened” in their role (Walters, 1992, p. 10). What’s more, when we use the word “mothering” for other role descriptors, we oversaturate and therefore devalue, this descriptive as well.

Toward the goal of agreement on the nature of adult daughter behaviors, I propose the following description for the term daughtering, which highlights the many behaviors an adult daughter employs in the relationship with her mother.

This description illustrates the many ways daughters perform their roles and portrays the active enactment of the adult daughter role. Daughtering, used as a verb to describe the behaviors enacted by a woman in the adult daughter role, is a crucial element that we have been missing in descriptions of the adult daughter role and which ties together the various behaviors and labors of this role. The true value of this description will be revealed through future testing and evaluation of it in research studies. The advantage of outlining daughtering—naming, labeling, and outlining the role—adds to our overall understanding of the place of an adult daughter within a social system (Galvin, 2006). This term provides a way for us to discuss the many ways women can daughter their mothers.

As individuals, there are many roles that we play in our families and relationships and we do not often take the time to consider and evaluate these roles carefully. We occasionally spend some time thinking about our contributions to our relationships and imagine how we can do more or do better. For example, we sometimes think of ourselves as friends and ponder what it means to be a friend and subsequently attempt to be a good friend to others. We evaluate ourselves as romantic partners and put thought into bettering ourselves for our partners. We may have also thought about the ways we want to be good parents (now or in the future). When relationships are important to us, we put energy into them. However, do you know any women who talk to their friends about their efforts to daughter their mothers? Do you know of a daughter who asks her mother if she is daughtering her well enough or do you know of a mother who gives unsolicited ← 18 | 19 → kudos to her daughter for her excellent daughtering efforts? If these questions leave you scratching your head, you’re not alone. It’s clear that we are leaving a topic out of our conversations and have forgotten to notice a vital role that women play: daughter.

The description of daughtering I present above emerged from my qualitative investigations of mothers and daughters (Alford, 2016). After obtaining permission from the Internal Review Board (IRB), I interviewed women aged 25–45, with a living and healthy mother aged 70 or younger, where daughters were asked to talk about themselves and their role as an adult daughter. Participants completed both an information sheet and IRB study agreement form at the outset of the study. For confidentiality, all names and identifying information for participants has been changed in this discussion. Exploratory objectives of this study included discovering what daughters say about the adult daughter role and identifying the everyday role behaviors that constitute daughtering in the mother-daughter relationship once they reached adulthood. To better understand the role of adult daughter in these interviews, women were asked not only to discuss the nature of their relationships with their mothers and how they communicate but to discuss the nature of the role itself.

The questions and topics that arose in these discussions surprised many of the daughters interviewed. While they anticipated discussing their mothers, when asked to think about themselves and their communication in the relationship, many women began thinking about the relationship in a whole new light. For most of us, a social label we identify with is “daughter”; but we often fail to consider how “daughter” is also a role that we play. Thanks to the insightfulness of those interviewed, together we co-constructed a preliminary description of the essence of daughtering, including emotions associated with daughtering, and assumptions about what it means to be an adult daughter. The experience of daughtering has some commonalities.

Building on those early interviews, I have continued to ask women about daughtering. At first, an interviewee may experience some awkwardness or confusion, thinking about what actions she performs and realizing that I am asking her to be vulnerable and open up to talk about herself. As daughters become accustomed to this shift in the thinking, they also experience a frustrating inability to precisely describe their daughtering actions; instead of demonstrating their points, daughters often resort to borrowed language from other relationship depictions.

These discussions often take some time for the cognizance of identifiable adult daughter role behaviors to emerge, yet eventually, daughters moved from uncertainty toward growing awareness and, eventually, to an eagerness to discuss their lived experiences. Daughtering, it turns out, is being enacted every day in social situations, but because it is not usually pinpointed as a role, the idea of daughtering stays somewhat invisible. Though daughters report that their mother-daughter ← 19 | 20 → relationships have unique, distinguishing features—taken collectively, daughtering is a socially embedded performance.

How is it that daughters can easily report that they “do things” for their mothers, but cannot find the exact words to express what they do or how much it means? Why is it that women can productively work on being better at their roles as Wife, Girlfriend, Friend, and Mother, but don’t notice the ways they evaluate and produce the Daughter role? Strangely, our social notions of daughtering exist as a backdrop in the lives of most women and in their relationships. This occurs to such a degree that daughtering efforts go unnoticed, uncategorized, and undervalued. These queries led me to a burgeoning awareness that in order to enable scholars to accurately study family roles, there must be preliminary work done to collectively clarify terms related to daughters. Clarifying terminology around “daughter” as a construct as well as her role in “daughtering” will enhance our accuracy in studying similar phenomenon and allow scholars to more deeply understand a daughter’s role in a family system.

The Daughtering Construct

For a rich understanding of the social construction of daughtering, we must first consider daughters as independent agents of change. The prevailing cultural representations of “daughter” allow only for understanding daughters referentially as either their mother’s peer or their adult mini-me (see chapter 11, this volume, for a discussion of mothers as best friends). The social construct of mothering as an empowered and skilled performance has traction, but daughters have come to be considered an artifact of their mothers’ production. It is an unfortunate reality that roles of women are differentially constructed, but those constructs are linked (Glenn, 1994), creating a dichotomy between mother as an agent of control and daughter as an object of control. This stance allows us to consider daughters only as objects rather than agentic beings. This point of view is often reflected in the language of the women with whom I speak. They frequently consider “daughter” as a label rather than a job with job functions. Additionally, daughters tend to borrow language from other relationships when describing their role, including words like friends, mothering, and caregiving. The result of this borrowed language is daughters fall back on terminology that describes a similar kind of role, but not exactly the daughter role. In turn, the use of somewhat imprecise language to talk about daughtering continues the misperceptions associated with daughters’ contributions.

If we understand that “A rich vocabulary on a given subject reveals an area of concern of the society whose language is being studied” (Schulz, 1975, p. 64), then it becomes clear that lack of communal language for describing the vital family job of daughtering means daughters remain in a marginalized status in family ← 20 | 21 → units and our greater social system. Daughters reveal that the available vocabulary for nurturing one’s mother is not only inadequate but contradictory. This may be due to different connotations of language describing women and may be because this language is nestled within a patriarchal system that favors men and derogates women (Schulz, 1975). Words in the English language most likely to escape this trap are related to motherhood. I argue that it is time now to pursue language creation that depicts the unique qualities of daughtering but resists the urge to equate daughterhood with womanhood, and womanhood with motherhood.

It is not uncommon for adult daughters to describe themselves as now “mothering” their mothers, or “mutual mothering” (Fischer, 1986). In fact, Glenn (1994) describes mothering as “a historically and culturally variable relationship in which one individual nurtures and cares for another” (p. 3). Indeed, the word mothering carries quite a bit of cultural baggage, functioning as a substitute in popular verbiage for any caregiving. Mothering, Glenn asserts, is a social construct created “through men’s and women’s actions within specific historical circumstances. Thus, agency is central to an understanding of mothering as a social, rather than biological, construct” (p. 3). Glenn stresses that the construction of mothering takes shape not only in ideas and beliefs, but within social interactions, identities, and social institutions. This position challenges the biological notions of mothering, and I, similarly, challenge existing notions of daughtering. Just as Glenn (1994) asserts there are many ways to mother that look dissimilar to prevailing cultural representations of the mothering construct (middle-class, White, and biologically related), I argue that a daughter interacting with her mother is a crucial part of the mother-daughter relationship and scholars must take a closer look at what daughters are doing to sustain this bond; and as we see it, we must label it accordingly.

Daughters tell me time and again that their mother-daughter relationship falls somewhere in between the extremes of “perfect” and “terrible” and can even change on a day-to-day basis. Everyday, even banal, interactions between mother and daughter are the basis for the relationship, as events and memories are layered on top of one another over the course of many years. In these moments, the mother-daughter relationship is changed and molded based on communication behaviors between the two. If we fail to explore daughters’ agency in mother-daughter relationships, we ignore the lived experiences of the younger, subordinate, obligated relational partner in this crucial family construct. To remedy this, we begin to consider the social construction of daughtering and daughters’ place in the architecture of families.

Many elements inform our understanding of mother-daughter relationships. Socially, daughters are linked to their mothers through a history of kinship obligation. Rossi and Rossi (1990) investigated the links between family members and presented data from their study of obligation in families. They asked participants to rate vignettes about specific family members based on the level of obligation, ← 21 | 22 → including crisis events and celebratory events, which the researchers theorized would activate kin obligation. Their findings were that daughters showed greater obligation to and offered more comfort to their mothers than to any other kin relation. In return, mothers offered greater financial support to daughters, and even to sons-in-law, which the authors believed was due to “the greater affective closeness of the mother-daughter relationship than any other parent-child dyad that ripples out into more distant kin relations, and provides the asymmetrical tilt to the maternal side in the American kinship system” (Rossi & Rossi, 1990, p. 189). While it was no surprise that parental obligation topped the list of greatest kin obligation, the patterns found in Rossi and Rossi’s data reinforce the importance of “the especially close bond between mothers and daughters, a closeness that begins in childhood and continues throughout life” (p. 207). Daughters, as we well know, do a lot of caring for their mothers, in early, mid, and late life.

Likewise, Buhl (2008) noted distinctive qualities of the relationship between mothers and daughters in her German study. Her study included 156 daughters and 202 mothers as well as sons and fathers. Buhl analyzed the data by gender and role. Buhl measured individuation (the process where children pull away from their parents and become individuals) assessing the connectedness and individuality of participants. Connectedness consists of a “desire to please them, self-disclosure, a sense of obligation to the family and a feeling of attachment to the parents,” whereas individuality, sometimes called separateness or separation, consists of “independence from parental authority, the construction of a self that is separate from parental influence, a change from unilateral authority to cooperation and a change in perceptions—from ‘parents as figures’ to ‘parents as persons’—combined with de-idealization” (Buhl, 2008, p. 381). The results of Buhl’s study, as it relates to women, showed that individuation is a process between daughters and their mothers that continues as both age. Within that process, connectedness to mother decreases with age from the daughter’s point of view, but individuality, assessed as relative power, stays symmetrical, with daughters reporting less power overall than do mothers. In effect, daughters see themselves growing away from their mothers and becoming individuals, but their mothers continue to hold greater power in the relationship; though different, daughters maintain a subordinate place.

Daughtering is performed in many styles, much like how people clean their houses differently or exercise in their unique ways. Daughters choose how to interact with their mothers, based partly on social expectations and partly on their unique mother-daughter relationship. A study by Harrigan and Miller-Ott (2013) found that the interconnectedness of mothers and daughters can be tricky to navigate because “on one hand daughters value the opportunity to be independent of their mothers, yet too much independence makes them feel disconnected from their mothers” (Harrigan & Miller-Ott, 2013, p. 27). Boundaries, they also reported, were essential to mother-daughter communication. While ← 22 | 23 → adult daughters in their study sought guidance from their mothers, they believed there was a fine line between helping and intervening. Additionally, daughters in their study said they valued their independence, but too much distance could lead to a feeling of disconnection from their mothers. We know that daughters tend to value the mother-daughter relationship, but like all interpersonal connections, there is a lot of work to do to set up parameters for how the relationship operates. This means an outlay of time and energy to nurture the relationship if adult daughters want the connection with their mothers to thrive.

Daughter Work

Chatting on the phone with my mom recently, I found myself again having a quarrel with her about her health. I did not want to have this argument, not now nor the ten times we had previously discussed it. Yet, because I care deeply about my mother, I believe that it is my job to look out for her, even if that means saying things she does not want to hear, may wound her feelings, or leave her feeling judged. That is an unpleasant part of my daughter work, or the labor I perform as an adult daughter. I must carefully choose my words, tone, and the timing for health discussions with my mother because I know that she receives those messages differently from me than she does from her doctor, a friend, or my father. In my experience, mothers can be quite sensitive to things their daughters say and do. Would you agree?

When talking with one woman, Celeste, about her relationship with her mother, she summed it up like this, “I care because I have to, but also because I am her daughter” (Alford, 2016). While feelings of obligation are common to daughters (I must because no one else will), on the flip side, we enjoy reaping the rewards of daughtering done well (I feel needed and that is valuable).

Although daughters revert to borrowed language to discuss themselves and their mothers, at the core of their examples are tending behaviors, which involve caring for someone’s needs versus caring about someone (O’Connor, 1990). For instance, daughters have told me that they care for their mothers by avoiding conflict, defending her honor, and carrying the mental load. Daughters are expending energy on the mother-daughter relationship, conducting kin work, emotion work, emotional labor, care labor, mental labor, and love labor (Alford, 2016). According to O’Connor (1990), unintended consequences of linking “tending activities” to explanations of the mother/daughter relationship are legitimating traditional notions of women as caretakers and reinforcing unequal division of labor within family systems. Further problematizing this issue is lack of acknowledgment for daughters’ efforts within family systems.

Daughters understand that the adult daughter role includes emotion work and emotional labor. Hochschild (1979) first described emotion work, saying ← 23 | 24 → that “it is the act of trying to change, in degree or quality, an emotion or feeling” (p. 561). This work is done when a daughter feels a pinch between what she is feeling and what she “should” be feeling. She knows what she “should” feel in a situation based on, often latent, socially shared rules appropriate for a role and situation (Hochschild, 1979). But, what she “is” feeling may be inappropriate to express to her mother, based on power differences or social expectations for how daughters behave. So, she makes a decision to manage her emotions in a socially appropriate way. It is hard work that takes plenty of practice and self-talk. This emotion work is linked to a daughter’s understanding of social expectations for adult daughters. Emotional labor, on the other hand, is the public face one puts on emotion work, either because she chooses to or because it is a requirement of a position, such as in employment scenarios. Emotional labor is a visible display complying with the requirements of a given position. For daughters, emotional labor is the “deep acting” of playing the part of a good daughter based upon the social requirements she understands that accompany this role. She does the emotion work in her head and wears the emotional labor on her face.

Labor is, by definition, hard work or toil, even if one enjoys or receives a benefit from doing it. Love labor, according to Lynch (2007), is a form of care labor that brings about the realization of love, not just the declaration of it. “Love laboring is affectively-driven and involves at different times and to different degrees, emotion work, mental work, cognitive skills, and physical work” (p. 550). Love labor is that which we provide to our primary relations, those with whom we have a mutuality, inherited understanding, dependency or deep respect. For an adult daughter, love labor means showing her love and not just saying it. Specifically, adult daughters love labor through hugs, questions about mothers’ interests, or thoughtful gift-giving to demonstrate how they “get” their mothers. Though love labor is not exclusively performed with our biological relations, the mother-daughter relationship is a likely site for it:

Love labor, like emotional labor, may be driven by obligation, which is often a motivating force for daughters to interact with their mothers (Rossi & Rossi, 1990). As such, labor is an aspect of role management, learned and organized over time, then used to guide behavior. This labor, however, may go uncredited, even by the daughters who are doing it. Add up the hugs, energy given to “paying attention” during phone calls and visits, and the time spent searching for a meaningful gift—you start to see how the labor can total a large a cost for one’s time and energy. Those investments in her mother mean an adult daughter likely shorts ← 24 | 25 → another area of her work. What area of a woman’s life must give for her to love labor for her mother?

Not only in the case of daughters but among all women, everyday kinds of work are often undervalued. Micaela Di Leonardo (1987) defined the term kin work to describe a new category of labor separate from household work or marketplace labor:

Di Leonardo’s description of kin work shows how everyday activities of women can often be taken for granted or undervalued due to the low profile of the activity, or due to the low value placed on gendered work. Altering the value of the work performed by women, Di Leonardo says, changes the conversation about how gendered work makes power accessible for women in non-market activities (p. 452). This means that women do not get acknowledgment for unpaid work like organizing family gatherings or solving family crises.

Notably, Di Leonardo also includes “mental work” in her definition. While mental work (Di Leonardo, 1987) (such as thinking about a mother’s future care) may be motivated by obligation, or multiple goals, it is valuable to consider carrying the mental load as a form of labor a daughter enacts for her mother. Mental load describes the burden perceived from juggling tasks, some quite complex, and often in a limited time; it is the amount of remembering and processing of information that one’s mind can balance seamlessly. And, as you may have guessed, the heavier mental load is usually carried by women, whether as mothers to their children or as daughters to their mothers.

James (1989) noted that society believes some forms of labor to be “natural” for females to undertake (p. 22). Therefore, “unskilled women’s work, because it is unpaid and because it is obscured by the privacy of the domestic domain where much of it takes place, the significance of its contribution and value in social reproduction is ignored” (James, 1989, p. 22). We can all agree that what seems “natural” for women is a social construct based on thousands of years of women’s unpaid labor (why would men want to do it if it’s uncredited and unpaid?). But, her point can also help us understand a specific female role. Though James’s point addresses the labor performed in many female roles, daughtering particularly is obfuscated by observations of other roles or dominance of those roles in everyday life (i.e., mothering), rendering the daughtering experience mostly uncredited. Likely, the lack of language specific to the daughter role makes it difficult for ← 25 | 26 → others to describe the daughtering experience, leaving daughtering deleted from many observations of family dynamics.

Daughtering efforts are not only vital to the mother-daughter dyad but contribute to our greater social structure through social reproductive labor which include routine activities—for people of any age—that “feed, clothe, shelter and care for” others (Coltrane, 2000, p. 1209). Social reproductive labor, according to Coltrane (2000) is a type of work that occurs within families and “is just as important to the maintenance of society as the productive work that occurs in the formal market economy” (p. 1209). Located not only in cultural spaces and within role prescriptions, the work of daughtering is often overlooked as labor, and the cost of that labor for daughters is little understood.

In an investigation of middle-aged adult daughters’ role with elderly mothers, Scharlach (1987) examined how role strain for adult daughters is related to both the affectual quality of daughters’ relationships with her mother and to her mother’s well-being. Forty middle-aged daughters and 24 elderly mothers were given questionnaires to report on their filial behavior, role strain, relationship quality, conflict and affectual solidarity. Scharlach found that daughters experienced role strain, from role demand overload and perceived role inadequacy and that this role strain created decreased relationship satisfaction for daughters as well as lower psychological well-being for mothers.

In addition to filial responsibilities, a middle-aged woman typically has a variety of vocational, parental, marital, and social obligations, as prescribed by societal and personal values. To the extent that a daughter’s relationship with her mother is perceived as interfering with her ability to fulfill these other role demands and meet her own needs, a woman is apt to experience a sense of “role strain” (Scharlach, 1987, p. 627).

Furthermore Scharlach (1987) describes a daughter’s role as one of commitment and responsibility to her family while also managing many other commitments in her life. The requisite balancing act to adequately fulfill these obligations can lead to role strain. Findings from this study indicated that role strain could impact the quality of the elderly mother-mid-life daughter relationship, leading to reduced emotional well-being for the elderly mother. It is important to note that the role of a daughter as described by Scharlach is not only the fulfillment of obligation toward her mother, but also balancing her many responsibilities.

Similarly, a study by Phoenix and Seu (2013) provides evidence that adult daughters being reunited with birth mothers after a long separation consciously evaluated what role she would play with a new mothering figure. The daughters experienced a process of actively consenting to be mothered and/or providing daughtering to the birth mother. These daughters made a conscious choice to do the work of daughtering in this new mother-daughter relationship. “They, therefore, exercised agency in daughterhood” (Phoenix & Seu, 2013, p. 312). In ← 26 | 27 → a setting like this, it is a bit easier to see the choice that a daughter can make—to accept mothering, to initiate daughtering—and when we apply that same lens to the mother-daughter relationships we see in our everyday lives, it still rings true. Daughters, as this study illustrates, must actively participate in daughtering and choose to labor in this role; it is not a passive interaction between daughter and mother.

Daughtering can also function in voluntary or non-biological relationships. Hampton (1997) explored the meaning-making of daughters who were adopted, reporting on both their biological and adoptive mothers. She interviewed pregnant adult daughters about their upcoming role transition to mother, asking about the influence of both their adoptive and biological mothers on the daughters’ identities. As the adopted daughters transitioned into motherhood, meeting their biological mothers became essential but did not overpower their desire to include their adoptive mothers in their transition, including the birth experience. Daughters indicated that it was important to foster a connection with their biological mothers before they gave birth to destroy negative messages, such as believing a biological mother did “not want” her daughter or she “gave me away.” Adopted daughters did not exclude adoptive mothers from their process of embracing the new identity of “mother,” but continued the ongoing dance of intimacy and ambivalence typical of long-term mother-daughter relationships. Hampton (1997) supports the argument that daughtering can be enacted in a variety of ways and it requires an investment of effort; that is, it requires relational work.

Depictions of relational work as labor are not a new idea. It was Sara Ruddick (1995) who pioneered the discussion of mothering as effort, or work, and not merely a biological tie between mother and child. Instead, she said that mothering develops from the practice of the discipline of mothering—meaning that as mothers do mothering, the iterative dual process of doing and understanding emerges organically. Daughters, considered in the same light as mothers learning and practicing a role, must be understood through their practice and discipline of daughtering; it is a parallel construct to mothering. It must be noted that consideration of the effort a woman undertakes to daughter her mother places emphasis on what she does for mother, not only how she feels about her mother. Like Nelson’s (2006), analysis of daughters’ interviews revealed that the act of doing daughter work kept adult daughters connected to their mothers. Nelson classified “doing family” as actively fostering the connections through which family is created and rehearsed. Additionally, doing family means creating attachments, building boundaries, and defining limits. In sum, doing daughtering takes effort, and the payoff is the maintenance of family ties.

Roles, according to Bourdieu (1977), are not just existing structures that cause meaning, but a social space that helps people map possible behaviors. Think about that: Roles are a space in our social lives where we perform, interact, and practice ← 27 | 28 → our thoughts about ourselves and others. The outcome of these role behaviors: Meaning. As we participate in the social sport of roles, inside the social space that we allow for ourselves and others, we form meanings about ourselves and who we are in society. As women, we learn what it means to be a daughter by observing other daughters, watching how they daughter their mothers, listening to the social discourse about daughtering, and internalizing social meanings on daughterhood. The following section further explores how daughters learn how to daughter their mothers in a socially constructed world.


Many friends commented on my relationship with my mother throughout my adolescence and early adulthood. “Yes, I’ve got a good one,” I thought to myself, while also congratulating myself for working hard to maintain that mother-daughter tie. My friends’ appraisals also pushed me to think about their mother-daughter interactions, comparing those things that made me believe that the grass looked greener from the other side. Building on this experience, I now ask adult daughters to talk with me about how and from whom they learned about daughterhood expectations. In one interview, Clara told me:

Like many other daughters I spoke to, Clara struggled to place her role as a daughter in the mother-daughter relationship within a broader social system. As discussed earlier, it is comfortable for women to think of being a daughter as a label rather than a role which functions within a more extensive social system; we are more comfortable talking about what our mothers do than what daughters do. However, adult daughters can evaluate their role through a broader social lens. Daughters and mothers may come to understand their roles, according to Walters (1992), “not only through the exigencies of family life, economic survival, and social policies, but through the systems of representation and cultural production that help give shape and meaning to that relationship” (p. 10). Daughters are raised learning how to daughter from childhood, whether it be from their mothers and grandmothers or other family members, from community members sharing the same ethnicity and culture, from religious training, and other social messages like media portrayals (for more information on daughtering and media portrayals see chapter 4, this volume).

Daughters’ perceived expectations for themselves and others continue to be shaped and reified through interactions with other daughters. Daughters, thus, function within the greater social structure as maintainers and promoters of a ← 28 | 29 → system for how and when to employ daughtering. This is a kind of collective competence prescribing expected behaviors of women who are members of a daughterhood. Korolczuk (2010) was the first to use the term daughterhood and said that “the role of daughter is fluid, flexible, culturally and historically diverse” (p. 470). She concluded that while there exists a general narrative about a daughterhood of women enacting the daughter roles collectively, the notion of a daughterhood is abstract in its definition but prevalent in the discussions of the women she talked to. Describing daughterhood, Korolczuk (2010) said that it is the “entirety of the emotional, intellectual and physical effort which the daughter’s role involves” (p. 470). While naming and describing this phenomenon is undoubtedly valuable, defining the term daughterhood is imperative for scholars to further investigations of the role of daughters in society.

When we imagine a collective competence that daughters have for the role of adult daughter, enacting these role behaviors at the same time and for a similar purpose, the architecture of a daughterhood emerges. Daughterhood is like “brotherhood” or “sisterhood,” connoting a fellowship not achieved simply through status or role transition (as in “motherhood”) but as a collective of people doing the same tasks and functioning within the same role. I propose the following definition for daughterhood:

Understanding how adult daughters function within a daughterhood means that researchers can better explore the ways roles are socially constructed and linked. Moreover, as we allow the idea of a daughterhood of women to take root, we learn something about communication in society in a broader sense. The common characteristics of the members of a social system are its cultural attributes. When, during our interviews, daughters described expectations from various sources including larger social platforms like peers, media, and religious structure, they were sensemaking about daughtering, contributing to their understanding of their role as well as adding to the culture of a daughterhood through the publication of this research. These are valuable additions to our understanding of how communication works in everyday settings and close relationships, but also inform us about the prevailing cultural discourses of today.

Daughters use this social knowledge reflected in the daughterhood to make decisions about how to behave in their roles based on these shared social ← 29 | 30 → conceptions, acting in parallel with other adult daughters performing their roles. As they share the practice of enacting the adult daughter role, daughters are creating a community experience, a daughterhood, even though daughters may not realize they are community members. We know that roles are learned and constructed through practice and observation of one’s community and communicating with one’s reference groups, creating a collective experience for adult daughters. When we think about this system of daughters shaping each other through their performance of daughtering, the notion of a daughterhood reveals a complex social system in which all adult daughters are members. Social construction means that there are communication processes at work on many levels, as understood through daughters doing identity work, individual family role performance, and reacting to cultural norms for daughters.

Embedded within the social system, the adult daughter role also works dyadically in partnership with the role of aging mother. As a daughter plays her role, she examines how mother plays her role. Daughters have been watching for many years how their mothers (and others around them) play their familial roles. They have also seen their mothers played the role of adult daughter to her mother in the past. The behaviors they witness inform their own typification schemes for the role of adult daughter (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). It is through repeated interactions that mothers and daughters internalize these guidelines, perform the routinized behaviors, and learn the role. Each time an interaction with her mother is begun, whether in a new context or timeworn, a daughter leans on her existing typification schemes to determine how to appropriately behave. If she is lacking experience in that context, she cobbles together ideas based on her knowledge of a broad social system, tests out her hunch, and forms a new schema for future use. Through these practices, she blazes a trail that is just <this much> like her peers and her mother, while just <this much> hers alone.

Some communication scholars refer to this social space—where one can absorb her role through interaction—as a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Learning about one’s place in the world is not only a cognitive endeavor but situated within a community wherein it is formed and organized. We can think of daughters learning their role within a community of practice; thus, daughters are absorbing messages through continued interaction with role peers, absorbing the essence of daughtering over a lifespan while living among community members. “Such a view sees mind, culture, history, and the interrelated social processes that constitute each other” (Lave, 1991, p. 63). Daughterhood membership begins at birth and continues even if one’s mother leaves or has died (see chapter 18, this volume, on motherless daughters).

Collective daughtering experiences are influenced by time and cultural influences (Glenn, 1994). Cultural discourses inform daughters’ communication and the mother-daughter relationship (Korolczuk, 2010; Rastogi & Wampler, 1999). So, ← 30 | 31 → while daughters may observe other daughters to form a community (or daughterhood) these communities are situated in various cultures, time periods, and other contexts. As many authors in this book show, influences such as mental health, technology, and age—to name a few—impact women’s performance of the daughter role.


Considering the many influences and factors that intermix to create a daughterhood of women daughtering their mothers, and a lack of vocabulary to discuss these instances, we have much to learn about what it means to be a daughter. I urge other researchers to consider how to better foreground the activity of daughtering in future studies. Using the perspective of daughtering as a valuable role—conceptualizing women with agency who are putting effort into the mother-daughter relationship—we imbue the daughter role with a deserving sense of importance; we are participating in the social construction of the daughtering role by reading this chapter and using these ideas in our own lives (so meta!). In sum, when we write about daughters as strong, purposeful women embedded in a social system, who work hard on their relationships, putting thought into action, putting pen to paper, we reinforce that it is so. Can you imagine if adult daughters were not performing these essential functions that bridge a lifespan? Within the hidden community of adult daughters, fulfilling their roles through a variety of role performances, women are working to create loving and interactive relationships that impact family systems. Daughtering is more than being filled up by mothering; daughtering is an active role performance by a valuable community of women practiced in an exclusive social space, benefitting an entire society.



Daughters contribute efforts like kin work, emotion work, emotional labor, care labor, mental labor, and love labor toward their relationships with their mother. This energy contributes to a productive relationship but is given little credit, by daughters, mothers, or society in general. Different from mothering, daughtering is invisible labor. To change this, mothers can tell their daughters how much they value these labors. This may mean that daughters need to introduce the concept of daughtering to their loved ones to shine a light on their valuable relationship contributions.

Women are looking at our peers to see how they are daughtering their mothers and incorporating that information into our daughtering styles. Reach out to a friend and ask her about daughtering without any judgment on her performance or yours. When you’re going through something new with your mother, ask your peers if they have gone through it and learn from their daughtering wisdom.

Recognize that mother/daughter relationships are all unique and none of them are perfect. Some daughters have terrible relations with their mothers or, worse yet, have a terrible mother. First, you always have the option to take a step away from this mother and choose not to be in a relationship with her. No one deserves abuse or pain, and the mother/daughter tie is, like all relationships, optional. It is important to know that the mother/daughter bond is not predetermined but is a result of two people working to create a mutually satisfying relationship. Second, if you want to be in a relationship with your mother, then value every contribution you are making, even if the relationship is not currently meeting your needs. All attempts at daughtering are important contributions that move you closer to the goal of a satisfying relationship with one’s mother. Also, these attempts to daughter are the vehicle toward those #relationshipgoals.



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* Allison M. Alford, clinical assistant professor, Baylor University, allison_alford@baylor.edu.

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Mothering AND Motherhood

Socially Constructing the Role of Mothers


Life doesn’t come with a manual. It comes with a mother.


Like many little girls, I remember playing with my baby dolls—holding them, putting them to bed, feeding with a tiny spoon—as I pretended to be a mommy. These daydreams eventually came true, but the role of mother holds so much more meaning and responsibility than I ever could have imagined. For a girl, her nascent conception of all things maternal forms in childhood as she watches her own mother, her grandmother, mothers on television, and the mothers of her friends. Little girls are sponges for messages about adulthood, soaking up every drop of meaning in storybooks, community events, and commentary on motherhood that circulate throughout their childhood (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Stryker & Burke, 2000; Walters, 1992). For instance, I was amused when I recently visited my sister’s family and spent some time with my three-year-old niece. She picked up a toy cell phone and said, “Cheese, Aunt Alli!”—so I posed for the faux pic. To my amusement, she then looked down at the “screen” and said, “I’m going to text it to Grammy.” How many times has she seen her mom (my sister) take a cute picture on the cell phone and then immediately text it to our mom? I’m still chuckling from that one, but the heart of the matter is ← 37 | 38 → that this three-year-old girl is learning how to be a 21st century mom, sharing pictures of the grandkids via text or social media in order to please mom’s mom (i.e., Grammy).

If you have been around small children, you may have some funny stories of mimicry behavior, too. Through many and varied maternal representations, little girls begin to cobble together a framework for the meaning of mothering and motherhood, building a fully formed structure their minds for the performance of the role, so that when it’s their turn, they are prepared for the role. This process of amalgamating experiences, cultural images, social policies and theories into a cohesive body of knowledge is called social construction and is how each of us come to understand mothering in our own way (Walters, 1992). Like bricklayers from infancy, daughters keep chunks of experiences and shape them into a treasure trove of knowledge about mothering; a cache of information resides in our minds which we can access whenever there’s a need.

The link between mothers and daughters may best be summarized as “velvet chains—of security, love, and devotion” (Miller-Day, 2004, p. 4) connecting them across the lifespan. Scholars have noted that the relationship between a daughter and her mother is unique and unlike relationships with fathers, spouses, siblings, parents, or friends (Hampton, 1997; Nelson, 2006). To be clear, it does not follow that because the mother-daughter linkage is unique that it is also positive. You have only to look at bestselling novels or ask a counseling professional to know that this relationship is also fraught with many challenges. Poet Maya Angelou (1969) once wrote, “To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow” (p. 58). We will come back to the link between mothers and adult daughters in the latter portion of this chapter, but we will begin with a general discussion of the nature of mothering and motherhood.

Rather than glorifying or vilifying mothers, the goal of this chapter is to explore the ways we create meaning about motherhood and mothering. At its heart, this perspective foregrounds agency. Agency refers to the ability to act. As humans we actively participate in cultivating social meanings, such as what motherhood means in contemporary culture. The construction of motherhood takes shape not only in introspective personal ideas and beliefs, but within social interactions, identities, and social institutions (Glenn, 1994, p. 4). The essential goal of this book is to allow you, reader, to consider how these perceptions are formed, molded, and changed over a lifespan. For a detailed history of mother-daughter scholarship from the 1950’s forward, see Miller-Day (2004). In the following sections, we begin to explore the current cultural beliefs about motherhood and unpack the terminology. To begin, let’s take a look at current scholarship on motherhood and mothering. ← 38 | 39 →


Motherhood and mothering continue to be vastly contested terms and ideologically-laden experiences (Hequembourg, 2007). There is a plurality of mothering experiences in the USA with varied motherhood practices, yet understanding current descriptions are necessary to provide a foundation for our discussion.


Motherhood is the state of being a mother (“Motherhood,” n.d., para. 2). The state of something is the particular condition at that time (“State,” n.d., para. 2). This condition is the appearance, quality, or working order of something (“Condition,” n.d., para. 2). In essence, motherhood is the appearance, quality, or working order of someone who is performing the social role of mother. A social role is a set of connected behaviors, rights, obligations, beliefs, and norms as conceptualized by people in a society (Bandura, 1978). When you talk about mothers, read an article about motherhood, or see a mother on screen, a host of other ideas are attached to the image of a mother you picture. Even now that I am describing the basic definitions, you may be picturing a generalized mother figure in your head. That person is enacting a social role and is in a state of being called motherhood.

Fass (2004) describes three types of motherhood: birth motherhood, social motherhood, and caregiving motherhood. The birth mother is the person who physically gives birth to the child. Since the development of new reproductive technologies, the concept of birth mother has become more complicated, for the child in the womb may not be the biological offspring of the birth mother. A social mother is the person recognized by the social community as a child’s mother, even though she might not be the birth mother. This person may have assumed the role of mother in childbirth or through other legal or social means. The caregiver mother engages in child-rearing tasks such as feeding, bathing, dressing, watching over, toilet training, and socializing children—performing the role of mothering.


In its simplest form, mothering is the nurturing of, tending to and caring for another (Worell & Goodheart, 2006). In a broader sense, “Definitions of mothering share a theme: the social practices of nurturing and caring for dependent children. Mothering, thus, involves dynamic activity and always-evolving relationships” (Arendell, 2000, p. 1192). Sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn describes mothering as “a historically and culturally variable relationship in which one individual ← 39 | 40 → nurtures and cares for another” (1994, p. 3). This last description clarifies that there are variations to motherhood and mothering due to cultural differences or because of the point in time in which mothering was conducted. In addition to context, mothering may vary due to its purpose.

Philosopher Sara Ruddick described the act of mothering as a practice—a socially organized activity based on constitutive aims—resultant from the demand for protection by vulnerable children (O’Reilly & Ruddick, 2009; Ruddick, 1983). This description alerts us to the idea that mothering is based on the goal of protecting children. It’s easy to picture a mother making a sack lunch for her child or putting her hand up to a hot forehead. These acts, according to Ruddick (1983) are motivated by the need to protect and preserve offspring. These acts of mothering—this practice—is what she describes as “mothering.” The act of mothering is made up of many micro-behaviors, which often occur day after day. While each small act may not seem to protective, the sum of the small things is a big picture of mothering. The practice of mothering can be viewed from structuralist, interactionist, and resource perspectives.

Structuralist Perspective

A structuralist view of mothering suggests that role responsibilities of a mother are preexisting in any society (Turner, 2001). To illustrate, let me offer an analogy. Imagine an organization with many members who are working in a big, tall building. The organizational members of Mothers of Mention (M.O.M) are on the 22nd floor and they are advertising for a M.O.M. to manage some junior employees. A woman applies, takes the job, and is now a M.O.M. manager with all associated job responsibilities that entails. She has no say in the scope of her job because it was already decided (probably by men!) before she applied. This structuralist view of a mother’s role suggests that any work performed by a mother is considered part of the scope of her work (i.e., mothering). Because she has taken on the title and position, her behaviors in her official capacity are all labeled as a product of that role. From this perspective, a role title leads us to classify her behaviors as mothering. In the simplest form, a structuralist view of mothering would suggest that whatever a mother does is mothering.

Interactionist Perspective

The interactionist view of the mothering argues that mothering emerges from observing interactions with role models (e.g., other mothers) both past and present who orient a woman to what it means to be a mother and how to perform the role, while simultaneously having an influence on those role models (Galvin, Braithwaite, & Bylund, 2004). Let’s imagine a woman who decides to join Moms of the Moment (M.O.M), a social group she’s heard a lot about from others. Upon ← 40 | 41 → joining, she asks what membership entails; the other members tell her a few general tidbits and say that the longer she’s a M.O.M, the more she’ll figure it out. So, she watches those around her, takes some advice from her new peers, and recalls things she’s heard about the group prior to joining. (Now that she’s thinking about it, she remembers that her own mother once became a M.O.M). As a result of her membership, the group shifts and changes; her presence in the group alters membership behavior. The role of a mother, from this interactionist perspective, changes based on the ways people act and react within the social group.

An interactionist view of the mother role acknowledges that a person can act differently in a variety of roles and situations, and two very different people may act the same in similar social situations (Turner, 2001). Mothering is a fluid and changing pursuit, understood by each woman independently based upon her past, her present friends and environment, and with a consideration of future goals. Put simply; behaviors are considered “mothering” if the member believes it is so and it is adopted by the social group at large, resulting in an ever-changing list of membership responsibilities.

Resource Perspective. Lastly, we’ll consider a resource perspective on mothering. In this line of thought, the social role of mother is considered a tool that can be used for a specific purpose. From this perspective, roles can be thought of as cultural objects, which are nestled within a social system, but also have symbolic meaning (Callero, 1994). Mothers are then seen as acting within a social system, but not wholly governed by that system. Thinking of the role of mother as a “cultural object suggests that roles are much more than a bundle of expectations. Roles are as complex or as simple as the cultural meaning of the object” (Callero, 1994, p. 232).

Let’s imagine that the social group above creates a Great Organizational Ornament Decal (G.O.O.D) award for a member who has displayed exceptional social aptitude within the M.O.M organization. This G.O.O.D.-M.O.M can use this award to smooth her way throughout the organization or gain social capital. It is up to her. From the resource perspective, she is individually agentic within her role as a M.O.M and can wield her prize as needed to navigate through the organization as she deems it necessary.

A resource view of the mother role allows us to consider both the system within which mothers operate, but also their agentic “freedom and creative independence” to carve an individual path (Callero, 1994, p. 228). Thinking of the mother role from a resource perspective allows us to consider how a community might shape expectations for mothers, while also valuing a woman’s individual performance of the mother role.

It is important to note that systems may also oppress individuals in social roles. Many feminist scholars over the past decades have illuminated the influence of ← 41 | 42 → patriarchal ideals on motherhood, noting that when the business of motherhood is male-defined and controlled, it becomes deeply oppressive to women (Rich, 1976). Only through this lens are women made to question themselves and their ability to mother according to social norms (Rich, 1976). “Am I doing what is right? Am I doing enough? Am I doing too much? All mothers’ guilt for failing their children is internalized by the institution of motherhood” (Rich, 1976, p. 223). However, when we become aware of the ways we constitute motherhood in a social society, we are afforded the opportunity to reconceive these notions and “recognize that motherhood is not naturally, necessarily, or inevitably oppressive” (O’Reilly, 2016, introduction). Neither should motherhood be considered a universal experience of beauty and bliss. Instead, we define motherhood by the act of mothering. And mothering may be communicatively enacted in a variety of ways.


A new mother begins to think about “who she is” as her identity changes and shifts. Identities are “self-views that emerge from the reflexive activity of self-categorization or identification in terms of membership in particular groups or roles” (Stets & Burke, 2000, p. 226). Essentially, you evaluate yourself—in a social system, in a role, in a setting—and determine who you are and how you fit in, creating various identities. You can be someone who identifies as “a good listener” and “a comedian,” for example. You incorporate these identities into your social roles such a “student” or “mother.” These can be thought of as preexisting social spaces in a structured system. You can take on new identities or roles as you learn more about yourself as you get older and move through the world. Though identities are something you wear on your shirtsleeve, the way you communicate with others around you reveals your multiple and overlapping identities.

Communication is more than just a method of transmitting ideas; it is fundamental to the creation and construction of our social realities (Leeds-Hurwitz, 2006). The foundational theorists, Berger and Luckmann, wrote about this process in their 1966 book The Social Construction of Reality. In it, they described how realities and common-sense thoughts are occurring simultaneously and co-exist as fact, overlapping the experience of the other. Since we cannot know for certain the realities or thought processes of the others with whom we interact, we make educated guesses and create shortcuts in our mind linking a particular behavior to a related guess about its meaning. For instance, when a person smiles, we assess the smile and link it to a meaning in our minds such as kind, sympathetic, or passive-aggressive. According to Berger and Luckmann (1966), the sum total of our social life is made up of millions of these tiny shortcuts where we see an action and relate it to an idea. Over time, we not only react to behaviors, but use them to predict future actions ← 42 | 43 → and interactions. When interacting with our role complements, like with her adult daughter, a mother relies on her knowledge of observable patterns to determine her own actions, thus shaping her role as a mother through interactions (Turner, 2001). They create their own roles by “taking the role of the other” and imagining what their role partner may be portraying, which is a cooperative endeavor (Turner, 2001). These role-making moves are not only reliant on her role partner’s behaviors, but are also informed by sources inside and outside the family.

Braithwaite, Foster, and Bergen (2017) noted three features of the social constructionist perspective that align with the goals of family communication scholars:

As family members, mothers maintain identities related to womanhood, motherhood, and many other aspects of themselves; they communicate these within family interactions, shaping their role and their social world. Leeds-Hurwitz (2006) described the family itself as a social construct created by those making an effort to construct meaning together. Families are constitutive; that is, constructed through interaction and meaning-making (Galvin, 2006). Mothers co-construct their mothering identities with contributions from others in their lives, describing and explaining what it means to be a mother (Gergen, 1985). Talk among family members and outsiders is what we use to conceive of who we are as a family (Galvin, 2006); we create and define ourselves, our family life, and our position in the world.

What this means is that identities are not preformed and placed inside our heads. Instead, it is through discourse that an idea blooms, we consider it and talk about it with more people, and then believe or reject it. Our beliefs then become the benchmark for how we ought to behave. Rittenour and Colaner (2012) studied mothers in transition. The authors said this link between how a woman defines her identity regarding her role behaviors as a mother is related to how she feels about herself and her life.


As we expand our exploration of what it means to be a mother, let’s think about the effort that it takes to mother. Have you ever been to a wedding? They sure can be a lot of fun, but when they’re done right, it’s also clear that many people put in a ← 43 | 44 → lot of work behind the scenes to make it happen. And while work may be fulfilling and purposeful, it is still, well, work! In Chapter 2 (this volume), I presented the idea of daughtering as work, and characterized the various aspects of labor enacted by daughters toward their mothers (Alford, 2016). Forms of labor include kin work (Di Leonardo, 1987), emotion work and emotional labor (Hochschild, 1979), care labor and love labor (Lynch, 2007), and social reproductive labor (Coltrane, 2000).

In addition to these forms of labor that may be enacted by any role performer, Ruddick (1983) coined the term maternal thinking to describe the cognitive process essential to mothers caring for someone, stating, “A mother engages in a discipline. That is, she asks certain questions rather than others; she establishes criteria for the truth, adequacy, and relevance of proposed answers; and she cares about the findings she makes and can act on” (Ruddick, 1983, p. 214). This quote points us to the intentionality of mothering; it arises from a need, requires effort, and must be considered within the context where it arose. Mental work, for mothers, can be described in the following way:

Calling mothering work does not reject the notion that it can also be both enjoyable and rewarding. Like many types of work that women may attempt, it’s possible for mothering to conjure up many feelings all at the same time. One of the challenges scholars encounter when attempting to reveal the vicissitudes of maternal life is the lack of language to discuss it. About this, Ruddick said, “Overwhelmed with greeting card sentiment, we have no realistic language in which to capture the ordinary and extraordinary pleasures and pains of maternal work” (1983). As we elaborate on mothering and motherhood in this chapter, and as you read the scholars in this book, consider the ways that you might change your own vocabulary to be quite specific when discussing or describing mothers. The value in specificity is clarity for the role performance. The following section discusses some mothering styles and their labels.


Like all jobs, there are many ways to tackle mothering. Discussions of mothering styles and strategies have been a hot topic of conversation for the past hundred ← 44 | 45 → years and, in the past two decades, have seemingly become ubiquitous with the internet affording 24/7 access to critical opinion. Let’s take a brief look at some of the hot-button mothering styles that have garnered recent attention and discussion.

Tiger Mother

Self-proclaimed Tiger Mother Amy Chua (2011b) wrote the bestselling book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, describing the desirability of tough Chinese parenting. In the book she described rejecting her daughters’ Mother’s Day cards, putting her 3-year-old outside in the cold for disobedience, and so many violin and piano lessons that her daughter began leaving teeth marks on the piano out of rebellion.

The essence of the Tiger Mother parenting style, according to Chua, is achievement. Scholars may disagree with Chua’s exact methods and overly-simplistic definition of a Tiger Mother, but agree that it is important to consider the intersectionality of parenting and cultural practices. Juang, Qin, and Park (2013), in a special journal issue dedicated to this topic, said their goal was “to unpack the complexity of Asian-heritage parenting through examining the rationale, practices, and influences of culturally-specific aspects of parenting on child development and well-being” (p. 1).

While Chua may be trying to avoid raising a “praise junkie” she may instead fall into the trap of conditional parenting (Suissa, 2013). Both praise and blame set conditions for children, which can be considered moral directions in a social world (Suissa, 2013). To think about “successful” parenting means considering the moral implications for how we are conditioning our children. Suissa (2013) argues:

The answers to these questions—and the ways that we put these responses into practice—informs the social climate and expectations for mothering.

Helicopter Mom

Some moms are claiming the title of Helicopter Parent or Helicopter Mom with pride. Green (2012) describes a helicopter mom as one who “hovers” over her ← 45 | 46 → children and watches their every move. Personally, Green (2012) says that seeing unsupervised children makes her “break out in a cold sweat” (para. 3). But above all, she argues that being a helicopter mom is about protection for children and believes that “kids are our most precious commodity” (para. 5) Green fears many parents are missing the point about being a helicopter mom and not finding the right balance between freedom and safety when allowing their children to foster their own independence.

In a study of parents and their adult children, the children who received intensive, frequent support reported greater psychological benefits from this type of parenting than those who did not receive “helicopter” parenting (Fingerman et al., 2012). However, in this same report, the mid-to-late life parents who provided the intensive parenting (such as financial, advice, or emotional support) because they saw their adult children as needy, reported lower life satisfaction (Fingerman et al., 2012). A study like this demonstrates that children and adults may have a differing appreciation for various parenting styles, and this may change over time due to cultural norms for how one “ought” to parent.

Free-Range Kids

Quite the opposite from helicopter moms are those who believe that giving children freedom from oversight is key to raising self-sufficient children. Lenore Skenazy (2009), a proponent of Free-Range parenting (FRP) says, “Children, like chickens, deserve a life outside the cage” (“About,” para. 18). When you hover over a child too closely, “All they are left with is a selection of supervised, sanitized, often pricey activities that allow zero room for creativity. And at the end—I know because I’ve been there—they get a trophy” (Skenazy, 2008, “Fear Not,” para. 5). Dubbed “World’s Worst Mom” by national news outlets, Skenazy knows that a lot of people disagree with her strategy, but she happily embraced the term and wrote a best-selling book of the same name.

Instances of FRP have created great discussion among the legal community, where a “neglected” child, found out and about without adult supervision, must be reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) and his parents reported to the state legal system (Vota, 2017). More than any other parenting style, FRP raises questions about potential dangers for children who are unsupervised but should also cause us to question the goals of parenting children and the meaning of freedom in parenting granted by the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (Vota, 2017). Philosophical discussions of parenting facilitate our understanding of how social systems determine appropriate behaviors, but also give us pause to reflect on how laws, fear, and worry shape our ideas of parenting. ← 46 | 47 →

Bad Moms

Some women label themselves as “bad moms” in a rejection of an idealized view of motherhood. In her “Bad Mother Manifesto,” blogger Catherine Connors extolled her many “bad” choices:

Furthermore, she describes the chimera of the “good” mother:

Her description of several mothering dichotomies is a tongue-in-cheek rejection of a possible ideal parenting style, thereby embracing the agency in mothering. When defined as an intentional undertaking, mothering takes on a new meaning of “work” valued for its inherent effort. According to Rutherford (2011), despite claims of differences in strategies for parenting, modern parents agree that children’s self-esteem is a measure of good parenting. I have urged you, reader, to think more deeply about what it means to be a mother and not just to do mothering, so I would add that moms should add measurements of their own self-esteem to considerations of good parenting. Moms, do you feel emotionally competent and self-confident with your parenting? Whatever that looks like for each mom may be a sufficient marker of good parenting.

Mothering Enough

What we can gather from the various mothering styles described above is that moms are trying, putting effort into producing quality results, though these may be disparate. And while many moms are attempting to be the best possible parent, it’s also true that there are some moms who don’t seem to be doing enough. To be clear, there’s a big difference between moms who may give less attention to mothering than others and those who are pathological in their parenting; that is, they are neglectful or have an illness or disease. When mothers do not or cannot ← 47 | 48 → provide adequate mothering, their children are impacted. We know from theories in psychology how important it is for a child to be securely attached to a caregiver. Describing Bowlby’s (1969) theory of infant attachment to a caregiver, Lyons-Ruth and Jacobvitz (2008) said:

Children whose caregivers are present and available develop a secure base and are able to explore their world without worrying if they will have someone to come back to. When a primary caregiver is not available, such as in the case of a mother who is mentally ill or has an addiction, children may develop an insecure attachment. Sroufe (2005) found a strong connection between infant attachment styles and social competency in relationships throughout adulthood.

Though some mothers are unable to properly care for their children, most mothers are doing just fine, even if it seems to the casual observer that they aren’t doing enough. Like most forms of labor, there is a minimum input of effort into mothering needed to produce a result, while a maximum effort may be indefinable. You may be wondering what amount of mothering is good enough to produce quality results?

In the 1950’s, parenting was a hot topic, with emergent ideas and theories that have guided science and research ever since. Dr. Spock (1946) was telling mothers to show a lot of affection for their children and John Bowlby (1952) discovered that infants attach to their mothers, creating a secure bond that promotes healthy child development.

A mother simply has to be “good enough” to get the job done. Winnicott (1953) describe the good enough mother as starting off with an infant and giving her total attention which lessens over time as a child can handle less-than-perfect parenting. The point is that children do not require around-the-clock care. They adapt over time to frustrations, errors, or lapses on the part of the mother. Winnicott offers this as a reassurance to mothers—babies aren’t going to break because moms are imperfectly human. Over the past 65 years since he gave this advice, women have reshaped the ideas of mothering and motherhood, but can always appreciate a bit of reassurance that the kids will be alright!


In their earliest years, children require intense care from mothers. But as they age, the care needs change and the relationship between mothers and children surely ← 48 | 49 → follows. Though changes occur, mothers are committed to caring for their children over a lifespan. Mothering needs may change as children enter their mid-life, but women in elderhood still mother their adult children (Mansvelt, Breheny, & Stephens, 2017). While she may no longer cook their meals or enforce curfews, a mother retains her identity even as her children age.

And while mothers may care for and love all of their children, research has shown that mothers’ bonds with daughters are uniquely different (Miller-Day, 2004). Among all family relationships, the bond between mother and daughter is most likely to remain significant, even when major life changes occur (Bojczyk, Lehan, McWey, Melson, & Kaufman, 2011).

With daughters specifically, mothers tend to hold tight to the mother-daughter bond as this connection is renegotiated over the lifespan. Though her daughter becomes an adult, mothers maintain a mothering identity and offer valuable resources to adult children. One study found that parents view the ties between themselves and their children more positively than do the adult children, which may be because they feel an “intergenerational stake” in their offspring (Fingerman, Sechrist, & Birditt, 2013). And while social expectations may be changing for fathers, it remains that mothers give more support to their grown children and feel more bonded to them (Fingerman et al., 2012; Fingerman et al., 2013).

Put another way; the wise Goldie Hawn said of her daughter, Kate Hudson, “A mother-daughter bond is very different … As we grow older together, I can’t express the amount of love, joy, laughter, sadness we share. She understands me, I understand her. We’re girls. We share everything. She’s, like, the greatest” (Cagle & Russian, 2017, para. 4). The scholars in this textbook do a wonderful job enumerating the varied experiences of mothering daughters across the lifespan.


Messages about motherhood are powerful, inescapable, and potentially consequential. In this chapter, I discussed mothering and motherhood messages, revealing the ways messages about the nature of mothering coincide with mothers’ communication within and about their families, as well as mothers’ feelings about themselves. Mothers behave in a multitude of interesting ways, with the purpose of providing care. What is common for mothers now may not be so in the future, which is the essential nature of social construction. ← 49 | 50 →

The key take aways from this chapter reflect on how we society views mothers and how mothers contribute to the social construction of this role. Mothering and motherhood can be thought of as socially derived concepts whose meanings shift over time and place. Our ideas on mothering and motherhood continue to evolve based on the behaviors and attitudes present in a social system. Mothering is a dynamic undertaking enacted differently by every person. Mothers form an identity based on interpreting the expectations of a social system that embraces motherhood to different degrees. The concept of mothering has been highly critiqued and can benefit from the revision of some of these historical thought processes.

Close your eyes and picture a mother. Maybe you see your mother in your mind’s eye. Is this person a female? Biologically related? Heterosexual and married to her partner? Is she of sound mind and body? If that’s the woman you pictured, I want you to take a moment to reconsider these ideas. Ask yourself, “Is mothering is only for women?” Scholars like Sara Ruddick have been writing about this narrow perspective for decades, saying, “Anyone who commits her or himself to responding to children’s demands and makes the work of response a considerable part of her or his life, is a mother” (Ruddick, 1989, xii).

Elaborating on this, Ruddick later said that men “can and often do engage in mothering work” (2009, p. xiii) and that differences between men and women, though not to be ignored, were no different than those between mothers of various races, ethnicities, classes, and cultures; mothering requires no particular sexual commitment and “mothers lead a variety of heterosexual, gay, lesbian, and celibate lives” (2009, p. xii). Many others dispute that the term “mother” could describe anyone other than a woman, arguing that de-gendering the work of a mother devalues it (hooks, 1984). Overall, the word mothering is “semantically overburdened” (Walters, 1992, p. 10), bearing the weight of too many people who would enact it and too many activities to be contained by it.

Beyond gender considerations, I argue that we must investigate mothering outside of the discourse of essential motherhood (Suter, Seurer, Webb, Grewe & Koenig Kellas, 2015) restricted to biological ties among White heterosexual parents (Ruddick, 2009). What about families with multiple mothers—polymaternalism (Park, 2013)—or non-biological links? Consider the narrow view we have when we define motherhood through the act of giving birth or raising living children. Under these conditions, we exclude an entire group of mothers whose pregnancies did not result in a live birth of a child. When we conceive of motherhood solely through biological determination, we overlook loving roles of adoptive mothers, step-mothers, mothers-in-law, lesbian co-mothers, gender non-conforming parenting, and more. Many children thrive when raised by extended family members, legal guardians, or siblings. Some mothers lose their children to illness or death. Other mothers are still children themselves. These contexts provide a rich lens for the exploring the beautiful experience of mothering. ← 50 | 51 →

Opening up to novel social spaces without restriction or judgment may help us learn more about differing approaches to mothering and motherhood. I hope this helps you reflect on the ways you discuss mothering and the ways that you listen to those sharing their experiences with the same. As scholars, we must seek out current knowledge, listening to what is said and contemplating what is unsaid or even hidden. Therefore, it is of great importance that we continue to evaluate our conceptions of valuable family roles. I expect that you will critically read this chapter and the rest of this book, asking yourself, “What else do I want to know?” and considering “Do I agree?” I encourage you to continue to ask these questions.

Lastly, I encourage you to think about the ways mothers are in relationship with their children. Particularly with their adult daughters, mothers are agentically cultivating lifelong relationships for the benefit of the entire family system. This takes quite a bit of work on the part of mothers, and although this work looks quite different from baby bottles and soccer games, it is no less valuable or effortful. Mothers of adult daughters continue laboring to make their relationships strong. Through agency, effort, and mindful attention, mothers are actively safeguarding the ones they love throughout their lifetime and creating sustained connections for mutual satisfaction.


Healthy debates over the meaning of motherhood serve to keep the work of mothering valued and celebrated. While we see the place of mothers in the care and keeping of future generations as influential and lasting, it is essential to consider new ways to conceive and reconceive the role—both to unburden mothers and give credit where it’s due. To do this, we must investigate the roles that are complementary to mothers, but enact care behaviors differently, such as daughters, fathers, and aunts. See my chapter on daughtering (this volume), Floyd and Morman’s (2005) discussion of the changing culture of fatherhood, and Sotirin and Ellingson’s (2007) elaboration of aunting. We don’t have to stop there. Explore sons, grandmothers, and neighbors, too, so we can learn more about the ways communities communicate care aside from mothering. Defining and reconstructing characteristics of “mother” and “not-mother” will allow us to clearly assess their needs and develop appropriate support systems.

It is important to explore motherhood through varied voices to expand our definitions and reconstruct the standards of mothering. See Dhamoon (2011) for five recommended ways to explore intersectionality. Although intersectionality is a common component of feminist critique, it is a lens that can used to explore any social world. “It is crucial,” Dhamoon (2011) ← 51 | 52 → says, “to foreground it as a form of political critique that examines why the social world is configured the way it is and that confronts the work of power” (p. 240).

As our population continues to live longer, whether healthy or ill, we need to know more about mothering in the “third age.” In this “third age,” the Baby Boomer mothers of today are post-employment, and—more than any prior generation—healthy, educated, and interested in creating great relationships with their adult children. “The features that characterize the third age are being shaped by the activities of this generation and will continue to evolve with future generations” (Radtke & van Mens-Verhuslt, 2016, p. 47). As life’s third-act gains greater attention from scholars, we will come to understand better how we construct the meaning of motherhood across the entire lifespan.


Most mothers care for their children from birth and over a lifetime. Mothers learn how to do mothering through a social system, such as watching her mother as a child, noticing her friends’ mothering styles, and gathering subtle messages about mothering through media like books and magazines. Because a mother’s role is socially constructed, our idea of mothers continues to flex and change as society does. Can you picture mothers from two hundred years ago managing limits on kids’ screen time? Did mothers from even one hundred years ago worry that electing to use an epidural during birth might make them appear to be a weak mother? And fifty years ago, were mothers of college-aged daughters waiting for a daily text message or restricted to writing handwritten letters and weekly phone calls? While we cannot foresee how our society will change (wish we could!), it is certain that the role of mothers will shift right along with it.

When enacting the role of a mother and performing mothering, a woman is managing her intersecting identities, which impacts the way she mothers. Not only is it impossible to measure all mothers with the same yardstick, it’s undesirable! The beauty of mothering and motherhood is the million ways that moms do it differently.

Recognize that mothers, at any age, are doing the best they can to be good enough for the needs of their children. In some cases that may even mean staying away. When mothers are mentally ill, addicted, or in some other way unable to provide nurturing care, it is reasonable to expect that children will create healthy boundaries with them. ← 52 | 53 →



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* Allison M. Alford, clinical assistant professor, Baylor University, allison_alford@baylor.edu.

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Reel Mothers AND Daughters


The story of motherhood in popular film and television has a history of guiding popular ideals of femininity (Walters, 1992). Images of motherhood both reflect and construct our understandings of womanhood, femininity, and the mother-daughter relationship. From Donna Reed to Kris Jenner mothers depicted in the media, real or fictional, reveal societal beliefs about motherhood. This chapter will review and then examine some representations of the mother-daughter relationship in popular entertainment media such as U.S. television and film, arguing that the mother-daughter relationship is socially constructed through these media portrayals fraught with double-binds and wrapped up in ribbons of sacrifice and friendship.


Motherhood, daughterhood, mothering, daughtering and their meanings are not fixed and inevitable. They are the products of history and social ideals, ideas ← 57 | 58 → embedded within society. As society changes, so too do these ideals. As we grow up in our own social spheres we are not told how to mother or daughter in full detail or how to play the part, but are given a “few cues, hints, and stage directions” (Goffman, 1959, p. 72) by the world around us. Media such as film and television both create and reflect the social constructs of motherhood and daughterhood. Social constructs are social categories developed by society and social practice (e.g., what is a “good mother”?) and the study of how humans jointly construct social understandings of these categories is referred to as social constructionism (Berger & Luckmann, 1991). Social constructions provide us with the social cues, hints and stage directions for how to enact the roles of mother and daughter.

Motherhood has become one of the biggest media obsessions (Steinberg, 2007) with depictions of motherhood and daughterhood having the power to affects one’s perceptions of how mothers and daughters should perform their roles. Mothers and daughters come to understand their relationship “not only through the exigencies of daily life […] but through the systems of representation and cultural production that help give shape and meaning to that relationship” (Walters, 1992, p. 4). Of interest in this chapter are the depictions of the mother-daughter relationship in film and television over time and how they both reflect the social beliefs of the time and help to change or construct new ideals of motherhood and daughterhood. According to Inglehart and Norris (2003), during the latter half of the 20th century there was a rising tide of change in the U.S., transforming cultural attitudes towards gender and gender roles. Therefore, focusing on select popular film and television from 1950 to 2000 we build on the work of Walters (1992) to explore how ideals for the mother-daughter relationship are, in part, formed by the cultural images in film and television. When we watch a television show or film we are presented with vivid and often contradictory images that provide us with messages about what it means to be a mother or a daughter.


During World War II, women were heavily relied on to take on jobs previously held by men who were deployed (Goldin, 2006). With this, brought feminist icon Rosie the Riveter proudly claiming, “We can do it!” suggesting women can successfully keep the U.S. running while the men were off to war (Honey, 1985). Yet, once the war ended, men returned to their jobs and women were expected to return to their homes and resume their “primary” roles as wives and mothers (Honey, 1985). During this period, there was an influx of economic growth, the Baby Boom, migration to the suburbs, with the cultural ideal reflecting women as the embodiment of domesticity (Inglehart & Norris, 2003; Sweeney, 2002). During the 1950 media advertisements ← 58 | 59 → depicted women with arms full of groceries or cleaning the house looking happy and content, as if there was nothing else they’d rather do (Sweeney, 2002). These depictions conveyed the message that a woman’s only goal in life was to please her husband and care for her children and anything otherwise was considered selfish.

The film Imitation of Life (Hunter & Sirk, 1959) follows the lives of Lora, a single White mother and aspiring actress and Annie, a single Black mother and housekeeper/nanny over a period of years after World War II. In this film there are two parallel stories that unify around the issue of mothering. Lana Turner plays Lora Meredith, impoverished and trying to break into the theatre while raising her young daughter, Susie. Lora is joined early in the film by Annie and her daughter Sara Jane who are also impoverished but come to live with “Miss Lora” to care for her home and family in exchange for room and board. Annie and Sarah Jane stay on with Lora and Susie over the course of many years witnessing Lora’s professional success. In addition to myriad issues pertaining to race and racial equality, throughout the film there is a double-bind message that runs throughout. A double-bind is a message promoting two mutually exclusive self-presentations (Johnston & Swanson, 2003). As the country was pushing women out of the workforce and back into the home, social messages conveyed the sense that being a “good mother” was not possible if a woman had a career. During this period, pursuing a career (not just having a job outside the home) and functioning as a good mother were often depicted as mutually exclusive, with the term “career woman” equaling maternal deprivation (Walters, 1992). Therefore, Lora’s single-mindedness in pursuing a career is portrayed as narcissistic and neglectful. Lora’s daughter, Susie, laments to her mother, “You’ve given me everything but you” (Hunter & Sirk, 1959). Lora’s desire to have a career was not only considered selfish, it was portrayed as aberrant. The message was clear. To become a “good mother” she must sacrifice her career. This narrative is contrasted with the story of Annie and Sarah Jane and sets up good mother-bad mother and good daughter-bad daughter tensions. Annie is portrayed as virtuous, motherly, nurturing, and attentive with Susie turning to her instead of her own mother for solace. But, Sarah Jane who desires to “pass as White” and scorns her Black mother is cast as the bad daughter who rejects her mother and her race only to realize at the end how important her mother was to her. Maternal sacrifice for your children was a popular theme for films of this period, embedded within the social discourses of race and class.

In the 1950s and 1960s the baby boom occurred across the United States. Families grew larger during the baby boom and suburban life became the ideal, while at the same time the percentage of homes with televisions rose exponentially with 83.2% of homes having televisions by 1959 (Baughman, 2006). During this period, Friedan (1963) wrote in her bestselling volume The Feminine Mystique which critiqued images of women arguing that women were situated culturally in a mindless void of domesticity: ← 59 | 60 →

During the 1960s shows like Leave It to Beaver (1957–1963) (Connelly, Mosher, & Conway, 1957) and The Donna Reed Show (1958–1966) (Owen, 1958) were some of the more popular domestic situation comedies (sitcoms) of the time, with the Donna Reed Show being the first to feature a mother as the protagonist. Over the decades other television shows such as Cheers (Burrows, Charles, & Charles, 1982) and Gilmore Girls (Sherman-Palladino, 2000) referred to Donna Reed at the epitome of the perfect “good mother” of the ‘50s and ‘60s, yet during the series Donna Reed is consistently depicted as trying to break out of the mold of the typical 1950’s housewife (Morreale, 2012). In the episode Male Ego (Rodolph & Monaster, 1958), Donna’s daughter, Mary, gives a moving speech about her mother’s values and hard work as a mother and as a valued member of her community. Throughout the episode, the children rely on their mother for virtually all things and she makes significant contributions to her community as well; thus, making the father, Alex, feel unimportant and unnecessary. This exemplifies the “supermom” ideal of mothers in the ‘60s—the one who does it all. As life began to revolve around domesticity, mothers were viewed as the source of stability and role models, relying little on their husbands for anything but breadwinning. Moreover, mothers and daughters in sitcoms during this period were depicted as existing in “carefree harmony, disrupted only occasionally by the angst of adolescence” (Walters, 1992, p. 81). By 1965, the feminist movement was increasingly being reflected in television and Donna Reed’s domestic bliss no longer captured the public pulse and ratings began to fall (Morreale, 2012). In the mid-1960s new domestic sitcoms emerged, providing satirical depictions of the traditional housewives. For example, Morticia in The Addams Family (1964–1966) and Samantha in Bewitched (1964–1972) who relied on magic to complete her domestic tasks (O’Reilly, 2010). In addition, through the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, family structures became more diverse because of high divorce rates, increasing single parent headed households and blended families, positioning more women as heads of the household than ever before (O’Reilly, 2010).

Due to the shifting view of women and motherhood in the 1970s, sitcoms such as Maude (1972–1978) (Parker, 1972) were created, depicting an adult divorced daughter and mother living together (the mother, Maude, being on her fourth husband). The ‘70s marked the beginning of media’s change from focusing ← 60 | 61 → on the nuclear family and domestic bliss to an increasingly diverse view of family life in terms of class, race, and family structure. Unlike the ‘50s, being a working mother with a career in the 1970s tended not to be depicted as selfish, but rather, encouraged as admirable. Moreover, representations of women as sexual beings with healthy (non-deviant) sex lives were rarely seen before the 1970s. Before this, TV shows and movies often depicted husband and wife sleeping in separate beds. For example, in the 1960s, even when real-life husband and wife, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, played husband and wife on The Lucy Show (1962–1968) (Thompson, 1962) and the show tracked Lucile Ball’s real-life pregnancy on the show, the show depicted the couple sleeping in their separate twin beds throughout the entire run of the series. In the 1970s, mothers began to be shown as sexual beings for the first time. Maude depicted a mother who is no longer only just caring for her husband and her family, but also for herself. The audience saw Maude as a woman outside of her role as mother. This series created a good amount of social unrest during the run of the series, with some individuals believing that the series encouraged women to leave their husbands and be more independent (Dow, 1996). Not only were women represented as women outside their role as mother, but women were increasingly being depicted as sexual beings. In the episode Like Mother/Like Daughter (Hobin, Lear, & Harris, 1972) Maude was depicted as a sexual rival to her daughter. This episode demonstrated competition between mother and daughter over a man both had dated. The two women were on the same “playing field” with Maude’s sexuality and independence as potent as her daughter’s. By the ‘70s media depictions of mothers and daughters reflected a more complex and realistic view of women as sexual beings, working women, and single moms.

In the 1980s we continue to see images of the sacrificial mother, but also an increase in media messages replete with mother blaming. Mother blaming refers to casting blame on mothers for her children’s behavior and all their problems (Sommerfeld, 1989). Mothers are either idealized or blamed for everything that goes wrong, represented as selfless angels or self-centered witches. During this period, mothers were cherished and praised for everything that went right with their daughters, they were also shamed and blamed for everything that went wrong, often depicting a symbiotic relationship and creating a double-bind. To be a good mother, one had to be friends with daughters, but also be responsible for their successes and failures.

The film Terms of Endearment (1983) exemplified both messages of sacrifice and mother-blaming. Throughout the movie, Aurora Greenway and her daughter Emma have a relatively enmeshed relationship. In an enmeshed relationship there is an extreme amount of emotional closeness, and loyalty is demanded. Individuals are very dependent on each other and reactive to one another. There is a lack of personal separateness and little private space is permitted. The energy of the individuals is mainly focused inside the family and there are few outside individual ← 61 | 62 → friends or interests (Olson, 2000). Like the symbiotic relationship depicted in a popular book at the time, My Mother, Myself: The Daughter’s Search for Identity (Friday, 1977), both Aurora and Emma see themselves in each other, depend heavily on each other, but Emma wants to resist the cosmic pull of her mother at every turn. They update each other on their lives daily and always keep in touch, even when Emma moves away. At the same time, they fight constantly, and Emma tries to extricate herself from her mother’s need at multiple points during the film. Both Emma and Aurora are depicted as “sacrificial” mothers throughout the film. Emma sacrificed being a career woman to prioritize being a wife and mother to her three children. When Emma visits New York toward the end of the film and meets other women, the divide between housewife and career woman is highlighted. The friends begin to ask Emma if she’s planning on going back to work once her toddler is older, in which Emma responds that she’s never really worked. The other women are shocked and start to judge Emma for not having a career outside the home. The juxtaposition of the two different types of women in society at the time emphasizes the image of sacrificial mother in the case of Emma. For the widowed Aurora, she was depicted as a woman who prioritized being Emma’s mother over pursuing any romantic relationships, despite her dedicated admirers. When Emma becomes an adult and moves away, Aurora finally starts to pursue a relationship and reclaim her womanhood, focusing on herself as a woman instead of solely as a mother.

The tensions between selfish and selfless mothering are also depicted in this film with Aurora refusing to attend Emma’s wedding, reacting poorly to the news that she was to be a grandmother, and many instances of not supporting her daughter or her daughter’s choices. Emma blamed Aurora for not being a good mother and refusing to show up to her wedding, for not being happy for her and for many of the disappointments in her married life. Yet, she could not extricate herself from her mother’s gravitational force.

By the turn of the century, in the early 2000s, mothers in the media often resisted becoming like their mothers and sought to be their daughters’ best friends. The era of mom and daughter as best friends emerged evoking the nickname, the “Gilmore years.” As the nickname states, the television series the Gilmore Girls (2000–2007) (Sherman-Palladino, 2000) provided a clear demonstration of mother as best friend. Lorelai is Rory’s mother and Lorelai “made it her purpose to prevent her daughter from making the same mistakes [she] did and therefore give [Rory] all the opportunities she missed out on in her own youth,” (Hiddlestone, 2007, p.33). Mother-blaming was still evident in Gilmore Girls, with Lorelai blaming her own mother for many of the mistakes she made early in life, but Lorelai and was trying to make up for these mistakes by becoming her daughter’s friend. Lorelai’s attitude towards parenting was being the “cool” mom and the best friend. This type of relationship defied the typical distance between parent ← 62 | 63 → and child standards, being, as close to equality as a parent-child relationship can get (Hiddlestone, 2007). Even though the dynamic is much different than those seen in years before, Lorelai doesn’t sacrifice her need to “mother” Rory when also functioning as Rory’s best friend.

During the 2000s, with increased programming on television cable and video streaming, there have been increased depictions of mothers behaving badly. Walters and Harrison (2014) argue that as we moved into the 21st century a new type of mother emerged—particularly in non-network cable TV—that presented a radical departure from previous depictions. From the suburban mom/drug dealer of Showtime’s Weeds (Kohan, 2005) to the wives of Mad Men (Hornbacher, 2007) and films such as Bad Moms (Block, Lucas, & Moore, 2016) there were depictions of increasingly aberrant mothers. But “unlike aberrant mothers of earlier eras, these mothers are by and large heroines, unapologetically non-normative in their maternal functioning. Their parenting is cursory at best and often downright neglectful, behavior that has typically resulted in sure death for Hollywood mothers of earlier eras” (Walters & Harrison, 2014, p. 38). These mothers are no longer sacrificial, are unapologetically sexual, and oftentimes neglectful of their daughters. Walters and Harrison (2014) note that shows like Desperate Housewives, which feature women very concerned with being great mothers to their children, are also depicted as, “uncontrolled and uncontrollable, full of urges, desires and identities that are antithetical to what we imagine of a good mother.” Likewise, with reality TV show moms, mom bloggers, “cool” moms and more, “motherhood in the new millennium is marked by an excess of meaning,” (Walters & Harrison, 2014). This “bad mom” depiction is not intended to put women down for ignoring their duties as a mother, but rather, aimed to display their identity as a woman and human being in addition to being a mother—a depiction that has taken decades to be deemed appropriate enough for mass media. Even though they may be “bad,” their maternal commitments were rarely doubted and there was a “significant amount of actual labor” occurring …“and the bad mother as anti-hero might be just what we need” (Walters & Harrison, 2014, p. 51). It is unclear what future cultural representations of the mother-daughter relationship will bring, but these are bound to provide messages hinting at what it is to be a “good” or “bad” mother or daughter.


Examining messages about mothers and daughters in television and film is fun, but it is also important. If we are to understand how popular media has shaped social expectations for mothers and daughters over the years, a critical examination of popular media over time is necessary. To complement the existing feminist and critical cultural evaluations of media we conducted a quantitative content analysis ← 63 | 64 → study of network television between 1990 and 2017 to examine how the mother-daughter relationship is depicted over time.

What Were We Interested in Learning?

Guided by important themes identified in previous mother-daughter research we investigated various representations of the mother-daughter relationship in network television asking, what are the differences in how the mother-daughter relationship is depicted in television between 1990–2017?

How Did We Go About Learning This Information?


Fifty-two television episodes that aired on network television between 1990 and 2017 were sampled. To be included in the sample, the show had to meet the following criteria: (a) a scripted live action fiction program (i.e., not reality TV, documentary or animated series); (b) aired for at least two seasons; and (c) prominently featured at least one relationship between an adult/teen daughter and her mother. To meet the third inclusion criterion, either the mother or the daughter had to be part of the main cast on the show and the other character had to be part of the reoccurring cast. If a randomly sampled episode from a television series did not depict both the mother and the daughter, another episode from the show was re-sampled. If more than one mother-daughter dyad was depicted in a given episode, the one most prominently featured relationship was coded. Step mothers were not included in the sample.


Coding was completed by a trained coder. Eleven (21%) of the episodes were coded both by the coder and one of the authors, to ensure intercoder reliability. Krippendorff’s α has been computed to assess reliability for each variable. All disagreements have been resolved by reaching a consensus through discussion.


Episode-level Variables

The genre of each program was coded as either comedy (intended to be humorous and amusing, n = 16, 31%, e.g., The Goldbergs), drama (realistic characters dealing with emotional themes, n = 20, 39%, e.g., The OC), or situation comedy (sitcom: comic show with a laughing track, n = 15, 29%, e.g., Step by Step). ← 64 | 65 → For subsequent analyses, the genres were combined into two main categories—comedy (including both comedy and sitcom) and drama. The network on which the episode was originally broadcasted (α = 1.0). The year when the episode was originally aired (α = 1.0). For subsequent analyses, this variable was recoded into decades: 1990–1999 (n = 20), 2000–2009 (n = 15), and 2010–2017 (n = 17). The total number of dyads eligible for coding in a given episode was identified. These include all the mother-daughter dyads of recurring/main characters with daughters ages 12 and above. The most prominently depicted dyad was then coded for subsequent characteristics (α = .95). Of these dyads, only one dyad per episode was chosen for character-level and relationship-level analysis. There was a 100% agreement between coders as to which dyad should be selected for the character-level analyses. The prominence or the extent to which the mother-daughter relationship is central to the narrative of the episode was coded as a major storyline, minor storyline, or a brief reference (α = .80). In most of the coded programs (62%) the mother-daughter relationship constituted a main story line, and the rest were deemed minor story lines.

Character-level Variables

The mother and the daughter characters in each episode were coded for demographic and personal characteristics. Race/ethnicity for each character (mother and daughter) was coded as White, Black, Latina, Asian, Native American, or Mixed (defined as a combination of at least two non-White ethnicities) (α = 1.0 for both the mother and the daughter characters). For age, an estimate age-group of the characters has been made. Age categories included: adolescent (12–17 years old), late adolescent (18–21 years old), young adult (22–30 years old), adult (31–49 years old), middle aged (50–65 years old), or elderly (66 years old and above). Given that only relationships with teen or adult daughters were coded, naturally there were no adolescent and late adolescent mothers coded. The reliability for the daughters’ age was considerably more reliable (α = .99) than the reliability for mothers (α = .66). This can be explained by the fact that the daughters’ age was more often referenced in the dialogue, or it could be deduced from the life-stage of the daughter (e.g., middle school, freshman in college). Socio-economic status was coded as low (i.e., live in poverty or a student), middle (i.e., moderate standard of living with some struggles), high (i.e., financially secure, but does not have to be rich), or unknown (i.e., no information has been provided). Mother: α = .56, daughter: α = .75.

Mother and Daughter Variables

Several variables emerged from mother-daughter research as well as from media studies that focused our inquiry into media depictions of mothers, daughters, and ← 65 | 66 → the mother-daughter relationship. From this literature we selected the following variables to code individually: Sacrificial mother, sexual objectification, and filial comprehending.

Sacrificial Mother. This is the extent to which the mother gives up something of importance so that her daughter can gain something from the mother’s sacrifice (Rubenstein, 1998; Walters, 1992; Williams, 1984) was coded on a three-point scale from “1” not at all to “3” very much. The sacrifice had to be explicit in the narrative (α = .56).

Sexual Objectification. The extent to which the character is sexualized/objectified was measured on a three-point scale from “1” not at all to “3” very much. Objectification could occur through provocative clothing, nonverbal behaviors, dialogue (what she says and what others say about her) or being explicitly depicted as an object of sexual desire by other characters (Walters, 1992). Mother: α = .89, daughter: α = .75.

Filial Comprehending. Filial comprehending occurs when a daughter begins to view her mother as an individual rather than just as a mother (Fisher & Miller-Day, 2006; Miller-Day, 2004). This variable encompasses the daughter’s acknowledgement that mother is a person, a woman, a professional or assumes another role outside of her role as “mother.” Only an explicit message that the daughter sees her mother differently—not as mother but as something else—were coded as achieved filial comprehension, and all other cases were coded as not depicting filial comprehension (α = .42).

Mother-Daughter Relationship-level Variables

The nature of the relationship overall between the mother and the daughter characters were coded for a variety of relational dialectics. According to the dialectical perspective, all relationships are constantly changing and fraught with contradictions. These contradictions are relational phenomena termed relational dialectics (Miller-Day, 2004). Relational dialectics assert that persons in relationships manage opposing interdependent forces that stand in dialectical association with each other (Montgomery & Baxter, 1998).

Stability/Change. The orientation to change in the mother-daughter relationship in an episode was coded as a function of the extent to which the characters resist or accept change in their relationship (α = .89). Categories included (1) receptive to change through the episode, (2) neutral/mixed throughout the episode, (3) resistant to change throughout the episode, (4) transition from resistance to acceptance, or (5) transitioning from acceptance to resistance. ← 66 | 67 →

Powerful/Powerless. The orientation to power in the mother-daughter relationship in the episode was coded based on the emotional, financial, and other resources that the characters possess relative to each other (α = .76). Categories included (1) daughter more powerful through the episode, (2) neutral/mixed throughout the episode, (3) mother more powerful throughout the episode, (4) transition from mother to daughter, or (5) transitioning from daughter to mother.

Openness/Closedness. The relationship was coded for the extent to which the characters share feelings, ideas, and information, versus keeping information restricted, private, and concealed from the other character (α = .73). Disclosure was coded as (1) closed through the episode, (2) neutral/mixed throughout the episode, (3) open throughout the episode, (4) transition from closed towards more open, or (5) transitioning from open to more closed.

Family Role/Friend. The mother-daughter relationship is rated according to the characters’ orientations to each other as either based on sociological roles as rigid mother/daughter roles, or more like peers and friends. The relationship was coded based on explicit depictions of rigid sociological role interactions (clear boundaries, obeying behaviors) or friend-like behaviors (e.g., daughter privy to mother’s relationships, engaging in activities like consuming recreational drugs together, etc.) (α = .65). Categories included: (1) mother-daughter roles, (2) mixed mother-daughter but also some friends roles throughout the episode, (3) friends throughout the episode, (4) transition from rigid roles towards friends-like, or (5) transitioning from friendship to more rigid roles.

Competition/No Competition. The mother-daughter relationship is rated as (1) competitive, (2) neutral or mixed—competitive in some cases but not others, (3) non-competitive, (4) moving from competitive to non-competitive, or (5) moving from non-competitive to competitive. To be coded as competitive to any extent, the narrative explicitly depicted a competition for some resource such as attention or a reward (α = .49).

Comforting/Hurtful. The characters’ caring orientation towards each other was coded for explicitly hurtful or comforting behaviors: (1) hurtful, (2) neutral or mixed, (3) comforting, (4) moving from hurtful to comforting, or (5) moving from comforting to hurtful (α = .74).

Mother-Centered/Daughter-Centered. The storyline was coded for the focal character of the story whose perspective is most represented: (1) daughter-centered, (2) equally balanced, (3) mother-centered (α = .73). ← 67 | 68 →

What Did We Learn?

Characteristics of Mothers and Daughters in the Shows

On average, each show depicted two mother-daughter dyads (M = 2.02, SD = 1.08, range 1–6). The coded programs featured almost exclusively White upper-class families. The only ethnic minority depicted was Black, constituting only 10% of the mothers and the daughters coded. Only 10% of daughters and 8% of mothers were low/middle SES. Most (66%) of the daughters in the sample were teenagers ages 12–17 with mothers typically (75%) in their 30s and 40s.

The narrative was often (52%) told from the point of view of the daughter whereas only 29% of the shows represented the mother’s perspective alone. Most (64%) of the daughters did not reach filial comprehension. Filial comprehension was particularly present in older daughters (63–71% in daughters ages 22–49), while none of the daughters ages 18–21 and only 27% of daughters ages 12–17 achieved it (χ2(3) = 9.21 p < .05, η = .42).

Sacrificial mothers were uncommon. Overall, 78% of the mothers were not at all sacrificial and a mere 6% of the mothers were highly sacrificial.

There were no differences between levels of sexual objectification of mothers and daughters. For the most part, both mothers (67%) and daughters (58%) were not objectified sexually with only 10% of mothers and 8% of daughters highly objectified sexually.

Dialectical Nature of the Shows’ Mother-Daughter Relationships

Overall, mother-daughter relationships on television during this period evolved throughout any given episode, typically characterized as moving from resistance to change at the beginning of the episode to acceptance of change at the end of the episode (50%), and from being closed to more open (39%). Ultimately, considering the note on which the episodes ended, 73% of the relationships were receptive of change and 58% of them were open. Relationships were also mostly positive, typically ending on a comforting and non-competitive note. Many of the relationships were comforting throughout the episode (39%) and others transitioned from being hurtful to comforting (23%) over the course of the episode. Most (58%) of the relationships also become less competitive. Nonetheless, the relationships were usually rigid (69%) with characters assuming clear sociological roles of a mother and daughter. Accordingly, in 43% of the relationships, mothers had more power than did their daughters, and in another 17% the power in the relationship gravitated towards the mother over the course of the episode. Notably, this was more characteristic of dramatic shows than comic programs. Almost all (90%) of the families in dramas were set in rigid roles, compared to only 58% of families in comedies and sitcoms (χ2(2) = 6.38, p < .05, η = .35). Similarly, compared to dramas, comic shows featured more mixed power (25% vs. 10%). ← 68 | 69 →

Changes Across Time

There were no significant differences in the pattern of portrayals of mother-daughter relationships over the course of the three decades under consideration. The only exceptions were stability and filial comprehension. It appears that there is a tendency for more resistance to change over time. In the 1990s 80% of the dyads were receptive to change compared to 73% in the 2000s, and just 65% in the 2010s. Instead, the 2010s shows depict more mixed reactions to change (χ2(4) = 9.46, p = .05, η =.07). Likewise, there is a significantly higher level of filial comprehension in the more recent seasons, growing from merely 20−25% in the 1990s−2000s to 65% in the 2010s (χ2(2) = 8.75, p < .05, η = .41).


In this chapter we discussed how representations of the mother-daughter relationship in popular U.S. television and film help construct ideals of what it is to be a (good) mother and daughter and provide us with social cues and hints for how to enact these roles. Yet, these media portrayals are fraught with double-binds and images of maternal sacrifice as well as mother-daughter friendship.

Although representations of mother-daughter relationships may have changed significantly in cable television (Walters & Harrison, 2014), our study suggests that on network television there has not been much change over time in depictions of mothers and daughter, except for filial comprehension depictions. Over time, network television included significantly more depictions of daughters acknowledging their mother as a person with her own goals and desires and not just as her mother. Seeing a woman outside her role of mother is an important stepping stone in making progress for women who may embrace several identities in their lifetime. The study also reveals that network television over the past thirty years represented mother-daughter relationships privileging open communication, embracing change, revealing secrets, and moving toward increased connection. Interestingly, it is the comedies that tend to portray mothers as less powerful and less authoritative (more friend-like) and viewers are invited to laugh at this model and reject it. This may suggest a changing social dynamic; yet more research is needed to investigate this. Of note is the lack of sacrifice observed in the television episodes coded in the study. This is in contradiction to previous media and feminist studies reporting that the sacrificial mother has been ever present in media representations from the early 1900’s to the turn of the 21st century (Rubenstein, 1998; Walters, 1992).

The study presented in this chapter has its limitations. Overall, the dataset depicts a very narrow set of families with mothers and daughters. There are very few non-White and low/middle class families and adult daughters with elderly mothers almost non-existent. This is consistent with other content analysis work ← 69 | 70 → on television programming—underrepresentation of ethnic minorities and older adults (e.g., Robinson & Skill, 1995; Tukachinsky, Mastro, & Yarchi, 2015).



Why might it be important to show more television representations of daughters viewing their mothers as women with individual needs and goals, instead of just as mothers?

Would it be useful to do similar investigations of mother-son, father-son, and father-daughter representations? What do you think we might find?

Compare the results of this study to the content analysis of a representation of fathers from 1950s to 1990 (Scharrer, 2001). Would it be valuable to replicate that study in the context of mothers rather than fathers? Based on the findings of the current study, how do you expect the results to be similar or different to those in Scharrer’s study?

How does diversity behind the camera (e.g., assuming roles of directors, script writers, and producers) have implications for representations of mothers and daughters? ← 70 | 71 →

If you were able to influence the media industry, would you encourage script writers and directors to make any changes in their current representations of mother-daughter relationships? What would you suggest and why?

How do you think these television representations influence the viewers? Can you think of short term and long-term effects? Consider the potential effects on different groups of viewers (young or prospective mothers, teenage daughters, fathers, members of different racial groups, etc.)

How do you viewers respond to the different types of relationship in the media? Do they relate to different characteristics? What characters do they identify with the most? Again, consider the reactions of viewers from different social groups.

Do you think that media reflect existing social and cultural norms or do media contribute to shaping social and cultural norms? How could we empirically distinguish between these “chicken and the egg” processes?

What did you expect the researchers to find? Were you surprised by the results? In your opinion, are the results of this study are “good” or “bad”? In what ways?



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* Michelle Miller-Day, professor, Chapman University, millerda@chapman.edu.

Riva Tukachinsky, assistant professor, Chapman University, tukachin@chapman.edu.

Sydney Jacobs, alumna, Chapman University.

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Memorable Moments

Turning Points in the Mother-Daughter Relationship from Childhood to Mid-Life


Thinking back through my lifetime and the memories I have of my relationship with my mother, I can point to a handful of memorable moments that either increased or decreased my experience of intimacy in the relationship. One of my earliest memories of a memorable moment in our relationship is the time when I was five-years-old and I burned my hand on our stove. My mother was angry with me. I had expected her to care for me, comfort me, and sympathize with my pain. Instead, exhausted from spending the past week sitting by my brother’s bed in the hospital, her temper was short, and the last thing she wanted was to deal with another sick or injured child. She yelled at me, bandaged my hand, and made me go to bed. I recall lying awake and crying. Crying in pain, but also self-pity. How could she spend so much time with my brother and then when I get hurt, I get into trouble? Of course, at the age of five I did not understand that my mother was exhausted and feeling stressed about my brother’s illness. In my world, I felt neglected and betrayed. For me, this was memorable, and it decreased my feelings of closeness to my mother.

Memorable moments that occur in our relationships that serve to increase or decrease intimacy are called relational turning points. Turning points are “events or relational incidents that are associated with change or transformation in a relationship” (Baxter & Wolf, 2009, p. 1652). Miller-Day (2004) indicates that turning points result in the recalibration of the mother-daughter relationship. Once these ← 75 | 76 → turning points occur, we consider the mother-daughter relationship and adjust our perceptions and expectations of the relationship. I experienced several turning points in my relationship with my mother in my lifetime, with her death last year providing our final significant relational turning point. Some turning points resulted in me pulling away from my mother (such as the example above), and some brought me closer to her (e.g., attending my first Broadway show with her). Thankfully, I had many more upward turning points bringing me closer to my mother, than downward turning points pulling me away from her. This chapter will explore some of the most common relational turning points in the mother-daughter relationship, with a specific focus on social support—one of the most commonly reported types of turning points in the mother-daughter relationship.


Using retrospective interviews and asking individuals to graph their relational turning points across time, several scholars have examined turning points in mother-child relationships from childhood to mid-life. These studies are designed to identify moments that serve to constitute, reinforce, or redefine family bonds and relational intimacy (Miller-Day, Fisher, & Stube, 2013). This type of research typically asks adult individuals to think back and remember the turning points in their mother-child relationship, noting details of what occurred and how they experienced this relational transition (see for example, Fisher & Miller-Day, 2006; Golish, 2000; Miller-Day, 2004; Miller-Day et al., 2013).

Findings of this research reveal that turning points in mother-daughter relationships can include both grand, life-altering moments—such as a daughter’s pregnancy and childbirth—or more intimate relational events, such as a shared activity like attending a Broadway musical together. The following discussion identifies the primary types of turning points reported by both mothers and daughters in previous research.


XVIII, 374
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2019 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XVIII, 374 pp., 6 tbl., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Allison M. Alford (Volume editor) Michelle Miller-Day (Volume editor)

<B>Allison M. Alford</B> (Ph.D., The University of Texas at Austin) is Clinical Assistant Professor of Business Communication at Baylor University. She has been teaching communication courses at the post-secondary level since 2005. <B>Michelle Miller-Day</B> (Ph.D., Arizona State University) is Professor of Communication Studies at Chapman University. She is the recipient of the 2015 Bernard J. Brommel Career Award for Outstanding Scholarship and Distinguished Service in Family Communication by the National Communication Association.


Title: Constructing Motherhood and Daughterhood Across the Lifespan