Daughters of Self-Sacrifice

 

 

Young Women in family businesses today are challenging the long tradition of female selflessness, devaluation, and self-sacrifice, and they are also working to stay connected to their mothers. It is not easy or without conflict, however, that daughters strive for a different identity and lifestyle than their mothers. This is particularly true when the daughter's life includes aspects of her mother's unfulfilled aspirations and regrets, aspects which may painfully remind her mother of the rigid and unfair rules that limited her own opportunities.

Some daughters feel guilty about having more chances than their mother; they feel obligated to deny their personal or professional strivings to honor their mothers' self-sacrifices. Other daughters deny their ambitions in self-defeating attempts to ward off the envy, regret, and competitiveness they fear their mothers will experience as a result of their successes. Still others feel compelled to succeed in ways and areas in which their mothers had no interest, to satisfy their mothers' unfulfilled dreams or to provide them some vicarious enjoyment. Even daughters who know their mothers are content with the choices they have made and the lifestyle they enjoy may still feel guilty about having more possibilities.

When challenging the long tradition of female self-sacrifice, daughters often feel they are betraying their mothers' world and therefore, their mother. Taught in childhood to be "good girls" - overly accommodating, attentive and pleasing - some daughters mistake their wish for achievement, happiness, good health, economic independence, or a good marriage as "selfishness," when actually it is a normal striving for self-fulfillment. Anita, a 37-vear-old director of public relations, made this mistake. It almost cost her a gratifying career in the family's doll-making business and, equally important, a genuine relationship with her mother. Aware of her mother's limited presence in the family business, she felt guilty about her own highly regarded and visible position. She understood that things were different for women today than when her grandfather first founded the family's business, but still she found it difficult to embrace the privileges and challenges available to her that were unavailable to her mother.

Years ago, when Anita's maternal grandfather died, his business went to his only son-in-law, Anita's father, Herman. The small business had not seen a profit for years. Herman wanted to sell it but Anita's mother, Mae, convinced him to hold on and try to turn it around.

The first few years were tough. Herman worked long hours and Mae often worked alongside him. She kept the books and cleaned the tools because the business couldn't afford to hire all the employees it needed. When Mae didn't actively participate in the business, she helped in other ways. She supported her husband when he was discouraged, agreed to drain the bank account, mortgage the house, and borrow on the insurance. Since Mae was responsible for the care of their young children and ran the household, she wasn't given an official title or position in the business. She and Herman thought of her as the "silent partner," active but not visible, nevertheless very influential. Eventually, the business turned a profit and in time became a highly competitive and profitable specialty doll manufacturer.

Mae was courageous, strong, and risk-taking, and the pressure on her was intense. Anita knew that without her mother's encouragement the business wouldn't have stayed in the family, and without her partnership it wouldn't have survived the initial years after her grandfather's death. Anita also knew that her mother had the ambition and ability to run the company but she didn't have the opportunity. She was a talented and proven entrepreneur but her talent and achievements were never credited.

Needed consultation

I had been the family's business consultant for two years when Anita requested an individual meeting with me to discuss some "personal" issues. "My mother was served injustice," Anita began. "It's because of her that our business exists today. But no one knows it. My dad and grandfather's pictures hang in the hallway, not my mom's. My dad gets the civic awards, not my mom. My dad gets the credit, not my mom. Don't get me wrong. Dad worked very hard and deserves credit too," Anita continued, "but so does Mom."

"Does your father appreciate what your mother's done for the business?" I inquired.

"Absolutely. That's not the issue. It's just that Mom wanted to be more actively involved, but she couldn't because of us kids, and the times. She insists she isn't bitter about it. She says 'What' s happened, happened. It can't be changed, and you just move on.' Still . . ."

"Still what?" I asked. By now I was beginning to wonder what was behind Anita's fierce defense of her mother.

Anita's voice was barely audible. "I don't know. I guess I feel guilty. Back then people didn't believe in outside child care, and Dad thought it was Mom's place to stay home with the kids. Mom agreed. But now, only a generation later Dad wants me to work with him, and Mom thinks it's great that women get to have babies and also work. She teases me to 'fight like hell' to be the next company president. But somehow it doesn't feel fair. It's stupid, but I feel guilty."

Anita is not alone in her guilt. As if to pay homage, many daughters disallow themselves anything of which their mothers were deprived.

"You can't change your mother's past," I told Anita. "Holding yourself back in retribution for your mother's life will do nothing for you or your mother."

"It's just not fair . . ." she began.

"No, it's not fair. But life isn't fair."

A conversation with Mae

At my urging, Anita talked with her mother about her guilt. Anita told her mother she knew she had done nothing to feel guilty about, but the guilt persisted. She confessed that she rarely talked about work because she didn't want to remind her mother of what she had never gotten to do in the business.

Mae again told Anita she had reconciled herself to her past and had no regrets. It wasn't all bad. Mae recalled that she felt proud when she and Herman turned the business around; she spoke of the fun she had with her children; she bragged about "having the best of two worlds" at a time when women were not supposed to be in business. It had never occurred to Anita that her mother had seized every opportunity available to her at the time, and far from feeling regret or resentment, felt proud of herself.

Mae was disturbed by Anita's guilt and insulted by her protectiveness. "Did I give you the idea that I'd be angry if you loved the business as much as I did and wanted to be a part of it?" she asked. "Did it ever occur to you that I wanted you to be involved in the business?" Anita was stunned. Had her mother always felt this way? Mae continued, now telling Anita what she had long held to herself. "All these years I thought you didn't talk to me about your work because you didn't want me to know what you were doing, you didn't want my input, or you thought I'd be critical of your decisions."

Anita and Mae were cut from the same mold. In an attempt to "protect " the other, neither had shared her life - her real thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, regrets. Beneath the protectiveness, however, lay the fear that the relationship wasn't strong enough to tolerate differenced, envy, competition, and perhaps even some conflict.

Now that "the cat was out of the bag," as Mae put it, each knew that their pretenses kept them in a pseudo-close, polite relationship, but it prevented them from having an honest, intimate relationship. Anita could no longer use the protection of her mother's feelings to justify her own hesitancy in seizing opportunities before her. Mae could no longer use Anita's privacy as her excuse for keeping silent.

Today, eight years after their initial conversation, Anita is in line to succeed her father as president of the business and Mae is enjoying a new relationship with her daughter. In Mae's words, "Eight years ago I had a nice, polite young woman named Anita who visited me regularly and cheered me up. But I didn't know her. And she didn't know me. Today, I have a kind, not-so-polite, sometimes stubborn but honest woman named Anita who visits me. She doesn't always cheer me up, but she always gives me who she is. I have a daughter!"

What Anita did was courageous. Her courage was matched by her mother's. Mae was honest, and willing to acknowledge some of her own feelings, short-comings, and vulnerabilities.

The perfect mother

Too few daughters really get to know their mother as another woman. Well into adulthood, some women long for an emotional connection they never had with their mother. Others spend a lifetime trying to avoid their mother. Some daughters find it difficult to achieve a sense of competency and self-respect and also remain close to their mother. Still others perceive and criticize their mother as being overly controlling, intrusive, and wanting too much intimacy. Why is this?

It is strange: When it comes to motherhood, women are expected to be perfect. It seems the only good mother is a perfect mother. And for today's mothers, the expected perfection includes the ability to compete on an equal footing with men in the workplace while still assuming the domestic and child-care responsibilities at home.

Perfection in any role by any person is impossible, but when mothers fail to meet the unrealistic standard set for them they often are considered failures and cast into the role of a "bad" mother. The dichotomy makes it extremely difficult for many daughters and their mothers to maintain a relationship: Daughters either feel cheated and angry at their mother for not measuring up to perfection, or they feel cheated and angry at them for being flawed, and therefore, bad. Either way, daughters and mothers are cast against each other.

Where should we set the standard for good mothering? How do we know if our mothering is adequate? What does distinguish a good mother from an engulfing or rejecting mother? These and other questions haunt most daughters when they become mothers. In reality, motherhood is a relationship and a role, not an idealized or vilified persona, and not a career. There is no one right way to mother, just as there is no one right way to be married, to have a friend, to work, or to love. How a woman parents, or befriends, or loves, or leads depends on her personality, her family history, her values, her circumstances, her lifestyle, and her expectations of self.

The well-mothered daughter

Margaret Ann, an energetic, 51-year-old business owner from Chicago whom I met on an airplane, told me a story about herself and her mother that started me thinking about "well-mothered" daughters and their "good" mothers. I will share her story, in her own words. "When I was 28 years old I decided I wanted to work in the family business. I had enjoyed five years at another company, but I was drawn to the idea of working with and learning from my dad, a man I loved and respected.

"I first approached my mother with the idea because I thought she'd be most against it. She had worked in the business when I was young and had hated it. Dad and she argued about how to do things and it nearly destroyed their marriage. As soon as they could afford it, she quit. I worried that she might be angry if Dad and I shared something in common. In a million years I never would have guessed her response.

" ' Okay, ' Mom said, 'after dinner how about if all of us sit down and talk about how to make it happen?'

"Is that all?" I said. "You're not going to try to talk me out o f it?

"My mother's next comment floored me. 'Heavens no, I'm not going to discourage you. You and I are different, sweetie, and I think you would enjoy it. You've got the training for it, you and your dad get along well, and you don't have to go home with him after work! The important think is for us to plan your entry in a way that is best for you and for the company. '

"I swear, sometimes the woman we think our mother is no longer exists, or maybe she never existed!" Good mothering is difficult. It takes involvement, hard work, practice, and a willingness to let a daughter claim her own identity. It is about providing structure and guidance within the context of increasing flexibility. It requires the capacity to form a close bond while also encouraging independence. And it demands tolerance for the dynamic tension that is part of a normal, healthy mother-daughter relationship.

When a daughter insists that her mother be perfect, a genuine, regular relationship is impossible. She cannot, after all, carry on honest dialogue with an idealized Madonna, nor feel close to an impossible ogre. A regular relationship, like a friendship, requires a mother and daughter to accept one another for who they are rather than who they want each other to be. It requires honesty, a willingness to disagree and still respect one another, a willingness to stay emotionally connected and yet be distinct individuals. A regular relationship requires each person to have her own opinions and to make her own decisions, based on her own needs and set of circumstances. A regular and genuine relationship does not require either mother or daughter to give u p what's in her best interest, to be someone she is not, or to sacrifice her goals and aspirations to preserve and appease the relationship.

Margaret Ann was a well-mothered daughter. Even when she could not distinguish between herself and her mother, her mother pointed out their differences. Even when she was afraid, her mother showed strength.

Good mothers make mistakes, get angry, feel jealous at times. They do not strive for perfection in themselves or their daughters. They know that such unrealistic expectations serve only to provide feelings of inadequacy and resentment, both in themselves and their daughter. Good mothers are not always confident in what they do, but they have confidence that in being themselves, they will mother well.

 

 

A personal postscript

I, too, am a daughter and mother. It is within the duality of these complex roles that I add this postscript for mothers only. We, as mothers, must realize that it is impossible to have a daughter and not confront our relationship with our own mother. I have known women who never wanted a daughter because they feared they would have the same troubled relationship that their mother had with them. Others worried that they could not be as "perfect" as their mother, or that they would compete against their daughter. A mother's desire to raise a daughter differently may come from a troubled relationship with their own mother, or from a loving determination to see their daughter's strengths be exercised, her voice be heard and appreciated, her dreams become reality.

It is normal, understandable, and expected that, as mothers, we will enjoy our daughters' achievements. It also is normal and expected for us to feel some regret, perhaps even some envy, about our daughters' achievements. After all, our daughters' achievements will remind us o f what we might have achieved but never attempted, of opportunities lost to age, or of strivings we had but couldn't express. The mother whose husband owns a business, for example, may insist that their daughter have the same opportunity as their son to work in the family business. When their daughter is given the opportunity, proves herself capable, and her contributions are recognized, however, the mother also may regret that she herself had t o work behind the scenes. Unless as mothers we acknowledge and articulate not only our pride and support of our daughters but also our regrets, resentments, sadness, and envy, we will give mixed emotional messages to our daughters that will conf use and trouble them. Our daughters are possessed with the same perceptiveness we have, and they will recognize our ambivalence. It will interfere with their ability to pursue their ambitions without guilt, carve out their own lifestyle rather than one that protects and pleases us, and limit their enjoyment of the opportunities and challenges we strived so fiercely to make available to them. We are proud that our daughters and granddaughters can work in the family business and that they expect the opportunity to compete for any position for which they are qualified. We may worry that they may be limited because we couldn't show them how to speak up. They may still face discrimination, or be overlooked as potential heirs. They will need a confident, strong voice to correct these misperceptions. Hopefully, we will have the courage to encourage them to tenaciously hang and use their voice, even if we could not.

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“The Daughter Also Rises”

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