A Perfect Mother is Not an Ideal Mother At All

By Linda Perlman Gordon and Susan Morris Shaffer
Linda Perlman Gordon and Susan Morris ShafferA daughter often feels her mother as such a powerful presence in her life that it can be difficult for her to see her as an ordinary person with failings, motives and ambitions. Developing a healthy adult relationship requires that both mothers and daughters understand and accept each other as separate individuals with flaws and imperfections.
With few exceptions (mental illness, narcissism, and other personality disorders), certain qualities can help mothers and daughters to overcome barriers. Nobody is perfect. If a mother is empathic, responsive, and respects boundaries, close relationships are always possible. Children are very resilient and can accept imperfections when their mothers exhibit the above qualities. Parents can also accept flaws if children demonstrate empathy.
Empathy is the foundation for mature relationships; it promotes connection by inviting intimacy. We define empathy as an awareness of the impact of one’s behavior on others and a sense of responsibility for this. Empathy is also associated with sympathy, warmth, and compassion. These qualities can mitigate the challenges that mothers and daughters inevitably face.
For the most part, separation, individuation, and connection remain the salient themes for mothers and daughters. The flashpoints we see occurring between mothers and daughters include miscommunication, entitlement, self-absorption, not really knowing one another, lack of appreciation, lack of emotional support, distance and unavailability, control, judgment, lack of boundaries, shaming, and idealization of childhood. These behaviors are the genesis of issues that can’t be swept under the rug. Conflict is inevitable and can be harmful to the development of an adult relationship if it isn’t resolved in a mutually respectful and appropriate way.
By supporting maturity, rather than enabling or rescuing our daughters, when they don’t really need rescuing, mothers and daughters can resolve most conflict. If mothers continue to do things for their daughters that they should be doing themselves, and fail to hold them accountable for their own behavior, collaborative problem solving doesn’t work.  Trying to live up to impossible standards created by a society that expects mothers to be perfect doesn’t work either.
We have replaced the concept of an idealized perfect mother with something more realistic. We call this the Perfectly Imperfect Mother. This allows daughters to relate to their mothers as human beings. The Perfectly Imperfect Mother meets almost all of her daughter’s needs when she is a baby, and as she grows, slowly frustrates some of her daughter’s needs to give her the ability to deal with failure.
The Perfectly Imperfect Mother gives her daughter the message that she wants her daughter to be moral and responsible, to have the strength to make her own choices and appreciate her own abilities and talents. The Perfectly Imperfect Mother doesn’t see her daughter’s struggles or frustrations as proof that she isn’t a good mother. Instead, she sees these behaviors as appropriate individuation. She understands that her daughter may make very different choices in life from the ones she made and doesn’t interpret this as a rejection or as a failure of her mothering.
A Perfectly Imperfect Mother respects boundaries and demonstrates empathy toward her daughter, enabling a close relationship. A daughter wants to chart her own life course and many of today’s mothers struggle with how to help rather than hinder them. Both yearn to stay connected. The most ideal relationship involves mothers and daughters looking after one another, while maintaining their individuality and respectful interdependence. By respectful interdependence, we mean that both mother and daughter are highly involved in each other’s lives, yet they respect and value each other’s independence. The goal is for both mothers and daughters to have a relationship that gives them both a great source of strength and joy.
How to Accept Being a Perfectly Imperfect Mother:

  • Know yourself first and forgive your imperfections.
  • Support more collaboration and mutuality and less hierarchy.
  • Practice active listening without make judgments.
  • Allow your daughter to make her own decisions and learn to live with the consequences.
  • Try not to view your daughter’s struggles or frustrations as proof that you aren’t a good enough mother.
  • Give your daughter the message that you want and expect her to be a responsible person – and that she has the strength to make her own choices and to appreciate her own abilities and talents.
  • Step back and try to maintain a positive, objective distance.
  • Tell the truth.

Too Close for ComfortAbout the Authors:
Linda Perlman Gordon, MSW, and Susan Morris Shaffer, MA, are the authors of Too Close for Comfort?: Questioning the Intimacy of Today's New Mother-Daughter Relationship, now available in paperback from Berkley Books in bookstores and online. They are available to speak to parents, educators, and mental health professionals. To get more information and proven strategies for staying connected with your children visit www.parentingroadmaps.com.