Mothers and Daughters: Common Themes and Therapeutic Considerations

by Caroline Burke

“Mothers are never any good for their daughters…” (Robert, 1906). “Mothers are their daughters’ role model, their biological and emotional road map” (Secunda, 1992). “… the physical and domestic education of daughters should occupy the principal attention of mothers” (Beecher, 1843).

It is a quick look in the mirror that triggers the startling moment where a woman might say: ‘I’ve become my mother.’ Or, it is the mother–when quietly gazing upon her daughter–who might say: ‘She is exactly how I was 30 years ago.’ These moments may accompany feelings of contentment; these moments may elicit a twinge of terror. There is an age-old saying: “Your son is your son till he gets him a wife, but a daughter is a daughter for the rest of your life.” And the same holds true for daughters looking upon their mothers….it is for life.

It is this life-time of relationship between mothers and daughters that makes one pause. We are awestruck at the depth of the connection, overwhelmed by its profundity, hurt by its absurdity, and saved by its abiding bond. We are all daughters, and we know well the spoken and unspoken complexities within our own mother-relationship. And we all have daughters. If they are not birth daughters they are younger women who have come into our lives stirring-up the life-relationship we experience with our own mother, making our relationship with her ever present.

The numerous complexities that unfold in these mother-daughter relationships have been the source of rich literature ([e.g., Allison1993; Carr,2002; Chopin,1899; Miller,1986; Morririson, 1987; O’Brien,1968;  Tan,1991; Rich,1976). The varied themes in these stories are considerable. However, the uniting tie throughout them all is the mother’s influence upon the daughter and the resulting question: ‘What does it mean to be a woman?’ (Fox-Genovese 1999).

It is not uncommon for this same question and the resulting exploration of it to occur in a psychotherapy context. Every woman sitting before her therapist is a daughter who has a mother either present in her life or gone from her life, but never fully absent. The internalised mother continues to parent the daughter both consciously and non consciously. It is in the safe place of the therapeutic relationship where a woman can actively penetrate the fundamental ways that the mother-daughter relationship contributes to the character of her feminine being (Chodorow 1978).

And themes emerge. A narrative is told that is about upbringing: how the woman is taught (or not) to be thoughtful, aware of others, solicitous, and relational. These descriptors are the grammar of women’s emotional experiences in relationship, and the educational teacher is her mother (Eichenbaum and Orbach, 1988).

The great challenge for women when exploring these socialised–feminine pieces of herself is that a conflict often arises. Daughters are often socialised into the behaviors of giving, self-sacrificing, nurturing, and facilitating. Therefore, an internal conflict develops when a woman desires to step away from the memorised grammar-of-woman into a new place of greater independence, seeking her own self-defininition, and finding her own autonomy. For many women these possibilities are ungrammatical and unsafe words of ‘separate’, ‘self-initiating’, ‘independent’. Exploring these potentials stir up great confusion–and often great emotion–on what it then means to be daughter, and to be a woman.

The literature assists therapists in assessing which of the many variables experienced in human relationships are more salient between mothers and daughters. Space does not permit the numerous topics for a therapist to explore with her/his client (e.g. loss of mother, loss of daughter; postpartum depression; violence, poverty, mental health impairment; cross cultural implications; adopted daughters; conflict and communication, and more…). Therefore, only three noteworthy topics will be briefly considered at this time.


One area of exploration is that of attachment. The mother is ideally experienced as a primary object to the infant who then internalised her as a consistent, meaningful, early connection (Bowlby, 1969, 1991). The therapist facilitates a woman’s understanding of all relationships by exploring this legacy of attachment, looking critically for patterns of merged attachment or ambivalent attachments, and how these manifest themselves in current relationships and in long-hoped-for new relationships. Does the daughter manifest a fear of abandonment or a fear of abandoning another (perhaps her own mother)? Are attempts toward separation experienced as dangerous? The here-and-now encounter within the therapeutic relationship often profoundly illuminates that which may be difficult to describe in words.

Sexual Socialisation

Additionally, research suggests that mothers have been referred to as the agents of sexual socialisation for their daughters (Dilorio, Kelly and Hockenberry-Eaton, 1999; Fulbright, 2007; Kody, 2008). One could easily assume that mothers want their daughters to make informed and healthy choices surrounding relationships and sex, yet it is worth pursuing an understanding of how those discussions unfolded within their relationship, or if they occurred at all. No matter how thorough, effective, or ineffective those conversations may have been with her mother, the daughter forms a sexual script (Gagnon and Simon, 2005). These gendered scripts subjectively guide a woman as she explores her understanding of her own sexuality and her sexual relationships with others. Mothers have a unique and great influence upon these scripts as a daughter models her mother’s behavior, listens into conversations with her mother, or makes her own decisions, which in the absence of maternal guidance may sometimes be unhealthy. The therapist has a rich opportunity to explore with the client the her sense of self as a sexual being, helping her to further learn or perhaps unlearn the messages that have been given to her by her mother.


Another area for therapists to pursue when reflecting on relationships between mothers and daughters is the intriguing notion of restitution. How do therapists discuss the overwhelming need some women may have to make up for–or amend–the lives of their mothers (Kahn, 1981; McCandless, 2005). The various waves of feminism that have occurred in western culture over the past 50 years highlight this therapeutic intervention as critical. Mothers may have been socialised into traditional gender roles, and wittingly or unwittingly, socialised their daughters into those same gendered roles (Bohannon and Blanton, 1999). Daughters, experiencing a new sense of feminism, may find themselves pushing through these conventional gender roles, striving to symbolically give to their mother something the mother was not able to have herself. These daughters may have heard stories of the ‘failed hopes’ that the mother experienced around education, career, independence, opportunity. Therefore, the daughter carries a quality of making reparation to her mother for her mother’s loss (Kahn, 1981). The therapist can explore the daughter’s choices: are they her own choices?  In her loving devotion and care for her mother, are her choices about making restitution for what her mother was unable to have:  restitution for a lost ambition, restitution for limited opportunity, restitution for wasted capacities (Kahn, 1981)?

As it has been discussed and written and theorised through the ages, a life-time relationship between mothers and daughters is fraught with complexities. These aspects–both real and internalised–greatly enhance, and greatly detract from a rich understanding of self. The legacy of how to be a woman–with attachment, with sexuality, with waves of feminism and more–is multi-generational. The goal is to chink away with great thoughtfulness at the grammar, the associations, the stories, and the very life that has been modeled by their mothers. There are general themes in this ambitious task, although the specifics of the narratives are richly varied (Fox-Genovese, 1999). Therapists are given the opportunity and privilege to deliberately explore with each woman their mother-legacy of what has come before, and what may come still, and assist these daughters in thinking and rethinking of what it means for them to be a mother, a daughter, a woman.

Caroline Burke is a faculty member in Counseling and Student Personnel Psychology in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Twin-Cities. She received her Ph.D. in 1998 from Auburn University, is a psychotherapist and has been teaching in the MA/Ph.D. program at Minnesota for three years.


Allison, D. (1993) Bastard Out of Carolina. New York: Plume, 1993.

Beecher, C. (1843) Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School. California: Harper and Bros.

Bowlby, J. (1969, 1999) Attachment, 2nd ed., Attachment and Loss (vol.1), NY:  Basic Books.

Carr, M. (2002) By the Bog of Cats. UK:  Faber and Faber.

Chodorow, N. (1978) Mothering, Object-Relations, and the Female Oedipal Configuration. Feminist Studies, 4(1), 137-158.

Chopin, K. (1899) The Awakening. NYC:  Create Space.

Dilorio, C., Kelley, M., and Hockenberry-Eaton, M. (1999) Communication about Sexual Issues:  Mothers, Fathers, and Friends. Journal of Adolescent Health, 24, 181-189.

Eichenbaum, L. and Orbach, S. (1988) Between Women:  Love, Envy, and Competition in Women’s Friendships. NYC: Viking Press.

Fox-Genovese, E. (1999)  In Warren, N. and Wolff, S. (1999). Southern Mothers:  Fact and Fictions in Southern Women’s Writings. Southern Literary Studies. Louisiana:  LSU.

Fulbright, Y. K. (2007) Icelandic Women’s Experiences of their Mothers as Sex Communicators. Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, United States – New York. Retrieved May 15, 2008, from dissertations and theses:  A and I database, (Publication No. AAT 3247760).

Simon, W. and Gagnon, J. (2005) Sexual Conduct: The Social Sources of Human Sexuality . NJ:  Aldine Transaction.

Kahn, D. (1981) Daughter’s Restitution for Mother’s Lost Opportunities:  Mastery Through Transformation of Life Themes. Paper Presented at the Fifth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Vassar College, June 16 – 18, 1981.

Kody, C. (2008) Mothers and Adolescent Daughters’ Perceptions of Communication about Sex. Unpublished Dissertation, University of Minnesota.

McCandless, K. (2006) Not my Mother’s Keeper:  The Psychology of the Third Wave and Changing Relationships between Mothers and Daughters. Paper written for final requirement, Carleton College, Northfield, MN.

Miller, S. The Good Mother. New York: Harper and Row

Morrison, T. (1987). Beloved. New York: Knopf

O’Brien, E. (1968) The Love Object. New York:  Penguin

Rich, A. (1976) Of Women Born. New York:  Norton

Robert, H.(1951). Paloma. London: Dent and Sons.

Secunda, V. (1993). Women and Their Fathers: The Sexual and Romantic Impact of the First Man in Your Life. England: Delta Publishing.

Tan, A. (1991). The Kitchen God’s Wife. New York: Putnam

Warren, N. and Woof, S. (1999). Southern Mothers:  Fact and Fictions in Southern Women’s Writings. Foreword by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. Southern Literary Studies. Louisiana:  LSU.