Expert advice on how to smooth out the aggravations with your mother

Expert advice on how to smooth out the aggravations with your mother

Demi Moore Rumer Willis

Demi Moore Rumer Willis

Mother-daughter team Demi Moore and Rumer Willis
Photo: George Pimentel

“Where’s that dress from?”
An innocuous question from, say, a coworker. In that exchange, you’d likely take it as a compliment and dish about the fabulous vintage shop you frequent.

Coming from your mom, though, this question makes you feel like you’re going to explode. Feeling as though you’re constantly criticized? You’re not alone. Mother-daughter relationships are commonly fraught with tension, anger, pain and guilt. But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Dorothy Firman, a psychotherapist based in Amherst, Mass.

“Ask yourself if you’re being overly sensitive because it’s your mom,” says Firman. “Check whether your mom truly is being critical and, if so, go one step deeper: think about how your mom is just worried about you.” Mom’s worry may be what is causing her to be critical. And while you can’t transform your mom, you can thank her for her concern and let her know you’re doing just fine.

Check yourself, too. Firman says mothers are often worried and critical because you’re presenting yourself as not quite competent. Have you been regularly asking Mom to borrow money, babysit or help you out with pretty much everything? Firman, who co-wrote the book Daughters and Mothers: Making It Work with her mother, Julie (also a psychotherapist), says you can’t have it both ways. “Moms and daughters each have a job. Daughters have to become the ex-child, and moms have to become mother graduates.”


How to become an ex-child? The Firman mother-daughter team outline several exercises in their book. Here’s how to get you started.

WRITE A LETTER OF REFERENCE FOR YOUR MOTHER. Think of her as a peer who has asked you to write a letter of recommendation for a job. “Think of the highest, best things about her,” says Firman.” This will help release you from thinking “Oh, you’re only my mother.”

ESTABLISH YOUR OWN COMMANDMENTS. Imagine your mother stating all the commandments she thinks you should live by, then write them down. Look at the list and, for each one, ask yourself if this statement is true for you.

Remember, too, that unlike picking up a gift for Mother’s Day, becoming an ex-child is not something you can cross off your to-do list by completing a few exercises. “It’s not a done deal, where you get to a certain point and are never haunted by those things again—it’s a longtime piece of work,” says Firman. She sees the late 20s as the kickoff to becoming an ex-child. At that age, she says, “we begin to really be able to take on that feeling of being an adult. It’s a process of claiming more autonomy and your uniqueness; developing a sense of self-knowledge and not just being a product of our families.”

Keep in mind the goal is not to become besties with Mom. Because, even if you develop a very close relationship, “there will always be a difference in the roles each of you has.” Reality check: are you really prepared to swap info on how your romantic life is going—and ready to hear about Mom’s? The safest plan of action is to simply find things you enjoy doing together, such as going to museums, movies, brunch. And just imagine how sweet those activities will be between two women who respect one another.

“Mommie Dearest” has been edited for; the complete story appears in the May 2009 issue of FLARE.