Author Nancy Friday Probes the Depths of Mother-Daughter Love—and Finds Herself

Every woman is a daughter. “Whether we want our mother’s life or not,” says author Nancy Friday, “we never escape the image of how she was.” To explore that image, and its consequences, Friday interviewed more than 200 women, plus experts in psychiatry and sociology, to produce the recent My Mother/My Self (Delacorte, $9.95). Friday, who is 40, also wrote the best-selling study of women’s sexual fantasies, My Secret Garden, and its sequel, Forbidden Flowers. She is married to William H. Manville, 47, a fellow author (Goodbye); their 14-year marriage has been childless by choice. Recently she discussed the results of her investigation with Sally Moore of PEOPLE.

What major themes did you uncover in the mother-daughter relationship?

Both feel inappropriately guilty-guilty for what they could have done, or think they should have done or been, and guilty for wanting emotional independence. We call it guilt, but it’s really a suffocating dependency and fear of loss. This not only grips us all our lives but often increases after a mother’s death.

What else is unresolved?

Deeply buried anger. It mostly comes from daughters who were taught to be dependent and passive, to control their emotions, to keep their hands off their bodies, never air their emotions, their rage, their competitive feelings. We are angry at the person who taught us not to express what we feel.

What is the result of such teaching?

Women find they are not equipped for sexual or professional equality. Often they cannot handle their new opportunities.

What prompted you to study mother-daughter relationships?

My research on women’s sex fantasies. I was trying to get women to talk about fantasies, and nine out of 10 women denied they had any. When fantasies did surface, they involved being raped or overpowered, which was their way of saying they weren’t responsible for their sexual feelings. I was also reading a new study linking women’s orgasmic potential to the quality of trust in their relationship with their fathers. I kept thinking, but what about mothers?

Does a woman’s relationship with her father determine the pattern of her sexuality?

No. I say it is our earliest relationship with our mothers. Mother is the one who teaches us how we feel about ourselves and our bodies. She teaches us that nice girls don’t do, say, feel or think certain things.

What about fathers?

They are tremendously important, but they count later. Even if father were the one to hold you, feed you, toilet-train you, his body is not like yours. Intuitively we know that we will become like our mothers-not only in the ways we admire but, more important, in the ways we don’t.

Why is the mother-daughter relationship so difficult?

We remain unseparated from our mothers. We live in constant fear that if mother knew our real emotions, we would lose her. It would kill her. These are childish emotions which we never outgrow.

But love is possible between mothers and daughters, isn’t it?

Yes, but not the kind we were all led to believe in, or that society said we had to feel. I’ve often heard daughters say they did not love their mothers, but I’ve never heard a mother say she didn’t love her daughter. Mothers can be honest about everything but that. Analysts say women who admit to negative feelings about their children consider themselves crazy.

Why do so many women feel negatively about mother-daughter relationships?

Modern society has set up a tyranny that idealizes motherhood, infancy and childhood beyond human capacity. Mothers feel they have to be perfect and that love for their children, especially daughters, must be perfect and consistent. Then the same mother who would throw herself in front of a truck to save her child finds she resents the five hours she must spend in the playground. She feels guilty.

How does that affect the daughter?

She senses her mother’s resentment. Daughters know their mothers as well as the insides of their pockets. So the daughter feels she herself is somehow imperfect. If she were a better child, she would feel her mother’s perfect love. Thus begins the daughter’s guilt.

Is it different for mothers and sons?

Absolutely. A woman basically raises a son to leave her, to be independent, because society teaches her that if she doesn’t she is a bad mother, and he may become homosexual, troubled, etc. But society allows, in fact encourages, mothers to be protective of daughters.

What are a mother’s fears based on?

Sex mostly. By the time a woman is a mother, she knows the social hurdles-mostly sexual-she’s had to go over, and a daughter arouses all those anxieties again. Women are so controlled, so taught to hold back all their lives. When daughters rebel and start sex, they often find there’s a part that keeps them from enjoying it. We never learn to trust ourselves, to make an identity separate from mother.

Does this describe your relationship to your own mother?

Completely. When I began this book, I had a standard line: “I love my mother, of course, but we are completely different people.” I thought, she’s a small-town, conservative woman who doesn’t travel, is dependent, passive and asexual. I run around the world writing sex books and wearing odd clothes. Only through writing the book did I learn to face that my mother was not what I pretended she was. Instead she was an active, sexual, adventurous, lively woman, and I was one in a long line of such women. The things I most admired in her were the same I valued in myself. I was so angry and hurt about early things, I denied we had anything in common.

What else did you learn?

That the things I like least in myself are also things I got from her. That’s why all of us react with fury when our husbands say, “Oh, you sound just like your mother.” In our hearts, we know they’re right.

Have you changed your relationship with your mother?

Yes, but not totally. What we must all learn is to let go. I tell women we can stand the act of separation. We have to stop blaming our mothers, risk their disapproval and take responsibility for ourselves. It’s against life to be so locked into another person.

Should women learn to vent their resentments toward their mothers?

No. Blaming does no good. What we must understand is that anger and blame are ways of maintaining ties.

Should mothers and daughters strive to be friends?

Yes, but not sexual confidantes. Your best friends should be your peers. Women get upset when their mothers don’t understand or approve. They go after crumbs of approval they’ll never get, and then turn their disappointment and anger on their bodies—in ways like anxiety and depression—or on their husbands.


By expecting their husbands to provide perfect love and security to take care of them emotionally and financially. When husbands don’t, women blame them for “failing.” They’re not to blame. When marriage doesn’t live up to expectations, a woman rushes into motherhood, and children become her life. The deadly cycle is repeated.

How can fathers influence daughters?

By not backing off when their daughters become sexual-even before adolescence. What happens to a young girl’s body and psyche is frightening. Daddy is the safest person in the world: he must give her the feeling that her oncoming sexuality is a wonderful, positive thing. Also he can be a tremendous role model for a girl, not just for sex: Watching her father be independent, handle money, travel, can teach her that independence and freedom can be positive.

When are relationships best between mothers and daughters?

Usually when we marry or become mothers. These rites of passage pull us back together. I found when I married, suddenly I wasn’t so criticized, I wasn’t this sexual adventuress running around the world. I began to dress more like my mother. It was a kind of reconciliation.

How can mother-daughter relationships be improved?

Teach daughters outlets for anger and competition, strengthen their feelings of self-confidence and self-determination. We must also free our daughters to turn to surrogate mothers—aunts, teachers, etc.—without resenting it. The fact is that we need more than one mother for every child. We can’t be perfect

and offer a daughter everything. Above all, make her feel she is loved: My daughter right or wrong.

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