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Mother-Daughter Bonds—Realizing their Power

| May 3, 2011

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Psychotherapist and author Joyce McFadden found some surprising results when she asked women to reflect on sexuality and raising daughters.

Women can’t fix what we don’t know is broken, so it’s empowering anytime we’re given the opportunity to look at ourselves from a new perspective. Especially when it concerns how we raise our daughters.  One of the most effective motivators for change comes from our most valuable resource—our own stories.

In my psychoanalytic practice women routinely reveal concerns that they’re alone in their experiences, which results in feelings of shame.  When I let my clients know there’s actually a huge community of women silently going through similar things, they’re relieved because their feelings have been normalized through a sense of belonging.

In an effort to create a broad forum through which women could share and learn about the realities of each other’s lives without risking judgment, I launched my anonymous Women’s Realities Study. It contained 63 open-ended questionnaires. Women could respond to as many as they liked, and write whatever they wanted to—they could also answer any questions that weren’t included. The study was unprecedented in that all of the content was self-selected by each respondent. I had hoped to compile their narratives into a reference book, but editors suggested I scale down the project since with the Internet, there was no longer a market for reference books.

I let the women from the study do the scaling down. They are the ones who chose the topic of the resultant book, Your Daughter’s Bedroom:  Insights for Raising Confident Women, because it’s based on the three most popular questionnaire topics:  menstruation, relationship with your mother, and quite surprisingly, masturbation.

These three were the topics most wanted to talk about and learn more about from each other. And here is what the 450 women, age 18-105, who participated in the study have to teach us about ourselves:  we mothers still aren’t educating our daughters about sexuality, in large part due to the unconscious sexism we feel and unintentionally pass down to our girls in the mother-daughter relationship.  Even in 2011.

Almost half of the women under age 30 who completed the menstruation questionnaire weren’t taught about menses by their mothers—mothers who obviously gave birth to them after the second wave of feminism.  Three quarters of the women who completed the masturbation questionnaire were never taught about it, and 70 percent reported guilt around self-stimulation, with 80 percent of them being women under the age of 35.  Not only that, while 90 percent of the women from the masturbation questionnaire wanted to learn more about it from other women, a quarter of them confessed they wouldn’t know how to go about teaching their daughters about it.

Commenting on menstruation and masturbation, women said, for example: “The day I received my period, my mother gave me a pad and told me never to let boys play with me ‘down there’”; and “my mom would get upset when I’d [masturbate] and for a long time I had to sneak it, and through that developed a negative connotation.”  Young women seem to be suffering from the same taboos that plagued their mothers, revealing that, just as was the case for older women, their sexual education was outsourced to the school nurse and Judy Blume.

We tend to think of sexuality as a discrete aspect of who we are, but sexuality is not only about the body, it’s very much about the mind and the heart. Consequently, when we inject shame into our sexuality it bleeds into other facets of ourselves.  One woman recalled, for example, that due to her mother’s warnings about the “badness” of sexuality, as a girl she became so uncomfortable having any attention on her body that she would never even raise her hand in class.

Women disclosed that the absence of a connection with their mothers around female sexuality left them feeling alienated both from themselves and their mothers.  This disconnection caused them to lose faith in their mothers’ ability to be there for them in the ways they needed not only during adolescence but throughout the life cycle.  Just like the women in my practice reveal, based on a fear they’ll be judged or a belief their mothers won’t be able to handle it, many women from the study didn’t confide sexual matters in their mothers.  In this way we perpetuate the pattern of secrecy and shame to yet another generation.  Mothers who may have carried the secret of facing an unplanned pregnancy, a loss of desire for their partner, the pain of infidelity, or having endured sexual abuse or rape raise daughters who grow into women who, out of the same shame, keep the very same secrets from them.

Due to uncertainty about how to support the value of sexuality in our daughters and ourselves, a huge component of the mother-daughter bond lies dormant.  Daughters want us to be emotionally present; they want to feel a sense of belonging with us around female sexuality. Their narratives make it clear what they truly need from us:  feeling loved and respected by us in this way.

We’re all well versed in the ways men and a patriarchal culture promote sexism, but when we mothers allow our shame and fear to preclude supporting our daughters’ sexuality, although we do it unwittingly, we’re also promoting the tenets of sexism.  My mission isn’t to blame mothers—quite the opposite. By becoming conscious of the ways we impair our ability to be whole, we’ll be able to do things differently and give ourselves and our girls more freedom to be fully engaged in our lives.

But the importance extends far beyond our homes, because if collectives of mothers make these changes and do so as our men and boys bear witness, the cultural water level will rise and we will have a hand in making our society stronger and healthier.  My book concludes on this hopeful note:

Trying to end sexism by bringing about gender equality is a daunting objective. Each of us is only one mother. But what percentage of our culture do mothers represent? And when we recognize how much influence we have over both our daughters’ and our sons’ perspective on female sexuality, how far does our sphere of influence extend?

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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