It happens to a lot of daughters, and it's natural, say the experts-- and some women are even glad of it


May 12, 1991|By Mary Corey

The first time it happened, Eve Devine chalked it up to sheer coincidence.

Any daughter, after all, could end up buying a watch that was identical to her mother's. But how could she explain inadvertently selecting the same quilted handbag and the same striped sun hat?

At age 32, Ms. Devine had to face facts.

Was she turning into her mother?

For many women, there is no greater moment of truth. As daughters age, they frequently discover a growing likeness to Dear Old Mom. And while their mothers may have plenty of attributes, it's often sharing her bad habits that triggers a panicky state of maternal deja vu.

Because a mother serves as a daughter's first and most lasting model of womanhood, it's quite logical to pattern behavior after her, explains Betsy Zaborowski, a Baltimore psychologist specializing in women's issues.

"But it can scare you, especially if a woman has not learned to accept the good and bad aspects of her mother," she says.

The comparisons -- which range from seemingly minor gestures to more consequential moral codes -- are often most striking when daughters become wives and mothers themselves.

For Gwen Joyner, the birth of her son Kharling several years ago caused her to discover the values and attitudes she and her mother, Julia, share.

"Growing up, we weren't that close," says Ms. Joyner, 31, who lives in West Baltimore. "I sit back and laugh sometimes. I never imagined me growing up and being a mother and doing things just like my mother, but I have."

Dr. Zaborowski has found that when daughters become mothers they are often startled by how much they sound like their own mothers. "My mother used to always say, 'Well, that's not done good enough. Here, let me do it,' " she says. "That was something that really bugged me about my mother. Then I heard myself doing it. It was like, wow, I'm even using that exact language.

"Women have even told me about having arguments with their spouses about how to fold the towels and put them in the linen closet. Then they'll say, 'My mother used to do that, too.' "

The relationship is often more complicated for daughters because they frequently form stronger bonds with their mothers than sons do.

A study by the National Institute of Mental Health several years ago found 41 percent of the daughters (ages 22 to 32) surveyed felt connected but conflicted about their relationships with their mothers. Only 7 percent of the sons voiced the same concerns.

"Daughters are closer to their mothers," explains Susan Frank, a clinical psychologist at Michigan State University who conducted the study. "Theirs is a more emotional, more intense relationship -- and often more conflicted."

Just listen to Marsha Oakley, a 43-year-old mother of two who lives in Timonium, describe learning to accept her likeness to her mom: "As long as we live in separate cities and states, it's OK. If we lived in the same place, we'd probably be enemies."

Since having two children, she says she has developed more of a Mother-Knows-Best mentality.

"The big thing for me was discipline," says Ms. Oakley, a nurse at Sinai Hospital. "I was going to be the mother who followed [Dr. T. Berry] Brazelton and took parent effectiveness training classes. Rather than saying, 'No,' I would rephrase things. As I got older and the problems changed, I found myself falling back on Mother's discipline: 'You're not doing this, now go to your room. I say 'No' and there's no discussion.' "

But her mother, Jean Thomas, doesn't necessarily agree. "She's much more modern than I was," says the 65-year-old Indiana homemaker. "She's much more lenient with child-rearing. And she lives in a more relaxed style than I did. I didn't work when my children were young."

She does believe that the two have grown closer since her daughter had children. "There's nothing like being a mother. I remember Marsha telling me, 'Now I know what you went through, Mom.' I think a child has to be so old -- married with children, I mean -- before she thinks a person knows anything," she says.

But if daughters don't always relish being the spitting image of mom, society -- and not women themselves -- is at fault, says Paula J. Caplan, author of "Don't Blame Mother: Mending the Mother-Daughter Relationship."

The culture often fosters an image of mothers as everything from nags to masochists, but rarely shows them as competent, fulfilled adults, she says.

"Mothers are one of the most demeaned and scapegoated groups in our culture. The focus in North America seems to be on not being like mother. That's considered a fate worse than death," she says.

Through her research, she has discovered that daughters are often avoiding their real fears when they express concerns about being a female chip off the old block.

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