Parent-child relationships are incredibly intense and complex, and the mother-daughter thing is downright cosmic. In my 25+ years as a marriage and family therapist, I’ve worked with women of all ages who courageously asked themselves what it meant to be the daughters of their mothers. Many of them also asked themselves how that legacy affected them as they mothered their own daughters. As the daughter of my Korean immigrant mother and the mother of three grown multicultural, multiethnic daughters, I’ve asked and continue to ask myself those same questions. At every new developmental stage those questions reemerge, demanding attention and quite often suggesting the opportunity and even need for change.

A colleague, Harriet Cannon, and I had the opportunity to use Gayle’s short film “My Nose” as a resource in a recent workshop for mental health providers, “Family History and the Immigration Story in Therapy”. The story shared by Gayle and her mother spoke to the roomful of professionals on a very personal level and added depth to our conversations about our own family relationships, expectations and roles.

Who hasn’t wanted to please their parents and earn their approval? It’s a major motivator – one that assures love, connection, and belonging. At least it’s supposed to, right? When that doesn’t happen, when we keep coming up short, what does that do to our relationships and sense of self?

Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., wrote a wonderfully enlightening book called “You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation”. In it, she documents her research on communication patterns between generations of women and how hidden meaning in certain phrases, facial expressions and tones of voice can immediately bring about reactions or interpretations that may or may not be appropriate or accurate. That can add up to a whole lot of misunderstanding and pain.

Both Gayle and Dr. Tannen approach the complexity of mother–daughter relationships with honesty, sensitivity, and large doses of humor. Both address the possibilities in that charged relationship. Horrible relationships can heal; good relationships can be made even better. The beauty in their work is the hope that lies within.

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