Mothers, Daughters, and Family History

Anna Chen hit some tender points in her April 1 (how apropos), 2014 blog post on Mother Daughter Conflicts. Chen writes about communication and understanding being the keys to resolving what could be decades-old misunderstandings and hard feelings, and how that’s easier said than done. As the daughter of my mother and the mother of three adult daughters, I’ve lived the truth of those words. Professionally, as a marriage and family therapist, it’s a topic close to my heart.

Gayle Kirschenbaum has said that things started to turn around when she realized it was her responsibility to take the lead in finding peace and common ground in her relationship with her mother. Her mother wasn’t going to change just because she wished it. She, Gayle, had to change first. I’ve also found that to be true. Sometimes our parents, for whatever reasons, don’t want to talk or do things differently, and we need to find other ways to understanding. My parents, for example, immigrated from South Korea shortly after the end of the Korean War. As a teen, and later as an adult, whenever I asked my mother for bits of her history to better understand her (and our relationship), I’d hear: “Why do you want to know about that? I left Korea so you and your brother could have a better life. That’s all.”

Great. So much for communication and understanding. Now what? That’s when I hit the library and researched. I read up on Korean history, culture, and social norms, and things started to make sense. The ways in which my mother tried to shape me no longer seemed arbitrary or just plain weird. And I realized how hard it must have been for her, parenting in a society she didn’t fully comprehend or belong to. Being raised in an individualist culture by parents from a collectivist culture can, in the words of another woman who lived it, “really mess you up. It’s confusing and makes it hard for you to know who you are or how you’re supposed to be.”

We all have our own stories and cultures. Cultural is so much more than ethnicity; it embraces social class, spiritual practices, generational and geographical issues, and more. Part of each family’s culture is its history. This history, whether known or kept secret, influences us in ways we often can’t imagine. Trauma can also be a powerful influence that haunts family members for generations. For instance, as a therapist I’ve worked with many women of different ages working on problems with body image. They will often say that their mothers nagged them about their weight, shape and/or fashion sense. Quite often, they grew up hearing their moms comment on how much they hated their own bodies.

After statements like this, I usually recommend that the women research their family’s immigration story. Who came over, when and why? What was it like for their forefathers (and mothers) in a new land? What did they do to fit in? More than once, they’ve come back with something like: “My family came from Central European peasant stock. One of the ways the women tried to fit in was to conform to the American beauty ideal. They were also taught that being attractive in the American way would give them a better chance at finding a husband. This meant doing whatever they could to literally reshape themselves, losing accents fast, changing their names, and starving themselves out of their natural shapes. I found out women in my family have had a hard time accepting how nature made them for generations!”

With this new perspective, they’re able to see that what once was a survival strategy has turned into family legacy. They can understand that their mothers were living true to these legacies and see how criticisms came from a place of both hope and desperation. And these legacies syphoned down into how they talked with their daughters. The language of love and concern can take many forms.

Gayle was able to pivot in her daughter’s role and respond to her mother differently. By changing her direction, she helped her mother find other options as well. This ultimately led to healing, transformation, joy and mutual appreciation in their relationship. I can’t wait to see Look At Us Now, Mother!

To learn more about Rhonda Berlin, please visit berlin-counseling.com. The find out more about her Rhonda and Harriet Cannon’s book, please visit mixed-blessings.com.

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