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Can mother-daughter love last?

An interview with Renee Schultz & SuEllen Hamkins,
authors of "The Mother-Daughter Project:
How Mothers and Daughters Can Band Together, Beat the Odds
and Thrive Through Adolescence"

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Are mother-daughter relationships destined to grow more distant and conflict-ridden as girls make the transition from childhood to adolescence? It doesn't have to be that way, say mothers (and therapists) SuEllen Hamkins and Renee Schultz. The pair have co-authored new book about their experiences co-creating and participating in a longstanding mother-daughter group ("The Mother-Daughter Project: How Mothers and Daughters Can Band Together, Beat the Odds and Thrive Through Adolescence," Hudson Street Press, 2007). Their hope: to revolutionize how mothers look at parenting daughters.

How did they revolutionize their relationships with their own daughters? At first, a group of mothers of very young (age 6 or so) daughters held monthly, moms-only meetings. About a year in, the mothers added monthly meetings with their 7-year-old daughters. Initially, this was purely mother-daughter playtime, but their time together evolved, and mother-daughter group conversations became more intentional. Using a multi-pronged approach including field trips, art and cooking activities, storytelling and role-playing, specific topics were covered, such as menstruation, puberty, sexuality, power, and body image. The daughters in this group are now between 16 and 18.

As this interview reveals, these mother-daughter experiences have been powerful. Hamkins and Schultz hope that by sharing their process, they can offer a blueprint for other mothers to stay connected to daughters through adolescence.

Sarah Buttenwieser: What was the catalyst for beginning this group?

Renee Schultz: A friend called me and said, "You have to read this book called Mother Daughter Revolution (by Elizabeth Debold, Marie C. Wilson and Idelisse Malave). I want you to read it so we can talk about it."

SuEllen Hamkins: We mothers met for nine months, like a pregnancy.

RS: Our girls were six turning seven and after we discussed the book and had been meeting a while, we thought to include our daughters. The thing that inspired us was the power of community.

SH: We liked the idea that we could create a community where a strong mother-daughter connection is the norm.

SB: How did you find other mothers?

RS: One woman was at a Seder and she told me about a friend of hers she thought would be interested. The group consisted mostly of friends of friends. It turned out to be pretty easy to put out the word.

SB: Talk about what fueled those early conversations between mothers.

SH: One or two moms planned each meeting. They thought about questions such as what your relationship with your mom had been like or what happened during stormy times.

RS: We wanted to understand the disconnection we'd experienced with our mothers, to understand why that had happened, and to figure out how to do things differently with our own daughters.

SH: We asked ourselves what our mothers might have needed that they didn't get.

RS: It was really the first time we'd looked at our mothers as women, rather than just as our mothers.

SH: All of those questions really helped. When I began to think about what my mother did... She had six kids and not a lot of money. She worked very hard to make our family work. I gained new empathy for her. From that understanding, we realized that rather than wanting to push our mothers away, we had really yearned for their support, for connection to them. We wanted our moms to understand what we were going through more than we wanted them to leave us alone. I began to remember that as a young child, I'd felt very close to my mother.

RS: Our conversations were helped by the fact that we weren't all best friends with one another. We were connected, certainly, but have separate lives, too. Our kids were at different schools -- at least some of them were -- so they weren't all best friends either. The group existed as a separate entity from their usual social sphere and ours.

SB: Did you go into parenting as feminists?

RS: Yes. I certainly went into parenting believing my husband and I would co-parent. Our son has Down's Syndrome and his dad took much more of the day-to-day care on and I went back to work, and I think this strengthened my views about feminism and parenting.

SH: Medical school galvanized my feminism. Medicine is such a sexist institution. And once I became a mother, I began to think more about what it means to be a good mother versus what it means to be a good father. Why are men saints for pushing a stroller and women supposed to sacrifice everything without recognition? As Meredith Michaels and Susan Douglas write in their book, "The Mommy Myth," we're glorifying motherhood. This isn't good for us as women. I think this new push for women to stay at home, while that's a fine choice, really doesn't address how much work mothering is. A key question is what do mothers need in order to do to do the work that is asked of them? And why can't mothers have a life for themselves and care for children, too?

RS: I certainly felt judged at times for working outside the home. And while I was so appreciative that we truly co-parented, I was mad that in many people's eyes my husband was practically walking on water as the dad who stayed at home.

SH: There's this idea that if you really love your children enough then mothering isn't work.

RS: Mothering is invisible, undervalued work.

SH: And you have to do more for teenagers, different things. For small children, home can be their central spot in the world; teenagers need a safe world outside their homes. They need you to make sure there are options for them in the community.

SB: One of the things I find most powerful about your work is the way you introduce taboo topics that might become highly emotionally charged when they are "up" early enough that there's no charge yet. You also do this early enough that society might fault you for exposing children to certain issues too soon.

RS: Talking about puberty, the fun we could have because they weren't yet self-conscious about it.

SH: We wanted to ground them in positive discourses around girls and women, to create a multi-sensory experience. For menstruation, we began with the moon, everything we could think of, from baking crescent-shaped cookies to going outside at night and looking for the moon, to yoga poses saluting sun and moon... we even made a person out of fruit including the reproductive system. Only once we had done all of these things, over the course of months, did we bring out the tampons and get into the nitty-gritty, including introducing the idea that some people weren't so positive about puberty.

RS: We did the same thing for body image.

SH: We talked all about bodies, celebrating what bodies can do, what feels good, and even making these great goddess sculptures from natural materials in order to authorize the girls to create beautiful images of women for themselves rather than simply accepting society's images.

RS: You have to address body image issues earlier and earlier, because of the way that image is marketed younger, to 'tweens.

SH: We looked at media's values and our values to see whether they matched. Media places high value on how you look. We value friendship and feeling good and feeling strong... It seems essential to ground kids in values they can live by.

RS: And to do media analysis so they can see what's being pushed at them.

SB: Do you think that as this generation of parents is more into a hands-on model of parenting, they no longer sees disconnection during adolescence as inevitable?

SH: I was introducing myself to a new neighbor, who had her three-year-old daughter in tow. When she heard the ages of my daughters, she asked me, "Is it as bad as they say? Do your teenage daughters hate you? I'm so afraid of that."

SB: So you think people still accept that construct of disenfranchised adolescents.

RS: What's often unnamed sexism is so upsetting to teenage girls. Without a way to talk about this they find the easiest place to put their anger is upon their mothers.

SH: Middle school is very confusing. In the corridors, boys may be looking at girls in ways that objectify them.

RS: My daughter sometimes directed her anger toward me, anger that the world was this way. She wanted to cast me as a paranoid mother, but I was legitimately concerned for her safety.

SH: Sexism bears so many pressures. There's not a strong voice out there advocating women stay connected to their daughters, but when we talk about this work, a lot of mothers express relief. They do not want to sever ties with their beloved children. And we know that girls who can talk to their mothers and generally receive support for the hard things they face -- from violence against women to eating disorders to depression -- handle these challenges better. Sometimes, what a mother can do for a struggling adolescent is keep the real voice alive. For an anorexic concerned about how much she's eating or how much she weighs, it's important to have someone remind her that deep down she cares about more than this.

do our daughters see as only as mothers?

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