The mother-daughter relationship is very complex. Whether it’s existent or not, it has an effect on women. In Deborah Tannen’s book, You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, she explores the complexity of this relationship.
Tannen uses the most fraught and passionate of relationships and breaks it down. She does an excellent job in outlining the three most common things mothers and daughters critique each other on: hair, clothes, and weight. There is a sense of approval and understanding that they look for through these topics and Tannen uses dialogues from various mothers and daughters, as well as memories of her own mother, to unravel “the mother of all relationships.”
The mother-daughter relationship is said to be the most passionate connection in women’s lives. As women, we are assumed to speak the same language but still often misunderstand each other. There is a sense of connection, yet a struggle to be close and have our own independence. Tannen states that both the mother and daughter want to be seen as individuals but it’s hard when one is on either side. Mothers will always see their daughters as their children; someone they raised and who needs guidance and protection. Daughters will see their mothers as their caretakers; someone to rely on, someone to come to for protection, and not as the women they were before becoming mothers.
Communication is a huge factor in this relationship and Tannen discusses the various ways to do it. Communication has broadened where people do not only have to rely on face-to-face communication or letter writing. We can email, call, or text so there is no reason to not communicate. Tannen recommends women write things down when things get hard in order to avoid impulsive and angry reactions, which allows space and better understanding of situations.
Tannen discusses the intimacy between mothers and daughters that can easily turn into hurt and pain that we don’t have control over. This is a relationship which can shadow a woman throughout her life both positively or negatively. Tannen answers various questions that sometimes seem to go unanswered, like ‘Why do daughters complain when mothers criticize them, while mothers feel hurt if their daughters shut them out?’ She explains how a harmless remark made by a mother or daughter causes an explosion, opposed to coming from someone else because a mother or daughter’s opinion is valued more. Where a daughter sees criticism, a mother sees caring. We expect more from this relationship, causing it to resonate with us the longest. According to Tannen, “Our relationships with our mothers go on way beyond their lifetimes, no matter what age we are when we lose them.”
Tannen’s book is a tool to help mothers and daughters understand each other. It applies to any form of mother-daughter relationship regardless if there is a blood relation. It is a way to improve relationships and see where one is falling short. Reading this book caused me to look into my own relationship with my mother and I found myself nodding in agreement with a lot of what Tannen stated and appreciating the strong relationship I have built with my mother. It is a great way to step back and understand the other person and realize that no relationship is perfect and that there is always room for improvement. Not every mother or daughter can have a great relationship, but it reminds us that words have power and they impact us in tremendous ways.
Deborah Tannen is University Professor and Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University. She is the author of You Were Always Mom’s Favorite!: Sisters in Conversation Throughout Their Lives, Talking From 9-5: Women and Men at Work, The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, and various others about how everyday language affects relationships. Tannen is a frequent guest on television and radio. Her work extends to over one hundred articles for scholarly audiences, poems, short stories, and personal essays.