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I'll Just Say You Aren't Feeling Well
Making Excuses/Endless Explanations
Do you always find a way to make things work for your daughter?
Do you defend your daughter rather than address the problem?
Do you avoid confrontations with her at any cost?
Do you figure out a way to make your daughter look good?
Are you rewriting her story so she seems in the right?
If so, you are absolving your daughter, regardless of circumstances.
THIS PAST WEEK was particularly taxing. Your fifteen-year-old daughter was caught cutting school and your nineteen- year-old daughter, a college student, e-mailed you her midterm warning from the dean that she is behind in her work. In the past, your ability to find your daughters faultless and to generate a universe where others are at fault has worked. This has made life smoother and allowed you to believe that you are doing what's best. After all, what mother doesn't want positive results for her daughters? Our ties are so strong with our girls, our hopes so profound, and our memories of our own conflicts so vivid, that any way to assuage pain seems appropriate.
So while you know deep in your heart that both daughters need to buckle down—and frankly, they can be so aggravating—you immediately take action. First you call the high school principal, promising it will never happen again and expressing concern about your daughter's group of friends. Next you call the dean to say that your older daughter is a perfectionist and simply couldn't deliver mediocre work. As usual, you push very hard and it seems to work. And so, another day, another crisis averted for both daughters.
Unconditional Love = Many Clever Excuses
As we can see from the above composite, making excuses for our daughters is often a coping mechanism for the mother. By going to great lengths to make the excuse, we don't have to face who our daughters are or who we are as mothers. Since much of what we do for our daughters, right or wrong, has evolved from the excuse mode we began when they were in nursery school, it sets the tone for how they are prepared for the world. The idea that we can mitigate circumstances, calm them down, and soften the blow if we whip up some creative truths compels us. Surely that's more tempting than confronting our daughters’ issues, which from an early age include their social lives, academics, financial requirements, sibling relationships, and female friendships. The mother-daughter love fest, fraught with complications and best intentions, practically demands excuses, and our skills are impressive. We excuse our daughters so readily and seamlessly, these patterns may become lifelong behaviors.
Our daughters tug at our heartstrings—it's the intensity of the connection that churns up excuses at every turn. When we consider the amount of baby lust in our culture and how strong the desire to have a child is (the American Society for Reproductive Medicine reports that fertility attempts in the United States increased by 68 percent from 1996 to 2005), it reminds us that once we have our children, we'll do just about anything to help them out. For mothers of daughters, it's riveting; one excuse leads to another, with our explanations more convincing than ever before. As a mother remarked, “Who knew that I'd be whitewashing my daughter's math grades to my husband, her father, but I had to do it.” With the knowledge that our daughters’ struggles exceed anything we ever encountered at their age, the stakes are raised on a daily basis. The axiom “Bigger daughters, bigger problems” holds true, but oddly enough, the way that we, as mothers, have been excusing our daughters is eerily the same whether they are five or twenty-five. Only the circumstances have changed.
Bad Habits = Top Five Excuses
The goal of ensuring that a daughter isn't uneasy, judged, or burdened is a worthy cause that clouds our vision. Frequently, mothers admit, it's simply better to give tacit consent to a bad habit rather than face it head-on. In this way, the mother and daughter are in two-step, a complicit dancing duo. This occurs in the following realms:
Mothers and Daughters in Cahoots: Substance Abuse and Smoking
In her book Mother-Daughter Wisdom, Christiane Northrup points out the dangers and negative effects of substance abuse for adolescent girls and also acknowledges that millions of teenagers use marijuana and alcohol. The majority of mothers are aware of what Dr. Northrup reports—the impairment of brain function from marijuana use and the increase in risk of breast cancer associated with alcohol consumption. Yet many mothers, even those informed of these dangers, are willing to look the other way when it comes to their daughters’ choice to use drugs or to drink. This manifests in not confronting the daughters, despite the mothers’ worry about their daughters’ health and well-being. Katia, forty-five, a stay-at-home mother in Ohio, confesses that her daughter, now twenty, was “obsessed” with getting high with her friends throughout high school.
If this wasn't behind me, I couldn't talk about it. I have always found a way to not face the problem. I didn't want to have a daughter who wasn't right. I had this sneaking suspicion that she was high and she always smelled of cigarette smoke, too. My own mother accused me of not taking charge, but I couldn't handle it once I started, so I backed off. I see what these mothers do and I do it myself. I think it's part of being a mother who seems to be in charge but isn't. It was better to have a stoned daughter, deny it, and wait. I'm lucky it worked that way or I'd still be making something up when it comes to the pot. As for cigarettes, I still say to myself, “Oh, all young women today smoke, aren't they foolish,” when I see her smoking.
By the time that mother and daughter are in high- gear excuse form, the daughter is disdainful and acts too tired to care about what is expected of her. Mothers are at a loss with teenage daughters when they are unkind, uninspired, and acting against how they've been raised. This produces a daughter who rejects responsibilities around the house or who ignores her schoolwork or disrespects family life. For example, Audra, forty-four, who lives in Michigan and works as an office manager, has a sixteen-year-old daughter who has become a “nasty, perfect stranger.”
I always knew this daughter was tough and had to have her way. When she was three years old, she could blow me over. I used to say to my friends that she was very headstrong and a show-off. Then when she hit fourteen, she'd call me on things and say, “Why don't you tell the neighbors the truth, that I won't go to their boring bar becue, instead of saying I have homework?” Or she'd say, “Why don't you tell Grandma I don't want to sleep there anymore, I'm too old, instead of saying I have a sleepover with a friend?”
These days she uses my laptop and can't bother to charge it. She leaves dishes in the sink, she erases my phone messages when she's searching for her own on our home line, she takes cash from my wallet rather than go to an ATM. But I've done it this way for so long that I just add ways to make her look better than she is.
Although it doesn't bode well for a daughter's performance at school or in her career (more on this in Chapter 9), there are mothers who allow and encourage their daughters to not live up to their potential or strive for success. The excuse here is that the requirements are too great and the rewards too few. This applies to school, where a mother wants her daughter to do well but also willingly forgives bad grades. If the mother has made excuses for her own abbreviated accomplishments, she may try to protect her daughter by cutting her some slack. Consider Nora, forty- five, who lives in Ohio and fills in at her husband's accounting firm when asked. She is concerned about her eighteen-year-old's preoccupation with getting into the right college.
My daughter had a terrible week when she failed a math test, and it had already been a month from hell. Her friends were torturing her and she was writing her essay for her college applications. I told her it's okay to get a bad grade, it's okay to not get into the first school on your list. And friends will make life miserable, no matter what. I said that we've all been through it and none of this is a reflection of her but just the way life goes.
In our capitalistic society, a constant bone of contention among mothers and daughters centers around shopping, lifestyle, and the right purchases. Although we'll delve into this in Chapter 3, what we buy for our daughters, despite our value system and budget, warrants mention at this juncture. More than 70 percent of mothers report that they will spend money on their daughters in ways they wouldn't spend for themselves, and that doing so actually straps them financially. There are all sorts of excuses surrounding what money can buy, but the truth is that few mothers feel strong enough to say no to their daughters.
These mothers lavish allowance money and subsidize their daughters’ living expenses, explaining that until the economy grows strong again, they feel this is an act of necessity. The majority of mothers remarked they would go to great lengths not to disappoint their daughters. Consider Maggie, forty-seven, who works in the food industry and lives in Massachusetts. She has just overspent on her twenty-three-year-old daughter's wedding because she felt she had to.
I didn't want my daughter to think we were counting pennies. I tried to convince her to buy a used gown, but she wouldn't hear of it. Then I tried to get her to do an afternoon wedding, but she wanted a night wedding. My husband wasn't happy, but I made up all these reasons why we had to do it this way for her sake. If business was busier for both of us, we wouldn't have minded. But my daughter wasn't going to adjust—I could see that—so I worked hard to please her and it meant appeasing her father, saying all kinds of things. We had over a hundred guests because I kept saying that she should have all her friends there—it was her wedding. Now that I look back on it, we probably should have given them the money for a down payment on a house. But how could I do that to my daughter?
Mothers suffer when a daughter ends up in uncomfortable social situations. In such cases, the mothers’ excuses offer a soothing element and lessen the blow for the daughters. Mothers tell me they defend their daughters, even if the daughters are capable of churning up lies, leading peers astray, and bullying. If a mother is too lenient and pardons her daughter, she's not helping her in the least. Frequently, mothers excuse their daughters out of fear and desperation, unable to face these prospects. “I'm always saying my daughter, who is thirty, is a career woman rather than that she can't find the right guy or that she ruins every relationship she has,” remarks an interviewee. Victoria, fifty-two, who lives in California, where she works in a lab, rationalizes why her youngest daughter is so agitated that she alienates people.
I'm just unable to deal directly with my daughter, who is nineteen, and who has been a huge headache for ages. I say to my friends that she's fine— just edgier than her older sisters. Every time she skips out or steals the car or screams obscenities at us, I say she's my “dicey one.” She's so good at telling me she isn't “out there” and that everyone is like this, that I want to believe her. The weird thing is that being in this any deeper frightens her as much as it frightens me. So we both make excuses for her and I know it isn't working. I know in my heart she's a misfit and can't be a real friend or fit in anywhere.
The danger for a daughter is that her mother feels helpless and disrespected. She observes her mother use excuses as a tool to get through the morass of life and picks up on her mother's sense of helplessness. If mothers are able to gain authority in any predicament, the excuses will lessen.
The Blame Game
The majority of mothers with whom I spoke admitted that part of why they make excuses for daughters is that they dread being blamed and judged. In our culture, it feels satisfying to point a finger at someone after an incident, and mothers are acutely aware of this. In his book Credit and Blame, Charles Tilly notes that when something happens, finding blame satisfies people, and parent blame is a part of the equation. Mother blame is taken to another level, however, because motherhood is highly touted and scrutinized.
Because mother blame is rampant in our society, a mother is deeply indoctrinated into the system and blames herself for things that go wrong in her daughter's life. This can chip away at a woman's self-esteem, and the mother becomes a poor model for her daughter. Daughters are then led to believe that when mothers fall short, it is because the mothers themselves are deficient. “What kind of mother is she?” people whisper. The mothers are unnerved and the daughters are influenced by this. Under such conditions, why would a mother admit if her daughter has poor grades, struggles at college, feels unpopular, has no boyfriend, no job, or a drinking problem, an eating disorder, a troubled love relationship, or anxiety issues? After all, she'll be the one blamed, judged, and whispered about as a result. As evidenced in Cindy's narrative below, the situation can become overwhelming. Cindy, forty-three, manages a restaurant in New Jersey and lives with her pregnant nineteen-year-old daughter.
My daughter got a scholarship to college and I was so proud of her I told everyone in our neighborhood. She was there for a year and one day she came home and told me she was pregnant. I decided to wait until she was showing before I told friends and family. I asked her if the father of her child would marry her and said that it's what I want. I never got a straight answer, but I tell people it's the plan because it sounds better. Who knows … I keep thinking of how hard it will be on all of us financially to have this baby and how it will affect the family. I smile and act pleased and as if it's just what I wanted for my daughter. What else is there to say? Should I wear my heart on my sleeve? Should I betray my daughter by saying how upset this makes me? And the truth is, it all comes back to the mother. When people whisper, they're basically calling me a bad mother and figuring that this somehow happened because of me.
In September 2008, the Republican vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, announced that her seventeen-year-old daughter, Bristol, was five months pregnant. According to People .com, Palin announced to the press, “Bristol and the young man she will marry are going to realize very quickly the difficulties of raising a child, which is why they will have the love and support of our entire family.” According to OK! Magazine, when actress Jamie Lynn Spears announced that she was pregnant, her mother expressed surprise. “I didn't believe it because Jamie Lynn's always been so conscientious,” Lynne Spears said. “She's never late for her curfew. I was in shock. I mean, this is my sixteen-year-old baby.”
Everyday women can surely relate to both Governor Palin and Lynn Spears because for mothers everywhere, a teenage pregnancy poses tremendous obstacles. And while the world read the Web sites and newspapers that reported these events with a perverse fascination, there was the nagging question: Where was the mother in all of this? As Paula J. Caplan reminds us in her book The New Don't Blame Mother, “The most poignant instances of mother- blaming within the family are those in which the mother blames herself for whatever goes wrong.”
The common scenarios are the following:
Excerpted from You're Grounded Forever … But First Let's Go Shopping by Susan Shapiro Barash.
Copyright © 2010 by Susan Shapiro Barash.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.