I’ve had many “mom talks” over the years, exchanging ideas with friends and family and trying to figure out how to do it well. Recently, in preparation for an upcoming Bring a Friend podcast, Tina Knowles Lawson and I had a chat about raising strong daughters. It was phenomenal to share experiences with someone at her level of prominence, and I felt reassured to know that some of the moments I’ve faced were also true for a woman I so highly admire. The conversation about motherhood continued with Jessica Oliveira-Haddad, another inspirational guest who was just beginning to think about how she would best raise her soon-to-be-born child. Vicky Tsai, Founder of the Tatcha skincare brand gave birth to her daughter on the same day she launched her company.
These conversations were grounding for each of us because they made us feel a little less alone as we navigate the fine line between being strong women ourselves and raising daughters who are equally strong. We also noted how impossible it is to anticipate how we will feel in each phase of motherhood, and universally agreed that you can’t really know how you’ll feel until you’re deep in it.
While many people talk about parenting challenges, these conversations felt especially intimate because we dove deep into the “mother-daughter dynamic” and noted that it’s rare for “strong mothers” to anticipate the complexity of raising strong daughters, and how our relationships evolve as we move through life. There are inherent dances, adjustments, and hurt feelings.
There are shifts of female power, breaking of hierarchies and the birth of new ones.
In the first few years of motherhood, learning to be a mom means a shift away from prioritization of self and practicing how to put your children’s needs first. That’s not to say (in the words of Cleo Wade) that we choose motherhood OVER personhood. But motherhood necessitates mastering basic nurturing and it quickly evolves to finding a balance between caring for their falls, encouraging them to get up and try again, and making sure you have enough fuel in your own tank to keep everyone going. In these early days, mothers (and fathers) are inherently the givers, the teachers and the foundation, with our own needs becoming secondary out of necessity. While overwhelming at first, that “sacrifice of self” becomes a core part of our definition and the process of “giving without thought of return” is an important muscle to build.
As our daughters grow, the focus shifts from nurturing them to empowering them: making sure that they feel the freedom to safely try, experiment and fail without the judgment of societal norms and expectations and without the fear of disappointing us with something that isn’t perfect. At that adolescent stage, the role of parenting still revolves around them, but transitions from teaching to listening and from protecting to encouraging. We gain strength from beginning to let go: holding the proverbial door open as they push away and lovingly welcoming them back when they need a safe haven. We have to be strong in order to let them try things themselves instead of doing things for them, and they become strong by being given the power to make age-appropriate (and sometimes age-inappropriate) decisions for themselves.
As girls grow into women and live with other strong females, the “power” in the house is not always collaborative. This is where the comparisons between women often emerge. Mothers walk a precarious line between modeling strength while not being so strong that we overpower them. We try to show that we can be moms, wives, daughters, employees, leaders and volunteers without setting unattainable Superwoman standards of achievement. We allow ourselves to be increasingly transparent and vulnerable, yet not so vulnerable that our role as “household stabilizer” is suspect.
In essence, as they come into adulthood, we try to artfully tame our reach so we don’t block out their light.
Simultaneously, our daughters flex their own muscles, and create self-definitions not just based on their unique interests and skills, but also based on qualities that other women in their female circles do not have. Each woman, whether sister or friend, carves out space for individuality, freedom and differentiation from the other. In these pivotal coming-of-age years, growing into strong women is often a study in how to stand out and be unique, including how to carve out an authentic and unique space — including a space that is different from our mothers.
For those of us who have tried to be our very best selves, our daughters’ autonomy can feel like a painful rejection after a lifetime of care. It’s a new and necessary evolutionary relationship phase for them, and another growth-moment for us as well. Instead of moms being brave while we let our daughters grow, they begin to assert their strength by letting us go.
They are not “letting us go” from their lives, of course.
But they are appropriately creating their own cadence, priorities, families and boundaries. By necessity, we are no longer central. Instead of asking for direction, they tell us about decisions. Instead of asking for help, they tell us not to provide input. They are now strong and independent, just as we had wanted them to be. But is it what we had wanted for ourselves?
This is maybe the hardest phase yet for us moms. At least it’s the hardest phase for me thus far. To have successfully raised independent and capable daughters, we should be flying high. It’s what we set out to do. Yet their independence and strength mean that they don’t need us or want us to behave in the ways that we are used to, and that can feel like a rejection, a dismissal and a diminishment. Instead of being a frame for how to move through life, we become the frame for how they want to do things differently than we did.
It’s important during this time to create new chapters for ourselves as our daughters do the same. We have more time to pursue passions, to re-activate activities that had taken the back seat during the hands-on years, and to dream about our next life chapter.
Our personal growth doesn’t end when their adulthood begins: ours begins again.
The phase of mutual growth is awesome. As two generations of women, we become stronger side by side, shining light, sharing wisdom and holding space for each other. These days allow for the development of deep roots, the blossoming of our own fruit, and the spreading of seeds for generations to come.
This is where I am now. So happy to be in sync with the other strong women around me, and so glad to be finding pieces of myself that had been neglected for so long.
What will come next? Since you can’t know what the next phase feels like until you’re in it, I’m guessing… and worrying. Will it be that one day in the not too distant future, the circle of life will meet itself, and our strong daughters will become the nurturers of us? On one hand, it will be fabulous to know that the women we cared for will now care for us. On the other hand, no strong mother wants to lose her ability to care for herself or to become dependent. It will take a whole new form of strength to receive and accept care.
Mary Oliver wrote, “To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”
Raising strong daughters feels like life-breathing: a cycle of holding close and letting go, of exchanging air and seeing the world through each others’ eyes. It’s through the synergy of grown women that we set the stage for future generations to hold tight to their autonomy, to keep the maternal bonds eternally connected while creating a legacy for the women who will follow us through the world. I feel blessed to be in that powerful cycle and am practicing my exhale.