by Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. on May 28, 2010

Revisiting the mother-daughter conundrum.

You wake up one morning and while washing your face you see…your mothers face. How can that be? You answer your daughter and find yourself repeating a familiar phrase. When and how did this happen? Many of us have spent a lifetime trying to not be like our mothers. Trying to be ourselves, different than her, our own beings, to carve out our individuality. Yet, on one such morning we realize, we are still much like her, in ways that surprise us. We may look like her, or move like her, or worst of all – sound like her. How does this happen? And are we destined to become our mothers?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that this would necessarily be a bad thing. I am simply considering how it is that we retain much of who our mothers are or were without intending to. How is it that as daughters we are always some reconfigured image of our mothers? How is it that in our sense of womanhood and femininity her essence is so primal?

Well, she is our first love, our first erotic teacher. It is she who first touches us, bathes us, feeds us, and consoles us. She is the first to introduce us to our bodies and all of our sensations. They take place in direct interaction with her. Within a relational matrix, it is she who introduces us to the world.  It is her body and her consciousness that translates our experience of the world. This is a complicated state of affairs, since it implies that it is mom, and her inner life (as well as her actual life) that initially translates experience for us. What her inner life is about, and her lived experience of it, creates the template for our inner life and our understanding of our experience. She is, quite simply, the essence of our life. At least initially. It will take years of development and life experiences to begin to fashion ourselves and our lives from her initial blueprint, to articulate the differences that will become the source of our individuality. You can see what I mean when I say this is a complicated state of affairs.

Through their caretaking, mothers’ begin to introduce us to life. It is their handling of us which establishes how we will take care of ourselves as we grow up. This process develops slowly and is mutually regulated. In the best of circumstances we are fed when we are hungry, washed when we are soiled, cuddled when we are frightened and played with when we are awake. Our mothers’ initial interactions with us take their cue from our needs. And we take our cue from her responses or lack of responses. As infants we have a highly developed sensitivity to our environment. We rely on this sensitivity for survival- we have nothing else. Without someone to take care of us we would never make it. The level of care we receive, and our experience of it determines how we will respond to our needs and care for ourselves in the future. It establishes our relationship to our bodies as well as our psyches.

Mothers are women before they become mothers. It is their experience of their lives as women, the kind of women that they are in relation to their world and the significant others in that world that determines not only the kind of mothers’ they will become, but the kind of women that we as their daughters we will become. This is particularly true as it affects our experience of our sexuality and our expression of it. If, say, our mother is at ease in her own skin, comfortable with her sexuality and in her experience of her own femininity, then she will relate to her daughter with the same ease and enjoyment that she experiences in relation to herself. Later, she will celebrate her daughters’ development and encourage her daughter to borrow and engage with her body, using it as a template of womanliness to measure against and fashion a sexual identity from.

We learn to be women from other women, and initially from the first woman in our lives – our mother. This process begins unconsciously within our relationship to her. As young girls we view her as ours, on the planet for the explicit purpose of loving us and caring for us. We imitate her: we play at cooking, or cleaning, or dressing up, or at being a mommy, or going to work. We even try to take her place with dad. Some day (we think) we will grow up and be just like mom and marry dad (not someone like dad, but dad). Freud named this developmental passage the Oedipus complex, a necessary milestone in the development of adult sexuality. It involves the ability to rehearse and try on our mothers’ sexual identity, to own it as ours, to be her rival, to try and win over dad’s attention, to play with being a sexual being. Most of this happens unconsciously, but not all of it. How this plays out and is experienced depends largely on our mothers’ ability to tolerate our increasing sexuality and to encourage it gently within limits that make it safe for us to experiment. The taboo against incest is crucial here, since as children we are sexual beings in formation, and our mothers’ and fathers’ ability to celebrate our sexual development without impinging on it creates a space for it to flourish and bloom. Again, you can see how the level of comfort that our parents have with their own sexuality impacts on our experience of our own.

Mothers’ have a direct impact on the shaping of female sexuality. For one thing, we are physically built the same way, and this gives us as little girls a concrete body to relate to vis a vis our own developing one. For another, because we are female, we go through the same developmental stages: we menstruate, develop female bodies, are capable of giving birth, are capable of nursing another into life. This sameness that we share with other women is something we are constantly in relation with. We literally shape ourselves from our relationship to other women. And it is always mom who figures most significantly in this equation because it began with her. When there has been a trauma, an interruption in our relationship to our mothers, it does not allow us to have access to a most important relationship. This is when other women in our lives- sisters, aunts, female mentors, girlfriends become significant in the development of our identity as women.

Ever wonder why we shop together? Why we talk into all hours of the night? Why we envy other women?  Why we borrow from each other and consult each other? They are all opportunities to re-elaborate who we are or want to be. They are opportunities to re-articulate our desire. And these opportunities can only be worked out with other women precisely because we are, in a very concrete way, the same. It is from the sameness of our bodies and developmental experiences that we begin to articulate our differences, in relation to one another.


While men may figure significantly in our lives, and are important in the articulation of many aspects of ourselves through our relationships with them, they do not provide an essential validation of our womanliness in the same way that other women do. They are different than us, they grow through different developmental experiences which shape their interactions with the world. Think of the things that you share with other women in your lives, your sisters, girlfriends, your mother – regardless of the differences between them, there is a girl thing going on, stuff we just know because we are women. Sure they may be things that you also share with the men in your lives, but it is different. When it comes to shaping our identity as sexual beings, it is women (and mom first) who help us to sculpt the sort of woman we are and become. Men validate us and our sexuality in a different way: they make us feel desired and wanted in the way that they respond to us and interact with us. With men we articulate ourselves and our sexuality through difference. With women, we feel a sameness that translates into home. And if this is not the case, if we feel like outsiders with other women, we spend much of our time struggling with what it means to be a woman. We look to other women to help us finish the elaboration of ourselves that began with mom. This is a lifelong process. Our very subjectivity-our experience of ourselves has a multigenerational imprint: the legacy of our mother and her mother and so on.

The reflection that stares back in the mirror is a familiar image. Someone you know, someone you have internalized, someone who holds the original instruction booklet to being a woman (passed on and edited by other women) – the one you are always referring back to, whether you realize it or not. Yes, we are more like our mothers’ than we think, and it is in our recognition of this sameness that we begin to shape our individuality. So here’s to you mom!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Survivor-Uncensored August 26, 2013 at 4:57 AM

I started off responding to your article with contempt. It made me angry because it wasn’t my experience, and reading this reminded me of that. However, after re-reading your article, and thinking of my own relationship with my beautiful six year old daughter, what you talk about is everything I would want to be for her. So…having deleted my ‘first’ response to you, I would now like to congratulate you on a beautifully written piece on the ‘importance’ of mothers and the role they should play.


Velleda C. Ceccoli Ph.D. August 26, 2013 at 7:12 PM

Thank you for your heartfelt comment. Being a parent can be very reparative, it gives one daily opportunities to do things differently and, most importantly, consciously, and in the process discover the possibilities inherent in the mother/daughter relationship that foster emotional growth. Your daughter is lucky to have you (and you are lucky to have her) because you can acknowledge what has happened in your history and be present and conscious enough not to repeat it, and to parent differently with her.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: