It was mother’s day recently in the UK. Here’s a recap: took the kids shopping for shoes; nearly lost it on the floor of Zara Kids after an afternoon of fruitless searching. Got one pair of shoes in the end, but felt psychologically scarred from the process of trying on an array of buckled sandals on a four-year-old, who had sticky feet. It made me conclude that, yes, I love shopping for shoes but only for me.
Now that I have got that out of the way, I can move on to the subject of mothers and daughters. I read something in a newspaper recently about how mothers are often critical of their daughters, more critical than any other person in their life would dare to be.
I have personal experience of this, both as a mother and a daughter. I come from a Mexican family, where criticism is doled out as often as chili is used for cooking. Mexican families seem to believe that they have a right to tell you where you erred in your life, even if you think everything is going well. What you think is really not the point; it’s all about what they think – they are judge and jury.
My mother, who probably inherited some of her parenting techniques from my stern grandmother, had a habit of telling me when she didn’t like something. It could have been my hair, my clothes, my makeup or any number of things.
Sometimes her advice to me was invaluable. When I unfortunately grew a moustache at the age of 16, she introduced me to my first pot of facial bleach. I use the same brand to this day.
When I needed a dress for the prom, she took me shopping and helped me pick out a tasteful black dress. I still look at that picture, taken on the day of that dreadful dance, and think it looks okay. This was 1991. I could have ended up with a frilly monstrosity that would make me want to hide the picture in a drawer forever.
But she has also been a critic, even recently. If she thinks my hair is getting too long, she is quick to point out that I really do need a haircut. ‘I don’t think you can get away with long hair at your age,’ she will say. If she doesn’t like how I have teamed a top with a belt, she will tell me. She still tells me I slouch. ‘How can you be a dancer with that posture?’ she will ask. I am 40.
I have mostly accepted this as being part of what mothers do. But should they interfere with their unwanted opinions, especially when the ‘child’ is an adult or nearly one?
With two daughters of my own, who are getting old enough to remember what I say to them, I am wondering what is constructive criticism and what isn’t.
For instance, I catch myself telling my seven-year-old that her hair is a mess. ‘Have you brushed it already?’ I will ask, in exasperated tones.
If she says she has, I will ask that she do it again, because ‘it’s still a bit of a mess’.
In what could be a refrain of my mother’s own words, I told the Raging Bull the other day: ‘You really need a haircut. It’s too long and very untidy.’ But so what if it’s untidy?
I assess their clothes and try to point out when the colours don’t match. I sometimes don’t approve of what they pick out and might tell them so. My battles with the Raging Bull over her entrenched ideas about clothes are totally infuriating.
‘You can’t wear that dress with those tights,’ I will judge. ‘None of it matches, honey,’ adding a term of endearment at the end to soften the blow.
But the Raging Bull often thinks she looks fine and will sometimes tell me so.
Where will this lead? Will I one day say they have gained more weight than they should, or instead that they’re too skinny? Is that being critical, telling the unpalatable truth or doing my motherly duty?
Will I point out that I don’t like a certain colour lipstick or that an eyeshadow is garish, even if they feel comfortable with it?
Will I tell them when an item of clothing is inappropriate because I deem it to be tacky instead of too revealing?
Women are already undermined daily, in a number of ways. Young women, we are told, lack confidence and perhaps that’s why there aren’t enough women in politics or in FTSE 100 board rooms.
If a mother is picking her daughter apart, however subtly and gently, will this affect what they think of themselves and how far they will go in life?
I know my Mexican mother had good intentions; she told me what other people wouldn’t. Maybe she crossed the line sometimes, but I have crossed the line with her. I now tell her when I don’t think something looks good, and I will suggest something else. It’s back and forth between us, and the dynamic has changed. Neither one has the upper hand.
As an adult you learn to hold your tongue sometimes, because you know that words can hurt other people’s feelings. I think I need to learn this lesson all over again as a mother.