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Navigating mother-daughter relationships amidst the distance of university: how distance can improve your relationship

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

TRIGGER WARNING: this article examines sensitive topics of mental health issues, childhood trauma and toxic parental relationships in depth. If support is required, links to relevant and helpful resources are attached at the bottom.

Although conversations about long-distance romantic relationships are commonplace, discussions of how distance might affect mother-daughter relationships are notably less common. However, the mother-daughter bond has a prevailing influence in many young women’s lives and requires equal attention. I have personally found that distance has been integral to the healing of mine and my mother’s relationship. Whilst proving challenging to manage at first, distance can ultimately provide an opportunity for both mother and daughter to develop as individuals and return to their shared space with a greater understanding of both themselves and one another.

The dynamic between mother and daughter is deeply complex and each relationship strikingly unique. So to avoid generalising, I have drawn upon elements of my relationship with my mother, as well those shared by close friends about their own. We could each relate to the powerful nature of the maternal instinct and the fierce protective quality of our mothers at times. Therefore, it was no surprise when the indefinite separation of university caused pressure within our respective relationships, particularly due to increased difficulty in communicating. Truthfully, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt when first moving away to university. Whilst I was embarking on an exciting new adventure, my mother would be returning to the familiar setting of the family home, but only this time with the realisation of an unmistakable absence. I vividly recall worrying about whether I was maintaining contact well enough to keep her in the loop about what I got up to, so she didn’t become concerned or feel estranged from me. 

This sentiment seems common amongst the friends I have spoken with. One has shared: ‘I’m not the best at remembering to stay in contact with my mum and call her as much as I should, which I do feel bad about because I know she makes such an effort. I try to send her a message every day, but now that my younger sister has gone to university and she doesn’t have any of her children at home, I’ve definitely noticed her start to message me more. I do sometimes worry about her being lonely without us.’ (Anon)

It also does not seem unusual to view university as a means of seeking freedom from the mother-daughter relationship. Another friend has revealed the struggle to gain space from her relationship with her mother: ‘A huge part of me was terrified of coming to university. My mum has always seen me as someone to confide in about her marital and mental health problems and part of me longed to be free from it, so coming to university seemed like an escape. But I’ve never really felt that free from it, because even when I’m here I worry about her constantly.’ (Anon)

Unfortunately, the fear of disappointing or hurting our mothers is very real, especially when we feel no choice but to distance ourselves from their trauma in order to focus on our own. In fact, psychologist Bene Katabua suggests that when a daughter’s thoughts and beliefs begin to differ from her mother’s, it can often be interpreted as a rejection. This can be a harsh reality to come to terms with for both counterparts, and there is absolutely no shame in seeking help through conversations with trusted friends and mental health professionals to learn how to break the cycle of unhealthy patterns and manage this adjustment. It can be particularly difficult to admit the negative impact that the relationship with our mothers may have on us, and I know I struggled with feelings of disloyalty and remorse in doing so. However, it is crucial to remember that your mental wellbeing is always the priority, and taking a step back to focus on yourself does not make you a bad daughter – after all, your mother would never want your happiness to be compromised.

I personally grappled with feeling rejected by my mother after returning home to admit I could no longer remain as invested in her personal issues as I was before leaving for university. The distance had allowed me to gain liberating perspective on this matter, and I realised my emotional involvement in her problems came at the expense of neglecting my own needs. By no means is this a criticism of my mother’s character – I always thought the world of her, and still do today – but this epiphany provoked me to rethink both our relationship and my own peace of mind. Distance had allowed me to define myself as an individual with separate views and struggles to my mother, and I recognised the importance of establishing boundaries around certain sensitive topics which I knew exacerbated my anxiety. It felt foreign and challenging to implement boundaries at first, but they have overall yielded a significantly positive result of reducing arguments between us, which was the first step towards improving my mental health.

It is only now during my fourth and final year of university that I feel I am able to view my relationship with my mother from a more objective point of view. I have had time to reevaluate and take responsibility for my role in our conflicts. For example, my behaviour throughout the overwhelming rollercoaster of first year and the extreme frustration I felt after being sent home prematurely due to COVID – at the time I was oblivious to the fact that my emotional outbursts were equally detrimental to my mother’s mood. Inevitably, there was no shortage of conflict and resentment within our relationship, the fallout of which I experienced in my second and third years, which were emotionally intense and resulted in a deep sense of isolation amidst the distance. However, regular therapy sessions have been hugely beneficial in allowing me to confront and process these negative emotions in order to move forward in my relationship with my mother.

I am by no means claiming that my relationship with my mother is now wholly reformed and without flaws. Some days the prospect of forgiveness still appears out of reach and my rational mind is overpowered by lingering feelings of hurt and bitterness. However, I think the most valuable lesson I have learnt is that my expectations were set too high: no relationship can be fixed overnight, and even minor improvements are well worth celebrating. Although it felt like an impossible task, accepting that neither one of us are perfect was the key to reconciling our differences. Instead of demonising her for not reacting in the way I would like, I am learning to understand that we simply have different ways of showing each other we care, and we are both prone to mistakes. Sometimes, we still struggle to communicate and hear each other meaningfully, but I now know this doesn’t automatically render one of us the villain. I also make a conscious effort to acknowledge the positive aspects of our relationship, rather than seeing these as tainted by the negative ones. Essentially, I have learnt that I must take into consideration how distance can lead to heightened emotions and overreactions which do not always reflect the reality of the situation. 

Whilst distance might cause temporary growing pains within mother-daughter relationships, it can ultimately create profound improvements in the long term. University provides a chance for us to become more independent, emotionally intelligent and resilient, which should be a source of empowerment rather than guilt. Therefore, we should try to embrace distance as an opportunity to learn about and invest in ourselves, which in turn helps us to navigate our mother-daughter relationships with more self-awareness and empathy than before. For those who are struggling to navigate similar issues within their relationships with their mothers, please know that your feelings are always valid and important, even if you may not always feel truly listened to. I hope you can take comfort in the knowledge that relationships are in a constant state of flux and often have the potential to be repaired. In the meantime, remember to be self-compassionate when possible, because in order to maintain healthy relationships with others, you must first build a healthy relationship with yourself.

If you feel alone or are struggling with any of the issues this article raises, please don’t hesitate to seek help through the following links:

Mind PTSD and mental health resources

University of Bristol mental health resources

Izzy Lepone

Bristol '23

Hi I'm Izzy, a third year English student at the University of Bristol.