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The Complexity of the Mother-Daughter Relationship

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at PSU chapter.

One of my favorite films of all time is Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (2017).

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it at this point, and if I watch it with you I expect you to love it as much as I do. It follows the story of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson and the strained relationship between her and her mother.

A while ago while discussing favorite films and TV shows, a friend of mine said that he didn’t like “Lady Bird” because “she’s just mean to her mom the whole movie.” Consistent with my aforementioned love of Gerwig’s work, I was quite displeased! Of course, not everyone has to have the same interests as me, but I was surprised by the way in which I took offense to the reduction of this Academy Award-nominated film to “she’s just mean to her mom.”

I brought up my qualms with my best friend, which she met with “No. No. He doesn’t understand the complexity of mother-daughter relationships.” And to quote Greta Gerwig herself, “I don’t know any woman who has a simple relationship with their mother or with their daughter.”

When I think about the way I treated my mother as a child and into my teenage years, I was consistently harsher on her and much more judgmental of her than I was with my father. I’ve heard before that children tend to behave in this way towards the parent they see as their primary caregiver, and in my experience that was most definitely the case. My mother is the “default parent,” and while I obviously cannot speak for everyone or every household, it is usually mothers who take on this role.

In many ways, my mother is the glue that keeps our household together. She works while also taking on the majority of the household labor. She cooks every night, she’s the parent the schools call, she’s the one scheduling every doctor’s appointment, the one my siblings and I would constantly ask for rides and the one with advice at the ready.

Sometime last semester I sent my younger sibling a text that said, “why am I like crying over mom rn lol mother daughter relationships are crazy bro suddenly just feeling like I am a terrible daughter,” to which they responded with “I try not to think about it.”

The space that moving out and starting college put between me and my mother led me to reflect upon our complicated relationship. I would feel overwhelming guilt around the ways in which I had treated her, the times I had hurt her without even realizing it. Looking back, causing my mother pain, making her feel as though I hated her in the home and family and she had cultivated, made sacrifices for, loved and taken care of for decades seemed like a failing unlike any other.

My sophomore year of high school I started seeing a therapist, and after one session my mom asked me what we had talked about. She wasn’t someone I felt safe or comfortable talking about my various mental issues with, so I declined to answer. She pressed more and I accused her of trying to “guilt trip me” into telling her. She met my defensiveness with “what a sh*tty thing to say to a person.” I knew I had offended her and that made me feel terrible, but at sixteen I didn’t see how I was also in the wrong.

At the time I only viewed my mother’s behavior as an overstepping of boundaries. I didn’t feel close enough to her to be compelled to share the inner workings of my brain. Our relationship was a difficult place where I felt judged, insecure and oftentimes sad. It was those smaller interactions that always seemed the most world-ending.

What I didn’t consider though, was how difficult it must have been to watch your daughter struggle so severely with no way in. There’s no blueprint for when you become a parent, no instruction manual for how to love your children the “right” way.

I was at a loss, and sometimes still feel at a loss. For most of my high school career, we were walking on eggshells around each other. I harbored resentment for the way she shaped my relationship with food and body image, the passive-aggressive comments and silent treatments and the outdated thinking.

But in the last year, I’ve grown a much greater awareness of and appreciation for just how tirelessly my mom has worked to give me and my siblings so much more than her mother was able to give her.

More recently I’ve been seeing her in myself. I’ve heard countless times how much we look alike, but I see it in my laugh, my mannerisms, the way I speak and the way I carry myself. I’ve become much more aware of how we butt heads because of how similar we are to each other. The stubbornness and insecurities we share, the ways we make each other insecure, our shared sense of humor and our shared aspirations. It’s a conglomeration of beauty, mess, love and conflict.

When my mother was growing up there was nothing she wanted more than a sister. In her adulthood she’s filled that longing, finding that relationship with friends and with my father’s sisters. She also wanted a mother-daughter relationship that wasn’t so painful and so distant.

A few years ago we visited my grandparents, and I knew that being in her childhood home wasn’t an easy thing for her. I remember sitting in the kitchen, just the two of us when she said that visiting home can be hard, but that her and her mother are “an example of a relationship that has gotten better with time.”

So, no, Lady Bird isn’t just “mean to her mom the whole movie.” Unconditional love can become muddled rather easily. We all have different relationships with our parents, but none of us are just born knowing how to express our love, how to be a mother or even how to be a good daughter.

My relationship with my mother is flawed because it is made up of two people, and people are inherently flawed. But in the case of any relationship, time, space and effort from both parties can make a world of difference. The mother-daughter relationship is a commitment, a choice, an ongoing journey and there is no easy answer on how to navigate it.

We’re all simply working with what we were given. We’re all healing, all ever-changing.

Lucy Martin intends to graduate from Penn State University in 2025 with a BFA in Acting and a minor in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.