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Published February 02, 2013, 11:40 PM

The mother-daughter dynamic: Women find both struggle and strength in their relationships

FARGO - Women grow up crediting their mothers for some things but blaming them for others, and every woman has something to say about her mom. “Mom – good, bad, ugly, whatever she is – is a safer target than anybody else,” says Atlanta-based psychologist Pamela Thompson.

By: Meredith Holt, INFORUM

FARGO - Women grow up crediting their mothers for some things but blaming them for others, and every woman has something to say about her mom.

“Mom – good, bad, ugly, whatever she is – is a safer target than anybody else,” says Atlanta-based psychologist Pamela Thompson.

Mother-daughter relationships can be among life’s most rewarding but also most stressful. Connections and tensions exist that aren’t apparent in other relationships.

“There’s always a little something going on, some friction, some resistance, some kind of ‘pull’ between the same-sex parent and child,” Thompson says.

Although similar problems arise in father-son relationships, the life coach says women are more expressive, so their issues play out more demonstrably.

Tavia Smith’s mother left her when she was 3 months old, but instead of condemning her, she’s made it her life’s mission to give her three daughters the mother she never had.

“When I hear about mothers and daughters who have conflict, my heart hurts because it’s so not worth it,” the 45-year-old West Fargo woman says.

Thompson, author of “Surviving Mama: Overcoming Strained Mother-Daughter Relationships,” says no matter what the nature of your relationship with your mother, there’s an unconditional tie between you that can’t be broken.

“That’s the most important woman you’ll ever have in your life; whether you have a relationship with her or not, whether you speak to her or not, she’s still a figure that looms larger than life, and there’s a yearning to know her if you didn’t know her or to see her if you’ve never seen her,” she says.

When she was 20 years old, Smith reached out to her mother, who has drifted in and out of her life in the 25 years since.

“We all do what we know how to do, and if we don’t know better, we don’t do better,” she says. “It’s hard sometimes because I still get angry, but I do forgive her.”

Thompson says women have an inherent longing to connect with their moms on a deeper level, which can set daughters up for disappointment if they don’t meet their expectations.

Though Karen and Sarah Burzette have always been close, their mother-daughter connection deepened when the recovering alcoholics found sobriety.

“Being able to share this lifestyle together has taken our relationship past typical mother-daughter interaction and into a world of friendship, learning, trust and joy,” says Sarah, 25, of Fargo.

Although Sarah and mom Karen, 58, of St. Cloud, Minn., are on separate journeys, they learn from each other by venting and sharing ideas.

As a result, they say they have an understanding others don’t.

“She ‘gets’ me, and many times when I want to chat with somebody who understands not only me, but addiction and the struggles, I immediately think of her. In fact, sometimes I have to check myself and say, ‘Well, she is my daughter,’ ” Karen says.

In her book, Thompson talks about the mistake many women make of putting their mothers on pedestals.

The realization that your mom isn’t perfect, that she’s not who you thought she was, or that you don’t “get” each other can come gradually or suddenly, subtly or dramatically.

Karen had a similar experience with her own mother.

“It’s interesting because as much as I love my mom and I’m still connected to her in a really warm way, she totally does not get me. I cannot share with her openly, and it’s because of judgment,” she says.

Karen tries her best to refrain from passing judgment with Sarah and her other two daughters.

“I realized that totally, deeply listening to my daughters was my only job,” she says.

Sarah agrees and in turn uses her mother’s advice when dealing with her boyfriend’s 13-year-old son.

“You can tell him something, you can explain something to him, and then you have to give him the benefit of the doubt that he either will or won’t understand you. You can’t do any more than that,” she says.

Thompson says most mother-daughter relationships begin to shift when daughters reach their mid-20s and the often-pivotal 30th birthday, especially if they have children of their own.

“You begin to see your parents as flawed after all, as human beings struggling with this thing called life like anybody else, and then you have your own children, and then you really get it,” she says.

Smith’s oldest daughter, Kayla Goebel, looks to her mother for guidance in raising her own child.

“I have a little 4-month-old baby girl, and I hope and pray that I can be half the mom that my mom is to me,” she says.

The 24-year-old West Fargo woman says her mother was a friend when she needed one but a mom when it was necessary.

“I have always known, even while a rebellious teenager, that I could go to her, be honest about what I had done or how I had felt, and she would be there with loving arms,” she says.

Even though she knew she’d be disciplined, Kayla went to her mother, she says out of respect.

“I was always really honest with my mom. … The first time I drank, I told her the next day,” she says.

In strained mother-daughter relationships, Thompson warns against holding on to hope that mom will change.

“Whatever her quirks and idiosyncrasies are, they are, and the grooves are deeply entrenched,” she says. “It’s who she is now.”

If both mother and daughter can accept each other for who they are, even if they don’t see eye to eye on everything, the doors will open to understanding.

“We’re both our own people, so there are things that I do that she doesn’t approve of, but I’m her mother, and vice versa,” Smith says of Goebel.

In her practice, Thompson teaches clients to use “radical acceptance” as a way of neutralizing their emotions, which may be in response to their mothers’ shortcomings or wrongdoings.

“Radical acceptance is essentially accepting the unacceptable and making your peace with it and alleviating yourself of misery in the process,” she says.

Women who lead fulfilling lives are best equipped for it because they have other people who love, nurture and support them and other interests that feed their growth and development.

“If there’s no fuel, there’s nothing there with which to fight,” Thompson says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590