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Industry Spotlight > Women in Wealth

Like Mother, Like Daughter

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One of my mother’s favorite jokes involved a late-night TV program whose host was interviewing a famous star. When this star mentioned hating her mother, the host turned to his largely female audience and asked, “How many of you hate your mother?” Virtually every woman’s hand shot up.

Mom thought this was hilarious. Years after the show aired, she had only to mention it for the two of us to go into gales of laughter together.

But as I grew older, I realized that if the host had asked, “How many of you love your mother?” the same hands would have probably gone up. The relationship between daughters and mothers tends to be a complex mix of love and hate. The better you understand this, the more productive your work with women clients will be.

Mothers Are Forever

No relationship is more primal or more far-reaching in influence than the relationship between a mother and her daughter. The mother’s fears and anxieties are hard-wired into the daughter, as are the ways she may have damaged her child. As Dr. Christiane Northrup says in her groundbreaking book, Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing (Bantam, 2006), “We carry in our own bodies not only our own pain but that of our mothers and grandmothers — however unconsciously.”

As a trained psychotherapist, I have spent many years thinking about, struggling with, and healing a relationship with a difficult mother. I feel I’ve been able to incorporate many of her strengths and evolve beyond many of her weaknesses. But no sooner had I decided to address this topic than memories of my mother flooded back and an urge to procrastinate gripped me. Although she has been gone for years, the power of our relationship will last all my life.

A mother can have a tremendous influence–constructive, destructive, or both– on her daughter’s money style. Girls tend to pick up Mom’s money messages and either adopt them wholeheartedly to be like her, or reject them outright in order to dissociate themselves from an attitude or behavior they disapprove of.

Early money trauma involving mothers and daughters can have an especially devastating effect. I once worked with a client who seemed unable to stop overspending. In the course of therapy, she related a memory of having a see-through piggy bank when she was a child. Faithfully saving her nickels, dimes, and quarters, she watched the bank fill up and imagined all the wonderful things she would buy.

One day her mother needed to pay a delivery man and was low on cash. You guessed it: Mom went into her daughter’s room, broke the piggy bank, and took the money. When the girl protested hysterically about her lost savings, her mother not only shrugged off the loss but made fun of her for being so emotional. Then and there, the daughter vowed that no one would ever take her money away from her again. To make sure of this, she spent it as quickly as she could. Only with dedicated self-awareness work as an adult was she able to turn this message around and begin finding ways to save money that felt safe to her.

My own mother sent mixed messages about money that I absorbed and incorporated into my own behavior. When she felt lonely and depressed or had an excuse for celebrating, she went shopping for clothes. She would hide her purchases behind the living room chair until she judged that Dad was in a good mood. At that point she would try on her bargains for him. This process, she felt, gave her permission to integrate them into her wardrobe.

My mother wasn’t openly affectionate to me, her only daughter, but one way she did show her caring was to take me out to buy clothes. I liked the clothes, and I understood that they were an expression of her love for me. So in my young adulthood, when I felt sad or unusually happy, I felt compelled to buy myself clothes. Even though I had earned the money for these binge purchases, I would hide the clothing in the trunk of my car (my version of behind the living room chair) until my husband was in a good mood. Then, just like Mom, I’d bring the clothes in, try them on for him, and finally feel able to hang them up in my closet.

My Mama Done Tol’ Me…

Sometimes a daughter replicates her mother’s negative financial behavior despite the mother’s attempt to steer her away from her own painful mistakes. For example, a woman I know was abandoned at age 28 by her wealthy husband, forcing her to find a way to support herself and her young children. It took her four agonizing years to get out of debt, but she is now a financial advisor who owns her own firm. To her consternation, one of her grown daughters has become a spender and money avoider who earns almost nothing and lives in an expensive apartment community. She seems to be waiting for some rich guy to marry her and take care of her–an expectation that boggles her mother’s mind, since the girl saw it backfire with her own parents.

The pull to relive a mother’s experience is very strong. It can take a lot of maturity and self-awareness for a daughter to develop her own money personality and a healthy sense of autonomy.

Although my mom told me I could become anything I wanted to be, she also insisted in no uncertain terms, “You won’t be good at this money stuff, dear, so I hope you find a rich husband who will take care of it all for you.” This confidence-sapping advice was particularly odd since I was great at math. But the message went so deep that for years I was intimidated by mortgages, tax forms, investing, and almost everything else involving numbers. It took years to dig myself out of that hole, spurred on by my money psychology work with many clients and workshop participants.

Because money is still a taboo subject in many families, it’s often neglected or inadequately addressed in mother-daughter conversations. When it is discussed, mothers may impart lessons based on personal experience and bias: whether or not to merge one’s money with a partner’s; whether to keep a stash of money hidden from one’s husband; whether to trust the stock market; whether to let someone else handle one’s investments, and so on.

Investing is an area where moms wield unexpected power. Dr. Tahira Hira of Iowa State University and C??zilia Loibl of The Ohio State University recently published Gender Differences in Investment Behavior, a study of U.S. households with incomes of $75,000 or more sponsored by the NASD Investor Education Foundation (go to for a copy).

Dr. Hira told me that where parental influence was a factor in developing investment style and behavior, women tended to report being influenced by their mothers, while men cited their fathers. Sadly, women who reported maternal influence had less confidence and knowledge about investing, while women who were influenced by their dads were more confident and knowledgeable.

This finding is a real disappointment. From older studies and my own clinical experience, I know that women have traditionally been underconfident about their money management and investing abilities. Now that so many women are earning more and filling more positions of responsibility, I hoped for a striking gain in financial confidence.

The sad truth is that when it comes to investing, many women still mirror their mother’s lack of confidence and expertise. Ironically, this is true even when a woman is the prime manager of household spending. Old messages die slowly.

Does Mother Know Best?

Raising a money-savvy daughter is fraught with challenges. The goal is to at least be what psychologists call a “good-enough” mother, where the parent gives her child enough healthy nurturing and love to help her develop a sense of self-worth and feel safe in the world.

The mother must also know how much guidance to offer, as well as when and how to begin fostering the daughter’s independence. In an excellent article on the Discovery Health Channel (link) titled “Our Mothers, Ourselves: Mother-Daughter Relationships,” author Gina Shaw explains how a mother helped her 8-year old daughter sort out the pros and cons of transferring to a school for the arts. This process, which taught the daughter how to make the decision herself, will serve her well when other important choice points arise later in life.

It can be hard for a mother to refrain from trying to mold her daughter in her own image. I’m a good example. I always thought that I wanted a little girl. But when I was pregnant and found out that my child was a boy, I realized I’d be a much better mother to a son. With all the preconceived notions I had about a daughter and all the things I wanted to share with her, I might have weighed her down with the heavy burden of my expectations. By contrast, I had few internal scripts about how to raise a boy. This ended up making me more open to letting my son become his own person.

What keeps so many mothers from helping their daughters become independent? For some women whose sense of self is shaky or whose self-esteem is low, living vicariously through one’s daughter is a tempting way to feel better about their own life and choices. On the other hand, a mother who doesn’t like or love herself enough may become competitive or feel threatened by a daughter’s achievement, especially in an area where she herself lacks expertise. The result can be jealousy and resentment about opportunities available to the daughter that were denied to the mother. Such a climate of negativity hinders the daughter’s ability to excel and take pleasure in her own accomplishments.

For their part, daughters may sabotage their success in order to remain close to Mom at all costs. It’s a neurotic desire, but a totally human one.

Of course, for all the dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships out there, there are others that are quite healthy and many more that might be called workable. The main thing to understand is that whether or not a woman’s mother is alive, she carries that mother inside her as a voice in her head–supporting her, criticizing her, telling her what to do, expressing shame about her, or celebrating her achievements. The more aware your women clients are of these mother-voices, the more power they will have to ignore the negative messages and embrace those that affirm their value as individuals.

Mothering Our Mothers

If a woman reaches her 30s, 40s, or 50s with her mother still living, their relationship becomes still more complex. Who is supposed to take care of whom? Who pays the bills for whom? Who gives advice to whom?

Sometimes the transition is smooth. Peg Downey, president of Money Plans, Inc., in Silver Spring, Maryland, told me that once her daughter Colleen was self-supporting, they would meet for lunch once a week. It became their routine to take turns picking up the tab–a simple example of a relationship moving from parent-child to the greater equality of two grown-ups.

When an adult daughter is financially better off than her mother, it puts extra stress on the mother’s natural desire to take care of her offspring. Peg told me about a time that her mother insisted on treating Peg and her young children to dinner. Knowing her mom was financially stretched, Peg chose an inexpensive restaurant. Even so, her mother gasped, “Wow, this is pricier than I thought!” when she looked at the menu. Instead of embarrassing her with an offer to pick up the check, Peg suggested that Grandma pay for the kids while she herself would buy her mom’s dinner. This tactful solution gave her mother the pleasure of “mothering” her grandchildren without worrying about the cost.

A daughter’s connectedness to her mother often makes it especially hard to deal with issues of frailty or mortality. When a woman comes to you for advice about how to open a conversation about her mother’s financial situation or how to deal with her mother’s increasing debility, an understanding of the nature of their relationship will help you decide what advice to give.

One rule you can rely on is that if Mom needs help, a daughter almost always feels she should provide it personally. If she hires professional care, even if it combines the Mayo Clinic and Mother Teresa rolled into one, she often feels selfish and guilty for not having put aside her own family and career. On the other side of the coin, guilt assails many mothers if their needs have cost a daughter her independence. Thankfully, the rise of long-term care insurance offers an emotionally neutral way for a daughter to prearrange care if needed. In many cases, her mother’s response will be gratitude and profound relief.

Looking in the Mirror

Daughters with imperfect mothers (i.e., most of us) are often jarred by seeing their mothers in themselves. It can be a relief to recognize differences. Once when I became cold in a restaurant, I asked to borrow my date’s jacket. Big deal, right? But my mom would have called over the maitre d’ and demanded that he turn off the air conditioning, regardless of what anyone else wanted.

Knowing that I reacted differently in this situation comforted me. On the other hand, my years of mother-daughter work have taught me to appreciate ways that I mirror my mom: in her high energy, her love of dance, her joy in beauty, her desire to make the world a better place. Now that she is gone, the more I can integrate her in myself, the more fully I can claim my own potential.

“It is not essential, or even preferable, that we see mirrors of ourselves when we look at our daughters,” says marriage and family therapist Judy Barber of Family Money Consultants LLC in San Francisco. “Daughters need to meet their own challenges and make their own mistakes without feeling overshadowed by our biases and experiences.”

Steve Swartz, an attorney, mediator, and business consultant who is a colleague of Judy’s, says that he has “a lot of scar tissue on my tongue from biting it so I don’t interfere with my children’s lives.” This is a hard lesson for any parent to learn.

Working With Mom

Women-owned businesses are a growing segment of the U.S. economy. And like many proud fathers who hope to welcome Junior into the firm, some of these women will invite their daughters to join them.

I greatly admire those mothers who trust their daughters enough to share control, giving them a chance to develop their own expertise and leadership style. Unfortunately, these working relationships are more often fraught with conflict. The mother has difficulty giving up control to her child, while the daughter struggles for her mom’s respect and the power to make decisions herself. The clash of these deep-seated behaviors can compromise the health of the business and lead to family explosions.

Some female financial advisors serve as their mother’s money manager, like Holly Hunter, a principal of Hunter Advisor LLC in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But since the complexities of the mother-daughter bond can generate stresses that aren’t present in other client relationships, I believe it can be a much more restful solution for an advisor to refer her mother to a colleague.

By the same token, it may benefit a mother-daughter firm to bring in a family business consultant who will have an ongoing advisory role. An independent professional with no ax to grind can help a family-centered system evolve along healthy lines of mutual respect and empowerment.

How You Can Help

In almost all mother-daughter pairs, the struggle for connection and control makes it a real challenge to work out a satisfactory relationship. In You’re Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation (Random House, 2006), linguistics specialist Deborah Tannen notes that mothers and daughters both have a deep desire to be seen for who they really are, and to be fully accepted and cherished. But each person tends to see the other as falling short of whom she should be. Tannen believes that each overestimates the other’s power to define her, and underestimates her own power to claim her identity. Both mother and daughter also underrate their power to wound each other. Often, neither really knows where the other person is until someone crosses a line and hurts or angers the other.

To resolve a dysfunctional relationship, it’s important for each person to become more aware of her own defensive fears, expectations, and longings. Instead of expecting the other individual to meet her every desire, she has to learn to take responsibility for her own needs. By lightening the load they’ve put on each other, they can develop a more equal relationship.

When this complex dynamic affects a client’s well-being, often the most helpful thing you can do is to assist the mother and daughter in communicating with each other. My suggestion would be for you to meet with them individually as well as together, to make sure they feel their needs and concerns are being fully heard and attended to.

While the intensity of their bond makes it possible for some mothers and daughters to have open and intimate conversations, you will find that others are incapable of being honest about their feelings and desires in the presence of one another. This is especially true of daughters who fear losing their mother’s love if they displease them or disagree with them too strongly. Regardless of one’s age, the yearning for mother-love never disappears.

Once you understand the degree of closeness and connection between a mother and daughter, it will be easier for you to help both women find more peace in the relationship and in themselves. As each one gets better at surrendering demands on herself and the other person, she will be able to focus on her own growth and empowerment. In this process, they will become better mothers and better daughters and healthier individuals.

Olivia Mellan, a speaker, coach, and business consultant, is the author with Sherry Christie of The Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology, available through the IABookstore at She also offers money psychology teleclasses for financial advisors, therapists, and coaches. E-mail Olivia at [email protected].


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