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 www.investmentadvisor.com 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.