Like most women I know, my relationship with my mother is complicated. I love her immensely, but there were years we didn’t speak, and our history still very much impacts our present.
For most of my adult years, I used to drown in a ball of shame thinking I was the only one who didn’t grow up like the mother/daughter relationships I saw mirrored back to me on television. But since writing openly about repairing my relationship with my mom, I’ve heard from so many women who have expressed a similar dynamic: Love, lots of it, but a history filled with endless frustrations, anger, and resentment. These stories of other women who too felt confused and disheartened by their relationships with their mothers, forced me to start exploring reasons outside of the individual relationships we so often examine. What if there was a bigger issue at play? I wondered.
For the last few months, I’ve been trying to answer a nagging question brewing in my mind: How has male dominance in our society impacted the relationship with the women who birthed us? Specifically, how has the patriarchy impacted our mother/daughter dynamics?
For years, I blamed my mother for not being enough, without ever looking at the system that reduced her power. It was easier for me to blame her for my lack of confidence and self-love, than to explore a society which continuously devalues our gender. While I’d never really thought about the patriarchy being a reason for the deep foundational crack in our relationship, I now see very clearly its distributing, and common, impacts between mothers and daughters.
Thousands of daughters see their mothers as having taught a compromise and self-hatred they are struggling to win free of, the one through whom the restrictions and degradations of a female existence were perforce transmitted. Easier by far to hate and reject a mother outright than to see beyond her to the forces acting upon her.
The patriarchy impacted the way our mothers moved in this world, and it controlled their perception of what their role as a woman could be. Inevitably, the patriarchy influenced the way they (sub)consciously raised their daughters, and even dictated their beliefs in what their daughters could be in a patriarchal society.
The patriarchy values men above all genders, and this is evident in the standards we hold our mothers accountable to versus those we place on our fathers. We expect everything from our mothers and demand nothing from our fathers. The patriarchy has conditioned us to celebrate absentless and under-performing fathers, while shaming the mothers in the backdrop who are holding everything together. My father didn’t raise me, even when he was physically present, and yet, I’ve often praised him for being “an incredible father to an adult child.” The patriarchy taught me to see the human in my father and remind my mother of her shortcomings, even though she was the one emotionally and financially providing for me.
When I talked about this with a few of my close friends, their answers mirrored images of strong mothers supporting their families. “My mother was the breadwinner, put my dad through university, and paid for every extracurricular activity for me and my sister,” one friend proudly shared. Other friends expressed similar stories of their mothers going against the perceived norm of their time, one in which the man was the head of the family. Women weren’t powerless; we still aren’t—but in a patriarchy we have to work twice as hard. My own mother worked four jobs to ensure we had food on the table, while my stepdad struggled to bring home a steady paycheck.
The patriarchy controlled many of our mothers in when and how they were able to use their voices. And instead of blaming the system for keeping my mother voiceless, I resented her for not using it more.
And yet still, regardless if mothers were indeed breadwinners or the reason their families stayed afloat, they were oppressed in so many ways under the patriarchy. One of my friends admitted, “My mother had a voice, but she just didn’t use it very often, especially when she was around my dad” —something I personally witnessed as well. Last year, during an argument I was having with my mom about my childhood, I yelled at her (not proud of this) after being unable to understand how she could allow my stepfather to mistreat her (and me) the year before I moved out. Her lips quivered as she tried to find her words. “I didn’t know how to stand up to him,” she admitted shamefully. The patriarchy controlled many of our mothers in when and how they were able to use their voices. And instead of blaming the system for keeping my mother voiceless, I resented her for not using it more.
And this is where I’ve struggled with shame the most, asking myself how much I have upheld the standards the patriarchy created onto my mother? How have we, as daughters, perpetuated the idea that our mothers are lesser than? How are our own expectations of our mothers guided by the unattainable need for women, especially mothers, to be perfect?
The oppression of women has created a breach among us, especially between mothers and daughters. Women cannot respect their mothers in a society which degrades them; women cannot respect themselves.
When I think of common complaints from daughters regarding their mothers, it’s often rooted in their mother’s expectations and demands. “The expectations that were put on me were SAVAGE,” one of my friends shared, which is another sentiment I can vouch for. Conversations about my future with my mother included going to Harvard and ensuring I never had to rely on a man to provide for me. A daughter’s worth wasn’t defined by who they were inherently, but who they could be in the patriarchy, with independence and success as the key measures.
While I resent my mother’s expectations of me growing up, I understand now that she was simply trying to prepare me for the “real world,” one that didn’t value women as a gender equal to men. Our mothers were trying to survive in a capitalistic society run by men, and our childhood was shaped with this survival mechanism in mind. I’m still detangling the impacts of those expectations on my self-worth and I’m left wondering: Was she preparing me for the patriarchy? Or protecting me from it? Or both? And can I really blame her or resent her for this? Wouldn’t I, too, want to prepare my daughter for what to expect in a society and culture that doesn’t naturally empower her?
The reality is that both mothers and daughters have placed unattainable expectations on each other, which only mirrors the pressures the patriarchy places on women. It’s imprisoned motherhood, alienated women from their bodies and each other, and ensures these limiting and controlling beliefs about women are passed down from mother to daughter. How can we expect our mothers to build us up when they grew up in a world dedicated to taking women down? We think we can’t stand on our own, even though we prove otherwise again and again. We can’t break free from the parameters and walls the patriarchy keeps us contained within—let alone raise daughters, future women, to believe they have worth outside of what the patriarchy defines for them.
Every mother and daughter is a victim of the patriarchy, and every mother and daughter has the opportunity to stand up against it.
Mothers are daughters. Mothers are women. Mothers are human. And yet somehow, when a woman becomes a mother, the patriarchy reduces her to only that: mother. The reality is that our mothers, just like us daughters, are complex human beings carefully traversing a society that diminishes them. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that our mothers, just like us, were once too, and for some still are, daughters.
At what point do we start looking at our mothers as daughters? Women who were oppressed and subjected to keeping up with the patriarchy long before they became mothers and had daughters of their own? Our mothers never had the opportunity or safe space like many of us do now, to examine the broken pieces that shaped them. The patriarchy taught them to push through, silently, at all costs. Many mothers my mother’s age are now just realizing and healing from the impacts of their childhood, very often because of conversations their daughters are forcing them to have.
Every mother and daughter is a victim of the patriarchy, and every mother and daughter has the opportunity to stand up against it. And while there are so many issues we are fighting that the patriarchy has caused, I think it’s too time to address how the patriarchy has severed us from the womb that birthed us. Maybe this is how we heal from this unhealthy, oppressive system; together as one, instead of separate, creating anew. Maybe the ultimate way to fight the patriarchy is to honor the daughter that lays dormant in our mothers. Maybe with the recognition that we are all daughters who have suffered under patriarchy, desperate to heal, we can envision a new world.
Starting now, I’ll be extending empathy to my mother, celebrating her, a woman, who is doing her best to navigate a world that wasn’t built for her.