Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


Beyond the Myths: Mother and Daughter Relationships in Psychology, History, Literature and Everyday Life

Shelley Phillips
London: Penguin Books
ISBN 0 140 25186 3
£11.00 pb/$14.95
438 pp.

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As a critical exploration of the myths, expectations and prejudices which surround mother-daughter relationships this book makes a valuable contribution to the literature in the field. Reaching beyond psychology and history to classical and contemporary literature, the author provides a fresh consideration of the relationship and offers a constructive commentary on how women can work through their mother-daughter relationships and improve them.

The book is, in fact, two books under one cover and the theme of self-help therapy runs through both. The author is sceptical about the value of counselling but a strong advocate of the power of individuals to be their own therapists. She argues that the insights of fiction can be used by women to understand the relationship and offers a selection of novels for this purpose.

Book One explores the psychology of the relationship. It begins by addressing attitudes which have shaped mother-daughter relationships down generations. The author identifies fifteen myths which, she argues, spoil the relationship. These include the myth of the imperfect female body, the myth of the ideal mother and the myth that working mothers are not good for their children. The myths are rooted in mid- nineteenth century ideas about women and continued in psychoanalytical theories on child rearing which gave rise to the child expert in the 1950s. The author argues that these myths have been constructed in patriarchal society and are responsible for destroying women's self respect and respect between mothers and daughters.

The myths are explored throughout the following chapters in Book One. Consideration is given to the development of self-esteem in infancy and childhood and the impact of adolescence on the mother-daughter relationships. A chapter on fatherhood examines the vital role fathers play in the mother-daughter relationship. Fathers play an important part in their daughters' self esteem by their attitudes to their wives as mothers, women and sexual beings. As a representative of patriarchy in the family, the father may assert his masculinity by denying the value of the mother. At the same time, fathers leave child care responsibilities to mothers and this contributes to ambivalent mother-daughter relationships. It is perhaps not surprising that daughters have a closer relationship and a greater sense of continuity with their mothers than with their fathers, although the relationship is often fraught with conflict and unfinished business. Not surprisingly, too, the author finds that daughters forgive their father's failures as parents much more than they do their mothers. I was reminded of research by Sue Sharpe (1994) on father-daughter relationships which contains similar findings. However, Sharpe makes the point that many women have high levels of emotional investment in their relationships with their fathers and are disappointed not to receive something similar in return - an aspect of the mother-father-daughter triad touched on only briefly by Phillips.

The emotionally charged content of mother-daughter relationships is explored by examining conflict and how this is resolved. The author argues that conflict is constructive as it helps the daughter separate from the mother. At the same time the mother-daughter relationship is used by the daughter as a safe arena in which to assert her autonomy and identity as an independent being. Whilst Phillips recognizes that adolescence can be difficult for parents and children, ultimately, it seems, the mother takes the brunt of her adolescent daughter's frustrations. As Phillips points out, daughters expect mothers to be perfect. I am less optimistic than Phillips that this particular 'patriarchal myth' is one which mothers will be able to resist. Women's investment in motherhood and mothering inhibits the expression of negative emotions as the risk of alienating their adolescent and adult children is too high. Dissonance between mother and daughter may help the daughter; I am less convinced of its therapeutic value for mothers.

Book One ends with a section entitled Bibliotherapy for Mothers and Daughters. It provides accounts of the mother-daughter relationship taken from novels and short stories by contemporary women writers. These are offered to the reader as fictional illustrations of facets of the relationship which have been explored in the first part of the text. Book Two continues and develops this approach, drawing on a wide range of autobiographical, biographical and fictional accounts. It also explores historical and anthropological works to emphasise the centrality of mothers and daughters through time and across cultures. The author argues convincingly that by re- reading literature and history with a strong feminine focus, we can see how the mother- daughter alliance has survived in patriarchal culture and how it can be rediscovered.

This is an ambitious work and it is not possible to do justice to its range and scope here. Its multi-disciplinary approach will find a place on many academic courses although it is clear that the author writes neither only nor primarily for an academic audience. Counselling as a way of understanding our mothers, our daughters and ourselves is rejected in favour of personal journeys of discovery through literature and history. The author offers this as a positive form of resistance to ways in which women's relationships are understood in a social structure heavily dominated by men. As such the book is both innovative and refreshing and deserves to be widely read.

Pamela Cotterill
Staffordshire University


Sharpe, Sue (1994) Fathers and Daughters. London: Routledge.

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996