Why We're So Afraid Of Turning Into Our Mothers

When I first realized I was turning into my mom, I was at the Gay Pride Parade.

Actually, the parade had just concluded, and a friend and I were trying to piece our way through its aftermath to get to a dinner party. A lot of streets were blocked off, the Village was understandably crowded, we were late, and we were lost. My friend tried to explain to me that since we were heading in the right direction, we were going to be okay. "We just went in a circle," I snapped, "How is that okay?" At which point I had a terrible sense of deja vu.

My mom had said these words to me circa 2002, when we were lost trying to get to my grandparents' house. Actually, I think her exact phrasing was, "You always say it's going to be okay, but it's not going to be okay!" (I guess it's not necessary to mention that it was, in fact, eventually okay.) At the time I didn't really get what the problem was, because as a college freshman, I pretty much didn't have to get anywhere on time except for class, which I didn't attend with much regularity anyway. If I got lost, I just wandered around until I figured it out. But, I realized at the parade, now that I have places to be (sort of, it's not like my presence at the party was a matter of national security), being lost totally freaks me out. I've turned into my mom.

And I'm not alone. Mia Fontaine, co-author (with her mom) of Come Back: A Mother and Daughter's Journey Through Hell and Back and of an upcoming book on mothers and daughters, says she sees her mom's health concerns (she used to carry a special scanner around the house to measure electromagnetic radiation) mirrored in her own worries over the ingredients in cosmetics. And Katherine Rosman, author of If You Knew Suzy: A Mother, A Daughter, A Reporter's Notebook, says,

There were plenty of times I thought my mom was a huge bitch. Now that I'm a mom, I see that sometimes, "mom" and "bitch" are necessarily synonymous. I will hear myself yell at my kids and experience an invasion-of-the-body-snatchers moment. I NEVER thought I would lose my cool over silly matters (i.e. when my son whines and carries on when I won't buy him candy at the grocery market). But then there I am in the aisles of A & P, snapping like a pissed-off turtle.

Psychologist Roni Cohen-Sandler, author of I'm Not Mad, I Just Hate You! A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict, says "this is an extremely common theme among the women I speak with. It's practically universal — both to catch ourselves being 'just like' our mothers — and to recoil at the thought." She thinks we may find ourselves adopting our mothers' most annoying habits because "things that have always bothered us about our mothers are tendencies that we saw in ourselves all along." Of course both nature and nurture play a role too, and Fontaine posits a neurological explanation as well — "the things that annoy us, we tend to fixate on more. We spend more time thinking about them. And the more we think about something, the deeper the neurological pathway is, and the easier it is to kind of slip into."

Deborah Tannen, linguist and author of You're Wearing That?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, thinks we fixate on "turning into our mothers" because moms are "a yardstick for how we measure ourselves" — she explains that often, "you're not tall or short, you're taller or shorter than your mother." You're also younger than your mother — until something happens that makes you feel just as old as her, like having kids yourself, or finding that you care about being on time somewhere. The fear of adopting our mothers' habits, says Tannen, is also "a fear of getting older, its not as much about your mother as an individual as about your mother as an older woman."

But there may be an upside to turning into mom. Tannen says, "quite a few women whose mothers had passed away told me how much they cherished it when they found themselves sounding like their mothers." Rosman agrees, saying, "because my mom is dead, I think about the lessons she taught me all the time – way more than I would if she were alive. My favorite mom-ism: 'You'll never regret acting like a lady.'" Fontaine points out that the desire to differentiate oneself from parents is culturally and temporally specific, and that "a hundred years ago in this country, women wanted to emulate their mothers." Cohen-Sandler suggests that daughters ask themselves,

What is so bad about being like our mothers? There are undoubtedly ways in which we deliberately want to be different. Our mothers weren't perfect. But how important are these little tics, anyway? Can we be kinder to ourselves and to our mothers? Could our reactions signal something else that's never been dealt with?

And even if, upon reflection, the flaws we inherited continue to bother us, we may not be able to do much about it. Rosman describes her efforts to break herself of her mom's bad habits thus: "Try. Fail. Rinse. Repeat."