Mothers and Adult Daughters: What Is Too Close for Comfort?

By Linda Perlman Gordon and Susan Morris Shaffer

Mother-daughter relationships are possibly the most satisfying and the most agonizing relationships women share. They are also our closest bond and the key to all other relationships. Exploring this relationship can help mothers and daughters to understand their own emotions and what to expect from others.

Today the relationship is even more complicated because the boundaries between mothers and daughters have shifted. Probably at no time in recent history has one generation had so much in common with the next generation. The generation gap has morphed into something we call “generation overlap.” Some mothers jog with their daughters, watch the same TV shows and movies, are in the workforce, and share the same pressure to be magazine perfect. Technology makes communication seamless, and mothers and daughters talk to each other daily with many daughters tweeting, texting, and befriending their mothers using Facebook, Linkedin, twitter, and YouTube.

Today’s adult daughters are the first generation who had mothers that focused on their happiness to the extent that their moms were involved in almost every aspect of their lives. We were devoted to making our daughter’s life less difficult and protecting her from failure, believing this would create a happy child. We raised our children to feel entitled, and when they couldn’t or didn’t want to do something, we would jump into action and fix it.

Daughters want to chart their own life course, and many of today’s mothers struggle with how to help them to incrementally manage their own lives rather than hinder this maturity. When access to one another is so easy, it makes it more difficult to understand how close is too close. So, what is too close for comfort?

  • When a mother doesn’t know where her life ends and her daughter’s begins
  • When a mother enables her daughter to be dependent, when she can do things for herself
  • When a daughter feels obligated to tell her mother where she is going and who she is going with and/or why you make guacamole with cilantro rather than just with tomatoes and onions
  • When a mother is a stealth parent, her daughter’s GPS system, personal concierge, and bail out specialist
  • When a daughter worries that if she expresses a part of herself that conflicts with her mother, her mother may reject her
  • When a mother accepts her daughter’s disappointments/achievements as her own, not maintaining an objective distance
  • When a daughter tells her mom that a boyfriend forgot her birthday and works it out with him, but her mom can’t forget and stays mad at the boyfriend after they’ve made up
Too close for comfort is enabling co-dependent behavior, and mothers today need to replace this with supporting behavior. Supporting behavior is listening to your daughter when she needs to talk, bringing your daughter food when she is ill, driving her to work if her leg is in a cast, picking up your grandchild from day care if your daughter can’t leave work, or providing temporary assistance. Parenting is never over, it just changes! With adult daughters, it is the time for stepping back and letting our daughters grow up.

Linda Perlman Gordon, MSW, and Susan Morris Shaffer, MA, are the authors of Too Close for Comfort? Questioning the Intimacy of Today’s New Mother-Daughter Relationship, now available in paperback from Berkley Books in bookstores and online. They are available to speak to parents, educators, and mental health professionals. To get more information and proven strategies for staying connected with your children visit