Love, Separation, and Power

Resolving a Mother–Daughter Conflict

Magazine Issue
January/February 2022
A woman in a car gestures with agitation

Leena was angry. She knew she should be happy that her daughter, Anita, was engaged to be married. She liked her prospective son-in-law well enough, but she was fighting with her daughter. As she spoke she twisted her watch distractedly, anger written on her face. Her eyes looked as if they were searching for a target; I suspected it would be me. I guessed beneath her anger was a pulsating hurt, which I would need to understand, and keep in mind now, to maintain my empathy for her.

I acknowledged the differences between us, particularly with regard to our contrasting attitude to family. I was a white, nonpracticing Christian, who held Western beliefs—we tend to be more individualistic, valuing self-reliance and independence. An Indian Hindu, Leena had a collectivistic view, valuing community dependence and authority. I’d understood duty was her abiding attitude. It wasn’t for her to question; it was her duty as a daughter, wife, and mother to follow the code set by generations. Naturally I was biased: she might at times have to set me right.

I asked her to tell me a little about herself. She had come to England from India 35 years ago to marry Devang, a member of a wealthy, property-owning family. As it was an arranged marriage, Leena had not met him prior to her engagement, which she stated with weight, as if it demonstrated her obedience at that age, tipping her chin forward as she spoke, her perfectly coiffed hair bouncing in agreement. Leena had built a good life in the UK: she was proud of her family, and happily married, with one son and two daughters. Anita was their younger daughter, a solicitor, and their last child to marry.

Devang had suggested she see me because he didn’t know how to resolve her dispute with Anita. As Leena spoke, the heat of her anger reverberated in her body, a shield of rage that pushed everyone away. As she described her conflict with Anita, it was as if she was obsessively building the case against her in her mind to knock her out. Her rage sought action, which she couldn’t take: it was stuck in her body. I needed to let her express it fully.

I didn’t want to stoke her anger by colluding with her and adding outrage I didn’t feel to hers. I wanted to let her know I had heard her feelings, reflecting her view and her fury, as accurately as I could, and that I could see how distressed she was. Anger cannot be argued away: that increases it. It needs to be listened to, and understood, to reduce its force.

At the heart of Leena and Anita’s argument was love, separation, and power. It played out over the kind of wedding they each envisaged. Leena wanted a full-length traditional Hindu wedding, with all their family and friends present. Anita wanted a simpler wedding, with fewer ornate ceremonies, and only the friends and family she knew. The further question as to whether they have a ceremony in India, too, as was traditional, hadn’t been addressed by either woman: they knew it would cause further conflict.

Over a number of weeks, in many different ways, Leena said the same thing. She believed her daughter’s selfishness, arrogance, and single-mindedness were abhorrent. Leena felt she had learned to adapt to a more Western culture, but she held core beliefs that were central to her, particularly in line with the more traditional idea of the Indian mother. I questioned Leena: did she feel guilty that at some level her daughter was diluting their Indian heritage or being disloyal to their Indian identity?

I caught a glimpse of the scared child doing wrong as she nodded and spoke of her own mother’s pride and trust in her, which she did not want to betray. Anita’s fight for her wishes, against the family view, not only felt wrong but disturbed her. It threatened her sense of unity as a family. For Leena, criticizing her daughter, telling her what was right and wrong, was a way of loving her: “Who else is going to care?” Leena added. “In India there is no sense of personal space, personal decisions, personal views. We hold close together to survive. Everybody knows what everybody is doing, and their opinion is included. We don’t have separate views, or closed doors.” I could see the disturbance in her eyes as she described the look of contempt Anita had given her at their last meeting, following Leena’s vehement argument for a traditional wedding. It had stung. How dare her daughter disrespect her in that way! Leena had woken up ruminating and, throughout the day, she’d had fights and confrontations with her daughter in her mind. When I commented gently that it must be isolating and exhausting, she nodded.

I felt warmth towards Leena as I stepped inside her world, feeling that her love for Anita was matched by the pain of Anita’s rejection. I began to wonder whether Leena’s forcefulness covered up earlier versions of herself that were more vulnerable. I described to her the different sources of her rage that were informed by her experiences and how they were profoundly challenged by Anita. There was the memory of herself as a child, having been dominated by a strong mother and grandmother, whom she had loved deeply but had been afraid of, receiving sharp slaps if she wasn’t totally obedient. There was herself as the fearful young woman coming to a strange country, entering the life of a family she’d never met, and remembering her respect for their rules. Neither of her other two children had brought up these feelings in her. Their weddings had been as she wanted—uncomplicated. Two families joining together was everyone’s business, not only the couple’s choice.

I could see she felt shocked that Anita, who had been the child she was closest to, given a life of privilege, was adamantly refusing to do as she was asked. It felt such a small request in comparison to her own upbringing. Anita’s stubbornness baffled her. Leena believed that as Anita’s mother she had earned her daughter’s compliance, from a position of absolute authority. But vulnerability, too, lay beneath this, the question of her own failure as a mother: what had she done, what had she missed, that meant she had such a daughter?

Leena’s relationship with Anita was deteriorating. They’d had a fight in the kitchen, when Leena had commented on her new haircut. I could tell by the tone she used when repeating the incident that her seemingly innocuous words—”I see you have a new haircut”—had been loaded with criticism. Anita had banged down her mug, looked at her with cold disgust, said, ‘How dare you?’ and stormed out. Leena felt that look had conveyed many unspoken words: Who are you? I don’t even know you. I certainly don’t like you.

Anita had refused to speak to her mother since, not replying to texts or calls. This had shaken Leena. I felt the hit of Anita’s verbal punch in my stomach. Over the next weeks of therapy sessions, it felt as if a battle was taking place inside Leena—she woke in tears most mornings, but then would attack the day, keeping frantically busy with endless meetings and site visits, numbing her pain with activity.

I sensed, although Leena didn’t voice it, the longing she felt to be close to her daughter. Yet the pain she felt, which was expressed as righteous fury, came from the fear that she might have lost Anita. I came up against subtle resistance: whatever I said, there was a nod but no emotional movement. I realized she didn’t want to feel the pain of the void left by the loss of her youngest child: she wanted to skip to the next thing, where she was right and happy again. But she had no emotional energy to do that, because she was invested in holding on tight.

I wondered whether the more Western approach, with the child becoming an adult, finally leaving home and being independent, would help her understand. As I spoke, Leena turned away. I wished I could reach her—I felt for her as a woman and a mother, and wanted to show I knew how hard it is to let go of our children. A new beginning cannot start without an ending. We have to go through the phase between, to experience the chaos and turbulence of not knowing. My strongly held Western perspective is that, as parents, we must learn to shift our position, take a back seat, let our children make their decisions for their lives, let them actively leave us, which frees them to choose to come back. If only she could change how she looked at Anita, it would enable Anita to change. The relationships would recalibrate, yes, but remain loving.

Over the next weeks, I felt we needed to bring into focus the broader relationship Leena had with Anita. It had been lost in the polarization of their wedding battle. I suggested Leena show me photographs of Anita as a child. She lit up at the idea—she loved those photographs. When she brought them in, I could see Anita tucked into her shoulder as a newborn baby, that new-mother bliss in Leena’s face, luxuriating in loving her last child, pouring time and attention into her, enjoying her in a way she hadn’t been able to with her first two children. As she spoke, slowly sifting through the photos, I could almost smell the deep bond of a mother and her newborn, her skin pressed to soft baby skin. Other photographs of holidays and birthdays showed a happy child, funny and outgoing, who looked very like her mother—making faces, dancing.

Even her adolescence had been relatively calm. This meant, to me, that they had not worked through many of the conflicts that allow the necessary separation between adult child and parent. I also wondered how much Anita had hidden from her mother to be, as Leena had voiced, “the traditional perfect daughter” of her mother’s dreams, while living life as a Westernized young woman.

I looked up from the photographs and clarified what I saw: Leena’s intense love for Anita. I found a way to say that love was interchangeable in Leena’s mind with control. Anita had opposed her, not to hurt her but with the intention of being an adult, soon-to-be wife. Anita’s identity as a wife and adult was as much shaped by her Western upbringing as her Indian roots. She wanted to hold both. It seemed to me that, unconsciously, Leena viewed Anita’s marriage as a threat to their bond, and was trying to regain control of their close connection through taking charge of the wedding. She had conflated love with obedience: if Anita didn’t obey her, she didn’t love her.

As I spoke, Leena froze. She looked very young and stricken. I described to her what I could see, and commented that she wasn’t breathing. Leena took a big breath, then short, shallow ones, as she held tight. She couldn’t quite bear to let herself know her greatest fear. She moved around in her chair, crossing and uncrossing her legs, as if part of her could take in the push and pull of holding on and letting go, and another part couldn’t . . . quite. I told her that I wasn’t trying to force her in a particular direction: I understood the complexity of her dilemma. I hoped that, by bringing their whole relationship into her awareness, perhaps Leena had a clearer insight into what was going on. Leena nodded. The process of change, as uncomfortable as it was, had begun.

At a family dinner to celebrate Leena’s son’s birthday, Anita had not said a word to her but had been affectionate and warm with the rest of the family, in particular her father. Their closeness versus Leena’s distance from Anita had created an atmosphere that pervaded the room. I felt Leena’s jealousy and her rage. I asked Leena what she felt in her body. She put a hand to her chest: it felt tight. As she breathed into it, she made a sound, animal-like, quiet but distressed. I asked her to stay with it. Tears came down her face.

Over the next weeks, Leena’s body was in revolt. She had headaches and tummy aches, and her back hurt. I talked to her about listening to her body, asking her what she thought it might be telling her. I suggested she take up exercise to release the tension, and develop habits to help calm herself. This was not natural to Leena: duty was her abiding rule, not meeting or even knowing her own needs. Reluctantly, she began to go to a yoga class, and significantly, she started to write, which became an outlet for her whirring, furious mind. She surprised herself with what came out of her pen, quoting her journal: “I was never asked what I needed, felt, thought, or wanted. I never argued or made demands on my mother.”

This led us to explore her silence as a child and a young woman. It had been passed down for perhaps twenty generations from mother to daughter, and to a great extent from her to Anita. It might have gone unchallenged if she hadn’t come to the UK, but now Anita had different expectations. It was at the heart of their difficulty: Leena had no way to understand the emotional cost to herself of that silence. Yet again she was not being listened to, or being allowed to make a decision. Even when it was her time as a mother to influence her daughter, she was not being heard. She felt as if she had been oppressed and now she was still being oppressed, but by the younger generation. Our work was to help her develop a fuller picture of the different emotions, often conflicting, that were going on inside her.

I asked her to tell me what her husband and other family members thought. She sighed, twisted her watch. They wanted the disagreement to end. Her husband looked at her as if she was a madwoman. She felt alienated from them all. Being “right,” I said, could be lonely and make you angry. Finally, I felt I could tell her that I suspected a primitive, physical yowling lay beneath her anger. It overrode her thinking. She didn’t want to let her daughter go—her last child. Her baby. It was as if she was mourning the ideal daughter she wanted and couldn’t quite come to terms with the daughter she had, who wanted to be allowed to shift the center of her world from her mother to her husband. I empathized with the strength of her feelings and how they must scare her. How, through the hurt of losing her, she wanted to punish, almost crush, the child she’d loved and protected most in the world. Yet acting out her anger was harming them both.

Leena pulled her tailored jacket across her chest, as if armoring herself against my words, but she was silent, taking them in. Or at least some of them.

After a long five minutes, she asked me quietly what she should do. I responded equally quietly. It wasn’t so much what she should do but what she could allow in herself. Could she allow herself to want to hold on to her daughter, and allow her daughter some independence? Could she let Anita be the child she was rather than the child Leena had imagined she should be? I acknowledged how confusing it was, since Anita was bicultural, and was, in her own way, negotiating how she could live an Indian and a British life.

Leena stamped her foot with childlike frustration. She pressed her hands against her ears, as if her head was about to burst. I asked her to close her eyes and breathe, then to hold her body very tight, squeezing every muscle for a few minutes, then releasing and letting go. I followed with a relaxation exercise and could see the calm wash through her body. Now wasn’t the time for words: it was time to let her system unwind. She left silently, allowing me to give her a hug, her large frame shaky as I held her.

I learned the following week that Leena had gone from our session and called Devang out of a meeting. She had asked him to come home early to her. A first. She’d needed him to hold her. She’d breathed in the scent of his peppery hair, felt the warmth of his arms. The pressure in her chest eased and she felt safety running through her veins. He’d listened as her tirade of loss and sadness, rage, and hurt flowed out of her into his increasingly damp shoulder. She’d cried for a long time, sobbing noisily. He’d been kind, and he’d held her. He had made her a cup of tea. She’d been surprised by how much calmer she felt. They’d agreed they needed to see Anita together: they needed to find a way forward.

Leena looked at me with a pride and warmth in her eyes that I hadn’t seen before. The process between one phase of life and another can be achingly long, and sometimes it is wonderfully simple. In this case there was a real shift in Leena: her husband’s support and love enabled her to picture a future where they were a close family, but she didn’t have to maintain such a tight grip. They had met with Anita and agreed on a compromise for the wedding. Anita was still wary of her mother, and there was tension between them, but they had leaped the largest hurdle and had a plan to go forward. Leena loved a plan.

I felt the release of tension in my body. I told Leena that the power parents have to influence the wellbeing of their adult children is often underestimated. The relationship needs to be reconfigured, for sure, and the power balance recalibrated, but fundamentally the child is always a child with their parents. I wanted Leena to know that she could use her power collaboratively with Anita. She didn’t have to have power over her. I talked about the importance of argument, which, when voiced, can be better than simmering disagreements. There are ways to have arguments that do battle over views but don’t attack those engaged in them. Closeness can follow an honest disagreement, maybe allowing time for each party to feel less raw. It’s never the argument that truly matters but the capacity to repair.

Excerpted from This Too Shall Pass by Julia Samuel. Copyright ©2021 Julia Samuel. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Julia Samuel

Julia Samuel, MBE, is a leading British psychotherapist. She’s the Founder Patron of Child Bereavement UK. Her previous book is Grief Works.