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Posted in: Motherhood & Custody, Feminism

Published on Jun 10, 2008 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Phyllis Chesler

The mother-daughter wars


The mother-daughter wars

Recently, London’s Daily Mail ran an article based on an interview with writer Rebecca Walker, daughter of greatly beloved “Color Purple” author Alice Walker, about her relationship with her mother that saddened me enormously.

In effect, Rebecca accuses her mother of being a cold, selfish, child-hating feminist, who wanted nothing to do with Rebecca (or, really, with motherhood) while Rebecca was growing up, even less to do with her when Rebecca became pregnant, and then, nothing to do with Rebecca’s son, who is Alice’s only grandchild. According to Rebecca, her mother even cut her out of her will. Rebecca guesses that her “crime” was “daring to question her [mother’s feminist] ideology.”

Rebecca (who is, herself, one of the most prominent faces of third-wave feminism) describes a neglectful, overly permissive and mainly absent mother, and she describes a joint custody arrangement in which she spent two years with each parent — in Rebecca’s view, a “bizarre way of doing things.” I agree. According to Rebecca, when she first called her mother to tell her that she was pregnant and that “she’d never been happier, [Alice] went very quiet. All she could say was that she was shocked. Then she asked me if I could check on her garden. I put the phone down and sobbed — she had deliberately withheld her approval with the intention of hurting me.”

Ah, Rebecca. My mother, a traditional stay-at-home mother, also withheld her approval when I told her I was pregnant. Hallmark greeting cards aside, this is not an uncommon dynamic between mothers and daughters, and it can get a lot worse: For example, mothers can savagely criticize their daughters’ child-care practices, sue for custody of their grandchildren or testify against their daughters in court on behalf of ex-sons-in-law. They can also refuse to relate to their daughter and their grandchild.

Still, Rebecca’s interview is too sad to bear, and although I, too, have written about my troubled relationship with my mother, I did not have the heart to do so in a major way while she was alive. I waited until after her death to do so — and still I feared that I was both committing a sin and tempting fate. Exposing your mother’s nakedness in public, breaking publicly with the only woman who ever gave birth to you, is a tabooed, ungrateful, desperate, perhaps dangerous and always complicated act.

The mythic Electra did so, and she is our model for matricide, at least psychologically. And fairy tales that feature cruel and evil stepmothers are, in reality, only history lessons in fanciful disguise. Many biological mothers died in childbirth, and their children were raised by strangers. Obviously, the experience was not always delightful. But also, in fairy tales, as in life, the very same mother, whether biological or adoptive, plays the role of both Fairy Godmother and Evil Stepmother.

In this interview, not only does Rebecca denounce her mother, she indicts the entire second-wave feminist movement for having betrayed women by minimizing or rejecting the importance of motherhood in women’s lives.

Well, she definitely has a point, and it is one that I have made many times. Still, given her age, Rebecca could never have experienced how odiously motherhood was once forced upon women and how all other options were closed and what courage it took to reject the commandment to marry and mother.

While most second-wave feminist leaders and thinkers emphasized abortion rather than motherhood, job equity rather than child support, sexual violence rather than the importance of family building, there were many second-wave feminist leaders (I am one) who consistently valued and wrote extensively about motherhood. For example, it was my subject in three books (“Child: A Diary of Motherhood,” “Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody” and “Sacred Bond: The Legacy of Baby M”). And I was not alone. Second wavers who also wrestled with and embraced the themes of pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood and nonsexist child rearing include Judy Chicago, Nancy Chodorow, Betty Friedan, Joanne Haggerty, Jane Lazarre, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Adrienne Rich, Sarah Ruddick, Alice Kates Shulman, Merlin Stone — and Alice Walker (“In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”). And this is not a comprehensive list.

Still, many of the most glamorized, iconic and sexually and intellectually radical of second-wave feminist leaders did not become mothers or had become mothers long before they became feminist leaders. Many had also suffered the drudgery, the poverty, the utter absence of support or recognition that often accompanies mothering, and finally, paradoxically, they had also suffered the “empty nest syndrome.” Most second-wave feminists therefore either condemned or feared motherhood.

I know Alice, who is a world-class talent, and I have met Rebecca, a beautiful and talented woman in her own right. Assuming every line in Rebecca’s interview is true — and it may not be entirely objective — I must remind anyone who’s shocked by the interview, or saddened by it as I am, that a rift between a talented and successful mother and her talented and (differently) successful daughter is routine, not unusual.

I’ve written in the past about the mother-daughter relationship — about mothers who envy, compete with and seek to psychologically punish, even destroy, their daughters and about daughters who reject and abandon their mothers and who rebel by preferring their fathers and boldly choosing whatever path their mother has not taken. A career mother’s daughter might have five children and glory in stay-at-home motherhood; a stay-at-home mother’s daughter might choose the cold, corporate career, etc. None of this is surprising. It exemplifies historical pendulum swings and the ways in which daughters attempt to differentiate themselves from mothers whose shadows loom large.


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