My Mother, My … Friend?

7 secrets I discovered to growing closer.

I used to absolutely hate being like my mother. We look alike. We sound alike. Much as I'm loathe to admit it, we often act alike. For years I put all my efforts into establishing an identity apart from my mom. Yet sometimes, circumstances conspired against me.

I remember one winter break when I was home from college. Mom's employment agency sent her to work at the company where I'd begun my business management internship. We ended up working side-by-side in the same department. Everyone thought it was cute, but I was not amused. And horror of horrors: Proud of my success, my mother wanted to have lunch with me.

My biggest fear was that I'd become a carbon copy of my mother. My mom's a born organizer; she's worked as an efficiency expert who walks into an office and suggests improvements to maximize output and minimize effort. But I wasn't interested in any efficiency tips from Mom, eager as she was to try to make my life easier. I wanted my own style, my own identity—in my own way.

It wasn't until several years later, after I felt secure in my career, had built friendships with my peers, and had succeeded in maintaining my own household, that I realized how much I missed Mom's friendship. It was this sense of "missing out" that drove me to take a fresh look at Mom—not as a superior adult who could dictate right and wrong to me, but as someone on equal footing who could prove to be a caring, loving friend. It was then I began forging a promising new relationship.

Taking baby steps

I started in nonthreatening ways: inviting Mom to share a pretzel with me at the mall, joining the church choir together, or walking through a furniture store and enjoying our differing tastes (I'm into modern decor; Mom's partial to American colonial). While we did things together, our interaction was limited in areas in which we experienced disagreements. For example, I didn't ask Mom for career suggestions, and Mom learned to avoid giving her opinion unless asked. As we spent recreational time together, I began to tell my mom about the idiosyncrasies of my particular industry. Once I felt she understood my field, I was gradually able to ask for (and gratefully receive) suggestions. I realize now that while I'd always respected my mother's opinions, I had to feel secure enough in myself in order to accept those that applied and discard the rest.

Since then, I've learned those early baby steps with Mom are the right way for anyone to begin establishing a family friendship. According to counselor Jan Silvious, author of Foolproofing Your Life , "Keep expectations low and maintenance at a minimum. Too high an expectation and too much maintenance will do the same thing to a mother/daughter friendship that will happen to a non-familial friendship. The stress will be too great."

Learning from each other

As a teen and young adult, we often think we're beyond the need for a mother's wisdom. But at some point, we discover our need to be nurtured by others who are further along this human journey (Titus 2:3). And we realize our mothers have much to teach us in areas such as selflessness, household maintenance, and family life.

For example, my whole life I've watched my mom serve herself last at meals and work tirelessly (even after a long day at the office) to see her family's physical needs are met. I've learned from her example of selflessness. Now when I dish up a meal and give her the best portion, she giggles and says, "I'm the mom; why are you serving me first?"

But growing potential goes both ways. As friends, a mother and daughter can sharpen each other as long as each woman's secure enough to be teachable. So the second step in making a mother/daughter friendship work is being willing to learn from each other.

Eventually, my friendship with Mom grew to a point where we could acknowledge each other's strengths and weaknesses. Mom explains it this way: "We believe in each other enough to challenge each other toward excellence, to help each other grow beyond our comfort zones."

For example, she used to panic whenever her computer did something she didn't expect it to do (when she hit the wrong button). However, through her many tears and my telephone calls to console her, I've helped her conquer computer phobia; now she's an old pro at Windows and the Internet.

On the flip side, Mom backs me up when it comes to tough negotiating in the business world, and she's always on the lookout for tidbits that will brighten my demanding days. Just this morning, Mom called to share with me this apt quote from comedienne Joan Rivers: "You bicker and complain, but in the end you find out you have given birth to your own best friend."

Finding common ground

As I've talked to other 30something women, I've found my relationship with my mother isn't unique. Others in our disconnected, I-don't-need-anyone-but-myself culture are unearthing the treasure in cultivating a healthy mother/daughter friendship.

Common interests can make that friendship easier to establish. But even if you're not circulating in the same social, professional, or intellectual circles, you can still discover some common ground. If you and your mom share faith in Christ, study the same portion of Scripture or read the same devotional, as do Jean Barbanente, a high-school language teacher, wife, and mother of a toddler, and her mom, Beverly Dalesandro. "I'm in awe of Jean's knowledge of God's Word," says Bev. Jean and her mom agree that sharing Bible insights from the books they read together has been a strong cord to bind their friendship together.

But if you don't share each other's faith, don't despair. Common ground in other areas can bridge the gap as well. Do you both enjoy cooking? Take a class together. Are you both artistic? Spend a day at an arts and crafts fair. Do you both enjoy a certain style of music? Pick a date, then purchase concert tickets, just for the two of you.

Loving and respecting

Jean and her sister, Lori, have watched and learned from the example of their mother, Bev, who worked to build a lifelong friendship with their grandmother, Jean Morreale.

"My mother was my best friend," Bev recalls. "She exhibited the most unconditional love, and I always try to hold up that standard. I tried to do those things my mother did with my children."

Ironically, it was Mrs. Morreale's cancer diagnosis that provided the impetus for Jean, then studying abroad, to pursue an adult-to-adult friendship with her mother. Jean returned home early from her study trip and transferred colleges so she could help her mother care for her grandmother. "That decision was her own," Bev recalls. "She made some mature decisions independently during that time, and she became someone to whom I could confide." As Jean assisted her mom during her grandmother's illness, Jean realized how much she resembled—and admired—her mom.

When mothers and daughters can speak with respect for each other, the relationship's well on its way to maturity. Mutual respect is one of the hallmarks of any healthy friendship, especially one that's all in the family.

Making it a priority

Jean and her mom, Bev, are fortunate to live within driving distance. They visit at least weekly, and Bev has the opportunity to watch her grandson grow. Many women don't have that luxury, as they may be separated by thousands of miles. While long-distance friendships offer unique challenges to maintain, Kathy Ellington and her mom, Ruth French, prove that the apart seasons of life can be rich and rewarding if a mother and daughter continue to make maintaining their friendship a priority.

Kathy's husband is in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Colorado Springs, Colorado; her mother's a pastor's wife in suburban Chicago. Although they can't afford to visit each other frequently, they make phone contact regularly.

"Last week my husband, Earl, and I attended a pastor's retreat in Wisconsin," Ruth recalls. "Kathy knew we were gone, but when we returned, we found a message on our answering machine. It was Kathy saying, 'Just wanted to call to say I love you, and I'm thinking about you. I know you're not there, but I wanted to call anyway.'"

That kind of loving friendship means a lot to a mother, and costs a daughter very little. Ruth reciprocates, having repeatedly let Kathy know she can call anytime, day or night. "It's so good just to hear your voice," Ruth says.

Making the mother/daughter friendship a priority can be as simple as planning weekly or monthly times to chat on the telephone, sending e-mail messages back and forth regularly, or even sending cards and care packages (containing photos, videos, audio tapes, and grandchildren's artwork) the old-fashioned way through "snail mail."

One of the first things Kathy and Ruth do when they reunite is to go out to breakfast to "catch up," then they shop-till-they-drop. Bev and Jean share trips to art museums, symphonies, and an occasional spa day. My mom and I schedule time to visit an antique village, a lunch spot, or even the local discount store.

While we play together, we also talk—sometimes about more superficial concerns, but more often about issues that carry eternal value.

Forgiving foibles

Too much togetherness can bring about squabbles and require a forgiving heart. For at least a dozen holidays now, Mom and I have tried to do something we both know doesn't work smoothly: We share her kitchen as we cook for our holiday guests. Last New Year's Eve, going for efficiency and productivity, we put together a list of responsibilities and a workable timetable: I'd prepare the potatoes, vegetables, dessert, beverages, and appetizers; Mom was responsible for table linens, serving dishes, house preparation (including kitchen cleanliness), and the main entree—prime rib, cooked to perfection.

Mom has a large kitchen; it has room enough for two to work without getting in each other's way. Theoretically. But for all our talk about mutual respect, there are some things we just can't do together, and cooking's one of them. Mom has her way of cooking; I have mine. Hers is methodical; mine is slightly unorthodox. She washes utensils practically before they're dirty. Her arms are always underneath me, cleaning counter tops while I'm still squirting olive oil, poofing flour puffs into the air, and splashing juices into the sink.

So that night, as so many times before, I had to remind myself that Mom is the commander of her kitchen. And even though my methods achieve the same result as hers, when I'm in her kitchen—well, when in Rome . . . .

We now laugh about the time she rearranged the kitchen and put the can of Scotchgard next to the can of Pam cooking spray. Both cans are yellow and red, and I unthinkingly mixed them up, ruining a whole batch of jumbo shrimp I'd been preparing all day. At the time I wasn't laughing. And it was Mom who apologized for this particular reorganization, consoled me, and pitched in to create a new appetizer for our guests. That's the best thing about friendship with your mom: After it's all said and done, you bandage each other up in love, offer heartfelt forgiveness, and accept it in return.

This leads to another principle of friendship building: When you've had a dispute (great or small), sit down to discuss some boundaries that may enable you to avoid future disputes. Depending on the circumstances, these boundaries may include the promise of mutual respect for each other's different personalities and lifestyles, an acknowledgement that other relationships may take precedence over the mother/daughter friendship during different seasons of life, a pledge to preserve confidentiality within the friendship (even keeping details from other family members, if necessary), and an agreement that even when you don't see eye-to-eye, you'll continue to relate to each other as friends.

Honoring the difficult

A woman I know has spent her life wishing she could be friends with her mother. As her aging mother's caregiver, Sally * finds herself in close proximity to her mom daily. On some days, her mother seems to make overtures toward friendship, yet on others, she rejects Sally, who returns home dejected and angry over this roller-coaster relationship that still bothers her after all these years.

The Bible says clearly, "Honor your mother and father, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you" (Deuteronomy 5:16). Counselor Jan Silvious agrees. "It's your job to honor [your parents] even if they're difficult …. You are to treat them as valuable simply because they are your parents. If they need your help as they grow older, it is your responsibility to care for their physical needs," she writes in Foolproofing Your Life. "Although they may have proven that they are incapable or unwilling to parent you, you still are required to care for them."

Being emotionally intimate, spending a lot of time together, or becoming "one big happy family" isn't required by God—but being kind and meeting needs are.

Taking that advice to heart, Sally's learning not to be disappointed when her mother withholds approval or love. Sally's finding it easier to take her mother shopping, to the doctor, or even home for dinner with her own family, now that she's detached herself from the desire to have a consistently intimate friendship with her unpredictable mother. While the deep longing for a mother's friendship may never be fulfilled, Sally's finding peace in the knowledge that as much as it depends on her, she's honoring her mother in her heart and in her actions.

Whether you're separated by emotional distance like Sally, by multiple time zones like Jean and Kathy, or by just a few miles down the road, you can take steps to develop a better relationship with your mom today. I'm thankful to say I've found in my mother a friend I trust to preserve my confidences, to lovingly keep me honest (and humble), and to share my most treasured hopes and dreams—as long as I cut a wide path around her in the kitchen!

* Name has been changed.

Julie-Allyson Ieron, a writer, speaker, and public relations consultant based in suburban Chicago, is the author of Names of Women of the Bible and Praying Like Jesus (both Moody Press).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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