No matter our age or time since we left home, mother knows best rings in our heads. One 20-something woman I know hates her job. She’s slaved away for two years, but neither the job nor her feelings have budged. She endures miserable hours of overwork at tearfully boring tasks. She’d like to explore other options. Dare she mention the idea? Her mom launches into a broken record lament: “life is hard–jobs can suck.” This mantra causes instant shut down of her dreams. Her brain chatter says “Mom is right. This is the world of work.” This translates into “I don’t deserve the best” or “I don’t have power to change my life.”
Certainly this mother means well–mothers do. She doesn’t want her daughter to take risks or lose career ground. In this mother’s generation, workers signed on with some behemoth company at 22 and retired with a gold watch at 65. This is what she thinks is best.
When I married, my mother told me “never go to bed angry.” I vigorously pursued this marital advice, until we embodied a favorite Phyllis Diller joke: “Never go to bed angry. Stay up and fight!” Too many wee hours were lost hurling vicious barbs in the pursuit of marital harmony.
Attending an anger management training seminar ended this mother knows best tyranny. The facilitator explained: when we’re angry, blood flow in the reasoning part of our brains decreases, to foster survival mode in the brain sections that control the fight or flight response. She asserted “there’s no blood in your fore-brain — close your mouth!” Saved piles of sleep and hurt feelings.
This clash of generations is one problem with mother knows best. Advice fails the test of time because knowledge of human behavior advances, as I learned in the anger management workshop. And standards and expectations evolve. When my 20 year old daughter walked in, flaunting a very short skirt and too revealing blouse, I sucked in a deep breath — me, who grew up in the dawn of miniskirts! “When I was your age,” I cautiously queried, “clothes like that would’ve labeled me a slut. What’s different now?” Jokingly jockeying her garments around, she illustrated how much more skin she could reveal. Her response satisfied my 1960s sensibilities.
The second hitch with mother knows best dictums is that they’re riddled with absolute thinking. Judgments issued by maternal mouths seem to translate into Absolute Truth, just because it’s dear old mom talking. One size fits all, do or die, laced with always and never. Nothing is that cast in stone.
Mothers are fallible beings, just like daughters. We have no magic answers or absolute truths. A mother’s wealth of experience cannot be dismissed lightly. But remember that what issues from a mother’s mouth is colored by life circumstances, cultural standards, and personalities. The next time you stall because your mother’s voice ramps up in your head, inhale deeply and ask “who says?” Think. Trust that you can try on advice, select and reject, and ultimately become the best expert on you.