Changing the world for mothers and daughters

Here is my question: how are we doing in changing the world for mothers and daughters?

Last weekend I met my colleague, sociologist Kim Huisman, in New York City to finalize the details of our research project on what difference the Mother-Daughter Project is making in the lives of girls and women. We were there to present about “The Challenges, Successes, and Outcomes of the Mother-Daughter Project” at the Museum of Mothering’s annual academic conference. Kim and I had begun collaborating two years earlier when she had created a mother-daughter initiative in Maine based on the Mother-Daughter Project, and the enthusiasm of the response there had spurred her to bring her expertise as a sociologist to investigating the influence of the project world-wide.

Before our presentation, as we sat at a little wooden table near a sunny window in a cafe on the corner of 83rd Street and First Avenue, we reviewed what we knew: Since 2007, when The Mother-Daughter Project was published, my co-founders and I had received one hundred and forty emails from women from all over the world who had started or were planning to start a mother-daughter group based on our model. Women had written us from Virginia, California, Massachusetts, Texas, North Carolina, New Zealand, England, Germany and Australia. Mothers contacted us to get advice about starting groups in the military, for mothers who had adopted girls from China, for grandmothers of teen daughters who were pregnant. Among the mothers who wrote were those who identified themselves as African American, Jewish, Muslim, lesbian, straight, single or married. They wrote about what was going well in their groups and about what was hard; they sent photos and asked for advice. Kim and I decided that we wanted to follow-up with as many of these mother-daughter groups as we could to ask them how it was going.

So now we are putting the final touches on an initial survey and follow-up interview questions. What is your group like? Who is in it? When had it started? What do you value most about your group? What is challenging? What difference has your group made in the lives of you and your daughter?

Mother daughter project hardcover bookcover The goal of our original group of mothers in starting the Mother-Daughter Project in 1996 when our daughters were young girls was to change things for mothers and daughters. Not only did we want to support one another as mothers and support our girls growing up strong and free, we wanted to create a context that supported mother-daughter connection through adolescence. As we met once a month as mothers only and once a month as mothers and daughters together, talking and laughing and playing and learning, year after year we supported one another as we took on the hot issues girls and women faced: friendship, body image, cycles, desire, intimate relationships. In doing so, we developed a model for how small groups of mothers and daughters could help one another and their relationships thrive through adolescence and beyond in ways that honored our values and our unique cultural contexts. Our original group met for ten years, from the time our daughters were seven until they were seventeen, and as we began presenting and writing about what we had learned, other mother-daughter groups based on our model have started all over the world.

Recently, I interviewed Hannah (a pseudonym), who has been meeting with her group in Virginia for six years. The four mothers are in their mid to late forties and the five girls are ages 14, 12, 12, 11, and 11 (the two sisters in the group are ages 14 and 11). They started meeting when girls were five years old, and they lost two families in their first year; one family moved and one was not a good fit.

Hannah was happy to say that their group is “going great”. They stuck with our original format, meeting once a month as mothers, and once a month as mothers and daughters together.

“For her and me—it’s been a positive influence on our relationship,” said Hannah. “She is really keen to do group stuff, even when she does not want to do stuff with just her mother.” She added, “It’s helpful for us as mothers as well. When something comes up, we rely on each other to figure it out.” For example, at their last mothers’ group, one mother discussed the experience of her daughter with test anxiety. “This mom could discuss this with the other mothers, asking us, what would you do?”

Hannah cited several factors that are contributing to their group going well. “The families are very committed to it; people clear other things out to make room for the mother-daughter group. It’s an accommodating group, we do things by consensus, and can let go of stuff. And it’s very reinforcing. We like it, we like each other, and all the girls are comfortable with all the moms. We were very intentional early on, just as you suggested, pairing up with a daughter who was not our own to plan a few meetings.”

The girls in their group do not go to the same school, which Hannah finds to be an asset, saying, “It’s really nice to have another peer group with different girls, who are more outdoorsy, more sporty, which lets my daughter explore another side of her identity, since her school peers are into clothes and makeup.”

Hannah described how her group developed traditions: pumpkin carving, making Christmas cookies, a winter tea party, an annual swimming party. “We created mother-daughter scrapbooks and twice a year at our meetings we bring the scrapbooks up-to-date with photos of mother-daughter events.” Twice a year they do a mother-daughter overnight, for example, a rafting trip.

“We had a lot of fun with the menstruation year when the girls were nine,” and they did all the suggested activities for that year that we outlined in our book: studying the moon, creating a dance of the women’s cycle and getting hands-on learning about menstrual paraphernalia. Hannah says, “Our daughters have a much clearer understanding than their peers about periods. They are the ones teaching the others girls what they know.”

In reply to my email to her to ask if it was okay for me to share her story in this blog if I disguised identifying features, Hannah wrote: “Name changes and changing our location will be sufficient. We are all happy to help. We love our group and our girls!”

So….if you are in a mother-daughter group inspired by the Mother-Daughter Project, I would love to hear from you, too! And if you would like, pass this along to any other groups you know of as well.
You can contact me on my contact page.