ALAN v22n2 - The Mother/Daughter Relationships in Young Adult Fiction

Volume 22, Number 2
Winter 1995

The Mother/Daughter Relationship in Young Adult Fiction

Frances A. Nadeau

The recent film, The Joy Luck Club , sparked popular interest in the mother/daughter relationship. Understanding the relationship is critical to young adult girls because daughters bond with their mothers in a complex, interdependent association that often inhibits a daughter from establishing her own identity. By describing the daughter\'d5s quest for autonomy from different viewpoints, novels can offer possible solutions to the problems faced by adolescents. This article will summarize the sociological literature that describes the mother/daughter relationship and review current young adult novels that depict this relationship.

The sociological literature describes the strong bond between mother and daughter as one inhibiting the daughter from establishing her own identity. The first bonding in infancy is with the mother. Although this initial bonding is true for both sexes, boys break away at an early age to identify with their fathers. In a recent journal article, "Mothers and Daughters: A Discussion of Theory and Research," Carol Boyd reviewed theories that focus on the uniqueness of the mother/daughter relationship. She cites Nancy Chodorow, a pioneer in researching mothers and daughters, who explained, "The mother is the early care giver and primary source of identification for all children.... A daughter continues to identify with the mother" (p. 292). Boyd also summarized the research done by Lucy Fischer, who "maintained that because mothers and daughters identify with each other, and because their individual boundaries are not always clear, daughters struggle all their lives to separate from their mothers" (p. 292).

The mother/daughter relationship undergoes added conflict and strain in the adolescent years because the mother is the primary role model and teacher of cultural values. Margaret Notar and Susan McDaniel wrote an article in the journal Adolescence describing the mother/daughter relationship as "...often conflictual, particularly during their daughter's adolescence, and [it] manifests many of the ambiguities and confusions about the social meanings of womanhood and motherhood." They further note two studies, Flax in 1978 and Fisher in 1981, that report that adolescent daughters hold the most negative attitudes toward their mothers and that the daughter's quest for autonomy, often manifested sexually, is not commended by the mothers (p. 13). Vivien Nice in her book Mothers and Daughters states that mothers teach their daughters to be dependent. "...Mothers are seen to teach [daughters] ... to meet men's needs and suppress their own. Girls are taught to be attractive and caring, not to outshine men intellectually ... and to look for approval" (p. 46). Nice quotes Gilbert and Webster: "Each mother has to transmit the rules of femininity to her daughter to help them survive in the world as she knows it" (p. 83). These two teachings, dependency and a code of behavior, contribute to conflict and to making the separation more difficult.

Many works, written by and for adult women, describe the turmoil of self discovery and the pain of mother/daughter separation. Before Amy Tan wrote The Joy Luck Club in 1989, well-known feminist writers had explored the mother/daughter relationship: Paule Marshall in Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959); Alice Walker in Meridian (1976); Jamaica Kincaid in Annie John (1985); and Toni Morrison in Beloved (1987).

In contrast, few authors describe the mother/daughter relationship in their novels for young adults. The mother is often removed physically through travel, illness or death, or emotionally through dependence on alcohol or drugs. By removing the mother, these authors may allow the daughter more freedom to face and solve problems on her own. However, this device does not describe the situation of most young adult women. All women are daughters and must resolve the conflicts inherent in the mother/daughter relationship if they are to understand themselves and ultimately to establish their own identity.

Although the trend by young adult authors to ignore the mother/daughter relationship prevails, there are a few young adult novels that depict aspects of the relationship. The mother/daughter relationship may become a focus because of a family response to an outside conflict, or the daughter's rebellion against the values of society or, more specifically, against her mother's lifestyle. Identifying these novels can be difficult because, when the mother/daughter relationship is not a central theme, it will not be defined in the short annotation or listed in the subject headings.

Physical separation by illness and death existed in traditional series such as Nancy Drew, and it exists in today's young adult novels. Cynthia Voigt has written a series of novels about Dicey Tillerman, who leads her brothers and sisters from Maine to find her grandmother in Maryland. Yuki, the heroine in Shizuko's Daughter by Kyoko Mori, survives despite the void in her life due to her mother's suicide. Mori presents the dichotomy of the mother/daughter relationship. Through haunting memories, Yuki re-lives the beauty in the mother/daughter bond; through her everyday life she experiences the rules and restraints established by her stepmother. In Klause's Silver Kiss , although Zoe's mother has not yet died and is able to provide comfort and advice, she is physically unavailable since she is in the hospital. Klause captures one aspect of the mother/daughter relationship in her description of Zoe skipping school to visit her mother, the only person in whom she could confide.

Death and illness provide one type of separation. Authors also separate the mother and daughter by travel. Theresa Nelson, in The Beggar's Ride , portrayed this separation by describing the daughter, Clare, running away from home. Clare left quickly, taking only her clothes and enough money from her mother's purse for bus fare. Removing the mother through work (i.e., the mother works long hours or in a distant location) is another method authors employ to force separation. Grayling, the main character in Jean Thesman's The Rain Catchers , spends her first fourteen years with her grandmother while her mother works in a distant city and visits only once a year. Grayling seeks to understand herself by discovering why her mother abandoned her. A similar plot occurs in Conrad's Taking the Ferry Home , in which Ali spends the summer with her father while her mother remains at home to complete her dissertation.

In other novels, the mother is absent emotionally, often as a result of alcohol or drug dependency. In Taking the Ferry Home , wealthy and sophisticated Simone suffers from her mother's addiction to both alcohol and drugs. The mothers' emotional dependence often requires that the daughters assume the role of "mother" in that they make decisions and assume responsibility. In Nice Girl From Good Home , Fran Arrick writes about a family adjusting to economic hardships. Dory copes, but her mother slips into depression and finally suicide. In Amazing Gracie , a similar story, Gracie manages the household affairs, cooks, and cleans, trying to save her mother from depression and, in this case, attempted suicide.

In some novels, events outside the family relationship precipitate a shift in the relationship between mother and daughter. In Susan Beth Pfeffer's Make Believe , Carrie and her family must adjust to a divorce in a family that is very close to them. Carrie and her mother disagree on whether to make the first overture to their friends. After instructing Carrie not to call Jill, Carrie's mother disregards her own advice and calls Jill's mother. In Jean Thesman's Molly Donnelly , World War II disrupts family life and is the catalyst for mother/daughter conflict. Molly's mother begins work in the defense factory, leaving Molly to care for her younger brother. Molly wants the war to end, her mother to return home, and for them to be a happy family again. To Molly's amazement, her mother announces she would not give up the freedom of working: "A woman's a fool if she gives up a good job for housework." The Vietnam Conflict represents the outside force in And One For All by Theresa Nelson. In this novel, Geraldine's brother enlists in the Army. Although the whole family suffers from the strain of this war, Geraldine especially misses her brother. Both mother and daughter share a common tragedy in each of these novels. Although the mother offers advice, she is unable to alleviate the daughter's pain.

Three young adult novels that confront the daughter's quest for autonomy are See You Thursday by Jean Ure, Shabanu by Suzanne Fisher Staples, and Echoes of the White Giraffe by Sook Nyul Choi. In See You Thursday , sixteen-year-old Marianne falls in love with Abe, the blind boarder who rents an upstairs room. To Marianne, Abe is the man who teaches her to love music and to feel comfortable around people. To Marianne's mother, twenty-four-year-old Abe represents a threat: so she sends him away. The conflict continues as Marianne visits Abe in his new apartment without her mother's knowledge. Staples' Shabanu , set in Pakistan, portrays Shabanu's nomadic life raising camels. Staples contrasts Shabanu's willful nature with her sister Phulan, who obediently follows her parents' wishes. The parental attitude is reflected by the mother who states, "What we decide for both of you is what you will do. You aren't old enough to know what's good for you." Shabanu rebels when her parents pledge her to marry an older man. The third book, Choi's Echoes of the White Giraffe , is also set in a remote time and place. Choi sets the story in Korea during the Korean war and describes the fabric of a mother/daughter relationship. Sookan, knowing she would bring shame on herself and her family, nevertheless agrees to be photographed with her friend -- a privilege permitted only to engaged couples. When her mother learns of this deception from the young man's parents, she prohibits Sookan from participating in activities that would put the two young people together. The mother admonishes her daughter saying, "...I am disappointed that you kept this from me. I know you are at the age where your heart rules. But you could have told me...."

Finally, there are the young adult novels that describe the mother/daughter conflict that occurs when the daughter selects her own and rejects her mother's lifestyle. Vivien Nice describes the separation as confusing in that the daughter does not know where she begins and the mother ends (p. 49-50). The Newbery-Award-winning Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson portrays Sara Louise Bradshaw competing with her talented sister for attention as she seeks to discover her path in life. In a dramatic scene in which Sara Louise tries to comprehend that her mother chose life on the small island instead of going to Paris, Sara Louise implores, "Well, just don't try to make me like you are." Another young adult novel that centers on a girl's attempt to find her place is Jerry Spinelli's There's a Girl In My Hammerlock . When Maise doesn't make the cheerleading team, she joins the wrestling team. Team members scorn her, her brother and best friend shun her, and opponents prefer forfeiting rather than wrestling her. Although not pleased with Maise's decision, her mother offers support.

A very recent book, Sarah Ellis's Pick-Up Sticks , relates the story of a daughter rejecting her mother's lifestyle. Polly seeks order and security while her artistic mother fails to plan ahead. When they cannot find a new apartment, Polly screams, "Why did you choose to be a mother if you can't even do it right?"

Notar and McDaniel stated, "One of the earliest and most profound bonds women form with each other is that of mother and daughter" (p. 1). Although the relationship is complex, young adults often need to understand their mothers in order to understand themselves. Well-developed fiction can provide a powerful message of comfort, reassuring daughters that others have experienced the pain and confusion of growing independence. Amy Tan inspired popular interest. Some young adult novelists reviewed here have illuminated the relationship. Perhaps future works of young adult fiction will contribute more to the understanding of the mother/daughter relationship.

Annotated List of Books

* Arrick, Fran. Nice Girl From Good Home . Bradbury, 1984.
Dory, a high school sophomore with a crush on her senior brother's best friend, leads a normal, middle-class life until her father loses his job. Arrick explores the family's adjustment to this catastrophe, including the mother's inability to face reality and subsequent suicide.

* Cannon, A. E. Amazing Gracie . Delacorte, 1991.
Competent Gracie sews her mother's wedding gown and wears the ugly dress her stepfather bought in order to save her mother from worry and embarrassment. The marriage means moving to a new town and adjusting to a younger stepbrother. Gracie copes with all this until her mother slips into depression and attempts suicide.

* Choi, Sook Nyul. Echoes of the White Giraffe . Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
Forced to flee Seoul during bombing in the Korean War, fifteen-year-old Sookan, her mother, and her younger brother adjust to living as refugees in a small mountain hut. The daily climb to the hut takes an hour. Sookan sings in the church choir where she meets Junho, a quiet, thoughtful boy who becomes a special friend.

* Conrad, Pam. Taking the Ferry Home . Harper and Row, 1988.
Ali spends the summer with her writer father on an island where rich Simone Silver vacations at the family retreat. Simone includes Ali in her search for summer romance. Alcoholism is a focus of the novel: Ali's father is a recovering alcoholic who goes to AA meetings, and Simon's mother is a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser.

* Ellis, Sarah. Pick-Up Sticks . Margaret McElderry Books, 1992.
When thirteen-year-old Polly and her mother are forced to select a new apartment, their temperaments clash. Polly seeks the security of an orderly life; her artistic mother accepts and enjoys the unexpected. Polly resents her mother's lack of planning and chooses to live with her uncle.

* Klause, Annette Curtis. Silver Kiss . Delacorte, 1990.
This is a supernatural story focusing on Zoe, a normal American teenager, and Simon, who "well, Simon is different." Zoe feels that she is losing everything important because her mother is dying of cancer and her best friend is moving. Simon understands Zoe's feelings of loneliness because he has been alone for centuries.

* Mori, Kyoko. Shizuko's Daughter . Henry Holt, 1993.
Uki, a teenager in Japan, discovers her mother's suicide and hates life with her new stepmother. Fond memories of a kind, loving, beautiful mother contrast with the day-to-day arguments with her stepmother.

* Nelson, Theresa. And One For All . Orchard Books, 1989.
Geraldine Brennan relates her family life during 1966-1968, the Vietnamese Conflict. She is very close to her older brother, Wing, and his friend, Sam, until Wing joins the Army and Sam begins handing out anti-war leaflets.

* Nelson, Theresa. The Beggar's Ride . Orchard Books, 1992.
Clare runs away from her night-club-singing mother and her mother's newest boy friend. In Atlantic City, she joins a gang of homeless youths who steal to survive.

* Paterson, Katherine. Jacob Have I Loved . Crowell, 1980.
Sara Louise believes she is like Esau of the Bible story, and that her beautiful, talented twin sister, Caroline, is the loved and cherished sister. Set on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in the 1940s, the novel relates the problems of growing up and self discovery.

* Pfeffer, Susan Beth. Make Believe . Henry Holt, 1993.
Not only are thirteen-year-old Carrie and Jill best friends, but their families have always been friends. Tragedy hits both families when Jill's father announces his planned divorce and remarriage.

* Staples, Suzanne Fisher. Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind . Knopf, 1989.
Set in Pakistan, the novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Shabanu's life in the desert. Shabanu does not like "women's work" and prefers to help her father with the camels. When she discovers that she is pledged to marry an older man, she must decide whether to go through with the marriage or defy her family.

* Spinelli, Jerry. There's a Girl In My Hammerlock . Simon and Schuster, 1991.
Thirteen-year-old Maise is a star athlete. When she does not make the cheerleading team, she decides to join the wrestling team to be near Eric. Accepted by neither team members nor team parents, Maise faces a difficult year.

* Thesman, Jean. Molly Donnelly . Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
Set in Seattle during World War II, this story tells of family adjustments to the war. Blackouts, Japanese resettlement, and rationing are described.

* Thesman, Jean. The Rain Catchers . Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
Gray lives with her grandmother in a house of women, where one is dying of cancer. Gray and her best friend Colleen listen to the stories told by the women at tea time. Gray's mother, who works in San Francisco, decides it is time for Gray to live with her.

* Ure, Jean. See You Thursday . Delacorte, 1981.
Sixteen-year-old Marianne lives with her mother, who decides to take in a boarder. At first Marianne hates the loss of privacy, but she learns to love this new man who is blind and who takes the time to listen to her.

* Voigt, Cynthia. Dicey's Song . Atheneum, 1982.
In this sequel to Homecoming , thirteen-year-old Dicey Tillerman keeps her brothers and sister together after her mother's death. Dicey travels from Maine to her grandmother's home on the Chesapeake Bay, where she finds a job to earn money to help her grandmother.


Agee, Jan M. "Mothers and Daughters: Gender-Role Socialization in Two Newbery Award Books," Children's Literature in Education , 24.3, 1991, pp. 165-183.

Boyd, Carol J. "Mothers and Daughters: A Discussion of Theory and Research," Journal of Marriage and the Family , May, 1989, pp. 291-301.

Curtis, Anita. "Perceived Similarity of Mothers and Their Early Adolescent Daughters and Relationship to Behavior," Journal of Youth and Adolescence , 20.3, 1991, pp. 381-397.

Hirsch, Marianne. The Mother Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism . Indiana University Press, 1989.

Nice, Vivien E. Mothers & Daughters: The Distortion of a Relationship . St. Martins Press, 1992.

Nickerson, Eileen T. "Mothers and Daughters/Daughters and Mothers: An Unbroken Cycle in Female Development." American Association of Counseling and Development, Boston, 15-18 March, 1989, ERIC ED 305 560.

Nortar, Margaret and Susan A. McDaniel. "Feminist Attitudes and Mother-Daughter Relationships in Adolescence," Adolescence , 21.81, 1986, pp. 11-21.

Pearlman, Mickey, ed. Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature . Greenwood, 1989.

Walters, Suzanna Danuta. Lives Together/Worlds Apart: Mothers and Daughters in Popular Culture . University of California Press, 1992.

Frances Nadeau is head librarian at the Curriculum Lab of the School of Education at Central Connecticut State University.