People often ask me how I did it. How did I manage to raise a savvy, compassionate, and accomplished daughter? A daughter who is kind to strangers and gives back to her community while nurturing her own relationships? A young woman who graduated from college with superb grades, played sports throughout high school, and has now landed a terrific job in Manhattan? A daughter who consistently makes critical life decisions with the certainty and sagacity of someone twice her age?
To answer these questions in full would require several hours. And, so, I simply offer the truth: I gave her unconditional love while nurturing her through every stage of her life.
I became a mother with no clear examples of how to raise a child, let alone a daughter. Raising a girl is a complex, terrifying endeavor, fraught with anxieties—small and large. As the only child of a single mother who was in desperate need of mothering herself, I tumbled into motherhood, guided by instinct alone.
And yet, it was through my lack of knowledge that I became an avid student. I was careful. I was a close listener, a keen observer. Through this, I found a mother-and-daughter bond that was tremendously satisfying—for the both of us.
Every phase of a person’s life presents its own set of challenges—for the individual and for the parent. Knowing these stages and their complications and delights allows mothers to anticipate what’s coming and plan accordingly. If you also hope to navigate your daughter’s life with grace, ease, and joy, keep in mind the following stages—what to expect, and how to operate, in each phase.
Phase 1: The Itty-Bitty Critter Years
There are few things more wonderful than holding your baby girl for the first time. When my daughter was born, I intuitively knew how to care for her. Yes, she needed nutrition, warmth, and rest. But she also needed my presence.
That undivided attention cannot be overlooked. It is through our love and tenderness that our daughters first learn how to form a solid foundation of trust.
Such trust comes with countless benefits. Parents often remark that true, unconditional love is a concept that isn’t understood until you’ve had a child. While debatable, the rewards are undeniable. Cooing words and gleeful smiles pave the way to first attempts at sentences. When my daughter was a toddler, she often looked out the window and said, “Mommy, today is so froggy!” It took her a handful of months to realize that froggy and foggy were not actually the same thing, but it’s one of my fondest memories of her.
During these precious early years, it’s vital to tune into your daughter’s natural tendencies. Is she shy, or extroverted? Is she a homebody, or does she thrive outside the front door? What sounds does she respond to? Colors, smells, and sights? Is she fiercely independent, or does she crave emotional and physical attentiveness?
My daughter, who grew up to be brave and individualistic, had the habit of changing her mind on a whim. Weeks of only wanting to wear pants were replaced with months of refusing to put on anything but a dress. While seemingly insignificant, noting this behavior allowed me to see that she loved to explore and thrived on change—a fact that remains true to this day. Noting these idiosyncrasies from the time your daughter is born will ease you into a mutually gratifying—and smooth-sailing—relationship.
It is in this stage that mothers should cherish every non-exhausting moment—raising an infant and toddler doesn’t come without exceptional effort—as our little girls won’t always be babes-in-arms.
Phase 2: The Idealization Stage
Post-toddler, but preteen, many daughters become enamored with their mothers. They’re in awe of their moms, who, in their minds, are glamorous, gorgeous, and wise. While inherently independent, during the ages of five to ten, my daughter had a habit of mimicking my actions and behaviors. She wanted to eat what I ate, wear identical outfits, and clean and cook and fold laundry beside me. While shadowing me, she’d pick up my tone of voice, the words I spoke. During this phase, she rarely wanted to leave my side.
Yet, it is also within this phase that a daughter’s fear of becoming separated from her mother becomes realized, enhanced, and intense. When younger, children who are well-cared for have an indestructible trust in their conviction that their mothers are always present—even when they’re out of sight. As they near their firsts—their first day of preschool, their first day of kindergarten, their first sleepover away—they can become moody and clingy in their attempts to keep this notion alive. Thus, it’s critical in this time to begin offering your daughter a taste of autonomy. Allowing her to make decisions on her own, if in her best interest, will permit her to become self-reliant while ensuring that you, as the mother, remain the primary force of love and authority in her life.
Phase 3: The Preteen Years
From roughly eleven to thirteen years old, the daughters we had known so well—those little girls who refused to be away from us for any solid length of time when they were small—begin to separate from us emotionally, physically, and mentally.
Signs of autonomy are present in children from an early age. For example, when my daughter was three, she, like all kids, thought the only word that existed in the English language was “no.” But, these indications become clearer and more and more unmistakable during the preteen years. Daughters begin to identify more with their peers than their parents, opting for weekends with friends over Saturdays with their folks, and relying on their peers’ opinions more than their mother’s.
It is at this time that young women also start to see the cracks in their mother’s facade. The pure beauty and righteousness they saw in their mothers when they were younger falters, which leads to frustration on the preteen’s part (not to mention the mother’s!). This is a perfectly natural phase for girls to undergo, as it is only through seeing the flaws (real or perceived) in their primary attachment figure that they can exert the courage they need to create distance.
With such changes—which feel seemingly abrupt—it’s critical to continue being present, no matter how much you’d like to pack a bag and run. Why? Because it is also during this stage that girls become increasingly aware of the opposite sex.
Terrifying, isn’t it?
While daughters become critical of their mothers, mainly identifying only their negative characteristics, they also become more receptive to the attention of males. This occurs because of the Oedipus precept in reverse: The female must demonstrate to herself that her mother is inadequate in order to make the chief male in her life (her father) love and protect her. Clearly unconscious on the daughter’s part, the focus is nevertheless on exposing that mom is wrong and dad is right. With that arrives keen observations on how to be seen as the apple of her father’s eye. In general, during this phase, females become more and more interested in their looks. They also want mom to be there—but only at a distance. Kissing your daughter goodbye in front of school? Not an option. Volunteering in the classroom? Forget it.
The question of how to react during this stage brings us back to the first stage. As a mother, you may want to run and hide—a feeling that becomes even more overwhelming in the stage that follows—but presence is, once again, absolutely key. Frequent dialogue, physical connection, and positive encouragement can save a mother-daughter bond during this time—and save your daughter’s life in the tumultuous years that arrive next.
More importantly, it’s crucial in this phase to make it lovingly, but abundantly, clear that your daughter is not to cross the line of respect and obedience. This may entail taking away some of her privileges for awhile, and explaining why you are doing so. Your daughter will likely fight you for giving her a curfew, curbing her internet privileges, and watching what she and her friends eat, watch, and read. Deep inside, though, she’ll know that you’re right and will gain respect for you.
Phase 4: Adolescence
Our closest family friend liked to joke that my husband’s hair would turn gray the moment our daughter turned fourteen. We laughed it off in front of him, while in private we believed that we were the exception: Our smart, soccer-playing, sweet-and-only-occasionally-salty daughter wouldn’t become like “those other teenager girls.”
We were dead wrong.
Parents often say that getting through the teenage years are the most trying, exhausting, exhilarating, and petrifying. I’m here to say: Believe every word of it.
As Dr. Josepehine Ferraro explains, “While mothers are idealized when children are four or five years old, teenagers often see their mothers as being old fashioned or ‘out of it.’ This is another stage where children are learning to separate themselves emotionally from their mothers.”
This need to detach manifests itself in many ways. In trying to attain independence, while feeling the magnetic pull of the bond daughters share with their mothers, they often overreact and act out. When my daughter was in her mid-to late-teens, she’d come home enraged with me, asking why I was home when “most moms have jobs.”
I had to bite my tongue in these heated moments. The truth is, I had a job—my role was to raise her. “Get a life!” was also yelled with such frequency that it was the only phrase I heard in my head. Yet, within minutes of yelling this and slamming her door, my daughter would emerge from her bedroom to give me a hug and ask what we were having for dinner. During their teens, daughters want you to hold them tight… but they also want you an ocean away.
Keep in mind that your daughter is experiencing a wide range of emotions that are primarily due to hormonal changes. She’s also under incredible pressure during these years—to fit in, get ahead, look great, play sports, perform brilliantly in the classroom, achieve popularity, and land acceptance at a good college. The anxiety she has over leaving home, coupled with her wish to be strong and autonomous, starts to surface. As she navigates these changes and challenges, it’s important for mothers to retain their temper. Refuse to engage in senseless arguments. Explain that what she’s feeling is entirely normal and inevitable. Offer counsel, candor, and solace. Most importantly, set boundaries—and stick to them. You’ll both thank each other later for it.
Phase 5: Early Adulthood
While adolescence is difficult for both mother and daughter, early adulthood presents its own set of difficulties. Post-college, many young women confront the same pressures they faced in high school, only on a much grander scale. From choosing a career they’re passionate about to selecting a mate, women in this decade are much more overwhelmed than ever before. My daughter recently moved to New York City after scoring a prestigious position. Aiding her in finding an apartment and shopping for a new wardrobe brought back memories of her final years in high school. She was overwrought, antsy, and prone to unloading her troubles on me.
It’s also during this time that daughters have a tendency to realize that, like all humans, their mothers are mortal and imperfect. They’ll attempt to carve out an existence unlike their mothers, while also seeking their validation. The greatest lesson we can teach our daughters during these years is the the significance of self-respect. With it comes self-esteem, ambition, and perseverance. And the greatest satisfaction during this phase? Reclaiming the bond you two shared before adolescence hit, and witnessing the brave woman she’s becoming.
Phase 6: The Thirties and Beyond
By the time your daughter has reached her thirties, you will note how your relationship has blossomed and morphed over time. No longer competitive with you, she’s gained stability, recognition, and independence. It’s often during this era that mothers and daughters begin communicating on a peer-to-peer level. With a family of her own, she turns to you for guidance, and yet through maturity has developed a worldview of her own. She teaches you as much as you advise her. And such is the beauty to behold: The extraordinary woman you’ve created.