Be honest: Who among us hasn’t watched Pretty Little Liars or reruns of Gilmore Girls and wished—at least a little bit—that we, too, could be just like Lorelai and Rory? Exchanging witty banter, enjoying each other’s company for days on end, sharing clothes? Calling our moms our best friends and knowing they felt the same? Or maybe you do have that sort of relationship. These days—much more than when I was growing up—so many moms and daughters do. They dress alike, talk alike, chatter about boys and clothes and pop culture as if they were old college roommates. A friend once told me she read her 20-something daughter’s Teen Vogue more than her daughter did. “I like the fashion,” she told me. Okay. But I think there was more to it.
The mother-daughter BFF trap is an easy one to fall into. And yes—I do mean trap. Moms like to feel connected to their daughters; it keeps them young and feeling appreciated. Daughters, in turn, like the comfort of knowing their mom understands them better than anyone else (and can still take care of them if need be). That’s nice, of course. Until it isn’t. Because being best friends with your mom can come with some unintended consequences.
Take 23-year-old Alexis. She’s always been very close to her mom, Mimi. Sure, sometimes Mimi is a little… intense. When she was a teenager, for example, Alexis couldn’t buy anything without Mimi’s approval—and it wasn’t about money. “She loves fashion, and just wants me to know her opinion,” says Alexis. This need for Mimi’s approval has been tough to shake—for both of them. Sometimes, when Alexis comes home to her parents’ house for the weekend, Mimi will question something her daughter is wearing, or her haircut or her color eye shadow. “In one sense, I guess she’s looking out for me, but now I’m nervous to pick things out for myself,” says Alexis. “Like I think, should I be wearing this to work? Sometimes I can’t tell. I don’t think things look that bad. But, I don’t know, maybe she’s seeing something I’m not.”
Mothers and daughters have more in common than ever before, so it’s natural to solicit, or at least welcome, her opinion. But when the best friend role trumps the mother role, a competitive dynamic can emerge. Maybe she wants to live vicariously through you. Maybe she likes the control. In any case, what can happen is that she’s always fixing you—your hair, your taste in men. Like when you were little, and she’d lick her finger to rub ice cream off your mouth. Things you do are never up to snuff until she steps in. Without her, you have the sense that you’re just not good enough.
30-year-old Julie tells her mom, Kat, everything—mostly. As a teenager, Julie would bring her friends home to get advice from Kat on “just about anything: boys, makeup, whatever,” says Julie. “She was the ‘cool mom.’” Since she got married, though, Julie’s moved towards more of a “need to know” basis, especially when it comes to her husband. “I used to tell my mom everything about Billy, like when we first started dating,” she says. “But at one point, he was like, ‘You don’t tell your mom about our sex life, do you?’ And I did—I had. He was furious, and mortified, and I saw his point. Obviously I wouldn’t have wanted him to talk about me with his dad! It was a violation of his trust, even though I didn’t mean it that way.” Julie’s closeness with Kat had caused trouble in other ways. Whenever she and Billy got into a fight, she’d turn to Kat for advice, like she always had—until she began unable to react unless she’d run something by her mom first. “I’d have to call her up and be like, ‘This happened. Should I be mad?’ It was almost like there were three of us in the relationship.” That’s because there were.
As adults, we want to be independent, but that can be tough to do with an overinvolved mom, even if you actually like telling her all your deepest and darkest secrets. At some point, you lose confidence in yourself. You question your ability to make your own decisions. One day you wake up and you’re 45, and Mom’s still helping you negotiate a raise, argue with your husband, or raise your children. You remain a child yourself, indefinitely. Like in the case of Julie and Billy, being “married to Mom” can interfere in your ability to form close relationships with anyone else but her—including your husband or your kids. Because if your mom is present every single day as you manage your own family—telling you what to do and how to parent, for example—you risk never developing those skills on your own. Mom’s still in charge, and you’re still the child.
Later on, it becomes very difficult to break away, for both of you. Like Lena Dunham, writer and creator of HBO’s Girls, has said of her relationship with her parents, “I feel like I’m constantly asking them to please stay out of my work life but also to please bring me soup.” She’s being funny, of course, but the underlying issue she’s talking about is clear: Mom can be a hard habit to break.
Unlike a best friend, a mother and daughter relationship is permanent, which makes it naturally more intimate. And more intense. There’s a hierarchy that exists—or should—between moms and daughters that doesn’t exist—or at least shouldn’t—between friends. You’re not equals and you’re not supposed to be. Which, of course, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be friends with your mom, or even very close. Just remember to honor the boundaries between mother and daughter. That relationship is special enough in its natural form. Let your mom be a mom. And let yourself be the daughter. Really: That’s the only way you’ll grow.