You’re Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, by Deborah Tannen (LentBook #17)

This is another book that I actually started awhile ago but finished during Lent.  I gave it to my mom for her birthday last year.  My mother and I have, like most mothers and daughters, a long history of communication and miscommunication, and just the title of this book made me laugh in recognition.

Tannen has previously written about the different ways men and women speak and understand each other.  Now she turns her attention to mothers and daughters — the myriad ways in which we support each other but also tear each other down, the way a mother’s (or daughter’s) criticism can cut to the core like no-one else’s.  Mothers and daughters need each other’s approval so much, yet so often we express just the opposite.

I have both a  mother and a daughter, so naturally the subject interests me, and for the most part I think Tannen does a good job of exploring the minefields women create in communication with each other. (She does mention at the beginning that some of what she says is not specific to mothers and daughters but to parents and children in general — which I think makes sense.  While there is definitely something unique about the mother/daughter relationship, I often find myself saying to my son things my mother said to me — repeating old patterns that defy gender and may be impossible to avoid).

One of the things I liked best in the book was Tannen’s discussion of “meta-messages” — when we respond not to the words the other woman says, but to the meaning behind the words.  Meta-messages can work in both positive and negative ways.  For example, if my mom talks about how fantastic a friend’s daughter is — how well she balances home and work, how successful she is in her career, how well-dressed and well-groomed she is, how her children are always clean and well-behaved — I hear the meta-message: “You’re not as good as she is.  This is how I’d like you to be, but you’re not meeting that standard.”  The fact that I hear that message may, of course, have more to do with my own issues than with the message she intended to send.

But if my mom frustrates me by saying, “It’s cold out today — aren’t you wearing a hat?” I may roll my eyes at the idea that I’m 41 years old and apparently can’t recognize when my head is cold — yet I can also choose to focus on the meta-message: My mom loves me; she wants me to be warm and comfortable.  Paying attention to meta-messages can change both how we speak and how we listen.

Why did I put this book down in the fall and not finish it till I started reading through my non-fiction pile during Lent? Nothing specific except that perhaps in the middle it gets a little slow.  There’s a point at which all Tannen’s examples of mother-daughter communication and miscommunication get repetitive, and I started to think, “I’ve heard all this before — isn’t she going to tell me anything new?” On the whole, although I think the book could have been shorter and tighter, it’s an enjoyable read which will provide some insights for any woman who is a mother, a daughter, or both (which pretty much covers all of us!)

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