The Common Thread: Mothers, Daughters and the Power of Empathy

A fascinating book! My Mum is taking it to read next, hopefully she can get it finished before I run out of loan renewals at the library!

*Disclaimer* – I don’t think I’ve done a proper book report/review since I was in early high school, so I don’t really know what is “usual” for one. These may be less reviews than little essays/monologues on my thoughts/feelings/whatever about the book in question. I will attempt to at least give a rating of the book, and a recommendation of who I think would enjoy reading it though.

Title: The Common Thread: Mothers, Daughters, and the Power of Empathy

2015 Reading Challenge: #14 – A nonfiction book

Author: Martha Manning

This book is a very interesting read – it looks at the interactions between mothers and daughters across the lifespan, and how the dynamics of the relationship change over this time. Which makes it sound far more dry than it really is.

Manning has a very natural writing style that makes the psychology she includes in the pages very easy to read (though as I’ve got a psych degree behind me, I may leave the final judgement of that up to someone who doesn’t have that background).

She looks at a lot of the common mistakes, misconceptions, and misunderstandings that happen between mothers & daughters, and describes how these can change as both parties get older. It looks at both sides of the coin – where the experiences can strengthen the relationship, or break it.

I found this interesting from a very detached point of view – I know many of these things happen in mother-daughter relationships, but something along the way for me has meant that somehow, I seem to have missed the vast majority of the ups and downs that “everyone else” seems to experience! Reading about them in this book, I can see how they apply to the relationships I’ve seen between my sisters and my mum, between my Mum and grandmother, and between friends and their mothers. I don’t know if it’s just the way I look at things, or whether I am ACTUALLY missing something, but I feel like a lot of the tensions I saw in person (in other mother-daughter interactions) and in the book just weren’t there for me and Mum.

Some tensions are beginning to raise their head now though, but not in the way that could necessarily cause problems (I don’t think, anyway) – for example, I do have very different opinions about how Mum should deal with certain things in the behaviour of my youngest sister (C – 10 years old). I feel that she is being too lenient, because she is trying to be the “good guy”, because if she isn’t, C might choose to go live with her dad (my ex-stepdad – that’s a story for another time) instead of Mum. This fear is not entirely unfounded – there is precedent. My sister B decided in year 10 that she was going to live permanently with our Dad, because Mum was strict. Mum always had high expectations of our behaviour, and B didn’t like that – Dad was a little more lenient, and living with him also provided a little more autonomy for B as he does shift work, so sometime she would have to “fend for herself”. She didn’t visit all that often, and the relationship between her and Mum has only begun to improve again in the past couple of years. I think Mum is worried that the same thing will happen if she is strict with C, and she doesn’t want to drive her away. There is a way more backstory to this, a lot of it having to do with siblings and half-siblings being treated differently in similar situations (e.g. Stepdad was way more strict with us girls than he was with his 2 sons, whereas Mum went out of her way to ensure exactly equal treatment – she still adds up exactly what everyone’s xmas and birthday presents cost, so everyone has exactly the same amount spent on them!), and I’m not sure how things have changed, because she is now treating C differently to how she treated the same behaviour in the boys at the same age.
This is purely my opinion, and it could be completely wrong, but there is one advantage of Mum’s early intensive “people watching” training – I don’t miss much. I pick up on everything, and I do it consciously, because I have to. I have this opinion but I am hesitant to offer it, because I haven’t been there personally. I don’t have kids, I haven’t been in the situation that Mum is, as a mother, to understand what else might be going on. I can only view it through the lens of what I know, so instead of telling Mum what I think, I have a rant to Hubby about it to vent my frustrations, and put it to the side.

This may all come back to bite me in the event of ever having children myself, but we shall see.

One thing I got from the book is that this hesitance is a good thing – because I can feel empathy for someone in a situation without having been there personally, and without having to agree with everything they do.

I have a very good relationship with my Mum, and for the past 8 years or so it has been more of a relationship between equals than a mother-to-child one. Several times in recent years, our roles have even seemed to “flip” at times – I have found myself in several situations where I’m left feeling like things went a little backwards, and that we’d swapped places (very “Freaky Friday”). Apparently, this is not exactly unusual – but what is unusual is how we seem to have dealt with it. We just accepted it, let the role reversal happen, then laughed about it a bit afterwards. The more expected response is that the mother has a bit of a freak-out that she might not be the fountain of all knowledge any more, and that her daughter may have surpassed her knowledge in some areas. Mum doesn’t seem to be bothered by this fact. I say seem, because I can only speak from my own perspective – I won’t really know unless Mum decides to enlighten me!

The book did raise several questions for me though, about choices I’ve made in my life and the fact that Mum has been pretty much universally supportive – mainly, “Is she really as happy for me as she is making out? Or did she have other things in mind for me?”.
A big one is the fact that I am very, VERY open about the fact that I’m not all that fussed on the idea of kids. Mum has been completely supportive, and not said anything at all patronising – but I do wonder whether she is actually as much ‘onboard’ with the idea as she seems. Is she convinced (like the rest of society seems to be) that I’ll change my mind later, and decide I do want kids? Is she disappointed that the likely grandchildren production (for what of a better description) has been reduced to 2 daughters – one of which is at least 10 years off from the idea?
I can’t say anything in this book has changed my thoughts on having kids – several of the descriptions are less-than-optimistic, and while the book expounds the benefits of the mother-daughter relationship, I can’t entirely see how they make up for the crappy bits.

For anyone thinking of giving this to someone who is undecided about children and expecting it to change their mind – don’t count on it! It could very well have the opposite effect to what you want.
If you want to try to better understand the dynamics of your own relationship with your mother/daughter/both though, this is a very insightful read – and it may help with some of the more elusive aspects of interactions.

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️



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