Now mother-daughter BFFdom is a thing, having morphed its way onto the radar of sociologists, psychologists, authors, designers, marketers, and reality-show creators. The willingness to exploit one’s pubescent daughter for adult dating and fashion advice must be a Real Housewives casting prerequisite, and there’s no telling what the upcoming VH1 reality show Mama Drama will bring as it focuses on the turbo version of bestie mothers: “the partying parent who shares drinks, wardrobe, and social life with her daughter, and occasionally needs to be reminded that she’s the parent.”
Now that the phenomenon is here, it’s a little like watching the genie leave the bottle. You hope you’ve made the right wish.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when mothers saw themselves as separate, as the standard-bearers of tradition and etiquette, and daughters saw their mothers as the people they dreaded becoming. As Good Housekeeping observed in 1917, “It used to be that girls looked forward with confidence to domestic life as their destiny. That is still the destiny of most of them, but it is a destiny that in this generation seems to be modified for all, and avoided by very many … The mothers of these modern girls are very much like hens that have hatched out ducks.” Parents didn’t even believe in comforting their children until Dr. Spock, in 1946, assured them it was okay.
The patterns really started to shift in the sixties and seventies, as Julie and her peers, the mothers of today’s teens, came of age during the women’s rights movement, the sexual revolution, and the Vietnam War. Breaking away from domestic and societal norms was, slowly, itself becoming the norm.
Still, nothing would have felt more alien, more preposterous, to most of those mothers than fully befriending their daughters, much less “friending” them. And vice-versa. I wasn’t yet a preschooler when Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was published, in 1970, but even when I was old enough to understand the concept of Teenage Softies, the book was still being passed around like contraband, as if we’d get in trouble if our mothers caught us reading it. Margaret, not our mothers, was the one explaining the more unvarnished aspects of our bodies, or any aspect of our bodies. Some of our moms happily let Margaret shoulder their work. Meanwhile they hoped to God that we had no questions.
Rare was the mother who seemed like one of us. I had exactly one friend whose mother behaved in a way that we associated with the capacity for “getting it.” She smoked, and she kept martini olives in the house, which sounded kind of glamorous. She hardly ever seemed to nag or be exasperated by her daughter. She’d light up a cigarette, cross her long legs, and ask me what’s up, as if I were a girlfriend who’d just come round for coffee. She seemed so cool I tried to change my first name to hers in fourth grade. Bought the personalized stationery and the press-on door plate and everything. The appeal wasn’t that she was more permissive than most moms—she wasn’t—it’s that she seemed to have a friendlier attitude toward her daughter. The antagonism didn’t seem to be there.
The following generation of mothers went ahead with complete freedom to reject conformity, to create their own parenting blueprint via an onslaught of self-help books and newly articulated mothering styles. (John Locke, in 1693, was hardly the last to put forth a strong thesis on how to raise a kid.) Mothers like Julie Bilinkas could choose from a widening set of ideas that allowed them to customize their parenting approach. With this came the notion, particularly among the middle-and-upper-class demographic, that children (and parents) most benefited from a more equitable relationship. Two-year-olds will never stop having tantrums, but befriending them early might spare everyone some of the non-hormone-related lock-out drama in the teen years: slammed doors, inexplicable sullenness. So went the theory.
Friendship became a kind of parenting strategy: By treating Child as Adult, parents hoped that the kid would actually become an adult, and a good one. The happy outcome for some: mothers and daughters who didn’t have to wait until middle or old age to actually enjoy each other’s company. To maintain peer-ness, there came a coinciding pressure to stay young, technologically supported by the capacity to stay young. Moms have never had at their disposal so many resources—so much paraphernalia—allowing them to shrink the generation gap. If they want, they can practically turn themselves back into teenagers.
In the nineteen short years of Samantha Bilinkas’s life, the world has lost its mind over the eminence of all expressions of youth, Abercrombie to OMG. The mother-daughter-besties development couldn’t have happened without the stay-young revolution. After the culture handed women the tools to look young, shop young, talk young, think young, it demanded that they do it then deluded them into believing they’d succeeded and needed to improve upon that success.