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My Mom Is My BFF

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“I see women at the gym who I know are 50 and they look 20,” says Deborah Carr, a Rutgers sociologist and co-author of Making Up With Mom. “This moms generation—especially if they’re baby-boomers or Gen X—they’re such a part of this youth culture they don’t actually see themselves as the old mother.”

“I had a lot of patients saying, ‘My mom’s my best friend.’ I remember thinking, That’s because you don’t know any better or because there’s something really fucked up going on.

Camilla Mager, a Upper East Side psychologist who specializes in women’s psychology, is talking about when she worked as a Sarah Lawrence College counselor. “The question you have to ask on some level,” she tells me, “is what’s going on in the relationship that two people of such different generations consider themselves best friends? As close as you may be to your mother, ideally on some level she’s always a guiding force, someone who’s been there before you; therefore you’re never peers. Not that mothers and daughters wouldn’t share things or that moms can’t speak to relationship issues, but you’re never actually on the same level. If you are, that suggests to me that the daughter is way too grown up or the mother is missing something in her life.”

You can see how it could happen, though. Think of a forced-closeness dynamic borne of family dysfunction, which is increasingly possible now that women are having fewer children on average and more are getting divorced. At one point I spoke to one mother-daughter pair who had forged a sophisticated if tensile friendship after suffering a husband-­father’s relentless verbal abuse. When the mother talked openly and sadly about what a douchebag the husband-father is, the daughter, 15, did not disagree. Rather maturely she told her mom: “Well, you just have to get out of there.”

A more alarming example: women who seem to spawn in order to socialize. They give birth to their “best friends” and become so obsessed with mother-daughter mind-melding they can’t work out who’s in charge. “I feel like my daughter is my best friend right now—she’s only 2,” as one mom put it on Babble.com. “She is interesting. She is empathetic.” (She is 2!) “I know my husband is supposed to be my best friend, but right now he’s a close second,” the mother went on. “I worry what’s going to happen as she gets older and inevitably, healthily, finds her own ‘real’ friends.”

In their book Too Close for Comfort: Questioning the Intimacy of Today’s New Mother-Daughter Relationship, authors Linda Perlman Gordon and Susan Morris Shaffer report conversations with mothers who are proud of the friendships they’ve developed with their daughters but who worry the closeness has stifled their girls’ sense of self and independence. “Baby-boomer mothers report they learned to be resilient because they were less coddled,” they write. “Yet these same mothers say they responded to everything their children did by saying, ‘Good job!’ With this constant praise, they unwittingly gave their daughters unrealistic expectations of how the world should treat them; they neglected to give them a reality-based notion of their role in the world.”

As if seeing this coming, Julie Bilinkas wanted to achieve exactly the opposite. She tried to get ahead of negative outcomes by managing her relationship with Samantha early on. When Samantha got interested in performing at age 9, Julie, an operations executive, started driving her into Times Square every week for acting and voice classes. Each week’s drive gave them approximately two hours together round-trip, which comes to more than 1,000 hours of exclusive mother-daughter face time, give or take weeks off for holidays. Or for when Julie’s husband, Sam’s father, Barry, a former police detective, drove. Or when Samantha took the train. If something thorny was going on—boys, grades, etc.—Julie would save that topic for drive time and they’d unravel it together, Julie consciously trying not to hector or judge.

At first they focused exclusively on Samantha’s world. But as Samantha got older and they got closer, and as Samantha started showing a talent for listening and for administering advice, Julie started revealing information about her own life. She talked about how she’d learned how to respond to her husband when he was cranky (“Leave the room; let it blow over”) or about the challenges of managing employees (“Human beings don’t always fit into nice neat HR categories”). She says, “My mission was to raise a healthy, happy daughter. It just so happens that as she’s matured, we’ve discovered we’re quite compatible. I’ve gone through some stuff in my adult life where I’ve appreciated having her.”

Julie and Samantha spent so much of their early relationship communicating that by the time Samantha reached high school, it was no big deal for them to climb into the car and immediately begin dissecting a relationship situation or a friend’s pregnancy scare or corporate layoff concerns or a health dilemma. “When I think of us being BFFs, it’s not that superficial stuff like it is with my friends,” Samantha says. “It’s more of a deep friendship, not like, ‘Yeah, we’re best friends—we like to match, go to parties.’ ”


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