Best friends: Mothers and daughters with the deepest connection

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They call each other at least once a week, often once a day, sometimes three times a day. They trade clothes, DVDs, advice about relationships. They go shopping together, vacation together, finish each other's sentences.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Karen Tepper, 43, of Squirrel Hill, and her mother, Rita Ebner, 72, of Shaler, are best friends.
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Y Audio Slideshow: Mother, daughter, best friends

Mother & Daughters: Stories of friendship and love

Y Two who live next door to each other

Y 'If I come home with a ripped suit, she's sitting there that night sewing it.'

Y 'She's the only one who really knows all my secrets.'

Y When daughter was sick, mother was guardian angel


They are best friends. But not the I've-known-her-since-third-grade-kind.

These are best friends who are also bound together in that deepest and most profound of human connections: mothers and daughters.

They are everywhere in American society: think of Hollywood's Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson. Or of pop music's Beyonce and her mother, Tina Knowles. Or, for that matter, Shaler's Rita Ebner and her daughter, Karen Tepper.

Every Friday, without fail, Ms. Tepper, 43, of Squirrel Hill leaves her husband to stay with her mother overnight. The next day, they go shopping or out to lunch.

"We've never had any harsh words," says Mrs. Ebner, 72. "We might disagree on some things, but we never leave each other mad. She's good to me."

Mothers and daughters who are best friends? Come on. What about all those advice books for handling the nagging mother, the drinking mother, the rebellious teenage daughter, the profligate daughter.

"I hear 'I love my mother, but she drives me crazy,' a lot,'" says Deborah Tannen, author of "You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation." "But a lot of women also tell me they are best friends with their moms."

A recent survey by Kelton Research bears her out: 71 percent of women ages 21 to 54 said they considered their mother "one" of their best friends, a sentiment most keenly felt by women surveyed in the Northeast, at 78 percent, compared with women in the Western region of the country, at 61 percent.

In Pittsburgh, where the social fabric of family life may be more tightly woven than in more transient communities, the "best friend" mother-daughter bond seems particularly resilient. When this reporter posted a question on www.Post-Gazette.com: "Are you your mom's best friend?" more than 60 readers responded in the affirmative within five days.

One of them was Emma Lee Hartle, who says she thinks that the best-friend, mother-daughter bond can be something that's handed down, like a fine, fragile heirloom, from generation to generation.

"My mom passed away over 25 years ago, and she was my best friend," says Ms. Hartle, 53, of Glenshaw. And her two daughters are "by far, my best friends."

Why?

It's a complicated story, as mother-daughter stories are. When older daughter Jennifer was 10, she was diagnosed with diabetes. Jessica, four years younger, struggled with anxiety and depression as a teenager. But both bravely rebounded, and when Jennifer's first husband was terminally ill with cancer, Jessica moved in with her sister to help care for him.

Today, they are more than best friends, Ms. Hartle says. "They are my role models and my inspiration."

Surely she, the mom, must have done something to make them that way.

"Well, I was always able to keep open lines of communication," she said. "If anything, sometimes the girls would tell me too much, and I'd have to say, 'Please, don't tell me this!' " she laughed.

"She still jokes about how we kept her up at night," adds her daughter, Jennifer Hartle Fink, 32, of Saxonburg. "Even if it was really petty, she always made a point to listen to us. We could talk to her about anything."

Indeed, knowing how to talk to your daughter without criticizing or judging may in fact be the key to lasting best-friendship in later years.

Much of mother-daughter discord is about miscommunication and the inability to distinguish between messages -- the literal meaning of words -- and "metamessages" -- what those words imply, contends the author Ms. Tannen.

But for those women who declared themselves best friends with their mothers, there was no static on the line, no misinterpreted subtext, Ms. Tanner adds. Both mother and daughter were fluent in each other's language.

"They'd say, 'We talk to each other constantly,' and it would be an intense form of the way you see women and girls using talk in close relationships, often to share secrets."

The women complaining of strained relationships with their mothers "were the ones who felt criticized, while the mothers with the best relationships with their daughters would say, 'I just bite my tongue.' Daughters 'don't want your advice,' they'd tell me, 'they want your blessing.' "

A successful best-friend bond can also signify the transformation of a dependent mother-child relationship into one involving two adults who have grown up together.

A healthy best-friend relationship is one in which the daughter "has been given permission to find her way to her own autonomy, and then into a fulfilling adult-to-adult relationship," said Juliet Firman, one of several co-authors, along with her mother Dorothy, of the best-selling book, "Chicken Soup for the Mother and Daughter Soul."

"In our book, we refer to the process of becoming an ex-child and a 'mother graduate,' which is not to say we are not still mother and daughter, but it has evolved into something else" says Firman, who runs workshops on mother-daughter relationships and has a Web site, www.motherdaughterrelations.com.

These days, it may be easier to be best friends with Mom than ever before, says William Strauss, who has co-authored books on generational politics. Cell phones make it easy and cheap to connect, he said.

Plus there's more shared culture -- from comparing favorites on "American Idol" to swapping DVDs to music. "Chances are your kids know and like the Beatles, but aging baby boomers might not have felt the same way about their parents' music."

In fact, polls show that the relations between baby boomers and their parents -- especially those between fathers and daughters -- hit a low in 1970, but have been climbing into positive territory ever since, Mr. Strauss added. The "Millennial Generation," those generally born in the late 1980s, describe themselves as being very close to their parents, even "best friends" with them.

Of course this is true for men as well as women -- Tiger Woods described his father, who died this month, as his "best friend" -- but Ms. Firman says that research has found, overall, that the mother-daughter bond is the mostly tightly wound and the most complex.

And, she cautions, "the 'best friend' model is not the best model, it is a model. There are plenty of very deep and profound mother-daughter relationships where the two have very little contact," she said. Plus, the best-friend, let's-go-shopping relationship inevitably changes as mother ages, says Ms. Firman.

It's very different for a 50-year old mother and a 25-year-old daughter, she said, than the 60-year-old caring for her frail 85-year-old mother.

"Those who do it best understand that on some level, it will change, but the depth and richness of the experience won't."

Still, some of Alexa Casciato's friends find her close friendship with her mom hard to fathom.

Ms. Casciato, 20, of Dorseyville is a college student who lives at home with her parents and once worked as a temporary at Chatham College -- with her mother as her boss.

"It was a crazy experience. My friends would whisper to me on the phone, thinking she might overhear since we are often caught hanging around together, asking me if she was getting on my nerves yet," Ms. Casciato said in an e-mail. "I mean, come on!

"My mom is one of those women who know how to be a best friend while being a mom."

What does that mean, really?

While some parents try hard to be "cool," letting their underage kids drink in their homes, while others are overly controlling, "She's taught me so much, so discreetly and with such wisdom, that instead of her coming to me to pry into my life and to read my diaries, I choose to go to her and to divulge to her my secrets and concerns," said Ms. Casciato.

"There are some friends you can't tell a secret, some friends who would judge you for certain decisions, and all of my friends are just that -- friends -- but they can never be my mom.

"But my mom can be my best friend."


Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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