It seems there’s a seismic shift that happens in the relationship between a mother and her daughter as girl becomes a teenager.
Many times, the damage from the shift lasts years – or is irreparable.
So Kim Huisman, mother of a 7-year-old daughter and associate professor of sociology at University of Maine, decided to take a proactive step to change that dynamic.
Inspired by a book penned by SuEllen Hamkins and Renee Schultz, “The Mother Daughter Project: How Mothers and Daughters Can Band Together, Beat the Odds and Thrive During Adolescence,” Huisman applied for a Maine Humanities Council grant about a year ago. That grant funded the launch of the Maine Mother Daughter Project, which aims to provide a framework for healthy relationships between generations and promotes critical thinking among mothers and daughters.
“If mothers and daughters come together and support each other, over time they can help girls thrive,” Huisman said. “Girls can make it through adolescence while staying connected to their mothers and have a strong sense of self.”
Since its launch in June 2012, the Maine Mother Daughter Project has attracted 80 mothers and daughters who meet regularly in seven groups. The groups are divided based on the daughters’ ages and focus on different developmental stages.
The book offers suggestions on how to structure mother-daughter groups. Huisman actively participates in a group of six mothers, who aim to teach their daughters about healthy friendships, which is integral for girls around ages 7 and 8. Groups comprising mothers with early teenage girls focus on issues surrounding puberty and media images that impact them daily.
In addition to the mother-daughter groups centered in the Belfast area, the project offers a series of events open to the public that draw a wider community. Huisman’s goal is to reach the community and engage conversation “exposing the idea of how things are and how things could be.”
The first event featured a screening of “Cover Girl Culture,” a documentary that explores the media’s impact on females of all ages. In conjunction with the screening, Waterville-native Julia Bluhm spoke to the audience. At age 14, Bluhm gained national attention for an online petition she established to push Seventeen magazine to show readers only images of “real girls and healthy models.”
The next community event is June 6 at the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast. Emily Kane, sociologist and author of “The Gender Trap,” will address the audience and examine factors that lead parents and other adults to reinforce gender stereotypes. The event is aimed to prompt discussion to explore how adults can dismantle the gender trap and allow girls and boys to realize opportunities available.
Elizabeth Joy, a University of Maine student graduating this month with a dual degree in psychology and sociology, has been assisting Huisman since the project launch. Joy has a strong interest in women’s issues and is the mother of a 3-year-old daughter.
“I hadn’t looked into any moms groups prior to this,” Joy said. “I was really excited about the Maine Mother Daughter Project and was surprised at the doors that opened for us. People in the community are excited and really engaged in the project.”
Joy also participates in a mother-daughter group with her little girl. She sees the group as an opportunity to provide strong role models for her daughter and build a foundation for their relationship. Despite her daughter’s young age, issues that are the focus of the movie “Mean Girls” are already cropping up.
“Women from such different backgrounds who normally wouldn’t talk to each other are coming together to bond over mothering,” Joy said. “Together we can monitor our girls’ interactions and create a different view.”
Laura Newsom, mother of a 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, echoes Joy’s concerns. The group Newsom meets with includes six mothers with a total of seven daughters.
“Girls tend to, early on, split off into groups. My daughter’s already experiencing that with school,” Newsom said. “We’re trying to teach them how to be with a group and have it be inclusive. We’re teaching compassion and want to foster connections with each other.”
Newsom, who works part time as therapist at an adolescent treatment center, wants both her children to become critical thinkers. She hopes that raising her daughter with the help of groups and events connected to the Maine Mother Daughter Project will help her as she grows up.
The Maine Mother-Daughter Project is guided by the book written by Hamkins and Schultz, who are two of the founding mothers of the original Mother-Daughter Project that began in 1997. The group was formed by mothers whose professions included a family therapist, a high school guidance counselor, a psychiatrist, three teachers, a community organizer, a health professional and an artist.
The Maine Mother-Daughter Project is still in its early stages. Huisman, who lives in Belfast, said that some groups involved are still meeting monthly with just mothers involved. She anticipates the groups will soon include daughters, but it will be hard to gauge the true impact of the project until a few years from now.
However, the founders of the original project found that the groups help build their daughters’ self-esteem and provide them with valuable information regarding challenging issues like body image, drugs, sexuality, and violence against women. Over time, the daughters thrived through their adolescence and the mothers found comfort and support in the mothers-only groups that formed.
The Maine Mother Daughter Project and its associated events have been well received in Belfast, and Huisman sees growth in the future. She recently applied for a grant to bring the Waterville-based nonprofit organization Hardy Girls Healthy Women to Belfast. The organization aligns with the project’s mission and would further help girls and women experience equality, independence and safety in their everyday lives.
“It’s about taking these various issues and getting people to have a community dialogue,” Huisman said. “It’s been a rich experience. I’d like to be able to continue that.”