Mothers and daughters in life narratives

Generational conflict or conciliatory negotiation?


Keywords: family relationships, life narrative, life writing, personal experience stories, trauma

Recent public debates on family-related issues (What constitutes a traditional family? How widespread is domestic violence? What is the purpose of child protective services?) prompted an examination of these themes from the perspective of people’s personal experience. The article is based on manuscripts of life narratives obtained from the collection of Estonian Life Histories in the Estonian Cultural History Archives (EKM EKLA, f 350). The narratives were written down between 1989 and 2017 and provide a glimpse into the societal changes that took place between the 1930s and the early 21st century. The favoured narrative techniques and the ways these changed at the end of the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st century also become apparent. The article compares Estonian narratives with Finnish ones. The comparison is aided by similar collection methods used both for Estonian and Finnish stories – these are thematic narratives archived by volunteer correspondents. More specifically, the focus is on generational conflicts present in life narratives.

Family relationships (including conflicts) are revealed in the narratives through the lens chosen by the narrator. It seems that family relationships were overshadowed by political issues in Estonian life stories narrated in the 1990s: the narrators concentrated on descriptions of people’s relationship with the Soviet power, including repressive experiences. In the early 2000s, this perspective receded, allowing more space for descriptions of relationships within the family. Depictions of post-war childhood sometimes suggest that children who grew up separately from their mother due to economic, social or other reasons never developed a close bond with her. In narratives collected in 2017, the narrator often looks at her life experience both as a daughter and a mother. In such cases, the focus of the narrative shifts from the relationship between herself and her mother to the development of the narrator as a person.

The comparison between Finnish and Estonian stories reveals that Finnish families tended to remain silent on difficult circumstances, whereas Estonian narratives emphasized the parents’ ability to explain difficult situations to children. Comparing the stories also pointed to a change in the family structure and functions in the 20th century: the pre-war family model included the parents and the children, while in wartime and post-war families, the mother had to take on the father’s former responsibilities. In Finnish research, this is addressed through the lens of trauma studies (e.g., the aggressiveness of the exhausted single mother towards her children). In Estonia, the issue is seen through the framework of the impact of political repressions on a person’s life. However, the trauma discourse is also evident in Estonian narratives. That is, if the narrators themselves have used corporal punishment on their own children. In such cases, the focus is not so much on the events that took place as on a perception of changing values.


Tiiu Jaago (b. 1960), PhD, Associate Professor of Estonian and Comparative Folklore at the University of Tartu (Ülikooli 16, 51003 Tartu), tiiu.jaago@ut.ee