Photo: Kristen Ingraham, Illustration: msnbc.com
Karen and Kristen Ingraham were united in their rabid support of Sen. Hillary Clinton. But when it became clear that Sen. Barack Obama had clinched the Democratic nomination, mom headed right — but daughter stayed left.
By Health writer
TODAY.com
updated 10/27/2008 8:49:59 AM ET 2008-10-27T12:49:59

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Karen and Kristen Ingraham, who’ve always been more BFF than mother and daughter, were united in their rabid support of Sen. Hillary Clinton. But when it became clear that Sen. Barack Obama had clinched the Democratic nomination, mom headed right — but daughter stayed left.

"Since Kristen was born, it's always been ‘Just you and me, kid.’ She finishes my sentences,” says single mom Karen Ingraham, who’s 55 and lives in Baltimore. “We've never had an argument about anything important — maybe about a $100 dollar pair of blue jeans. It's just shocking."

During one of the most heated presidential elections in this country’s history, party lines are being drawn among loved ones of every kind — couples, friends and family members — including that close-but-often-contentious relationship: mothers and daughters.

For mothers and daughters, fights over the political often feel very personal, particularly in an election with a woman GOP vice presidential candidate and following a tight race where a female was a finalist for the Democratic nomination.

On top of that, if this is the only the first or second time a daughter has been old enough to vote in a presidential election, she and her mom are still new at navigating the dicey terrain of political disagreements.

Generational divides are evident in certain election polls. Young voters favor Barack Obama over John McCain 59 percent to 38 percent, according to the latest Gallup data. Voters 65 and older are more evenly divided, with 45 percent for Obama and 43 percent for McCain. Among women overall, there's a big gap between the 54 percent who support Obama and the 39 percent who choose McCain.

Within those numbers are likely countless mother-daughter duos polarized by political preference — and surprised at the impact on their connection.

“Women tend to be more intense about relationships, they tend to prioritize relationships more,” says Nadine Kaslow, an Emory University psychologist. “Even if you think of female relationships in elementary school or the professional world, the women are often more intense about it than the guys are.”

That intensity and closeness also often means moms and daughters know exactly how to push each other’s buttons.

"It's kind of depressing, because she says things that zing," mother Karen Ingraham says. “She says, ‘Every time I look at (McCain), all I see is old. He's just old, mom.’ I go, well, I'm getting old!’”

It’s arguments like that that make her 26-year-old daughter want to scream. “It's almost like, you know, she's being tricked!” says Kristen Ingraham, who lives in Boston. “And you want to point it out to her — you want to shake her and say, 'You're falling for it!' — but you can't say that, 'cause it's your mother!"

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They both accuse each other of the same thing: “She’s so headstrong!”

“She used to be really good at seeing both sides — but that's probably because we've always been on the same side," Karen Ingraham says.

Christina Heidkamp and her daughter have been on opposite sides of the political spectrum for two elections now: Sarah Heidkamp, 28, came out of the conservative closet six years ago. But Christina Heidkamp is still shocked to hear her daughter’s newfound point of view. Two months ago, a disagreement over birth control laws escalated into a teary screaming match — Christina was horrified to hear that her daughter believes pharmacists should be able to refuse to distribute birth control if they choose.

"I just couldn't believe it was her that was saying that,” says Christina Heidkamp, who’s 60 and lives in Chicago. “It was frustrating — I just felt like she was saying things and I didn't understand where she was coming from."

Faced with a daughter whose political views are opposite her own, a mom may feel like her kid is rejecting everything she worked so hard to teach, says Kaslow, the Emory University psychologist.

“Some moms might think, ‘Where did I fail? Where did I go wrong? How did I screw this up?” she says, adding that the closeness of the mother-daughter bond can make that relationship potentially explosive, especially compared to other relationships in the family.

And especially in a heated election like this one, politics can become a symbol of identity for some people, Kaslow says. An insult to a preferred candidate can feel like a personal attack.

When Palin hit the national scene in August, conservative Sarah Heidkamp immediately called her liberal mother.

“I called my mom all excited, especially because it's a woman appointee, and I said, ‘Mom, can you believe it? This is the greatest news!’ and my mother actually says, ‘What kind of education does she have? A BA?’” says Sarah Heidkamp, who lives in San Francisco and has a bachelor's degree, but not the master's degree her mom is pursuing now.

“It almost pierced my heart. My mother seems to think you have to have this elitist degree … It’s like she’s looking down on me, because I’m not educated enough.”

Comments like that, Sarah says, make her feel like her mother still sees her as a child. “It’s like she thinks I’m just inexperienced, and as I grow older that'll change” to be more like her mom, she says.

One key to keeping the peace: If conversations get too heated too often, it’s OK to decide that politics is off-limits. “I don’t think that about most disagreements about mothers and daughters, but about politics, I actually think it is a legitimate decision to make,” Kaslow says.

That’s what 28-year-old Sarah Crisman and her mother, 47-year-old Barb Granados, decided to do. Although she’s an Obama-maniac, Crisman was so reluctant to bring up politics that when she started volunteering in Dallas for the Obama campaign, she hid it from her mother for two months. When she finally got up the nerve to tell her mom, “I can't say I didn't roll my eyes,” Granados says.

As for moms, when there’s no understanding their daughter’s political views, it's best to remember that raising an independent woman who thinks for herself is a sign of successful parenting, Kaslow says. Granados admits that she strayed from her own parents’ political views as a teenager. Now she’s sandwiched between her mother and her daughter, two Democrats, and she’s proud of her daughter for being so involved in local campaign efforts and for being so excited.

"We've grown really close this year, and it was because we need each other, we respect each other, even though we disagree," says Granados. "My love for her has nothing to do with our differences; we're family and we're always going to be family."

Granados sighs. "Even if she's in Obama gear head to toe."

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