Mothers and Daughters
I’m one of those people who has to nose around any bookshelves wherever she is. It’s my window into the spirit of the person, the idiosyncrasies that may or may not be displayed in the light of the day. Sometimes, my searches disappoint me. Nothing but glossy coffee table books which are almost more about decoration, about setting the stage, than they are about a person’s inner soul. Or bestsellers, scores of books that only tell me that this person is very interesting in keeping up with the rest of the world.
But sometimes I discover something that nestles into my mind, to be called upon and examined at a later date, unexpectedly.
I used to work for a literary agent during my publishing years in New York—a wise and wonderful woman who took me under her wing, introducing me to all sorts of new ideas. Many of her projects were about spirituality, about the deep soul of creativity, and so it happened that we talked about these ideas a lot. These discussions helped me refine how I think about a lot of these deep subjects, and exposed a lot of rigidity in my thinking. I’m still digesting them, years later.
One of the books on her shelf was by a Berkeley psychologist named Kim Chernin—called The woman who gave birth to her mother. The title intrigued me, and curious, I picked it up.
“Oh, that book is one of the most profound that I’ve ever read.” Said the agent when she saw me looking at it. “I would lend it to you, but I want to re-read it again.”
I don’t remember if I asked her why the book was so profound. Perhaps I did, and she couldn’t quite describe it to me. Or perhaps I wasn’t ready to think about it. But I remembered it recently, and just finished reading it today. The experience was something I cannot quite describe, although I'm going to try and find the words now. It's still evolving, my mother-story.
You may have noticed, if you are a bit of a regular reader (and if you are, THANK YOU) that I write a great deal about mothers and daughters. I always assumed that was because I was processing the experience of becoming a mother myself—of moving from that place from where I’d always processed the world—my role of youngest daughter—to a new place, a new role of mother. I wasn’t sure if I could handle it, the pressures of trying to be a role model for my daughter when I felt like such a failure in my own life. Trying to become an adult in time, so that Madam would experience me as a seamless gap—a strong woman who had always been a strong woman, at least in her experience.
My mother was that way for me. For the first three years of my life, I had her all to myself—an enviable circumstance, rare for a youngest child. And yet, I am sure that I sensed that something essential in her was far away from me, dealing with her own guilt and pain at having left her other three children in another country. Dealing with her confusion at needing to be fully present for this child in this new life, even as she longed to go back to all that she knew.
And yet, she was always capable, able to create a sense of security for me and my father, a home regardless of our poor, tentative circumstances.
Or so I always remember. That's one of my mother-stories.
Since becoming a mother myself, my relationship with my own mother has frayed. I was always quick to defend her from any accusations from Punkish Middle Sister, quick to take the blame on myself whenever I disagreed with her, sure that she, as the mother, was right, and I, as the daughter, was wrong.
But now different aspects of my childhood are rising up in me, as though the Polaroid is finally becoming clear after years of murk. I remember my mother being resentful of me, of my new place as my father’s favorite. My father’s love was extravagant, almost nonsensical. It wasn’t tied to any achievement on my own part, on any specialness. I existed, and for some reason, for my father, that was enough. And he had a difficult, angry, broody relationship with my other siblings, with my mother herself, so I ended up on the outside of them, with him. I always felt guilty about that, as though him choosing me tainted me. As though I was put on the losing side, the wrong side. And then I would squelch these ideas because I was devoted to my father (still am) and these thoughts felt so disloyal. But I still longed for my mother’s approval—longed for her to reach out to me in the same way. But she never quite did. I know she did what she thought was right—thought that she needed to balance my father’s adoration for me (spoiling me, she thought) with tough love, remind me that I’m not special. And she wasn’t entirely wrong. My father’s love for me took the shape of wanting to keep me in a glass castle, like a china doll. I wasn’t supposed to do ANYTHING. He would gladly do my chores for me, whatever. And I still have a problem with feeling like it’s OK to work, to exert myself even when its difficult. I still believe, on some deep, childish level, that if I wait long enough, someone will come along and take the burden away from me.
That didn’t make it any easier for me to hear that I wasn’t special…from my own mother.
And of course, I was born so late—born after everything important had occurred in my family. They all had a history, and a life, before me, and I never quite fit in after all. I was from a different generation, literally, I was born in a different place. And I was a different kind of child, dreamy, obsessive, interested in spirituality and mysticism and creativity from a very young age, and this must have been bemusing and confusing to my hard-nosed, practical mother.
This all lead to the most pervasive image I have had of myself for most of my life, the image of myself standing outside, staring at people from the other side of the glass. They were all together, in community, and I was alone. And it persists, even now. I feel a distance between Madam and my family already--she's so much younger than her cousins and she lives so far away. I am afraid that my family won't know her, won't love her, and that she'll sense that.
“None of your brothers and sisters like you. They think you are a brat.” I spent most of my pre-adolescence and adolescence hearing that.
The thing is, I always thought they were RIGHT for treating me this way—because I was young, not interesting like them, not vivacious like them. Right because it was somehow my fault that I didn’t share their history, that all of important moments and monuments are merely stories for me. And I tried to listen, observe, in the hopes that I’d solve the puzzle that would make me feel like one of them. And that would make me feel like my mother really liked me.
See, I still don’t think she does. Oh, I know that she loves me in her way. But I don’t feel that she likes me, the person that I was and the person that I have become.
On this past Christmas visit, I clashed a lot with her, just commonplace stuff, because we have very different ideas about mothering, and because she loves Madam with an almost jealous love, almost seeming to wish that she could eliminate the middle woman and have her all to herself. I can understand that.
But during a quiet moment (I don’t even remember what we were discussing) she mentioned that she’d had me because they were desperate to stay in the country and couldn’t think of another way to do it. Basically, if not for that, I would not have been.
I’m not sure why that admission has affected me so strongly. I always suspected that my birth was basically a boon that allowed my parents to stay here (and bring my siblings as well). But…I guess I always thought that was a side effect, or something. Not the purpose of it all.
I think I always knew it, though, on some level. My place in the family always felt precarious, and my family’s love felt conditional. I’ve spent my life alternately trying to prove to them that I’m worthy and feeling that I never could. And I've projected that onto my relationship with the Universe--forever the youngest daughter who was born too late, forever wanting validation that hey, I exist and it's a *good* thing. It's time for me to tell the story, so I can release it. I am tired of living out this script. And no, I am not obsessively recounting the past. This whole dynamic is as potent now as it was when I was four.
But…that’s not the mother-story I want to focus on right now. No, I want to be able to see my mother as a three dimensional person, which is so hard because I fluctuate between idealizing her and wanting to be completely different from her, being angry with her. I want to be able to avail myself of her gifts—her confidence, her competence, her strength. I identify too strongly with my father—my father who is kind, and loving, but also moody, depressive and fearful. I want to feel my mother’s power, the full power of her womanhood, for myself.
And maybe that’s why I keep writing about mothers and daughters—because I need to teach myself how to be a mother, yes, but also because I want to understand my own mother. I want to finally feel free to claim her gifts for my own—to claim my own femininity, with shades of hers, yes, but also in my unique hue.
It’s not just about giving birth to my own mother. It’s about giving birth to myself as a woman.