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Why do we spend hours thinking and talking about our mothers and daughters? Because it's the longest-running show in town and we've had front-row seats for our entire lives. Some of us got our tickets for free, and others paid dearly for them. The plot has endless twists and turns, contradictions, secrets, and surprises. We will never understand it all. We may edge closer to some answers about why our relationships with our mothers and daughters are the way they are, but we'll never make it all the way. We aren't supposed to. Insights? Yes. Answers? Never.
Whenever I tell women that the subject of my writing is mother-daughter relationships, it doesn't matter whether I'm shooting the breeze with two or giving a speech to two hundred, the response is always the same. A collective groan rises up, followed by statements like "Oh, God!" and "You should interview me" and "I have stories you wouldn't believe!" The response is as reflexive as "You're welcome" after "Thank you." It almost seems that we are fulfilling some cultural mandate when we groan about our mothers. Among the multiple dimensions of all mother-daughter relationships, the aspects we are primed to emphasize are those that drive us crazy.
When women say, "Oh my God, I'm turning into my mother!" they don't exactly shout it proudly from the rooftops. We often shudder when we catch ourselves repeating phrases that we swore would never become part of our repertoires, such as "Young lady..." or "As long as you live under my roof..." or "I don't care if the entire seventhgrade is allowed to do it..." "Accusing" a woman of turning into her mother is a handy weapon in verbal confrontations for people like spouses and children. When a loved one makes the comparison, a woman's reaction is much closer to "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" than to "Really? What a compliment. Thank you." In a Salon "advice" column, Mr. Blue (a.k.a. Garrison Keillor) responds to a letter of urgency — "My wife," writes the troubled husband, is "turning into her mother!" The problem with this transformation becomes instantly clear in the writer's description of his mother-in-law (and, indirectly, his wife): "a wretched, spiteful, miserable martyr, who drives my father-in-law to drink a pint of Canadian whiskey every night."
The irony is that the majority of groaning women admit they have essentially positive relationships with their mothers. The two bickering old women in my office would have said they do, too. If you ask the question "Do you love your mother?" the majority of women will answer, "Yes, of course." Admittedly some will then immediately wish to amend that statement with a list of qualifications. "Yes, I love her, but..."
The Long Life of Early Expectations
We want our mothers to love us perfectly, completely, and unconditionally. We want them to love us as they did at first sight when we were newborns. At the same time we expect them to treat us with all the adult respect to which we feel entitled by virtue of our age and experience. Unlike our relationships with friends, lovers, or husbands, which have their roots in adolescence and adulthood, the relationship between a mother and daughter is radically different. The sense of loving and being loved — even before birth — carries weighty expectations: that the connection will forever be as strong, as connected, as free from boundaries and conditions as it was in the honeymoon stretches of infancy and early childhood.
Mothers can be similarly unrealistic about the ways their daughters should love them. Despite the intensity of the connection, it is rarely ever "equal." For example, an adolescent daughter's "I hate you" usually carries less weight than a mother's use of the same words to her daughter. A mother's scorn over a child's painting packs a far more powerful punch than any rotten thing a child can say to a mother. It's never an even exchange. It's not supposed to be. In most cases, a daughter takes up more space in her mother's mind than her mother does in hers, an insight that can be found even in ancient texts like the Talmud: "A mother is always attached to her daughter but not so a daughter to her mother."
In A Room of One's Own, her groundbreaking treatise on sexism, society, and art, Virginia Woolf had it right: "We think back through our mothers if we are women." Any attempt to understand ourselves without considering our mothers, and their mothers, and their mothers, will eventually dead-end in a sign that says "You can't get there from here." To move forward, sometimes we must first move back. My mother and aunt still turn over questions about my grandmother, now dead ten years. "When do you think things changed for the worse?" they ask each other. "Why were you the 'good' daughter and I the 'bad' one?" "What made her so unhappy?" With nine grown daughters between them, my mother and aunt are still working out a relationship in which one of the major players is dead. But that doesn't matter. The mother-daughter relationship remains alive for women, long before birth and long after death. It is the lens through which they filter their past, as well as their present and future, experience. "Why don't they just let it go?" my sisters, cousins, and I ask one another. As far as we're concerned, this particular plot of land has been farmed entirely too long. But when it comes right down to it, why should they stop talking about their relationship with their mother? As long as they continue to till, seed, and water that soil, their work will unite them as sisters and will...The Common Thread
|Foreword: The Safety Net: Right Mommies and Baby Birds by Rosie O'Donnell||ix|
|Introduction: The Old Lady and Her Mother||1|
|1||Mothers and Daughters: The Big Deal||9|
|2||Empathy: The Strongest Bridge||33|
|3||Pregnancy and Childbirth: Raw Materials||60|
|4||Infancy: Mutual Attachment and Synchrony||94|
|5||Childhood: Learning the Language of Feeling; "I Can, Therefore I Am"||122|
|6||Adolescence: Identity, Differentiation, and the Door That Swings Both Ways||162|
|7||Young Adulthood: Turning Out and Turning Into||209|
|9||Later Years: Shifting Needs||293|
|Afterword: Elephants and Other Big Mothers||314|