Mother Daughter Me

Mother Daughter Me

by Katie Hafner


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Mother Daughter Me by Katie Hafner

The complex, deeply binding relationship between mothers and daughters is brought vividly to life in Katie Hafner’s remarkable memoir, an exploration of the year she and her mother, Helen, spent working through, and triumphing over, a lifetime of unresolved emotions.
Dreaming of a “year in Provence” with her mother, Katie urges Helen to move to San Francisco to live with her and Zoë, Katie’s teenage daughter. Katie and Zoë had become a mother-daughter team, strong enough, Katie thought, to absorb the arrival of a seventy-seven-year-old woman set in her ways.
Filled with fairy-tale hope that she and her mother would become friends, and that Helen would grow close to her exceptional granddaughter, Katie embarked on an experiment in intergenerational living that she would soon discover was filled with land mines: memories of her parents’ painful divorce, of her mother’s drinking, of dislocating moves back and forth across the country,  and of Katie’s own widowhood and bumpy recovery. Helen, for her part, was also holding difficult issues at bay.
How these three women from such different generations learn to navigate their challenging, turbulent, and ultimately healing journey together makes for riveting reading. By turns heartbreaking and funny—and always insightful—Katie Hafner’s brave and loving book answers questions about the universal truths of family that are central to the lives of so many.
Praise for Mother Daughter Me

“The most raw, honest and engaging memoir I’ve read in a long time.”—KJ Dell’Antonia, The New York Times

“A brilliant, funny, poignant, and wrenching story of three generations under one roof, unlike anything I have ever read.”—Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone

“Weaving past with present, anecdote with analysis, [Katie] Hafner’s riveting account of multigenerational living and mother-daughter frictions, of love and forgiveness, is devoid of self-pity and unafraid of self-blame. . . . [Hafner is] a bright—and appealing—heroine.”—Cathi Hanauer, Elle

“[A] frank and searching account . . . Currents of grief, guilt, longing and forgiveness flow through the compelling narrative.”Steven Winn, San Francisco Chronicle

“A touching saga that shines . . . We see how years-old unresolved emotions manifest.”Lindsay Deutsch, USA Today

“[Hafner’s] memoir shines a light on nurturing deficits repeated through generations and will lead many readers to relive their own struggles with forgiveness.”—Erica Jong, People

“An unusually graceful story, one that balances honesty and tact . . . Hafner narrates the events so adeptly that they feel enlightening.”Harper’s

“Heartbreakingly honest, yet not without hope and flashes of wry humor.”Kirkus Reviews

“[An] emotionally raw memoir examining the delicate, inevitable shift from dependence to independence and back again.”O: The Oprah Magazine (Ten Titles to Pick Up Now)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400069361
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/02/2013
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.44(w) x 9.34(h) x 0.96(d)

About the Author

Katie Hafner is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, where she writes on healthcare and technology. She has also worked at Newsweek and BusinessWeek, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Wired, The New Republic, The Huffington Post, and O: The Oprah Magazine. She is the author of five previous books covering a diverse set of topics, including the origins of the Internet, computer hackers, German reunification, and the pianist Glenn Gould. She lives in San Francisco.

Read an Excerpt


August 2009: North on I-5

We the globe can compass soon,

Swifter than the wandering moon.

—Oberon in William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Whenever I arrive in San Diego, the first thing I want to do is leave. It’s the sun, which shines without mercy. At the airport, I’m surrounded by happy travelers streaming in from sun-deprived cities, their compasses set for the beach and SeaWorld. I want to stop them and ask if they’ll take me home with them—to Minneapolis or Des Moines, Seattle or Detroit. San Diego is stingy with its shade, and the ever-present sun makes me feel not lifted but low, unsure of my footing.

The summer sun, of course, is the worst, and today, in late August, it’s already relentlessly bright at 9:30 a.m. To my relief, I’ve arrived with plans to stay no more than a few hours. I’m on a mission. I’ve flown to San Diego to help my mother carry out her plan to leave after nearly forty-five years.

A seasoned mover (some would say a compulsive one), I’ve spent weeks helping my mother with the logistics, even recruited my favorite moving man—a burly and jocular Irishman named Kieran, who specializes in transporting pianos but hauls around entire households, too—to drive his truck down from Northern California and collect my mother’s possessions. And now it’s time for us to get on the road and start the drive to San Francisco.

I take a taxi from the airport to my mother’s house, and when I arrive, Kieran and his crew are already there, loading the truck with the possessions my mother has chosen to bring with her. Among them are two pianos—one Steinway grand and one Yamaha upright. I pull up just as Kieran and two of his guys are rolling out the stunning Steinway, my idea of perfection embodied in a single musical instrument.

Cheryl, the professional downsizer my mother hired a month ago, is directing the movers and making a few last-minute additions to the contents of my mother’s Honda sedan, which Cheryl has packed expertly with several boxes of legal files, a Waterpik, various driving pillows, a couple of large exercise cushions held together with duct tape, paper bags filled with a month’s worth of various vitamins, medications, Metamucil, and at least a dozen rolls of paper towels. I notice right away that my delicate, birdlike mother, for years reluctant to venture much beyond a ten-mile radius from her house, is surprisingly calm, and I guess that Cheryl is the reason.

A large woman in her early sixties who towers over my mother, Cheryl gives the car a final inspection. Then something happens that’s completely out of character—not for Cheryl, I gather, but for my often skittish and always hyper-cerebral mother. Cheryl folds my mother into a lingering hug, then stands back, sets her large hands on my mother’s shoulders, looks deep into her chestnut eyes, holds her gaze, and takes several deep inhalations. “Remember to breathe,” she says, like a football coach sending a nervous freshman onto the field. My mother nods obediently.

I climb in behind the wheel. We wave goodbye to Cheryl and the movers and pull away from the house. Pretty soon, we’re zooming north on Interstate 5. With nearly five hundred miles to travel, I hope to reach San Francisco in nine hours, a calculation trickier than your average Google Maps reckoning, as I’ve had to figure in frequent restroom breaks for my mother. Once we’re out of L.A. and heading inland, we hit the southern Central Valley and long, monotonous stretches of I-5. But the miles aren’t boring to my mother, who sits in wide-eyed wonderment at towns with names like Buttonwillow and Lost Hills.

For the past thirty-five years she has been living with a bland engineer named Norm, their routines carved with exacting precision into every hour of every day. Over time my mother became not merely unadventurous but borderline agoraphobic. She seldom left her house except to go somewhere she’d already been—hundreds of times. Yet I’d always known that a worldly, interested person lurked in there somewhere, waiting for a chance to break out. Now she seems to delight in everything she sees. For here we are, a seventy-seven-year-old woman, her adult daughter, and a dozen rolls of Scott one-ply Choose-a-Size paper towels, sailing toward a new life. With each mile we clock, I see her body relax, her face soften.

In the car, my mother talks. She talks a lot about the urgency with which she felt she needed to leave San Diego after so many years. She talks about what happened with Norm, whose dementia “presented,” as a doctor would say, in the usual small ways at first, then escalated. But it was Norm’s sudden and pathological allegiance to his fifty-six-year-old daughter that ultimately drove my mother away. Of course, she’s rehashing a drama I lived through right alongside her—all within the past few months. I’m familiar with every twist and turn of the tale, yet I understand that talking about it for the umpteenth time is something she needs to do. So I nod a lot and punctuate the ends of her sentences with sympathetic sounds and the occasional “Yes, it’s unbelievable” or “I know. Crazy.”

During a bathroom break at the halfway point—break number five, I’m guessing—I receive a text from Zoë, my only child and for the past sixteen years my main reason for getting out of bed every morning. Where are you? (Somewhere in the Central Valley, I respond.) Will you be home in time for dinner? (No.) Is it okay if I use your Visa card to buy flowers for Grandma Helen? (Of course!)

As I drive, my attention toggling between my mother’s Norm recap and my own freeway-induced series of free associations—mostly about Zoë, who is soon to be a junior in high school—my mother suddenly changes the subject.

“I’m going to take driving lessons,” she says.

“But you know how to drive.”

My mother explains that she is in fact scared of driving, particularly on freeways. She confesses that she never learned how to parallel park. “I never needed to learn,” she explains. “No one in San Diego parallel parks.” Besides, when Norm was still in possession of his faculties—and even after he began to fall apart—he did all the driving. I tell my mother I’m impressed by her pluck. Driving lessons sound so enterprising, so independent.

It’s nearly 9:00 p.m. when we approach San Francisco from the East Bay, and as we pass Oakland’s baseball stadium, we see fireworks. My mother is spellbound by the show.

“Stop so we can watch!” she insists.

Stopping isn’t an option. We’re not ambling down a country road on horseback, taking in a full moon. We’re in the farthest left lane of a six-lane freeway in Northern California, 1.2 tons of metal traveling at 75 miles an hour. But I do slow down a little, just in time for the finale.

“Mom!” I say. “They knew you were coming!” I look over and she’s smiling. For a second, I think she believes it.

An hour later, we’re in my neighborhood of Lower Pacific Heights, and I turn each corner slowly so that my mother can take in the lovely old houses. My mother has been to San Francisco only once in her life, and although it’s dark I hope she can see how beautiful it is here—the silhouettes of the mansions against the night sky; the Golden Gate Bridge shimmering just beyond the hill’s crest.

We pull in to the garage and I unload the car. We’ll be spending a couple of weeks in my apartment before we can move in to the house I’ve found for my mother, Zoë, and me, an experiment in multigenerational living that I’m embarking on filled with high hopes. As I walk through the back door, I see to my amazement that my soon-to-be-sixteen-year-old daughter, who has never tidied so much as a square inch of her own room, has cleaned the entire 950-square-foot apartment. The place sparkles. Not only has she decluttered, dusted, and scrubbed (how did she even know where I keep the cleaning supplies?) but, knowing that I was intending to give my mother my own room until we move, she has made up my bed on the living room couch, complete with slippers set out on the floor. At the center of the dining room table, Zoë has placed an extravagant bouquet of roses, lilies, and peonies from a nearby flower shop I seldom dare enter for fear of its prices. Propped against the vase is a handmade card: “Welcome Home, Grandma Helen.” My mother is overcome. And so am I.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Advance praise for Mother Daughter Me
“This brilliant, funny, poignant, and wrenching story of three generations under one roof is quite unlike anything I have ever read. I love Hafner’s prose, her humor, the images she conjures, her choices of what to tell and when, the weaving together of family threads to produce this luminous and lasting tapestry. The story lingered with me long after I read the last page.”—Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone

Reading Group Guide

1. Do you find Hafner’s mother to be a sympathetic character? Why or why not? Do you think the author herself is a sympathetic character? Why or why not?

2. Hafner often finds herself in the middle of arguments between her mother and her daughter. Do you think it was possible for her to effectively mediate, while also working out her own difficulties with her mother?

3. Money plays a significant role in the book. Discuss why money can be such a flashpoint for families. Why do you think it was a point of contention in Mother Daughter Me?

4. Objects, such as the piano, also held great emotional significance throughout. Did the piano and other gifts carry different meanings for Hafner and her mother? How did their different understandings of the symbolism of those tangible objects lead to conflict?

5. Hafner is a longtime journalist who turned to memoir writing. How do you see her skills as a journalist employed in the writing of Mother Daughter Me?


Memory—and the presentation of memories—can be tricky when writing memoirs. Many of Hafner’s childhood memories emerge during sessions with the therapist Lia. Others surface when she finds letters and other documents from the past. How do you think Hafner handles the reliability of her own memories, especially from her early childhood? How do you think she handles the issue of memory when her recollections differ from her mother’s?

7. In its piece on Mother Daughter Me, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote of children of parents who drink, “While their parents black out and forget, they remember, and their memories, their stories, matter. More than assigning blame, this is Hafner’s point—and her memoir is a brave manifestation of it.” Do you agree with the writer? Do you think Hafner steers clear of assigning blame? To what extent do you think it is necessary make a parent confront the details of a difficult past?

8. After Hafner’s husband, Matt, dies suddenly, Hafner tells the reader, she quickly does everything wrong. Instead of waiting to make any big changes, she acts hastily and, as she admits, inappropriately. What is your opinion of Hafner’s hasty decision to make large life changes? Are you sympathetic?

9. Bob, the man Hafner starts to date during the year chronicled in the book, is an anchor of sanity and stability throughout the book. How do you think Hafner was able to let another person into her life in during this year of such chaos and tumult? What role did you see Bob playing as he entered the family?

10. Hafner discusses the difficulty that subsequent generations often have in not repeating the mistakes of their parents, especially when it comes to inflicting trauma on one’s children. Do you think Hafner succeeds in breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma that her own mother was unable to break?

11. Hafner discusses the long-term effects of divorce on children, citing Judith Wallerstein’s book The Legacy of Divorce. Why do you think she chooses to discuss divorce at such length, when alcohol might seem to be the bigger problem?

12. Hafner’s father comes off as a complex, much-loved, but muted character in the book. Why do you think Hafner chose to keep him in the background of the narrative?

13. Do you think Hafner has created a balanced view of herself and her mother? Was she even in a position to do so? Are there examples of why or why not?

14. Why do you think the author’s sister had a life that was so deeply troubled, while Hafner herself, despite coming from the same background, was able to make different, healthier choices earlier in life?

15. Despite being in many ways a typical, occasionally difficult teenager, Zoë also shows herself to be surprisingly adult and insightful at times. What role do you think she plays in the choices that Hafner makes once Zoë’s grandmother comes to live with them?

16. Hafner describes in detail her relationship with her daughter, and the fierce attachment between the two. What do you think drew them so close? Does their bond add to the challenges they faced that year?

17. The mother-daughter relationship is inherently complicated, which Hafner makes very clear in the book. What are your thoughts on what makes the mother-daughter bond so complex, and often so fraught?

18. Toward the end of the book, Hafner states that instead of feeling the need to act as the constant pleaser and appeaser, she can finally “have relationships with all of the people that I love without having to connect the dots between them.” Does this insight seem like a good life lesson? Is there a contradiction in loving two people while knowing they may never reconcile? How does Hafner confront this question?

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Mother, Daughter, Me 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Luke90210 More than 1 year ago
Katie Hafner has a very nice writing style. It is easy to read and digest. In her book Mother Daughter Me, she details a year of working with her mother to solve unresolved issues between them. I found the book to be excellent.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A truly remarkable book about family relationships. With three generations of women living under one roof , the author embarks on a quest to overcome once broken mother-daughter relationships. It is very well written and a hard book to put down. I finished it in three days. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A complex look at the relationships between mothers and daughters. This is well written and easy to enjoy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fabulous memoir, written for anyone who has struggled with their relationship with their mother. Am writing a book myself about my relationships with my mother who lives on the east coast while I I be on the west coast. Since her Alzheimer's diagnosis our relationship has shifted in some ways. What was a distant (and yet strangely intimate) relationship has become more real, more honest. Sometimes to the point of raw, sometimes less so. Mother Daughter Me was not easy emotional reading, but it was healing as Katie shares her journey with both her mother and daughter under very difficult circumstances. If you have ever yearned for a better relationship with your mother, no matter what your background, this memoir will ring true as it poignantly shares the ups and downs of a daughter's reconciliation with her mother.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well written and authentic.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well written assessment of the author's relationships, and how they change in light of new discoveries.  I raced through it in a few hours.
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abySB More than 1 year ago
I found the daughter to be less than lovable, but both her mother and grandmother, although as flawed as all of us, had a history and some wisdom with which to deal with their mistakes.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Did the author mean to make everyone involved in this family seem selfish and self absorbed? Her daughter is portrayed (unwittingly) as a whiney brat.