Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Secret Shame

My friend Sandy recently blogged about her mother, inspiring me to think about mothering, and particularly mother-daughter relationships.

My mom and I have a great relationship, for which I am grateful daily. I talk to her almost every day on the phone, she is an active and vital grandparent to my children, and we enjoy spending time together, whether it be at the Friday afternoon cocktail hour with her friends or hanging out by the pool watching my kids swim.

I am acutely aware, though, that our relationship is unique. Most of my friends have at least a little bit of a love-hate relationship with their mothers. Oh, of course they LOVE them, it's just that -- well, it's complicated.

Maybe Mom means well but is often sneaking in unsolicited advice (or worse, criticism). Maybe she is judgmental about her daughter's work outside the home (or the fact that she is "wasting" her education staying home with her children). I've had friends of mine report both reactions from well-meaning, loving mothers. Maybe she disapproves of the way the children are disciplined. Maybe it's the housekeeping --- it is often more than one of these things, leaving my friends at their wits' end, wondering why they are driven so insane by someone they love so dearly.

Still others in my circle have another kind of complication in their mother-daughter relationship. And in a society where one is supposed to revere one's mother (although, interestingly, we do not revere motherhood), it is often a secret shame. What if your mother was emotionally or physically abusive? What if she was simply cold and unfeeling? What if she is selfish and manipulative? What if she is mentally ill, or an addict, or simply exercises bad judgment again and again and again? What if you truly believe that, whatever the reason, your life is better, simpler, happier, without her in it?

Explain that around Mother's Day. "Well,I don't actually speak to my mom," "My mom and I aren't close," or god forbid, "I have a restraining order against my mom." It doesn't go over well. "What do you mean," people ask. "How can you NOT have a relationship? She's your mother."

I have seen all of these situations and more in my life. In fact, I have a startling number of friends who have deeply troubled relationships with their mothers. I sometimes wonder if this is coincidence or something bigger; my own mother has a complicated relationship with her mother, and I think I have a unique perspective. I certainly have gained much in my own friendship with my mom because she has consciously tried to create with me something she never felt she had with her own mother.

So, to Sandy, and to all of my friends who read this blog and who struggle with their moms, I say, It is okay. I don't judge you. I don't need to hear the whole story. I know you -- and I know that whatever choices you have made are the right ones for you.

It is strange for me, sometimes. I wanted a daughter so desperately -- a little girl to share all my favorite childhood books with (because, god bless 'em, my boys are SO not into Anne of Green Gables), to play Barbie and paper dolls and dress up, to let me braid her hair -- and yet, as I watch my sons grow, I realize that daughter of my imagination would have been her own person, with her own likes and dislikes, just as my boys are. And I see that my relationship with her would have been as fraught with complications as any other, with no guarantees that it would turn out as well as I had hoped.

All we can do as mothers is our best. Some days my best is, I fear, inadequate. And as daughters, again, all we can do is our best. And if somehow we manage to succeed in the give and take, the remembering and forgetting, the taking responsibility and accepting blame, the loving and the letting go, that are inherent in mothering and daughtering, we can be grateful and not look askance at those whose paths we have not trod.


  1. God Bless you. That was beautifully written. It brought a smile, a laugh and a few tears. With my Mother gone I sometimes feel truly lost in my own Mothering skills; then something will happen and it is my Mother's hand touching me from heaven. Being blessed with 2 daughters is amazing because I see my Mother in both of them. Thanks for having this blog and writing the truth of your heart which your Mother taught you.

  2. Thank you for this.