mother-daughter relationships: then and now

by nikki meredith

Image via Couture Allure

Easter Sunday. I’m 10 years old.  While other families are attending Easter sunrise services at the Hollywood Bowl, my family is in my father’s Buick heading to Rand’s Roundup in Hollywood – a restaurant billed as an urban chuck wagon.    I’m clutching my Easter basket – my brother is 14 and too old for Easter baskets — but we are each holding a cellophane bag of foil-covered Sees chocolate eggs that my mother’s Jewish friend Rose gives us every Easter to celebrate our secular L.A. urban holiday.

My mother and I are wearing Easter bonnets —  plain straw hats to which she has attached fresh gardenias — and matching dresses. I love the dresses — delicate Swiss cotton in pale yellow with tiny pearl buttons down the front. I like being twins with my mother. I like my mother. That will change but I don’t know it yet.

The nature of the relationship between mothers and daughters, (at least, among the women I know) has changed dramatically since that Easter Sunday. Even at the age of 10, I don’t think my daughter would have been caught dead in a mother-daughter ensemble and even if she had wanted it, I suspect our taste would have been too different to settle on a style.    When we went shopping at Nordstrom for her senior prom dress, I was looking for something fresh and girlish and, okay, I admit it, virginal – some version of that mother-daughter Easter dress.    I found one more or less meeting those criteria and held it up for my daughter to admire. “Isn’t this cute?” She looked at the dress, then at me.  “I don’t want cute, Mother. I want sexy.”

But I am not here to bemoan the loss of the age of Norman Rockwell.   Quite the opposite.   The relationship I have with my adult daughter bears little resemblance to the one I had with my mother and for that, I am grateful. I think it is also true for most of my  friends with daughters.

Up until and through adolescence I think the relationships between the generations were similar.  When I hit my teen years, I acquired a robust disdain for pretty much everything about my mother and I’m sad to say, that disdain never entirely left. My daughter acquired the same disdain – I think teenagers all read the same manual, the one with the instructions on how to roll your eyes, curl your upper lip, and put as much emotional and physical distance between you and your mother as is possible while riding to school in the same car and living under the same roof.

I remember, during my daughter’s adolescence, waking up most mornings cheerful. Birds chirped. The Jasmine outside the bedroom window blossomed. The sun streamed in.  I was eager, as my husband would say, to grab the day by the balls — whatever that means (I’ve always assumed it’s a good thing). Anyway, by the time I dropped my daughter off at school, the day had me by the balls. I’d sit in my car deflated, wondering whether to drive to work or head for the no-barrier Golden Gate Bridge.

I may be more sensitive than some.  Okay, a lot more sensitive than most, but I’m pretty sure that only the toughest among us can cling to even a shred of self regard after a daily, 20 minute drive of silent scorn. (You’d think my son who reached that stage six years earlier would have prepared me but his style was more frontal, more boisterous though, he too, included the disdainful eye roll and lip curl in his repertoire.  It wasn’t exactly hand-to-hand combat with him, though there was what’s known in our family as THE INCIDENT BEFORE THE ANNUAL CHRISTMAS PARTY.  The moment the guests were due to arrive found my husband and son in the living room, the former sitting on the latter, the latter yelling how much he fucking hated us fucking fuckers.  It was the result of an unfortunate convergence of my pre-party anxiety and his rebellion — the deadline for his weekly chores having not been met, yet again.  Our own little Ozzie and Harriet in Hell.)

I always wonder about those parents who, fueled by baby lust, spend thousands on fertility treatments, endure painful medical procedures, travel across continents, and manage to secure a little darling. What happens when the little darling becomes a teenager? How do they feel when the little darling looks at them like they were a couple of banana slugs? Do any of them dig up the paperwork to see if there’s a return clause?

So it’s the time after all that sturm und drang I want to talk about. Adulthood. The problem: every time I try to identify precisely what the difference is between what I had with my mother and what my daughter has with me, I come up short. (I also have a completely different relationship with my son but that’s unique in its own way and the subject for a future post.) I’m pretty sure, however, that it has to do with authenticity but oh how I hate that word. It once was a perfectly good word but the new age psychobabblers ruined it. I can’t think of a better one to express this. I believe that my daughter is able to be her authentic self with me in a way that was not possible for me to be with my mother.

As a result we have a friendship and a degree of reciprocity that was uncommon in my mother’s generation. I’m not referring here to boomer mothers who insist on being buddies with their young daughters. Mothers who when their daughters are still children, insist on burdening them with their own problems. I will always believe that’s unfair and that no matter how many tough problems a mom has, her first priority, if at all possible, is to protect her child’s childhood. I know it’s harder to do when you’re a single parent but you need to find friends so your kids don’t feel responsible for your happiness.

I’m also not talking about boomer mothers who attempt to erase the generational differences by refusing to look old.  With fillers, smoothers, fat suckers, implants, and new ways to wield the scalpel some women I know are managing a weird kind of age regression. I have a friend in her 60’s who now, at least in low light conditions, looks younger than her 40-year-old daughter.

And I’m not talking about the phenomena of daughters striking out for independence against their mother’s wishes. Though it’s much easier now, daughters have always done that and these days only the most cowed would allow their mothers to prevent them from living the lives they want.  What I am talking about, I think, is our willingness to allow our adult daughters to be who they are with us.

The more I try to explain this, the more muddled and the more convinced that I may only be talking about myself.  I actually don’t know whether my observations apply to anyone else. We’ve all had enough of the way journalists in search of a story identify “trends.”   (Headline: “For teens, a blowjob is the new kiss goodnight.”) But that’s a whole other topic. Back to the one I’m struggling with now. I would love to know how other mothers and daughters think about this. Meanwhile, I’m better off limiting my analysis to me and my mother.

She was a great mother to a child. She was nurturing when I needed it, she set limits, firm ones when I was young, easing up on them as I matured. She (and my father) made me feel safe in the world. And when, as a teenager, I had my heart broken, she always knew exactly what to do to help repair the fracture or at least distract me from it.  But as I came into my own as a woman, it changed.  Or, I changed and she couldn’t accept it.

I loved my mother. I respected her. I was dutiful. But I was tense around her and I erected a barrier to protect myself. Protect myself from what? The closest I can come is protecting myself from her version of me.  Or, guarding my version of myself or maybe they both mean the same thing.

I know when I first noticed the problem. Once a year, starting when I was around 15, she would bring me to her office, the Los Angeles County Welfare Department. She first worked there as a social worker and eventually headed-up foster home recruitment campaigns for the whole county. Anyway, on this annual visit, she’d parade me from office to office, from the director of the agency to the unit supervisors to the women in the secretarial pool and like an organ grinder with his monkey, she’d make me perform. I was a prop in her little play and I hated it. I was shy, for one thing, but I also hated talking about the things she wanted me to talk about.  “Tell Dr. Johnson how you were elected princess of the spring fever dance.” For Christ’s sake, my mother was a career woman. Why was she talking about my being spring fever princess? (notice she didn’t ask me to tell Dr. Johnson the reason I was crowned princess. I lost out on being elected queen.) Now that I think of it, maybe she talked about that stuff because there weren’t enough other things for her to brag about. In any case, if I demurred even slightly, if I hesitated to tell my story enthusiastically, she gave me the look, the daggers in the eyes, phony smile on the lips look, the look that said, “You God Damn better do as I say.”   It was creepy.  Many years later I figured out why that stuff was important to her. She felt like a freak growing up.  Her mother was a vegetarian anarchist who sent her child to school with a note pinned on her that said, “do not feed this child meat.” Her mother didn’t believe in work so bummed off rich relatives who gave her money so she wouldn’t try moving in with them. She was a gypsy, a vagabond who moved my poor mother from city to city, school to school.  And then there was the issue of her paternity. The official story was that her parents divorced but I discovered much later her parents were never married.  She was in her 80’s when I confronted her with this discovery. At first she was angry and said it was none of my business. Then she denied it. Then she admitted it and, tearfully, told me that her fear had always been that she was the product of a one-night stand. And then she described what it was like to feel engulfed by a dark cloud of illegitimacy her whole life.  Even when I said the story made her life more interesting to me, she wasn’t reassured. She could never see it through anything but her child’s eyes.

I’d like to think I would have been more sympathetic to my mother’s needs – even as a snarky adolescent — had known this but I didn’t know it and having to bear ridiculous witness to strangers made me resentful. Why didn’t she notice how hard it was for me? I suspect she did but that her need was so great, she was willing to ignore mine. I even think I could have been less resentful if she’d been able to tolerate the truth from me. If I’d  been able to say, “Mom, when you tell a distant acquaintance on the street how many boys asked me to the senior prom, I want to throw-up or crawl under a car or crawl under a car and throw up.” But that kind of honesty was verboten.

In a world with so much actual child abuse, I’m embarrassed to complain about this but the truth is that she was the one who suffered more. She sensed my guardedness and the distance hurt her feelings. It hurt me too because I didn’t like the “me” I was with her. Yes, I was a dutiful daughter but I could be a cold one too.

I just realized that I’ve gotten this far without giving any credit to my daughter for the kind of relationship we have.  It’s always more interesting to sort out the negative than to broadcast the positive and, of course, we all know from Tolstoy*, more interesting to read about the dark side of families. Because of my history with my own mother, I want my daughter to decide which version of herself she wants to share. But I will say this: since she was a little girl she’s had an insatiable curiosity about the world and a determination to make it a better place. I’ve been lucky enough to be part of the world she’s curious about and one of the people she wants to make better, even if we never wear matching Easter outfits.

*Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Anna Karenina)