Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Not Becoming My Mother

Mother/daughter relationships are difficult. One reason is the same reason that raising a child is difficult. Just when you've got a handle on the current phase, the kid grows out of it and finds some new way to drive you crazy. If both the mother and the daughter were to remain static, they could probably work out some sort of equilibrium and stay constant, but we always move and grow (at least I hope so, I know I'm being rather optimistic here).
One of the more interesting changes (at least to me) is finally realizing your mother is a person in her own right, not just an adjunct to you, her child. Even in my thirties I struggle with this. It is like you set your mother in your mind when you spend the most time with her, as a young child, and then never bother to reset this opinion until facts force you to.
There are many ways we develop more of an adult to adult relationship with our parents. The big milestones usually help; graduation, moving out, getting married, having children. I have seen some grown women very frustrated that because some of these milestones didn't happen for them so their parents never mentally put them into the adult category. It isn't intentional, just unthinking.
It is unfortunate that by the time we are emotionally mature enough to relate to our mothers as grown-ups, we often don't get the chance. The separation of households, even if you live nearby, makes the intimacy of the past difficult to recapture. If there wasn't much trust in the relationship then it takes an incredible effort to even begin to have it later in life. So many dramas show the last minute reconciliation that are designed to make even the most cynical shed a tear or two. Though it is a good indicator of future mortality if someone has a dramatic reconciliation and doesn't already have a dread disease: a heart attack or fatal accident is guaranteed before the end. I do think that these healing moments can occur. Perhaps if they weren't so universally fatal in the movies it would be easier to do in real life (probably not).
In this book Ruth Reichl shares with the reader the intimate details of her belated discovery of her mother's personality. With the death of her mother she was free to explore her mother's journals and letters in a way that taught her as much about herself as about her mother. Though this is truly the only way to learn about others.
In the end, she wrote this final tribute to her mother, and what she learned by learning about her:
But Mom's most important lesson was how to be a mother. I see now how hard she tried to be a good one, despite her many handicaps. Her struggle with her own mother had shown her that it is important to encourage your children to be themselves, even if they do not turn out to be the people you wish they were. And she urged me to independence, asking only that I work hard, be kind and live up to my own possibilities.
Growing up, I was utterly oblivious to the fact that Mom was teaching me all that. But I was instantly aware of her final lesson, which was hidden in her notes and letters. As I read them I began to understand that in the end you are the only one who can make yourself happy. More important, Mom showed me that it is never too later to find out how to do it.
Her mother was very unhappy for much of her life, but in the end she found peace in living and helping others. Most of the book was difficult for me to read because the mother was so sad and so trapped. I didn't like being a silent witness to her misery. But I gained a renewed appreciation for the women of the earlier generations. We, the daughters of such women, often forget how blessed we are to be able to choose. I chose to be a stay-at-home mom, but I didn't have to be. No one was telling me if I got a degree or became a scientist I would end up a lonely old maid. If I had been forced into my circumstances by outside forces I would have been just as unhappy as many of the housewives of the 50s reportedly were. By choosing I can take responsibility for where I am and make my mental reconciliation.
I am very different from my mother in some ways, yet as I get older I see more and more of the similarities. Though the sit-com horror of turning into your mother is there occasionally, mostly I am grateful because I feel that I have a guide in the path ahead. I don't have to fear teenagers and grandchildren and unemployment or any number of other trials as much, because I have seen my mother go through them and I know her experience is a resource I can always draw on.
I am grateful I can go to my mother. I know many women who don't have that in their lives, for one reason or another. I would recommend this book to those women, especially those whose relationships with their mothers are strained, at best. It gives some hope for understanding, even if it happens beyond this life.

Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. Ruth Reichl. Penguin Press. 2009

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