Life Notes: The Ties That Bind
Untangling the mother-daughter bond

“I hope God will forgive me, but I never wanted a daughter,” said my friend Ellen, who is, of course, the mother of two of them.

Daughters are complicated. Intense. Confusing. “Daughters drain you,” my European-born grandmother used to say ruefully. She had three of her own and felt cheated.

In her Old World culture, boys were valued more, and my grandmother went to her grave still struggling to come to terms with the hand fate had dealt her.

Perhaps it was my grandmother’s echo that led me to my own moments when I wished – oh, how I wished – for an easier, less tangled connection. The sort of relationship I’ve always imagined mothers have with sons.
Unlike Ellen, I don’t think I would have felt fulfilled without daughters. But I won’t accept the fantasy that with mothers and daughters, the prevailing emotions are pure love and adoration.

Not after having had my very soul wrung out by Jill, Amy and Nancy, who have reminded me throughout their lives that there is no other person who can cause you so much pain – or so much joy – as a daughter.

And just when you think all that’s over because your daughters are at last full-fledged adults, the emotional ambushes sneak back. And because they’re unexpected, they bowl you over even more.

My daughters are undeniably competent and smart and capable. They also are loyal, loving and, ahem, bossy. They seem deeply committed to finding my flaws, analyzing them and having creative ideas about how to fix me.
Is this payback for all the years I felt capable of fixing them? Or is it just the turning of the wheel of life, the strange chapter when they truly are wise, savvy and sensible in ways I’m not?

They have answers to questions I don’t even know to ask, let alone answers about how I should do my hair, learn yoga, eat tofu and redecorate my dining room.

My husband used to try to fade into the woodwork when there was a mother-daughter meltdown. He found our eruptions confounding. And I think I understand why it’s all such a mystery to him: his bonds with his daughters are less tangled, far more sweetly protective and simple than mine are.

But oh, how wonderful it is to share my life with these three amazing women who are now mothers themselves.
“You are my best work,” I tell them. And I mean it. But they are surely not my easiest work.

I would sooner have undertaken a book-length writing assignment on a subject I loathe than replay any of our daughters’ adolescent years. I didn’t have the emotional stamina for those tantrums and tempests played out with slamming doors and tears and the automatic assumption that I was the villain, no matter what I did.

“Don’t talk!” Amy once insisted while I was driving carpool. I was an embarrassment, of course, and she let me know it. If turnabout is fair play, I can report that Amy’s teenage daughter recently said virtually the same words to her as Amy herself was driving carpool.

Poor, gentle Ellen is living through that stage with her own daughter now. And no advice or counsel from other “been there, done that” mothers will save her from the slings and arrows of a teenage daughter.

Still, during a recent conversation I told Ellen what I earnestly believe about daughters: With all the love and rage and what a psychologist friend of mine calls “the built-in psychosis” of mother-daughter bonds, my daughters remain a magnificent astonishment in my life.

I told Ellen that given all I know, I still wouldn’t have missed having daughters for anything. I tell them that all the time now, as our years together on this earth are dwindling.

They think I’m a cornball, and I am. But I want them to know – really know – that nothing I ever do will match my joy and pride in being their mother.

And I so hope they believe me.

November 2017
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