In Getting the Love You Want psychologist Harville Hendrix posits that challenges in romantic relationships during your adult life stem from unmet needs from your parent/child relationship growing up. He states: “Even if you were fortunate enough to grow up in a safe, nurturing environment, you still bear invisible scars from childhood, because from the very moment you were born you were a complex, dependent creature with a never ending cycle of needs. Freud correctly labeled us ‘insatiable beings.’ And no parents, no matter how devoted, are able to respond perfectly to all these changing needs.”
You don’t need a PhD to know that parent/child relationships are deeply complex and powerful, and mother/daughter relationships are perhaps especially so.
My mom’s mothering style did not fall into the “milk and cookies” category. She disdained baby talk and wouldn’t be caught dead with any iteration of a “my child is special” bumper sticker. This is not to say that she was cold and unfeeling. She hugged me and told me she loved me regularly, and I got notes on my napkin in my lunch box and was read bed-time stories each night and in those, and a million other ways, I was that child Hendrix refers to who was “lucky enough to grow up in a safe nurturing environment.”
But not all nurturing looks the same. My mom’s brand of nurturing was to love us always, but to coddle us rarely. As such, my brother and I were given responsibility and independence from a young age. I boarded a plane (granted for a 45 minute flight to visit grandparents) by myself for the first time when I was three. I headed off for sleep away camp when I was six, and I spent a month living in a homestay in Spain by myself when I was 14. Beyond the privilege factor, none of these events are terribly exceptional in the world schema. Young children in many cultures are given lots of independence, but in our suburban American neighborhood, my mom was definitely swimming against the current.
I liked the independence I was given as a child. I felt proud of it. In our household culture it was something to be celebrated. But I also, at times, yearned for a little taste of that “milk and cookies” mom I imagined all my friends having. And perhaps as a reaction to that void—I personally trended in that direction. As I got older, I more frequently got stuck in the rut of only seeing those qualities my mother lacked, instead of embracing that which she was. This wasn’t just a teenage phase for me—something I could chalk up to hormones and brain development. Well into my late twenties I chaffed against the qualities that separated my idealized mother from my real mother, and it seemed to take me forever to grow up and realize that no mother (nor father nor a romantic partner for that matter) could ever intuit, and meet, all of my needs.
My mother and I look alike, and I have certainly embraced her minimalist aesthetic and many of her lifestyle habits. However, our emotional Venn Diagrams overlap by a very slim margin, which has historically been the source of friction and disappointment for me in our relationship.
I am a crier. She is not. I put a lot of faith in introspection. She believes in crawling out of the hole and getting back into the business of daily life as fast as possible. I always read extra meaning into what she says. She says that she means exactly what she says. I don’t think it is healthy to keep a stiff upper lip in the midst of tragedy. She thinks a stiff upper lip is admirable.
Last year, with a growing awareness of our differences, I wrote the poem that follows for my mom on her birthday:
I asked: Tie my shoe?
and you said: No
You said No, but
I think you meant
I Love You
I didn’t quite understand
How to translate
What you were saying into
But now I see
When my laces
You have saved me
From a skinned knee
And likely so much more
When you are 111
And your fingers no
Longer tie knots.
And your shoes
(because we will never
put you in those
You will say:
I can do it.
And I will say: No
And what I will mean is:
I love you.
One of the most remarkable gifts my mom and I have given each other in this past year is to admit that despite our shared DNA and our many similarities we have some very fundamental differences (which we already knew), and that having differences is okay (the new gift). For years I think we were both subconsciously busy trying to convert each other. I wanted her to join me in my emotional world and she wanted me to move over to her 'stiff upper lip' camp. In easing up I think we’ve both naturally been more willing to explore each other's territory and have both benefitted from the new landscape.
In the final stanza of his poem “On Children” Kahlil Gibran writes:
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
So to my “bow” on Mother’s Day—thank you for sending me forth, and also please know how much I've cherished those times when you’ve held me close. I am very grateful to be your daughter.