Mother-daughter relationships are complex. When I was a kid, I couldn’t stand talking to my mother on the phone because of the thick lump that formed in my throat as I tried to hold back tears. It was easier for me to write letters to my mother from camp than to have her call me. But other times, I missed her terribly and I just wanted to hear her voice. I would call her from the pay phone at school with a conjured-up reason, just to hear the sound of her voice on the other end of the line, which I found oddly reassuring, even as the lump formed.
I was my mother’s only daughter. At times I would have loved to have a sister’s point of view growing up, someone who could have helped me make sense of the complex relationship I had with my mother, who could have helped me understand how I could feel such a panoply of feelings at the same time, who could have helped me feel normal when I felt anything but.
When I was pregnant with my first child, my mother asked me what gender child I wanted. I told her I thought it would be cool to have a boy first, like she did, and then have a girl, because I thought having an older brother was the next best thing to having a sister. She was surprised. She said she hoped I would have a girl first, because there was nothing in the world better than having a daughter. She didn’t say this to make me feel good. In that moment, I knew she truly believed it, and at once I felt loved and chastised, as if I didn’t appreciate her as fully as she valued me.
When my oldest daughter was a toddler, my mother was diagnosed with a heart condition. One night she slept over at my apartment on the spare bed in my daughter’s room. During the night, I tiptoed in to the room so as not to wake either my daughter asleep in the crib or my mother asleep on the bed, and I stood next to her listening for the sound of her breath. I’m not sure why I was so terrified, but I guess at 24, I was not prepared to lose my mother. Gradually our roles shifted because of her chronic illness, and as she needed more care, I became more responsible for managing it.
My mother was right about daughters, and I am triply blessed to have these three amazing women in my life. I like to think I am different from my mother, less demanding and more tuned into my daughters’ needs. Yet as much as I try to be the best mother I can be, I know we all carry baggage, and when it becomes too weighty, too cumbersome and too hard, we turn to our kids to help us lug that baggage or get rid of it. At those times I am grateful for my daughters and grateful my daughters have each other to talk to about the complexities of their relationships with me.
My mother spent the last decade of her life in and out of hospitals, in one health crisis after another. I matured. I became accustomed to the roller coaster that characterized my mother’s life. Her voice no longer caused me to get a lump in my throat, and I grew to recognize the nuances in her voice which meant she needed an empathic ear or for me to spring into action. I don’t know if she ever recognized the catch in my voice which meant I was about to cry as a kid, the same catch that returned as I held her in my arms singing lullabies to her the day she died. If she did, she never let on.