Memoir: Daughter Dearest

A wild, consuming passion drove Kathryn Harrison to have a third child at the age of 39. Little did she know that this time, motherhood would plunge her deep into the mysteries of her past.

By Kathryn Harrison
mother and daughter at beach image
The author with her daughter Julia on Iron Pier Beach, Long Island, 2002.
Photograph: Joyce Ravid

“Don’t underestimate the power of a negative role model,” my analyst had said when I was pregnant with our first child and fearful I might be less than the good-enough mother. Every dream we dismantled was a nightmare. My mother, 18 when I was born, moved through all of them like a vampire, pale and deadly. “You were supposed to ransom me,” she said, reporting epiphanies from her own sessions with a therapist, too few and too late. “Another daughter to give my mother, to replace me so I could escape.” By then it had been seven years since she’d moved out of her parents’ home, looking for a life she never found. I saw her on the weekends, each visit reminding me of my young mother’s misery, and its cause. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that all she wanted and didn’t have—college, career, husband (for she considered me baggage discouraging to potential suitors)—I had taken from her. She made me understand that I was the thief of her happiness.

My grandmother accepted the ransom. Her vicious battles with my mother ceased; the house grew calm; I thought I would die of grief. The person I wanted before any other didn’t want me. Years of psychoanalysis couldn’t deliver me from what I understood as a fall from grace, stranding me in the purgatory of those whose love goes unrequited, from which I was determined to escape. Love is given, of course, not earned, but I couldn’t turn away from the red taillights of her turquoise Pontiac, ever sliding away from me down the long driveway. Having arrived under circumstances that made me my mother’s unwanted burden, I looked for opportunities to prove myself worthy of love. If I could distract her from the form I’d assumed—a cross to bear—she’d see I’d eclipsed that unsatisfactory girl with a new, radically improved me.
It didn’t work, of course. Nor did her death, when I was 24, release me from the habit of wooing her: of trying to anticipate what loveworthy form I might tailor myself to fit. For a decade already I’d been the emblematic anorexic, precocious in my discovery of mortification of the flesh, punishing parts of my body before I set myself against the whole. I couldn’t balance a perfect arabesque on pointe shoes, but a burn might suffice to catch her eye. I was the good girl who got straight A’s, who hadn’t had a drink, much less sex, before college, the woman who never found a way to escape the long--reflexive habit of always becoming and never being, perpetually striving to evolve.

Shoved by therapy, I arrived at the familiar truism: It hadn’t been me who was unlovable but my mother who had been unable to love. Pregnant with our first child, I rehearsed the compressed litany that supported what still felt more like a conceit than a truth: My mother had been a child when I was born. Raised by governesses, each of whom left her, she never perceived herself as capable of sustaining a mother’s love. Resigned to abandonment, she couldn’t admit how gravely she’d hurt me without resurrecting the agonies she must have endured.

First Published September 27, 2011

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Bruno11.09.2011

I am beyond dissapointed at MORE for publishing Kathryn HArrison's story, but not for the most obvious reasons. I didn't make it past her first paragraph before I got a hint of her character. Do you know how offensive it is to write Down Syndrome and associate it with the word blight? The remainder of the article did nothing to change my opinion of Ms. Harrison. She seems to need to wallow in her "glass half empty" approach to life. MORE magazine, you should be aware that October is Down Syndrome Awareness month. All of your competition selects stories to honor that. As a magazine that has older mother's as your reading audience, maybe you should be more careful next time.

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