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

What would I do without a child in the house? Because I was as firmly as I could humanly be in the role of the good mother, or at the very least the good-enough mother. Bath time followed by bedtime; eating green vegetables; not chasing balls into the street: A lot of it was common sense, I discovered, and Dr. Spock, who remained on my nightstand for decades, provided further counsel. True, I didn’t have a positive role model to apply to ambiguous situations, but I did have a formula. Or maybe reflex is a better word for my rule of thumb: Given a choice, I followed a course opposite to my mother’s and, whenever I needed reassurance, I resurrected the child I had been to consider the situation from her point of view. By the time Julia arrived, I’d navigated a decade of child rearing and had two bright, happy, confident children—apparently the formula worked. Was it all right to allow my daughter to wear her Sleeping Beauty costume when it wasn’t Halloween? To wear it on the street for months, ever more tattered under its detergent-defying stains? I didn’t care, I decided, if the dirty acetate ball gown inspired equally dirty looks. My daughter, five years old, never noticed. She was looking in shopwindows to see herself, the girl the prince was going to marry because she was beautiful and good.

No, I wasn’t ready, not at all, to stop serving the paragon of maternal virtue I’d constructed to rebuke my mother. If I couldn’t, in my thirties, articulate to myself what emotional insurance might mean, by the time Julia was in grade school, hindsight revealed me as a woman who had assembled her adult self around the persona of the good mother, the inverse-reverse-opposite of mine. I didn’t want an empty nest, because I wasn’t sure I was whole enough to survive without a child at home.


“MINI ME,” one of my students called her when circumstances forced my younger daughter to tag along to the college where I taught. And it was true: Our childhood photographs were as interchangeable as our baby pictures. The words stuck in my head; I couldn’t banish them. Mini me. Julia means “young” in Latin, and our daughter’s middle name, her paternal grandmother’s maiden name, is “Young.” The repetition never bothered me. My husband’s mother’s maiden name could hardly be changed, and her father and I loved the name Julia. Or had I been the one who loved it, and he’d acquiesced to the choice, as he had to my fierce insistence on having the child who bore the name? Well, too late: We’d put the two together, Julia Young, like a spell that chimed the meaning twice, turning the clock back to my young self. I worried that our physical similarity might heighten the risk of conflating my daughter with my child self, especially as it was that little girl on whom I depended to illuminate my children’s needs, and I was vigilant with our youngest, who upped every ante.

Julia was an adoring kindergartner when I caught my 15-year-old rolling her eyes at the worshipful gaze her little sister kept locked on me. “Once upon a time, you used to think I was the cat’s pajamas, too,” I said.

“Yeah, but I was never your stalker.”

I didn’t argue. Julia might not have loved me more than her siblings had, but she did do it differently. As though the golden fluid the amnio technician had drawn from my womb had bathed our daughter for nine months in a distillate of longing, Julia answered my desire with a single-minded passion for me, holding a mirror not only to my face but also to my personality—a deeper and more threatening reflection that, in the case of my little doppelgänger, I wanted to avoid. But how could I, when I recognized my daughter’s hunger as my own? Could it have been that the ravenous desire I turned on my mother wasn’t purely a matter of nurture but one of nature, a trait, like shyness, bestowed by genetics? If I saw a friend on the street, Julia marched me in the opposite direction, so intent on preventing even a wave hello that whoever it was laughed. When, on the phone, I ignored her interruptions, she unplugged it. If I looked away, she took my face in her hands and redirected my gaze.

First Published September 27, 2011

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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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