If It's Not One Thing, It's Your Mother

Learning to let go and laugh with a difficult mother.

The author and her mother, Lee Daly (left), in 2005.
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Adair Lara.

My mother had enough daughters to be all of those things. My oldest sister’s mother was cold and negligent: Connie, feeling rebuffed from childhood, announced that she now regarded her as just a friend and went off to Salt Lake City to live. When I went to see Connie there years ago, her friends, well-meaning blondes clinking the ice in their white wine, said to me in awed tones, “We’ve heard about your terrible mother. Can you talk about it at all?”

The mother of my twin sister, Adrian, never thought to send her to college, so it took her years to figure out for herself that she was smart.

The next oldest, sweet-natured Mickey, with her big brown eyes, had the opposite: a smothering mom. At one point Mom sent a friend to tell Mickey that she—Mom— would commit suicide (not meaning it) if my sister moved out of state, as planned. Mickey did move but phones Mom every morning still.

Robin is the youngest. Her mother was the shrew, critical and disapproving—and jealous of any attempt of this youngest child to succeed and fly away too. When she heard that Robin was writing a paper on Sofonisba Anguissola, an Italian woman who painted with Michelangelo, Mom got agitated. “Who is that?” she demanded of Robin. “I’ve never heard of her! Why should you write about her?”

By the time I was in my thirties, my mother did not fight with me openly, as she did with my sisters, but there were small rebuffs, cancellations, the sharpness in her tone, the way she put a stiff Adair in the middle of her sentences.

She made me feel guilty for not giving her a bigger role in the life I made just across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. She expected to be invited to everything, so that dinner parties and other events at which moms were not usually featured had to be hidden from her. For years she complained that my husband, Bill, and I didn’t take her with us when we went to Italy. “I didn’t not take you,” I said, exasperated. “I just went.” Adrian had gone with us, which had persuaded Mom that Bill and I loved to take family members with us on vacation but for some reason had excluded her, a person widely known to be interested in Italy.

At times my sisters and I felt shortchanged by this angry, needy woman wearing our mother’s hot-pink T-shirts. Where was the perfect mother of our childhood (or at least of mine)? Where was the sweet, supportive, nonjudgmental and independent mother we deserved? We took turns not speaking to her, talked endlessly about her with one another and cataloged her moods, our disappointments.

Yet none of us could leave her alone.

We called, we visited, and we made present-laden pilgrimages to her door. Her power was still enormous. She burned bright as a fire in our lives: To draw too near was to get singed, and to draw too far back was to feel a chill. We were there not only because she demanded it but because we needed to be. We hadn’t gotten what we wanted yet—the approval, the recognition, whatever—and were going to wring it out of her.

Something shifted as I moved into my forties. I acquired a different pair of glasses. I could see her now, the way I could still read a book if I held it at arm’s length. The distance helped. It might have been that I finally grew up and found in myself the recognition and approval I had looked for in my mother. And by then I had endured the stormy adolescence of my own daughter, Morgan, now 28, and had only to look in the mirror to find a mother who made mistakes every step of the way.

In fact, I have never met any other kind.

It’s not just me. I’ve noticed this change in my friends and my sisters. Connie, the one who decided to regard Mom as just a friend, now says, “She did her best.”

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