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Death of Hillary Clinton's Mother Dorothy Rodham and the Mother/Daughter Bond

By November 1, 2011

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Dorothy Rodham

The death of Hillary Rodham Clinton's mother, Dorothy Emma Howell Rodham, earlier today at 92, may be little more than a passing footnote in history for the rest of us. But for the current Secretary of State and former presidential candidate and first lady, it's a monumental turning point in her life.

So says family and marriage therapist Patricia Taub whose recently published memoir,The Mother of My Invention, explores her own mother/daughter dynamic.

Taub told me in a phone interview, "The mother daughter relationship is the most intense relationship in the family. because it's continuous and ongoing." She explained that a daughter's connection to her family is lifelong, while a son shifts that allegiance to his own family once he marries and becomes a parent.

"While a mother's alive, there's still that touchstone of security. She's always there to provide comfort," says Taub. "When she's gone, it's that stark realization that you're truly alone.When a mother dies it's also an opportunity for a daughter to look at her life anew and look back on those things may have tripped her up. It's a chance for a daughter to examine her mother's history to better understand what shaped her mother and how it affected their relationship."

When I wrote about Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign in 2008 and how her childhood shaped her, I was struck by Gail Sheehy's description of Dorothy Rodham in Hillary's Choice, her biography of HRC. It was common knowledge that Hillary's father was tough and uncompromising. But I was surprised by Sheehy's account of Dorothy:

Matters of the heart were a fickle distraction in the Rodham household....any emotional display signaled weakness....

"I wanted my children to be able to keep their equilibrium," Dorothy told me, explaining how she had used a carpenter's level as a visual tool for instruction." She showed it to Hillary and her brothers with the bubble dead center. "Imagine having this carpenter's level inside you," she told them. "You try to keep that bubble in the center. Sometimes it will go way up here," she said, tipping the instrument to show how the bubble could drift, "and you have to bring it back."

Now with the passing of Dorothy Rodham we're seeing snapshots and profiles of her own grim childhood in articles marking her passing. Because of these, the reasons for her carpenter's-level approach to life becomes clear.

The New York Times has a heart-wrenching article about young Dorothy's life which includes abandonment by her mother and her custodial father's decision to send Dorothy and her younger sister cross-country by train to grandparents who didn't want them.

In a small anecdote well-timed for this day after Halloween, the story is told of how Dorothy's grandmother was so strict that when she found out the child had gone out trick-or-treating, she was confined to her room for a year -- let out only to go to school.

It was a childhood that the NYTimes labeled "Dickensian."

Early on, Hillary's mother learned how to survive and passed these skills onto her daughter. Hillary may not have grown up unloved and abandoned, but her adult life included many experiences that would have shattered most of us. She, however, shouldered her burdens and moved forward.

This strength of will Taub credits to Hillary's mother. "Dorothy Rodham had an incredibly deprived and abused childhood but she provided quiet courage to Hillary. HRC is tenacious and that's due to her mother who told her never to quit."

I'm sorry for Hillary's loss, but glad she had so many years with her mother who surely felt pride over her daughter's extraordinary accomplishments.

As someone who lost her own mother six years ago this December, I know that the grief is at first overwhelming, then subsides to a manageable dull ache, but like an old scar that remains tender, it never goes away. May Hillary and Chelsea move past the pain in their own time, remember the best of their mother and grandmother, and pass her lessons of survivorship and strength down to the next generation and beyond.

Photo of Dorothy Rodham and Hillary Clinton Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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November 2, 2011 at 1:34 am
(1) Sallie says:

What a sad childhood for Hilary’s mom. When I was reading the beginning of the article about the level, I felt so bad for Hilary having a mother that seemed to want her to keep her feelings to herself. Then I realized that this woman coped and lived a long life and raised a very successful daughter all because she didn’t feel sorry for herself. That would have been the easy way. I have experience with a grandmother that didn’t like me. It hurt and while I’ve had a good life, here I am talking about it 50 years later. I had a mother. It wasn’t as bad for me. I give her a lot of credit. She must have been a very strong woman. Thanks for the insight.

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