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Mother Daughter Relationships and "My Mother's Greatest Gift To Me"

In the Changing Mother Daughter Dynamic, the Real Gifts Become Clear Over Time


Updated May 13, 2009
Sometimes we don't fully appreciate or recognize the best gifts we've received until the giver is no longer with us. This is especially true of mother-daughter relationships.

A good friend recently lost her mother, and has been spending her free time clearing out her mother's home, sorting through clothes, papers, boxes, memorabilia, and housewares.

I know what she's going through, and how difficult it is.

The Last Goodbye

For more months than I care to admit, one stall in my two-car garage was filled with boxes and furniture from my mother's house. I had placed them there shortly after she passed away, thinking I'd find the time to sort through the stuff at a later date, because right now I was just "too busy." The two-year anniversary of her death passed, then another six months came and went, and still I kept putting it off. It took the threat of an early snowfall for me to empty the boxes and remove the furniture to make room for my car that winter.

Even as I handled these pieces of her life - deciding what I'd keep and what I'd give away - I realized I still wasn't emotionally ready to fully process what was happening. For nearly three years, I had found excuses to ignore the pile in the garage because I didn't have the heart to finish up this final task which was - in many ways - the last goodbye.

From Cologne to Childcare

Instead of focusing on going through the things she left behind, I found myself reviewing the intentional gifts she had given me throughout our lifetime together.

Some were tangible goods, like the bottle of the Calvin Klein perfume "Obsession" which - when I put it on - still causes strangers to ask what scent I'm wearing.

Some were deeds that made a difficult moment bearable, such as taking my children for five straight days whenever I went in for chemotherapy during my seven-month bout with ovarian cancer.

And some were intangible things like advice, not always welcome at the time but nonetheless effective in the long run.

An Ever-Changing Relationship

Mothers and daughters have unique relationships. They can be as close as twins or as distant as the north and south poles. Sometimes the relationship is based on mutual support, and sometimes on mutual competition. Some women I know call their mothers almost daily. Others haven't spoken in years.

When we think 'mothers and daughters,' there's always an expectation of intimacy and closeness. Yet the very nature of the relationship sets up a pattern of giving on the mother's end and receiving on the daughter's end. As we age, it is common for the giving/receiving equation to reverse within the family, especially when illness requires a daughter to become her mother's caregiver.

That new dynamic can be another phase of a deepening mother-daughter relationship, or an uncomfortable outcome of what happens when the tables are turned. Mothers who are used to giving and who believe their value is rooted in being 'needed' by their daughters may take some time to adjust.

Even when my own mother's diagnosis of terminal cancer brought her into my home for her final weeks, she 'didn't want to be a burden.' She still wanted to feel useful and needed.

Although her physical ability to give was long past by that time, the tangible and intangible things she gave me over a lifetime still influence me today, years after her death.

"My Mother's Greatest Gift To Me"

If I had to name my mother's greatest gift to me, here's the story I'd tell:

My mother's greatest gift to me was her candor. It was an embarrassing gift. She was Japanese, born and raised 'over there,' yet when she came to the US she lost all sense of shyness, reserve, or even propriety. Her English speaking skills hampered her ability to communicate, but that didn't prevent her from boldly stating exactly what she thought.

For example, shortly after she had 'the talk' with me she said in her unique way, "Don't marry first man you sleep with. You no buy first car you drive, so why do that with husband?" When I started dating in high school, she loudly announced, "You get pregnant, you no have abortion. I want another baby. Bring baby to me and I raise it like your sister." (As I was an only child, this was creepy to me on many levels.) From that point on, I felt weird even kissing my boyfriend. Her offer was more effective than abstinence training.

Thanks to my mother's candor, even though she essentially gave me license to be promiscuous, I wasn't. And since she seemed to think my getting pregnant was a foregone conclusion (and had already worked the details out), I intended to stay celibate forever to thwart her crazy family planning.

I'm married now and have daughters the same age as I was when she gave me her candid advice. But she's not here anymore to try and pass them off as her own. Yet I've continued her habit of candor with them, and so far neither of them is pregnant or promiscuous. So I guess she was on to something.

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