By and large this old folk saying still rings true in 2011. Young men are raised to become autonomous beings where cutting the apron strings is regarded as mandatory to their adult development. On the other hand, young women are raised to become mothers and remain close to their mothers, setting off what many psychologists maintain is the most intense relationship in a woman’s life.
When her mother dies, the adult daughter loses her security touchstone. As long as her mother is alive, even if she’s halfway across the country, she’s only a phone call away. Even if a daughter doesn’t always reach out to her mother when she has a problem, knowing her mother is around can be reassuring. When mom dies, a daughter is starkly alone. Women with close mother-daughter relationships may feel the loss more acutely, but the dynamics are the same for women who report conflicted relationships with their mothers—there is a prevailing tendency to feel unmoored.
I would wager that most adult daughters hold a story of their mothers that is based more on the daughters’ wounded memories than on the real truth of their mothers’ lives. For the brave at heart, the immediate aftermath of a mother’s death can be an opportunity for a more objective, compassionate understanding of her and, in turn, a resolution of long-standing differences. Clues to a mother’s true narrative can be found in listening attentively to stories told at the funeral and studying her letters and personal writings, her choice of reading materials and entries in her calendar. Even the contents of her closet can help to fill in the gaps of her life.
Often there can be a real disparity between a mother’s public self and her private self, or the one portrayed in the family. When my own mother died, her cronies praised her generous nature which was at odds with the self-centered woman I often returned to in my memories. Leafing through my mother’s desk, crammed with family letters and photos, I was surprised to unearth a large envelope containing all my newspaper articles which she had very carefully preserved—the mother who found it hard to mete out praise clearly was proud of her daughter. (Needless to say, I sobbed when I made this discovery.)
Many women lead much more accomplished lives than their mothers, which can mask their gifts. A mother’s death can be a good time to revisit her teachings. Hillary Clinton’s mother, Dorothy Rodham, was cast off by her parents and sent to live with harsh grandparents. She never got the opportunity to attend college but when Hillary phoned home from Wellesley, worried that she wouldn’t make the grade, Dorothy encouraged her to stick it out, something she had learned the hard way. No doubt Hillary Clinton’s reputation as a tenacious candidate and negotiator owes a lot to her mother’s support. Embedded in this example is the knowledge that mothers want the best for their daughters. We can return the favor by rediscovering our mother’s stories and honoring them. She can rest in peace and we can go forward with greater peace of mind.