Mothers and Daughters: An Exploration

“There’s a bond between mothers and daughters that’s timeless and universal,” my mom says during our weekly phone call. “A father has a role of teaching you things, but a mother has a role of teaching you feelings.”

Mothers and daughters have such a unique relationship. It is indeed one of feelings; it’s full of caring and hope and hurt and so, so much love it’s almost hard to take. A mother is a daughter’s first ally: She encourages your dreams, dries your tears, and soothes your insecurities from the day you’re born. The opposite is true as well. A daughter looks after her mother in a way that a son wouldn’t think to: We listen to her vent, learn to help with her household tasks, and soothe her own insecurities when they arise. Our bonds are built on shared experiences, secrets, sorrows and joys.

This dynamic is absolutely universal. My two roommates and I come from entirely different backgrounds: Divya is the child of an arranged marriage and grew up around the world, Erin was raised almost solely by her mother in New Jersey, and I come from an older mother who married a younger, foreign man and settled in the Pacific Northwest. Unique as are situations may be, we all have one thing in common: standing unconditionally behind all three of us are our mothers. We are all strong, stubborn young women who come from strong, stubborn mothers. This is, of course, equal parts encouraging and exasperating. There are no clashes as brutal as the ones you have with someone who’s just like you. But, at the same time, there is no love as strong as the one between allies of heart and home.

For Mother’s Day, I thought it was worth exploring the relationships the three of us have with our mothers. Their mark is in everything we do, from the way we put on lipstick to the songs we sing around the house. They’re so overwhelmingly responsible for the women we are becoming, and all three of us are grateful for their support. As we graduate from   BU and enter the adult world, our mothers may not be physically by our sides, but we know they’re with us just the same.

Divya & Amala 

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Traditionally, an Indian woman’s life is one of structure and rigidity. Being from the East, Divya and her mother Amala have had vastly different life experiences from those who grew up in the Western world.

Divya was born in Bangalore but was raised internationally. Her father’s job moved the family to cities around the world: She lived in four countriesIndia, Russia, Ukraine and Taiwanbefore settling in New York City for high school and then Boston for college. Now, as a permanent resident, she plans to eventually become an American citizen. Meanwhile, Amala and her husband Jose moved to Dubai two years ago, where he works for a UAE bank and she teaches fifth grade at an international school. Being away from her children has yet to get any easier for her, Amala says. “I’m sorry to say I’m not over being so far awaymy heart is still in the States because my kids are there.”

Amala has always had a limited capacity to make her own choices. She was raised by conservative parents in Bangalore who made decisions for her well into her adult years. Her father, especially, dictated what degrees she got, what jobs she worked, and eventually who she married. She’s grateful that he wanted her to work and support herselfas none of her female cousins had the opportunityand possesses a strong work ethic that she’s passed onto her daughter. But her life is still lacking in autonomy  today, she says. Her marriage is as traditional as it gets; her husband makes the money and the choices, and she raises the children and follows where his job goes.

But it’s not as if she’s a completely passive figure. “If my mom really knew what a feminist was, she’d call herself one,” Divya says, laughing. Even as she’s followed her husband, Amala has always been the one responsible for creating lives for herself and her children.

“Her strength is rebuilding,” Divya says. “In every city we moved to, she had to seek out a new job and support system while still bearing the burden of raising us. And she was always able to do it.” Amala is more matter-of-fact about her role: “I’ve always had to make the most of my opportunities,” she says. “A mother’s job is sacrifice, and a little goes a long way.”

Divya, meanwhile, has always been determinedly autonomous. She remembers an incident in grade school where a teacher told Amala her daughter was “too ambitious.” Offended, Amala told the teacher she didn’t find anything wrong with that. “I’ve always appreciated her for sticking up for me,” Divya says. Having a daughter who was in charge of her own life was important to Amala, and she was proud of the fact that Divya was ambitious. She credits her daughter’s international upbringing as providing her with the confidence to make her own choices.

“Divya has never been an Indian girl,” Amala laughs. “Typical Indian girls are shy and they don’t speak out much and their parents make their decisions for them. But Divya makes her decisions on her own and then lets you know. I was proud of that, so I always let her be.”

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Both say trust is a large part of their relationship. They’ve never even experienced a rough patch; today, Amala says their only disagreements are over Divya’s messiness and her reluctance to go to church. Divya says she never had a rebellious phase because she never felt restricted by her mother. “My mom trusts meGod knows why,” she jokes. But, to her mother’s credit, Divya cites her inherited work ethic for keeping her focused throughout adolescence. No matter where she was in the world, she was always a committed student and put great stock in academic success.

“She’s always made me proud in parent teacher conferences,” Amala says. “One of her high school teachers even asked me if she could write a book on Divya because she was such a hardworking student! That was the greatest day for me.”

Now, as far apart as they are, they’re still very close. They talk every day and are very much involved in each other’s lives. It helps that they have similar personalities; they’re both worriers, but they’re always chatty and warm and caring in their interactions with one another. Both are also as blunt as they come; neither have any problem telling you exactly what they think. The biggest difference between them is their approach to life: Divya is lighthearted and cracks jokes whenever she can while Amala is straight-laced and serious.

“I’m amused by pretty much everything, but it’s hard for her to laugh at life,” Divya says. “Things weigh on her. She’s actually very sensitiveshe’s got a tough exterior but things hit her hard.”

Emotional support is another key component of their relationship. Divya rarely asks for advice, but she always turns to her mom to talk through her feelings. Amala turns to Divya when she needs someone to listen to her. Their relationship is very loving, even if they feel they don’t always show it. Amala thinks she could be more demonstrative as a mother, but Divya says she’s never doubted her mother’s love and support. “My brother and I are going to have good lives because of her,” she says. “She’s given us everything she had.”

One day, Divya hopes to repay her mother for everything she’s done. “I want to be so good to her because she was so good to me,” she says. “Who I am is thanks to her. She’s the one who raised me.” For her part, Amala just wishes Divya would call her more often: “I’d just like her to call me more than I call her! I don’t always want to be running, chasing after her,” she says. (“My mom is the queen of the guilt trip,” Divya says in response.)

Regardless, Amala is glad to call Divya hers. “Girls are yours forever. I’m so glad I have a daughter.”

 

Erin & Nancy

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Erin and her mom Nancy are the Rory and Lorelai of central Jersey. The two have leaned on each other ever since Nancy divorced Erin’s father when Erin was in grade school. Being an only child with a single mother meant the boundaries between them were always blurrier than those of other mother/daughter pairs: “Our relationship is more like a mentorship and a friendship,” Nancy says.

Now at 22 and 51, Erin calls Nancy her best friend. The two talk, text and SnapChat regularly (Nancy knows her way around a filter as well as any millennial) now that Erin lives in Boston. They’re alike in more ways than they’re different; they share the same loving personality and subtle Jersey accent (“marriage” and “horrible” are especially elongated) as well as a charmingly raucous laugh. The biggest difference between them is their hair colorthey have the same blue eyes and big smiles, but Erin inherited her father’s fair hair.

“We’re basically the same person,” Erin says. “We’re both self-starters and have the same exact sense of humor.” And, most importantly, “we’ve both always been able to listen to ourselves.”

Both are also artistic types. They each say they need some sort of creative outlet in their lives; for Nancy, it’s painting and drawing, while for Erin, it’s writing. Their need to create is reflected in their shared career choice. Nancy went to art school and became a creative director at a pharmaceutical advertising firm while Erin is graduating with a degree in Advertising and hopes to be a copywriter. Both find it amusing that Erin wants to follow in her mom’s footsteps.

“It’s funny; growing up, I always said that I didn’t want to go into advertising like my mom. I wanted to be a meteorologist!” Erin says with a laugh. “Then I wanted to be a psychologist and eventually a writer. I never really wanted to write a book and I did like journalism, but writing for advertising just seemed more fun.”

Nancy recalls being blown away by her daughter’s writing abilities from a young age. “She would read me things that she’d writtenpapers for school and stuffand it would send chills up my spine. I would say, ‘Er, you’re really, really good at this!’ And she liked to write. So it ended up making sense for her to go into copywriting.”

But raising Erin was harder than Nancy expected. She tried co-parenting with her ex-husband after their divorce, but eventually ended up raising Erin alone. Being a single mom who worked full time was stressful for both of them. Conflict was harder felt because of their closeness. It also didn’t help that Erin was a strong-willed child (“That definitely comes from me,” Nancy says) and felt isolated from an early age. She struggled to articulate her feelings of frustration and anger and was diagnosed with depression in the 7th grade. She ended up in therapy until she was 17 and had a strained relationship with her mom throughout.

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The more Nancy tried to talk to her daughter in her depression, the more Erin pushed her away. “I would take her trying to help as an attack, but it wasn’t. She was sincerely worried about my well-being,” Erin says. “As a mother, that must have been really hard. Who wants to see their daughter hurt that much?”

Improvement came only with treatment and time. Therapy and journaling helped Erin learn how to communicate and Nancy found her current husband, Alex, whose outside perspective helped mediate their relationship. Nancy still remembers the day their dynamic changed: “Erin called me this one day when she was still in county college, and I was like, ‘Why are you calling me? You can’t stand me!’ And she said, ‘You know what, Mom? I really don’t,’ and it was like a switch flipped from there on out. She said she hated everyone except me!”

Now communication is second nature to Erin and Nancy. Being at odds for so long only made them appreciate their bond more. “Looking at how much she’s blossomed and how close we are now, I wouldn’t trade those years for the world,” Nancy says. They say their relationship is one of total honesty and respect; both mother and daughter are proud of how capable the other is. “I love that my mom can just do anything,” Erin says.

Independence was a value Nancy made sure to pass on to her daughter. “My own mom always said to me, ‘Never rely on a man to take care of you.’ And those words stuck in my head,” she says.I always wanted that same thing for my daughter, for her to always take care of herself and be self-sufficient.”

That lesson resonated with Erin. She says she’ll never forget when her mom passed on those words: She was 15 and newly heartbrokenher boyfriend had cheated on her, and she was crying to her mom in the bath. “I remember saying, ‘Mom, he was supposed to make me happy.’ And she just looked at me and said, ‘Erin, never rely on a man for anything. You have to do what is best for you at all times.’ And I just remember thinking, damn.

Now that Erin is taking on new challenges, her mother’s role in her life is especially vital. Nancy is more and more a career counselor and spiritual guide as well as a partner-in-crime. Erin says she’ll always look to her for inspiration. Of course, Nancy says the same thing of her daughter. “Erin has taught me a lot,” she says. “But the biggest thing is that she’s taught me how to slow down. I tend to go a million miles an hour and she’s taught me how to take a step back and just be here now.”

As they get older, both say they hope to continue growing, loving and learning with each other. “There are so many great things for us to look forward to together,” Nancy says. “Overall,” says Erin, “I just want us to kill it.”

 

Allie & Kathy

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My mom is my hero. I’ve always said I’m more like my father, but the older I get, the more I see my her role in my personality. I mirror her in everything from the sound of my voice to my inability to take a compliment. We have the same pragmatism and self-deprecating humor that comes from being the caretakers of our scattered family unit. She taught me to love Janis Joplin and The Beatles and to sing show tunes when I do the dishes. We’re both driven but tend to put others’ needs before our own because we know we can survive without.

Technically, my mom could be my grandmother. She was born in 1947 and had me and my twin brother at 47. Being an older mom was harder for her than it was for us; I know she feels like she couldn’t be the young, active mom that we deserved, but we never felt shortchanged. All of my childhood memories are happy: we went camping, took road trips, sang songs, and had fun birthday parties that she went out of her way to plan.

But our generational gap did lead to misunderstandings. We come from two different worlds; she grew up Mormon on a farm in rural Idaho while I grew up in the suburbs of liberal Seattle. Her upbringing was one of church dances and good clean fun while mine was one of outdoor adventures and house parties. Our lack of common ground was only exacerbated by my stubbornness; I was never interested in being told what to do and always pushed back when I felt my independence being restricted.

That need to live on my own terms could be charming when I was younger. “My favorite memory of you is sitting in the house in your red corduroy jumper trying to put your boots on,” my mom says. “You couldn’t have been much past two and you were determined you were going to do it by yourself. Your strength and determination were telling in that moment.” (Other moments were less endearing, like the time I convinced my brother Mom said we could play kickball in the house and broke her heirloom vase.)

But childhood time outs turned into all-out wars as I entered my teenage years. I was a typical rebellious and ungrateful teen; I was determined to be self-sufficient and resented my mother’s attempts to parent me. We fought over friends, hemlines, missed curfews and taking the car, and I spent many weekends grounded. The phrase “if I give an inch, you take a mile” was often directed at me in our arguments. Those years were painful for both of us; we felt equally unappreciated but didn’t know how to communicate that to one another.

“I just didn’t know how to navigate that water,” my mom says. “It was scary to realize you were so headstrong. You were going full steam ahead into areas that I wanted you to be slower with, and I worried because you were gone and I didn’t know you were always safe.”

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Of course, we weren’t always at each other’s throats. She always was and still is my closest confidante. We had nightly gossip sessions where we’d curl up in her bed and walk each other through our days after work. We’d watch House Hunters together and swap books and spend hours planting the garden each spring. She came to all my swim meets, held me while I cried over breakups, and did my hair for prom. She taught me how to drive and even took the blame when I backed into a fence and shattered the back window of her car (oops). We didn’t always see eye to eye, but I never doubted that I was loved and supported.

And luckily, a little distance and perspective brought us back to each other with open arms. Today our relationship is stronger than ever. As I begin to navigate the world, I respect my mom more and more as a woman. I’ve watched her stand up for her convictions and overcome a yearlong battle with breast cancer. She worked my whole life but always had time to volunteer at schools and sports events. She was also driven in an era when women weren’t encouraged to be; she eschewed the traditional roles of the early 1960s and went to college to get a degree in nursing, eventually earning her Master’s in Nursing Administration. Before meeting my dad, she spent years as an independent career woman and traveled the world in her spare time (which eventually brought her to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and to a certain goofball with a mullet and a jean jacket). When she was my age she was already working full-time and paying her own bills, while still making time for Tuesday night pints.

My own entrance into the adult world is much less “adult.” At 21 I am graduating with a B.S. in Journalism and an approximate shitload of debt. I’m taking an unpaid summer internship and am crashing on a friend’s futon all summer to avoid paying rent. I constantly worry about my impending student loan payments and whether I’ll ever be paid to write articles. But whatever happens, I know I have the full support of my mom. I can solve most of my problems on my own now, but it’s nice to know she’s just a phone call away.

Even though we’re on different coasts, she’ll always be the first person I go to for advice and emotional support. And as we age, I look forward to our relationship becoming more and more of a friendship. Getting older has allowed us to develop a more reciprocal relationship; I worry about her well-being as much as she worries about mine. I worry about how hard she works and how critical she is of herselfand I know she would say the same about me.

Of course, her hopes for us are more practical than mine. “As we get older, I hope for stability and happiness,” she says. “And no debt!”

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