With the door shut gently but firmly and the blinds drawn against hectic traffic, the mothers were left with few distractions. Low-fat pretzels and purified water were the only things to gnaw on and swallow besides their grief about their daughters.
"She dropped me off and that was about it," Rona began, describing her sense of neglect during recent surgery. "And then she said some unkind things to me and then never called me."
"She does not ask anything of us and that's one of the things that's so painful," said Irma, next in the semicircle.
"My daughter is also very independent," said Lenore, adding to the litany of confession-complaints. "From the time she was growing up, she was pushing me away. . . . We've never been close, but now I want more closeness."
And so it went one extended lunch hour in the Encino office of Dr. Charney Herst, an elfin psychotherapist with a New Jersey accent who runs a weekly group session unofficially known as Mothers of Difficult Daughters. For $15 per two-hour session, members can unload their disappointments and reap Herst's assurances that tensions between mothers and daughters are universal.
"Everyone creates an idealized mother figure," Herst said, urging members not to be afraid to show their daughters their human, fallible sides.
The half a dozen clients who gathered in Herst's homey office one recent Tuesday fell into two broad categories: those with overly dependent grown daughters in constant need of (mostly financial) rescuing, and those with daughters who are so supremely self-sufficient that they want little to do with their families.
Both sides of the divide were racked by regrets, as stricken as any jilted or abused lover. This particular group consisted of women older than 50--several older than 60--and an overriding theme seemed to be growing old alone, without the gratification of grandchildren or the companionship of a happy, grown child.
These were educated women who, despite successful husbands and materially comfortable lives, yearned for more meaningful relationships in one of the most important and complex areas of their lives.
None was more stark in her anguish than Irma (whose name, like the others, has been changed here). A newcomer to the group, with a porcelain complexion and short, white hair, Irma's only son is dying of AIDS. Her husband, whom she described as "my best friend," is older and in poor health.
Her only daughter, a financially secure, middle-aged artist who has never married, lives locally but has made it clear she doesn't "feel it's a good idea for adult children to be friends with their parents," as Irma put it.
During a rare but perfectly pleasant shopping trip, Irma recalled, her daughter predicted that her father would die soon, but she expected her mother to adjust to widowhood just fine because of her many friends and activities.
A "pulverized" Irma interpreted this to mean: "Don't count on me, your daughter, to be there for you."
"I feel like she's preparing herself to lose a family," Irma said, dissolving into tears. "But she's depriving me and my husband of the love we need and she won't let us give it to her. . . . I feel like I will be left totally alone, and I'm just terrified."
"And you and she are sharing that terror," Herst replied with gentle insight.
On the other side of the dependence-independence divide was Betty, whose middle-aged daughter suffered a nervous breakdown after failing to become a successful entertainer. For nearly two years, she lived off disability checks and her parents' largess, until Betty and her husband finally told her that they had run out of savings and could help her no more.
"We were becoming a victim of our own daughter," Betty said. She admitted that she and her husband were so afraid of triggering another breakdown that they became virtual captives of their daughter's demands.
Herst nodded knowingly.
"There is this myth of Mom being an ever-giving, all-encompassing, big-breasted woman, and they think they should be able to suckle on us," the psychotherapist said. What Betty's daughter needed, she added, "was a feeding."
Some women couldn't help but smile at the image, though humor was hard to find during the emotionally draining session.
Another glimmer of comic relief broke through when a couple of the women compared parental injustices as perceived by their daughters--seemingly minor incidents that still stoked major grudges 30 years later.
There was Irma's daughter's anger over "orthopedic shoes," which Irma remembers as nothing more than the "good Oxfords" she insisted her daughter wear instead of the flimsy slippers that were popular at school.
And there was the chipped tooth Christine's daughter suffered as a young girl, which prompted her to charge her mother--decades later--for the insurance deductible when she got it fixed.
Loretta's daughter felt so "abandoned" when her parents and younger siblings moved from their Midwestern hometown to Los Angeles that she put up a wall between herself and her mother, turning from a good daughter into a rebellious one. She was in her 20s when the family moved, finished with school and already married, said an incredulous Loretta.
Maybe because of her professional training--she's a therapist herself--Loretta was otherwise comparatively quiet during the session.
But afterward, leaving the office building for home, she mused on the myriad causes of mothers and daughters drifting away from each other and offered some counterbalance:
"There's always more than one side to every story."