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Moms are people too

It's important to understand why they may disapprove of their daughters' choices.

May 13, 2007|Deborah Tannen | DEBORAH TANNEN, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, is the author of "You're Wearing THAT? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation."

'MY MOTHER never saw me," several women have told me.

I think they meant that their mothers didn't perceive -- or didn't value -- the qualities these women most valued in themselves. But I wonder how many of us really saw our mothers.

My mother wanted for me the gifts of an ordinary life -- a husband, children, a comfortable home. What I wanted was anything but. As a teenager, I identified with the heroine of "The Fantasticks," who whispered, "Please God, don't let me be ordinary."

Growing up in the 1960s, I disdained makeup even as my mother insisted, "Put on a little lipstick when you go out with me." My passion for books was so consuming that I frequently read while walking home from school -- so engrossed that I didn't see my mother standing on the porch, worrying that I'd trip and fall on the sidewalk. And when I divorced at 29, my mother was not pleased that I decided to enroll in graduate school and work toward a doctorate instead of working toward finding a replacement husband.

All that time, I was convinced that it was unfair of my mother to scorn my values. It didn't occur to me that it was unfair of me to scorn hers.

Soon after I received my doctorate and joined the faculty at Georgetown University, my mother visited me. I was eager to prove to her that my life was good even though I hadn't remarried. I showed her my office with my name on the door and my publications on the shelf, hoping that she'd be proud of my success. And she was. But then she asked, "Do you think you would have accomplished all this if you'd stayed married?"

"I'm sure I wouldn't have," I replied. "If I'd stayed married, I wouldn't have gone back to school to get a PhD."

My mother thought for a moment, then said, "Well, if you'd stayed married, you wouldn't have had to."

I have told this story often, knowing my listeners would groan or gasp at how my mother hurtfully denigrated my professional success, caring only about my marital state. More recently, however, I tell this story for a different purpose: to understand her point of view.

My mother was born in Russia in 1911 and came to the United States before she turned 12. She left high school without graduating because she had to go to work to help support her family. What on Earth was she to make of a woman getting a doctorate and becoming a university professor -- and of this unimaginable fate befalling her own daughter?

Surely every mother is proud of a daughter who soars. But from the perspective of the earthbound onlooker, a soaring daughter is receding in the sky, heading toward a universe her mother cannot know. Along with pride must come the pain of separation and of loss -- plus the jolt of seeing the child she reared behaving as if she were an entirely different species.

Faced with the trappings of my professional life, my mother was probably trying to figure out how it all had happened. In her world, marriage ensured a woman's financial stability. An unmarried woman had to achieve that goal by going to work. "If you had stayed married, you wouldn't have had to" reflects this view.

Thinking of my mother's perspective reminds me of a remark a woman once made to me. "The shock of my life," she said, "was that my daughter didn't turn out exactly like me."

Though my mother would not have put that insight into words, I'll bet it describes what she was grappling with: trying to make sense of a life so different from any she could have imagined for herself.

We want our mothers to see us and love us for who we are, but we are often disappointed in them for falling short of who we think they should be. Mother's Day is a good time to try to see our mothers and love them for who they are: creations of their lives and their worlds, which doubtless are different from our own.

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