November 22, 2003


'Whenever I open my mouth, I hear my mother talking."


That confession erupted from a patient when she was talking about her daughter. A single mom for years, she had raised her girl on her own. But now they were locking horns over an issue that can break the most stout-hearted parents -- her daughter's future.


The daughter was planning a trip to Africa to "do good work," and wanted her mother's support. She had already wandered half the globe, a proper gadfly, never settling down, and needling her mom that working in bars beats working at school.


Was her mother cut from a different cloth? It seems not, if her own flight from home can be viewed as a marker. Thirty years ago, she had moved thousands of miles to flee the old-fashioned rules of family. She was happy to scrape together rent money, never worried about what tomorrow would bring and was eager for the newness of an assortment of men. But no sooner had she moved away than her mother flew to visit her, staying for six interminable weeks. (In fact, it seems her mother was as eager for the newness of available men as her daughter was.)


My patient found it jarring and unpleasant that three generations of women in her family could be so alike.


But her mother had done one thing that made her forever grateful: She insisted on enrolling her daughter in a secretarial course so she would have a portable skill, and she also paid the rent. The deal was simple and clear: No attendance at class, no roof over her head.


Fast-forward 30 years, and now it's my patient who is on her daughter's case about getting an education or learning a skill, if only so she can earn a living while she's single and intent on travelling.


Another of my patients held a lifelong grudge against her mother, not for too much interference, but too little. She believes maternal abandonment left her vulnerable to abuse, and the dirty little family secret was hers for years. The responsibility for her early-childhood damage she lays squarely at her mother's feet.


It took years of therapy for her to recognize what she really wanted from her mom. When she was ready, she called on a family friend to mediate a formal meeting. Tentative and tense, the daughter read from prepared notes, summing up her feelings in a document that was more an accounting than a recrimination. And in the spirit of reparation, she finished by asking her mother to apologize.


The apology came quickly and easily, but its readiness didn't provide the daughter with the redemptive release she craved. In fact, it took another few years for these two women to be able to share a moment, a story, even a memory. But what surprises the daughter in all this is that, despite all the apparent absence and neglect, she has turned out much like her mother.


Aside from having the genetic blessing of massive intellects, and careers as writers and educators, they share other quirky similarities. The daughter has recently discovered they're both beset by the same intractable and neurotic view of a host of physical ailments. The mother has always been a hypochondriac, while the daughter's fears about the treachery of her own body have taken the form of constant anxiety and helplessness. It's been at the root of her inability to believe she has any inherent strength or resilience.


What changed the relationship was not the strained letter, but the slow, almost imperceptible change in the daughter's personality. She began by taking new risks in her relationship with her husband and their boys, relearning trust, asking for patience and working to establish a home that was safe and happy.


This progress, though glacial, has allowed this adult child to leave her mother's nest, however barren its legacy. And it has brought about a grin of recognition when the old terror of "body betrayal" raises its head and she hears her mother's voice coming from her own mouth.


Not all my patients work so hard at resolving old family betrayals. For many, the only workable solution seems to be stonewalling silence, even though they recognize that the resulting emotional sinkhole holds them hostage.


One patient recalls standing mutely next to her mother at the casket of a family friend, listening to her jabber on while she swallowed her bitterness about their own lack of communication. In this woman's case, the voice of the mother doesn't seem to speak at all in her daughter. But if the disgorgement of pain and rejection that happens weeks later in my office is any indication of the sad, isolated existence endured by both these women, they are both shouting into a headwind, desperate to be heard by anybody.


We like to think that time and distance put our parents' influence into a shadow-box, that we formulate for ourselves a truly unique world, that our opinions, values and dreams are of our own making, driven by current values and perceptions, and not by the narrow, provincial constraints we see as typical of our parents' generation.


So it jolts us when we hear the same dire warnings, weary axioms, and threadbare truisms exploding from somewhere inside of us.


To hear them again from our own mouths, in a resonating mother's voice, reminds us all of what we learn, so early and far too well, at her knee.

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.