Mother, Daughter, Me, and Katie Hafner

A couple weeks ago, the Cleveland Plain Dealer printed my review of Katie Hafner’s new memoir Mother, Daughter, Me. I pitched it to the PD because the mother-daughter angle interests me, and, as it turned out, Katie and I have more in common than I suspected. Her mother is tactless and frequently unkind and was blatantly neglectful during Katie’s childhood. With the editor’s encouragement, I began the review with a more personal comment than one usually does in a newspaper review, echoing my blog post about Mother’s Day this year.

After you read my review, copied below, tell me this: How do you manage the expectations raised by holidays, by media, by Facebook? How do you resist comparing your real, lived, imperfect life to the way it spozed to be?

MOTHER_DAUGHTER_ME_.JPGRandom House, 268 pp., $26

Mothers’ Day was tough for me this year, and the reason was Facebook. All those postings praising Mom as so understanding, so supportive, so loving! My mom was distant, acerbic, and possibly mentally ill, and I could never have written her such unabashed fan mail.

Many of us, in fact, have had challenging relationships with our mothers, some of whom suffered from addiction, mental illness, or other problems. New York Times writer Katie Hafner’s new memoir, “Mother Daughter Me,” describes managing an adult relationship with such a mother, while trying to be a good mom herself.

Hafner’s mother was more like Mommie Dearest than Marmee. “When she drank,” Hafner recalls, “she grew mean. She would emerge from her bedroom once or twice a day, looking bloated and terrible, to rail about something.”

After overdosing on pills and booze, Helen (as Hafner calls her here) lost custody of her two daughters.

So you might wonder why Hafner invited Helen, then 77, to move in with her and her teenage daughter, Zoe, in 2009. Blithely confident that she’s forgiven her mother, Hafner writes, “I believed we were as close to the mother-daughter ideal as two women could be. We often spoke several times a day. I confided everything to her. I told myself I had long since put any lingering anger about my childhood behind me, that I had taken the ultimate high road.”

Moving into their new house, however, Hafner finds herself raging over whose kitchen utensils, hers or her mother’s, should go into the drawer. Turns out she’s still a tiny bit angry after all.

Moving gracefully back and forth in time, Hafner describes her mother’s difficult childhood and marriage. She covers her own misfortunes as well, including her husband’s fatal heart attack at the age of 45, which helped forge a tight bond between Hafner and her daughter, making grandmother Helen a third wheel. Helen’s tactlessness doesn’t help. Soon after the move, her blunt criticism of Zoe’s cello playing causes Zoe to quit the cello and harbor a resentful teenage grudge thereafter.

Hafner’s stuck between them, like so many middle-aged folks today — navigating Zoe’s stormy adolescence and Helen’s blustering, while contending with her own turbulent emotions. As tensions grow, Hafner wisely seeks therapy for herself and her mom, discovering that Helen has no memory of the traumas she caused.

Even after apologizing for past mistakes, Helen continues to drop bombshells, accusing Hafner, for example, of coveting her money. In the course of the book, Helen sells off her treasured Steinway piano, instead of leaving it to her daughter and granddaughter as she had promised. Hafner’s tolerance for her mom’s invective often seems unhealthy, and subjecting her daughter to Helen’s vitriol is even more mystifying.

In the end, thankfully, they decide to separate. Once more, Hafner feels forgiving: “[My mother] can look her past mistakes square in the eye and express contrition in a way that also makes her daughter feel something approaching unburdened love, even pride.”

I have my doubts. Hafner was fooled before, by those intimate phone conversations, and she could well be thinking wishfully now.

Hafner’s unrealistic expectations may derive from early childhood, when, she writes, “My longing for her was always there. What I wanted more than anything was my mother’s attention.” Such unmet needs haunt many mothers and daughters, and Hafner is brave to confront her mom’s failures as well as her own. The idealized moms of Mother’s Day are more often fiction than fact.


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19 Responses to Mother, Daughter, Me, and Katie Hafner

  1. Kathy says:

    I’m glad things are better for you and your mom, Brigitte, right now. I guess, enjoy it while it lasts. I think you’re wise to be cautious.

  2. Kathy says:

    Love this, Michael. I watched the whole thing and loved how it ended.

  3. Kathy, I hope this is the right way to do things. I have dropped a YouTube link into the WEBSITE part of the comment so that if someone clicks on my name they will see the video. Otherwise the link to copy/paste is: or search for ‘Nancy Duarte uncovers common structure’.

    Nancy Duarte runs a Silicon Valley company that develops presentations for some of the biggest companies in the world, and she is a pretty fair presenter herself. I just watched this video, where she talks about how the great communicators like Martin Luther King structured their presentations. It goes along nicely until the last two minutes and then she drops right in on this Mother-Daughter conversation and you wonder how anyone with that background could achieve all this. But then that’s what she is on about all the time: You travel along, meet a roadblock and then there’s the transformation. You have an idea inside you but you have to get it out and communicate it to the world.

  4. Brigitte says:

    Katie, I understand some of what you went through. My mother was a drug addict when I was growing up, and I being the oldest, had to raise my younger siblings. While she never lost custody of us, despite a few run-ins with the Children Services Board, I had sometimes wished she had. At least I could be a child and not be a 10 year-old dealing with an ulcer and having attempted suicide. Her drug addiction was always the elephant in the room. It was never talked about. If it was, my mom quickly turned it on us, as if we were the ones who drove her to the syringe. Almost 30 years later, I have done my best to forgive her. Reading the Big Book from Naranon helped a bit. Now I find myself in a situation kind of like yours where I have been able to reestablish a, I daresay, good relationship with my mother. We communicate regularly by phone and even spend quality time together. Of course it’s on the tacit condition I don’t bring up the past. Things have been so good I’m just waiting for it to fall apart, because it always does. I refuse to be lulled into that false sense of security that would even cause me to contemplate her ever living with me. I know that she would fall back into those negative ways. Thank you for writing your book. Based on the wonderful review by Kathy I will go read it. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in what I went through.

  5. Kathy says:

    Katie–Thanks for all your compassionate comments here!

  6. Kathy says:

    Jewel and Michael–Funny. I did the same thing. . .giving my mom pictures of my kids. I could get just as irritated, though, by her vague, unenthusiastic response to those gifts, though. My mom was never negative about gifts, just affect-less. The excerpt from “Missing” I have on this site tells (as you know, Jewel) about my wrapping a bottle of perfume for her birthday, and her never opening it. It sat wrapped on her dresser for thirty years, till the day she died.

  7. Kathy says:

    Hi, Lisa–Showing it’s not always the mom, of course…Dealing with the negative feelings about a dad is just as challenging. I’m glad your mom (and you) had those 11 years.

  8. Kathy says:

    Like Katie, I’d advise you to wait a few more months before reading her book, Mary. It’s a different experience grieving for someone you had a tortuous relationship with as opposed to a healthy one, isn’t it? Neither is easy.

  9. Kathy says:

    Your experience is somewhat similar to Katie Hafner’s then, Sarah. I’m so glad you and she had those 17 years…imperfect as they were.

  10. Kathy says:

    Robin, you’re right about family gatherings. I always hope for a movie version myself. I think my mother-in-law did this, too. Her holiday dinners were pretty close to the fantasy from my perspective, but I think she was always faintly disappointed regarding the imperfections. Maybe consciously realizing it’s a fantasy will help us dial down the expectations.

  11. Katie Hafner says:

    Lisa,That story you just told send shivers up my spine. There must be nothing worse than feeling trapped in a psychologically abusive relationship. At first, when I read this, I thought you wrote 11 months, and thought, ‘Oh how awful; she only had 11 months of peace and liberation.’ But then I saw it was 11 years! What a relief. I wonder: did you ever talk with her about it? It sounds like maybe you didn’t…

  12. Lisa Marin says:

    My mother was a victim of emotional and verbal abuse by my father. She suffered a number of illnesses resulting, I believe, from the constant stress of dealing with his abuse and alcoholism. He frequently belittled her, told her she was “too stupid” to learn to drive or to do many other things. She occasionally managed to defy him in a quiet, resolute manner. She secretly sought and got a job, and when he found out he didn’t speak to her for a solid 3 months. She continued to cook for him and iron his shirts and didn’t complain. I think (hope?) had she been of another era she would not have stayed in such a marriage. She lived for 11 years after his death, and I believe she relished the peace and liberation. Most people who knew my mother marveled at her kindness, warmth, and humor.

  13. Michael Whitely says:

    I know it’s difficult to write about such things but it allows the rest of us to see the pattern in our own lives. I posted here before about my wife, Sandy, who saved up her coins as a little girl and bought her mother some 4711 cologne, but her mother made her take it back because she didn’t like it. Then, with her first pay checks, she bought her a radiogram, but had to ring up to see if it had been delivered. The gift was never acknowledged.

    Now Jewel has added a new dimension to this by talking about the photo frames. For the first time, we realise what Sandy’s brother has been up to. He has hung photos of his family on all the walls and placed them on every bit of furniture. Finally his masterstroke: He has placed a digital photo album on the television so that his children rotate continuously in front of her eyes.

    But Sandy just said, “She probably doesn’t even see them”.

  14. Katie Hafner says:

    Oh Mary, I’m so sorry to hear about your mother’s death. My hat is off and heart is out to you for your determination to grieve mindfully. No, now is probably not the time to read the book. However, many women have let me know how helpful the book has been to them in dealing with their issues around their relationship with their own mother. So when the time feels right, read it and let me know what you think.

  15. Mary says:

    Today is the approximate six month anniversary of my mother’s death. (She, aged 90, I, age 60 at the time of her death.) I am trying to grieve mindfully. I find that I am putting a lot of energy into regret….and sorrow, not just for the loss of her, but for all of the losses and failures along the way. I pondered just today whether or not I should try to write something about the tortured relationship, which I consider very sad on both sides, for any type of public consumption. I have read some reviews of this book and am curious about it, but not sure if now is the time to read it….

  16. Katie Hafner says:

    I’m so glad to see comments in response to Kathy’s blog post. Robin, oh the fantasy of the great big family dinners! Boy oh boy do I know what you mean. I don’t know if you’ve read Mother Daughter Me yet, but I describe how lucky I got when I found my (late) husband’s family. With them, we had the kind of dinners I had always longed for, and was able to give my own daughter.

  17. Jewel Moulthrop says:

    I had one of the challenging mothers. Her love, on those rare occasions when it was expressed, was always conditional. And no holiday gift was ever quite right. After many years of trying to find the present she would not wrinkle her nose at, I began giving her framed photos of my children–silently daring her to complain. Ha, she never did!

  18. Sarah Becker says:

    Thanks, Kathy and Katie, for opening up the painful subject of unsuccessful mothering. No, we do not become wonderful, nurturing people immediately upon giving birth. It takes work.
    Unfortunately, my mother suffered from alcoholism, a disease that progressively becomes worse until stopped by rehab or death. No one chooses this disease. It colored the lives of everyone in my family, and forgiveness is the only humane reaction. How hard it is to love the sufferer while hating the symptoms!
    I chose not to have children for many reasons, but one of them was certainly that I didn’t want to subject another generation to the effects of this disease, which caused caused suicide, death in an alcoholic coma, and much bad feeling among my mother’s family members.
    She was the lucky one; she found AA and was sober for the last 17 years of her life. Not perfect, but sober. I admire her strength in those years.

  19. robin koslen says:

    Let me preface this by saying that my mother was pretty great. She had a healthy sense of who she was and made good decisions most of the time. I feel very lucky.
    But for the last ten years or so, I’ve come up with a theory that the family fantasy is as pervasive as any romantic fantasy. Some years ago, my son and I went to see the movie The Family Stone. Afterwards he wanted to know why we didn’t have a slew of kids so that we could have those great big family dinners, laughs, pictures that that genre of movie portrays. It’s a picture I still try to put together every time I plan a family vacation, dinner, mini golf outing. Problem is is that it is a fantasy.
    I know that it is not the same, being raised by an abusive parent has just got to suck big time, but I guess that’s the part I relate to. This picture of the happy, a bit irreverent group who after a fight sobs into one another’s arm and you know that all will be better now. Mine is not always like that.

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