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?
Random 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.