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Being your ‘Mother’s Daughter’

In her latest book, Iris Krasnow describes how she and other adult women reconciled with their mothers. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

For many adult daughters. the relationship with their mothers can be very special, but it can also be difficult at times. In her latest book, “I Am My Mother's Daughter: Making Peace With Mom Before It's Too Late,” Iris Krasnow not only draws on her own struggles with her mother but also the experiences of other adult women. Here's an excerpt:

PrologueIt’s a balmy afternoon in late July, and I am pushing my mother in her wheelchair along the lakefront in Chicago, the city where I was born fifty years ago and where she soon will die. With unwavering courage, defying all odds, my mom, Helene, survived the loss of her immediate family to the Holocaust, the loss of her husband in 1986, and the recent loss of her lower left leg. After this heroic marathon, she’s now barely hanging on, plagued with infections, dementia, and total exhaustion.

Yet, we are fully present in this moment and not dwelling on her demise; the sun is brilliant and the breezes off Lake Michigan are gently slapping us into sheer wakefulness. I look down at my mother with the paisley pashmina draped over her stump; she used to wear it as a shawl. Her cheeks are flushed and she is smiling. July is the month when summer is most saturated, the trees are thick, the flowers are lush. We stop at a patch of tulips near Oak Street Beach, a triumph of purple and yellow, pink and red. Their petals are widely spread, about to scatter on the ground.

“The tulips are going, Iya. But your mother is alive,” she whispers, reaching feebly for a flower. Iya is my childhood nickname, and lately every time she calls me that the confluence of love and imminent loss is almost too much to bear. I know she is thinking what I am thinking — of the tulip beds we had in our backyard in the house where she raised three children, in nearby Oak Park. We are thinking how the span of our lives goes as swiftly as a blast of wind off the lake. We are thinking that flower petals scatter with the seasons and that children scatter across the country. My sister, Frances, stayed in the Chicago area, but my brother, Greg, lives in California, and I settled in Maryland.

I am my mother’s daughter, so I know what she is thinking — because we share a heart.

I reach for her hand, gnarled with arthritis, and make small talk about the mussels we are about to eat at her favorite French bistro and the sterling silver jewelry sale we are about to hit at Lord & Taylor. For twenty-seven years she stood on two feet as a saleswoman at that store on Michigan Avenue. Today she is wheeled in, and when other customers gawk at the old woman with one leg sitting regally in her chair, I am sharply reminded of why I wrote this book on mothers and adult daughters and rage and resolution.

I love my mother unfailingly now. Yet, during a defiant adolescence and my early adult years, I sometimes felt that I hated her. My love for her, so deep this minute it frightens me, was discovered almost too late — as she lay in a near coma two years ago, after the amputation. She fooled her doctors and her three children and eight grandchildren; she didn’t die as everyone expected. So I got some bonus time to make peace with my charming, formidable, difficult mother who has turned into my friend, my drinking partner, my primary link to myself and my destiny.

Grateful for, and astonished by, the journey that brought my mother and me to this place, I was curious to discover how other midlife daughters are navigating this tough but crucial passage. Are they, too, moving from malaise to reconciliation? Are they able to push through old anger and increasingly draw sustenance from the primal, omnipotent maternal bond? I also wanted to see how other baby-boomer daughters compared the mothers they have now to the mothers they battled at fifteen.

I didn’t have to look far for people to interview. At the mere mention of the title, heads would nod, sighs would heave, eyes would roll. I’d start out with, “So tell me about your mother,” and daughters eagerly spilled everything, from memories of cloying adoration to incidents of unimaginable violence. It seems that every graying woman has something compelling to share about aging along with her mother, power grannies who are living longer than ever.

Over the past year, I’ve collected more than a hundred stories, like precious beads, some as dark as black pearls, others like luminous sapphires, and strung them into an expansive female soul circle. Our conversations lasted from several hours to several days, taking place over cups of coffee or glasses of wine in kitchens across the country, from San Francisco to Dallas to the Adirondack region of New York. The women who generously allowed me to excavate their histories are rich, poor, black, white, gay, and straight and span ages thirty-four to seventy. Although some of the daughters I interviewed have lost their moms, this is not a book about dealing with death; it’s about dealing with mothers in this lifetime.

The stories on these pages are raw, startling, and most important, true. They resonate with prescriptions on how to kiss and make up and move on. Although the women’s backgrounds vary, their experiences have brought them to this common conclusion: Ditching old baggage and learning to love our mothers must come before we learn to love, and know, ourselves. And the pain that comes from losing a mother you’re still fighting with is a suffering that doesn’t subside. Some of the women requested that their real names be used. Those who wished to remain anonymous picked their own pseudonyms, and identifying details were changed. Here are some of the women you will meet.

Janine grew up on a farm in Georgia with a mother who beat her with a horsewhip. Ellen became a binge eater to fill up on the love she never got at home. As Adrienne’s mother lay dying, she flipped her estranged daughter the finger. Chynna speaks of feeling emotionally abandoned by her rock-star mother, Michelle Phillips, one of the mamas in The Mamas and the Papas. Rebecca’s mother hollered so much during her childhood that this daughter is raising her own kids in a home where raising your voice is forbidden. Grace’s mom carted around a heavy toolbox and could build virtually anything, from couches to carports. Grace is now dealing with the agonizing transition that many adult daughters are going through — the morphing of a supermom into a sad, needy widow. Erica came out as a lesbian around the same time her mother outed her own secret, that she was engaged in a long-term affair.

Despite their diverse histories, all of these daughters have embraced their mothers. And if they can’t forgive them for unforgivable acts, at least they are willing to forget the past and move forward. This takes enough maturity to understand that the meanest of mothers is often the product of her own lack of mothering or her own stormy past. Along with horror stories, this book also contains lots of love stories, such as the one about Juanita, a daughter in her sixties who never left her mother’s house, becoming her nurse until she died of Alzheimer’s. Then there’s Rita, a brilliant executive who spent many years frustrated that her mother, a voluptuous blond widow, goes to bars at night instead of tackling intellectual pursuits. At the age of fifty, Rita stopped obsessing about their differences and now joins her mom at the neighborhood pub. During these Cabernet-laced sessions of honest girl-talk, Rita has discovered what many grown daughters I interviewed are finding out about their mothers: “The mirrors are everywhere.” The book also contains sagas filled with more subtle annoyances that routinely come up between mothers and daughters, scuffles that reflect the line I heard time and time again: “My mother is a pain, but I love her anyway.”

Thanks to medical advances and the rise in senior fitness, we, their daughters, have an elongated second chance to smooth out the connection and to get it right. Women in their nineties are the fastest-growing segment of the aging population. That means a daughter of fifty may be sitting at the holiday table with her mother for the next twenty years, marking a new, previously undocumented passage in the female life cycle. Your own mother may be a tennis champ with a younger boyfriend and not on her last leg, like mine. But that doesn’t mean you can be lazy and put off working on the relationship. I know this firsthand, because I was late in the game to patch things up, and I am now racing to love my mom as much I can, while I still have her within reach. The best time to start the process of pushing through antique pain and vintage blame is when your mother is healthy, and not when you’re on deathwatch, like me. Your reward will be precious bonus years of a supportive friendship with the woman who has known you longer and better, and loves you more, than any other person on earth.

On these pages, menopausal daughters talk about giggling with mothers they used to despise, swapping stories about arthritis and eyelifts and dating. Even those with the most horrific pasts have chosen to suck it up and accept their imperfect mothers, lowering their expectations and opening their hearts. Those women who come to healthy completion in their relationships speak about how a mother’s death can even be emancipating. When a mother passes on, a midlife woman is freed to take the best of her, leave the worst behind, and become wholly her own person. The journey can be lonely, but it is also a rich adventure, as grieving daughters turn to spiritual exploration, tackling new dreams and deepening their friendships with other women. I know that my girlfriends, my personal soul circle, will be there to help me heal. They already have.

I am just back from three days in Santa Fe where four women I’ve known for thirty years gathered for a reunion at a mountain retreat. We are all fifty and our mothers are still alive. We laugh and cry about everything: old boyfriends, current husbands, good mothers, bad mothers, and how we will cope when we are orphans. It’s a Saturday morning, and we are lying naked on a cedar deck, wet from the hot tub. The air is cool, but we are warmed by the blazing sun and snug in the womb of the cliffs that encase us. At this instant, I have a clear vision of four fifty-year-old women being reborn.

We have emerged from the water, and we are wet, like infants newly plucked from the amniotic sac. Only this rebirth in New Mexico is not as daughters but as wise women accountable only to ourselves. Like babies, we will always crave comfort and love, but we can get that by staying connected to our long-standing circle of goddess girlfriend energy. As I continue to age and lose other loved ones, I will always find solace with the cluster of sisters I met in my youth, who still anchor me with light and love. Our mothers may move out of this world, but their spirits will be part of that circle, as will the spirits of grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and Mother Earth.

Listening to the rousing voices of the women who animate these chapters reinforces the urgency of working hard to form a mother-daughter bond built on compassion and surrender. By learning to love our mothers, we are free to become our strongest, truest selves. May this book propel you on your own urgent journey to find peace with your mother and peace with yourself.

Excerpted from “I Am My Mother's Daughter: Making Peace With Mom — Before It's Too Late” by Iris Krasnow. Copyright © 2006 by Iris Krasnow. Excerpted by permission of . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.