My Daughter, Myself
By: Shannon Ralph
Why do mother-daughter relationships have to be so complicated? When I was an adolescent, I vividly recall despising my mother. There was a point in my childhood that lasted about two years or so when I could barely stand to be in the same room with my mother. We didn’t talk. Our communication consisted of screams and angry silences. Our every interaction was infused with thinly-veiled contempt. I hated her. She loved and, therefore, tolerated me. Though I certainly didn’t do anything to make myself loveable.
My mother was raising four children on her own after my dad had died. As the oldest of her children, she depended on me—a lot. Being a mere kid of thirteen or fourteen at the time, I did not want her to depend on me. I wanted nothing to do with her. I clearly recall hiding in the closet in my bedroom one day when I was about fourteen years old cursing my mother as she walked from room to room calling my name. My hatred ran deep and wide. I wanted to grow up to be absolutely anyone in the world but my mom. Part of it was typical teenage rebellion. However, I think mother-daughter relationships are a bit more complicated than that. It’s a constant push and pull. I loved her. Until I hated her. Then I hated her. Until I loved her again. Mother and daughters are exceptionally adept at hurting one another. We know just what to say and do. We can devastate one another with very little effort at all. And as an adolescent, I was not shy about wielding that power over my mom. I thought my mother was probably the stupidest and most certainly the most illogical person I had ever met. And I wanted her to know it.
I realize now, at the ripe old age of thirty-eight, that my mother was actually both brilliant and inordinately logical. When I reached adulthood, I understood the multitude of struggles my mom endured as a single mother. When I fell in love for the first time, I could finally appreciate the utter grief of losing the love of your life and being expected to continue breathing and moving and living without them. Shouldn’t the world stand still? I can’t fathom that anguish. When I became a parent, I understood having your heart walking around outside of your chest. I understood putting another person above yourself and being willing to give your very last breath to see that person smile. I understand now. It would seem logical that this knowledge would make my relationship with my own daughter easier. Unfortunately, logic really plays no part in mother-daughter relationships. My mother is one of my very best friends in the world today, but it was a treacherous road we traveled to reach that point.
My daughter is only four years old and already I am envisioning a lifetime of struggles. Let there be no mistaking that I adore my daughter. She is my heart and soul. However, love that intense is no picnic. We have our “issues.” I think most of our problems stem from the two of us being so much alike, a fact that my family seems to agree with wholeheartedly. My mother tells me often that Sophie is exactly like I was as a child—and she says this with a self-satisfied grin and a knowing look that clearly says “paybacks are hell.” So what do I do with a mini-me? How do I separate my beautiful little girl from my own issues? Looking at her is like looking into the face of my own vulnerabilities. She is so much like I was as a child. I can peer into her eyes and know exactly what she is thinking.
I was a painfully shy child, and I see Sophie acting in the same manner. I see her withdrawing from social situations. I watch as her shyness impedes her from playing with other kids. I see the struggle on her face between wanting to join in and being terrorized into non-movement by the mere thought of it. I intimately know what she is going through, and I can feel her pain in every cell of my body.
To compensate for her social shyness, Sophie is a complete hellion at home. She is controlling. A “Bossy Betty”, to say the very least. She is stubborn. She wants what she wants when she wants it. She believes her opinion is the only opinion. She is demanding and downright hateful at times. I know why she is this way. I know she is overcompensating at home for the out-of-control feelings she experiences in social situations. She is trying to take as much control as possible at home, where she feels comfortable and safe and loved. I was the same way at home when I was a young kid. Just ask my sisters. They will happily regale you with legendary tales of my childhood bitchiness. Being the oldest made it even worse, as I am sure being the only little girl in the entire extended family does for Sophie. However, knowing why Sophie acts this way does not make it any easier to handle. I want to change her. I don’t want her to struggle. I don’t want her to have to deal with that inner angst. However, you can’t change a child. You can’t change a temperament. And in attempting to do so, I would only be giving her the message that there is something inherently “wrong” with her. That is not a message I want to convey to my beautiful baby girl.
Ruanita is the Sophie-whisperer. She has a special way of charming Sophie. Ruanita can get her to do things that I simply cannot. I guess thirteen years of practice “handling” me have paid off. The same tactics apparently work on Sophie. Ruanita somehow allows Sophie to just be without placing any expectations on her. I can’t describe it exactly, but they definitely have a special rapport.
As for me, I find myself getting easily frustrated with Sophie. I can handle the boys beautifully. With my eight-year-old, Lucas, I can appeal to his sense of reason, to a certain extent. And when all else fails, humor wins Lucas over every time. With Sophie’s twin brother Nicholas, a calm voice and few cuddles go a long way. A kiss from momma can heal all of Nicky’s wounds, both real and imagined. Sophie, on the other hand, doesn’t respond to reason. Attempts at humor just piss her off. She doesn’t respond to cuddling and kisses. She doesn’t respond to any of my attempts at “handling” her. Sophie is too smart to be handled. She is smart and sassy. Stubborn and opinionated. She is a complete enigma—painfully shy on one hand and a force to be reckoned with on the other. I readily admit to being incapable of dealing with her at times. I hate that I don’t have Ruanita’s patience with her. She pushes my buttons in a way the boys simply do not. She seems to instinctively know exactly what to do to make me crazy. Then again, perhaps I am giving her too much credit. Perhaps she has no clue what she is doing. Perhaps—just maybe—she isn’t really trying to drive me crazy at all. She is just being a little girl. Dealing with the big, scary world in the best way she knows how.
There are times I am thrilled that Sophie and I are so much alike. There are moments when I enjoy her as I have never enjoyed another human being in my life. Like when she grins from ear to ear and proudly announces that the “S Girls” are the coolest. Or when she begs to go shopping with me because she loves pretty things as much as momma does. Or when I catch her lying in her bed at night ravenously devouring books the same way I did as a child. Or when she dons her pink apron and chef’s hat to “help” me bake. I love these moments with my daughter. I love her company. I love her giggles. I love her inquisitiveness and her intelligence. I love feeling like we are two peas in a pod.
However, I worry about Sophie being too much like me. I want her to avoid all of the mistakes and pitfalls I forged into headfirst. I don’t want her to be plagued with self-doubt and insecurity, as I was much of my life. At the same time, however, I realize that I am probably too hard on her. I admit to expecting more from her than I do from the boys. Perhaps because I expect so much of myself? But that’s no excuse. I need to treat her as her own person. I need to realize that she will make her own mistakes, and I need to allow her to make those mistakes. The greatest gift we can give our daughters is simply the permission to be themselves. The permission to be different from us. The permission to be—intrinsically, radically—their own person. It’s the greatest gift my mother gave me and one I hope to provide to my daughter. No matter what happens in her life, I want Sophie to feel comfortable in her own skin. She may be my little mini-me, but she is infinitely more than that. And, despite the never-ending roller coaster ride that characterizes our relationship, my daughter is nothing short of exquisite.