My mother and I have never been friends. I had wanted her to be my friend – I remember asking her if she would be when I was a teenager – but I was rebuffed. My mother is a Freudian, and told me that mothers and daughters are not friends. She could not be my friend by definition: she was my mother.
Strangely, now that I am a mother, I find myself asking my seven-month-old daughter, repeatedly, “Who’s my best friend?” expecting that somehow she will answer, “Me!” I’ve done this within earshot of both my husband and my mother, to be told by both of them, repeatedly, that she is not my friend; I am her mother.
Which seems suddenly strange. As with all of the new feelings that come with new motherhood, one that feels especially novel and suddenly strong is my connection to my daughter. We sleep during the same hours; we spend all of our time together; when she is hungry my breasts automatically fill with milk. If she is not my friend, I wonder, who is?
When I was a teenager I wanted my mother to be my friend so that she would understand me. I envied the mother/daughter relationships that some of my friends had, with mothers who sat on the couch, barefoot and crossed legged, and listened to them talk about boys.
My mother was not this kind of mother. By the time I was sixteen I had told her I hated her thousands of times, and truly felt that I meant it. I could not understand her – she was so private and foreign to me. She seemed guarded, defensive and told me very little about herself. My mother was a stranger.
What was unbelievable, all through my adolescence and twenties, was the proof: there were photo albums that showed something completely different. In them, my young mother and the baby version of me held each other, looked into each other’s eyes, touched each other’s hands and mouths. Once we were in love, the pictures told me, in albums and albums she had put together and written captions for. Albums where she had written in black ink on the scrapbook page, quoting me saying, “I love you,” even though I could hardly speak.
Although she was not my friend, I carried this idea of my mother around with me as a way of defining myself; my mother told me that the closeness we had had in my early childhood had been important in my development, and I believed her. However, I could never reconcile the two mothers – the one in the pictures and the one I knew – until my own daughter was born.
My mother began to be my friend shortly after I gave birth. It was gradual: after days of folding my daughter’s tiny laundry, helping me change and rock her to sleep, bundling her up and taking her for strolls, watching her look at herself in the mirror, admiring each expression she made, we began to talk.
At first we talked about how much we loved her, how amazing she was, how we were sure she was a genius. I began to look in my old photo albums, comparing pictures of my baby-self to pictures of my daughter at the same age. I recognized my mother, inexperienced and in love, like me.
I wonder if it was the distraction: watching my daughter bath and laugh and cry – the way we no longer had to look at each other, and could reference her instead. Now, I could say, “I hope she’s not like me,” and we could laugh at this. “She likes to flirt, like her mother,” my own mother would say, and I no longer cringed.
I feel a new kind of compassion for her that often makes me sad. Because my mother is a Freudian, there are, of course, worries to be had. Nothing is that easy. We don’t want to pressure my daughter too much: she cannot be the sole reason we get along. I like to think that it is less because of who my daughter is, and more because I am now a mother, that my relationship with my own mother has changed for the better.
And there are not only good feelings that come with being my mother’s friend. I feel a new kind of compassion for her that often makes me sad. How, I wonder, could she stand it when I didn’t speak to her for months in college? How could I have thrown soda on her that time when I was mad? How could I have made her worry when I was a cigarette girl at nightclubs? All those times I acted out are now strung into a necklace of guilt that I wear, worrying the beads with my fingers each time I imagine the dread in my heart that I now understand comes with being a mother.
It makes me wonder what I could do to prevent my own daughter from becoming like I had been. Which seems impossible, given what I’ve started. Looking at the scrapbooks that I’ve already begun.