copyright © 2006 Betsy L. Angert
Author and Linguist Deborah Tannen recently released a book titled, “You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters In Conversation.” In an interview with journalist, Terrence McNally, Ms. Tannen was asked of the unique relationship between mothers and daughters; the author responded as one might expect. Tannen spoke of what most consider conventional patterns of communication between the two. As I read, I realized, I could not relate.
Year ago I was an avid reader of Ms. Tannen’s work; I inhaled her every word. I still think her research is infinitely valid and valuable; however, only for a select few. The few may be the majority; they are just not I. I suspect my own sisters might connect to the conclusions Linguist Tannen offers on the subject of mother daughter interactions. Still, I do not.
Much of my life experience differs greatly. Perhaps, my experience is not contrary, it may merely be my perception, and understanding of these that conflicts with what is thought customary.
Tannen suggests that “Mothers see their job as being helpful, taking care of us, being protective, but anything you do in that vein always implies criticism. If you weren’t doing something wrong, you wouldn’t need that advice, help or protection.” This theory clashes with everything my Mom ever said of her approach and philosophy to parenting. It varies with all that she practiced. That is, if you are asking me and not my siblings.
When I was five years old, a new neighbor, Cheryl moved in. She had one of these mothers. I would go to her house and observe the interactions between my now friend and her mother. It was like watching television. I thought; I want a mother like this. I even told my Mom about Mrs. Sheldon and how wonderful she was. Mrs. Sheldon was the exact the opposite of my Mom. I wondered aloud, why was this.
Mrs. Sheldon cooked and cleaned for her husband and children. The other family members needed to do nothing. In the Sheldon family the mother picked out the clothes the family would wear. She combed Cheryl’s hair, her son Allen’s too. She bought and served Wonder?¢ bread. Oh, how I hungered for that. At my house, it was brand X or even worse homemade breads.
Cheryl’s Mom was always looking in on Cheryl and Allen. They did not have much alone time. In my house, private time was often on the menu. I spent much time playing, reading, rearranging furniture, and drawing on my own. Opportunities to contemplate the world were ample. In those early years, I thought, this “too much.” I wanted a mom as attentive as Cheryl’s, or so I believed until I was eight.
At the age of eight, while over at Cheryl’s house I realized Mrs. Sheldon was telling Cheryl what to think, say, do, feel, and who to be most of the time. My Mom never did that. Berenice was always consistent; she practiced, as she believed. Unlike Mrs. Sheldon, or the mother Dr. Deborah Tannen describes, my mother offered very little, if any, visible signs of protection.
Invisible criticisms were nonexistent in my mind. Advice was scarce, so scarce I recall none addressing a specific incident or decision. I would seek it and always receive the same response. “Do what ever makes you happy as long as it does not hurt anyone.” If I bothered to probe, further I would hear these words, a philosophy my Mom lived by “No one has the right to tell you what you should think, say, do, feel, or be.” Thus, she never did.
My Mom shared her opinions openly on religion, sex, politics, and all the subjects others think taboo. She never told me that I needed to believe as she does. Actually, she encouraged my exploring for myself. If I disagreed with her views, I felt very safe saying so. We would discuss our differences eternally. Dialogue was promoted. Barbara Ruth believed “Question everything,” even authority, whatever that is. She offered infinite opportunities to do so.
Long before my birth, a magazine rack was placed near the toilet in every bathroom. Many members of my family spent a good amount of time on the bowl. Within these stands were biology books written for a very young audience. There were also natural science texts for the adults. In each, the topic of reproduction was covered. Periodically, my Mom would casually “quiz” me on my understanding of these materials. By the age of five, she felt I was fluent. Finally, those talks ended.
At six, while at school or camp I would hear my peers telling “dirty jokes.” I thought these are so silly. These people are totally uniformed. In my home, there were three hardbound “dirty joke” manuscripts, also in the lavatory. These were funnier than any playground puns. These volumes often played with the visual. Drawings of how a short man’s body fit so tightly into the profile of a taller busty woman’s were a vivid treat for me.
My Mother never worried of my appearance. She trusted I knew what was best for me. Berenice Barbara always believed you raise your children to be autonomous. That was her intent and her custom. By an early age, I had learned to iron. I cannot remember a time in early childhood when she would not explain how to determine the quality of a fabric, whether we were buying towels or clothing. She would think aloud and I would learn why she preferred one purchase or another.
My Mom never told me what to buy or wear. She let me experiment. As a teen, another close friend, Dawn, was given a dollar amount to spend on her fall wardrobe. Though it seemed she was free to shop, she was not. Every purchase had to be approved by her parents. I could not imagine such a restriction.
The interesting thing is I was never wild, rebellious, or resentful. I had no reason for dissent. I think because we spoke of everything, because I had the freedom to error, I felt no compulsion to do so.
My parents politics were quite radical, our life style never was. It was very conservative. There were principles. These were made known, though not presented as limitations. The rational was offered, conversations were continual, and life was consistent. What was said would be done. If there was reason to vary, that too was discussed. I think this gave me a sense of security, self, and a feeling of conviction that could not be compared.
In my middle schools years, I was purposely exposed to a world where sex, drugs, and violence were easily accessible. Though I hung-out with the “cool kids,” when they engaged in these follies, I chose to leave. None of these seemed interesting to me. I always felt that my Mom knew she could be sure of my decisions and me. In truth, for decades, she trusted me when I did not trust myself!
Now if you ask at least one of my sisters of her relationship with our mother, you will hear a different tale, the specifics may or may not match. Nevertheless, the reverence will be lost. A few years ago, this sibling mentioned her feelings about our mother. She said, “I never liked Mommy.” She inquired, did I? I quietly laughed to myself. I thought she knew; actually, I always imagined this was among the reasons she and I were not closer. “I like and love Mommy.” Were she not my mother I would absolutely choose to know her; she is infinitely interesting to me.
I also think people change constantly. My Mom had me at a much later age. She had evolved as a person and made conscious decisions about her parenting preferences. Who my Mom is to me is not who she was to my siblings. She grew.
My sisters are their own beings. Their history, background, and experiences are unique to them, as is their analysis of such. I think this true for all of us.
As I assess the extreme differences of opinion between my sister and myself, I observe as my Mom often espoused, “You get what you expect.” I think more often then not, it is not our gender that guides our encounters, nor is it our title, mother, daughter, father, or son. It is what we experience individually; it is how we internalize the events of our lives. The unique emotions evoked during an exchange have more power than any given encounter. We can label these, generalize these, look for those that validate our beliefs, still, we create the space that a person, place or entity occupies in our mind.
In the “Art of Loving” by Erich Fromm, I recall reading descriptions of mothers and fathers. Fromm spoke of mothers as the nurturing parent, the person that offered unconditional love, or at least that was my interpretation of his words. Perhaps, I read, as I believe, because it more closely parallels my own experience. Erich Fromm was among my Mom’s favorites. This too many have influenced my understanding.
I treasure my Mom. A close friend of ours once observed he knew many mothers and their daughters, though some were friends, there always seemed a hidden sense of obligation. He noted, with my Mom and I it was clear, we just like each other.
I wish to share this, the first paragraph in a letter I wrote to Berenice, my Mom years ago; I wanted her to know how special she was and is to me. I thank you Deborah Tannen for giving me reason to reflect. Ms. Tannen, I read of how much your Mother meant much to you, in that we are the same. Only our relationships differed.
I love you Mommy . . .
This letter may have been written, attempted, and mailed many times in the past, but there is still so much I want you to know about my great thanks for you being you and allowing me to be me. There is so much I want to learn from you. I want to hear your stories. I want to see life from your view! I never seem to get enough of all that you are, all that you offer, all that you say, and all that you do! I miss you even when I am with you because thanks to you, my appetite for learning is unlimited! There is so much in your mind, in your actions, in your life, your thoughts, your feelings, that I miss the nuances; once is never enough. Others laugh and understand the unique quality of our exchanges . . . Mom, I do too.
Relating To References . . .