I first began this unit with the intention of taking a good, thorough look at Mother-Daughter relationships. I planned to become completely energized by the titles we were reading in our seminar, and would subsequently transfer this energy to readings that I carefully selected for use in my third grade classroom. As often happens with self-directed research of this genre, the great plan of study becomes a road map; with roadblocks and junctures veering wildly off in the most surprising directions.
It would be easy, even convenient, for me to say that this is what happened when I began my search. But not entirely true, because even as I was selecting my personal readings and mentally creating an outline I became increasingly overwhelmed with a sense of unfinished business. Yes I continued to look at mother-daughter relationships, but my journey sidelined to another junction: It became imperative for me to think about my own mother’s death, and the profound effect it had on much of who I am today.
I am sincerely indebted to Hope Edelman, the author of
, a work I owned no less than three years before I found the courage to finally read beyond the heart-raking journey, into a place few writers have gone. In this era where nearly every issue, need, or desire has its plethora of corresponding “How-To” solutions via television, print media, and the internet, discussions surrounding being motherless at any age seemed an unspoken, lonely, taboo.
A large part of coming to terms with maternal death is coming to grips with maternal life. If you are a women, this means you were once a daughter,. and this seminal relationship, in whatever way it existed, needs to be investigated and understood.
Mothers are generally elevated, even lauded to goddess-like status both in history and contemporary literature. Not always, but for the most part this is true. In everyday life, a similar thing occurs. Compare the number and quality of cards, gifts, and other paraphernalia available during the weeks preceding Mother’s Day, compared to the corresponding time before Father’s Day.
Certainly much of the praise is deserved. What I suggest, however, is that it is time for a thorough look at mother-daughter relationships to examine more closely the issues, the patterns, and the subtle complexities that are often less pleasant and endearing.
We would like to think that all mothers are always as even-tempered and patient as Ramona Quimby’s. Ramona is the hyperactive seven and a half year old girl who is constantly bored and continuously influences her peers and gets them to join in the most adventurous, and often messy, escapades. Mrs. Quimby is never frazzled by these episodes, and she never loses her composure.
Or maybe we like to think of our mothers as the kindhearted and always available with time on her hands just for us “Momma” in Patricia MacLachlan’s
. She was so perfect that when a young mother needed to leave her young daughter for a year with strangers, she chose the heroine of this story from observations of the family at the beach.
But literature, both adult and juvenile, holds other images of motherhood. The “American Girl” Addy escapes from slavery with her mother, leaving their one year old baby behind. Young readers can contrast their bravery with the decision to seek freedom at such a high cost.
And “Marmee” March, From Louisa May Alcott’s
, leaves us to wonder why, if she is so seemingly gentle and perfect, she refuses to give up her volunteer work and seek employment, providing her four girls with a much needed income. Indeed, two of her four “Little Women” have paying positions outside the household. Meg takes care of the young children of a wealthy family, and Jo looks after the well-off, however, ailing, aunt March. I always wondered how their mother could allow the girls to go off and earn an income for the family, while she continued volunteering. It seemed to me that things should be the other way around in the March household.
There is a “legacy” that surrounds motherhood within each culture. Sometimes it is a compilation of pleasantries, often it is not. When the patterns of maternal care are not healthy, so often daughters respond by creating fantasies to fill in the emotional gaps. Some mothers in history and fiction find excuses for their behavior and refuse to break their demeaning patterns. Being caught up in their own anger, these women see their plight as a price of womanhood, and are determined to pass this painful heritage on through their daughters.
Whichever pattern emerges and continues, its effect outlasts the messenger, and a daughter carries forever with her the lasting impression of “motherhood.”
As children grow up they are presented with a variety of mostly unhealthy and almost always unrealistic images of mother-child relationships by way of television sitcoms, magazines, newspapers, movies, and highly publicized, negative “newsworthy” events. Currently we seem to be reading and hearing about a number of “Prom-mom” type events. While all these events are very noteworthy and sad, they are not representative of our culture as a whole.
In literature, readers are introduced to another set of ideas and mothering. Again, a middle of the road approach would not provide readers the emotional outlet required by fiction, or the “book-selling” status of a non-fiction bestseller.
After reading varied accounts of mother-daughter pairings, I find myself truly thankful to have been born when, where, and to whom; that being, a middle class family in the United States, during the twentieth century, and to a fairly loving, and certainly non-abusive set of parents. This seems to be a time when many women are telling their story, delivering a saga of growing up in a horribly dysfunctional environment and them making the transformation to a healthy, successful adult (after much therapy), in late twentieth century american culture.
My own parents were not perfect, and my personal childhood reflected this. But I did not suffer the traumatic emotional and physical abuse of the women whose tales and gracing current bestsellers lists, their tales etched indelibly like nightmares to be relived over and over. Because these tragic stories are paraded across the eyes of our young students, it behooves us teachers to present mother-daughter relationships in a more realistic light. The literature selections I have chosen show imperfect mothering, but mothering which is sensitive, caring, and sends a more positive and more importantly, more realistic message about parenting.
While reading and reflecting on the selections, students should be given the opportunity to reflect on and discuss their own relationships with their mothers. Also, children will now have a venue in which to discuss the different kinds of families represented in their classroom. As these discussions progress, the group can begin to look at how mother-daughter relationships are different from mother-son, father-daughter, or father-son relationships. Do feminine pairs spend the same amount of time together as masculine pairs? Do mothers and sons spend the same amount of time together as mothers and daughters? What things do mothers and daughters do together, as compared to mothers and their sons?
Perhaps you can begin to look at the differences between mothers and fathers, although this is likely to bring up some very sensitive issues among your children which might be difficult to handle.
Finally, what role does emotion play in marketing of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day? How do the retailing industries support, or exploit, Mothers-Day and Father’s Day? Why is Mother’s Day a marketing circus that begins in March and goes on for two months? Certainly we as consumers are not “prodded to purchase” nearly as much for dear old dad in the following month of june.
We can speculate that mother-child relationships are less deep, less intense, and not as emotionally charged as the father-child bond. Perhaps american offspring feel some sort of guilt for not appreciating their mothers, and Mother’s Day provides a vehicle for payment, a sense of “mom-due” for a year of service and pain.
Maybe it’s the mothers who have a sense of entitlement which they unconsciously, yet effectively, convey to their children. We can wonder why this sense of guilt, payment, or entitlement does not seem to apply as fervently to our fathers.
On a personal level, my own experiences mirror these, both as a daughter, and as mom to both a son and daughter. The daughter bond although never, is already much stronger and far more complex. My mother has been deceased for seventeen years now, and her death never ceases feeling like it happened yesterday. My thoughts of her and our relationship could fill volumes, so I have selected one vignette to illustrate her impact, even still. Following this brief picture are unit lessons plans and activities that you should find useful while exploring mother-daughter relationships with young learners.
Daughter Dear you’ll always be,
Just the same little girl to me.
My thoughts go out to you each day,
In just the same old loving way.
May all your thoughts and dreams come true,
and gladness fill each day for you.
I have sometimes wondered why it is that whenever my three sisters and I get together this poem often pops up in our discussion. This is especially true when we are honoring or celebrating a life-transitioning event, such as birth or graduation.
Perhaps this poem is one thing that binds us both to each other and to our mother. Even though the four of us shared the same mother, our individual relationships with her were vastly diverse, and within that diversity dwelled a constantly changing dynamic.
Now, in her absence almost seventeen years later, this brief rhythmic ode stands as a painless and easily recalled item from our individual “mother-memory” libraries. We all knew the same mother, but we each knew her differently. Our ages span a period of sixteen years, so that at the time of my mother’s death we all had a vastly different “adult” relationship with her, some for much longer than others.
And yes, there are stages to our adult development, not entirely unique from those of children, none of which have the simplicity of emerging from a state of “Tabula Rasa.” These “stages,” as I call them, are the result of a variety of complex factors; a complicated sum of where we have been and where we are. But in and of itself, that is not the issue here. The issue is this: That the age and stage at which we were when we lost our mothers comprises as crucial an element to the impact the event had on our lives as does our particular relationship to her at that same time.
In other words, our mourning, acceptance, and healing process was, and is, very much dependent on the quality of the relationship we had with our mother, including those themes involving emotional and physical distance. But equally, and sometimes even more important, are the age and stage in which we were at the time of her death.
So when my three sisters and I get together and reminisce about our mother, even though we had different needs, led different lives, and enjoyed different relationships, we find comfort, solace, and security when we recount that poem together. We might say the poem together and cry as we barely make it through the last line. It was first penned by my mother probably in about 1955, and was last entered in my high school yearbook in June of 1972, to celebrate my graduation.
I knew it would be forthcoming, this “passing of the poem” tradition, which stood for me like a fine piece of china, a fragment of delicate lace, or an expensive family heirloom (in reality, our rigorous religious upbringing allowed no room for things such as these). As the youngest daughter, the poem became for me a precious chalice; I acquired it last and felt responsible to hold on to it until the next generation of feminine recipients. I felt privileged, like the steward of a priceless and treasured commodity; the task was to hold on to this baton of maternal emotion and let it go only when things were done perfectly and in order, this being the passing of the poem to granddaughters. Was this sentiment, this passion, a demonstration of my own state of “adult development” at the time of my mother’s death?
We all need validation of one sort or another. We need to know that our opinions, our essence, our whole being is worthwhile. When a mother dies, the voids is immeasurable, the questions endless. They reoccur at every level and event of life, along the constant continuum of time as we motherless daughters pass through the ages and stages that our mothers lived, until finally, we reach the most difficult passage of all-reaching the age that our mothers were when they passed away.
Finding my personal validation came in part by reading about and exploring mother-daughter relationships, and then writing this unit. Both the adult and juvenile literature were equally helpful, and sometimes painful, as the exploration proceeded. My hope is that the product of this journey is somehow meaningful to teachers and students, boys and girls alike. Certainly, we can all profit from discovering and trying to understand the glorious complexities of mother-daughter relationships.