Having a Daughter Helped Me Understand My Own Mother

Photo: Laurent Hamels

Having children can often reduce you, the parent, to being a child yourself. You become at once more responsible and flexible, but you are also living in every moment: Emotions are everywhere, easily plucked up and forced out into the world. Small things — whether the baby has slept well the previous night (ha) or not — can have a huge impact on how you read a quick email from a friend or respond to the mailman.

And so it was that, in the beginning of my daughter’s life, in the winter of 2014, just after the holidays, when everyone else was back to work and I was largely alone in my home with a very often crying infant, when my emotions were raw and time was abundant, I began, sometimes, to have the feelings of a little kid, and to live just a little bit in the past. A past I had rarely gone looking for in years, because it was a dangerous and sad place.


On January 18, 2007, at around three in the afternoon, I stood on the 7 train in my bulky wool winter coat. I’d been living in New York for less than a year — the happiest under-a-year of my adult life. I had a job that paid me well for not very much work. I loved my apartment. I was writing music again.

I’d gotten engaged just two months before, and the engagement ring, as I stood there on the subway, still burned my finger a little bit, a constant presence that wasn’t quite at home on my body yet. The subway was almost empty, it was not yet rush hour, and the city was still sleepy, I think, from the holidays that had recently ended. It was a Thursday, and I had left work hours early, when it was still light out, because my brother had called to tell me that my mother was almost certainly dying.

As I stood there on the subway, my earbuds in my ears, pretending to listen to music but in reality listening to the train’s mechanical hum, my eyes met the eyes of a stranger standing directly across from me. I realized that I was crying, visibly, tears just streaming down my face, and I didn’t care at all.

“Are you okay?” the kind-faced, chubby middle-aged man mouthed to me. I know he didn’t say it out loud because my iPod wasn’t playing. “No,” I said, and as the word came out, so did a sort of low howl, the kind of sob I have only heard once or twice in my life. It sounded, I think in hindsight, like an animal dying. I didn’t care. I continued to cry, the man nodded at me, and thankfully, I got off at the next stop in Long Island City, left to walk alone across a bridge back home in silence, in the cold that I didn’t feel.

A few days later, my mother, whom I hadn’t spoken to in two years, was dead. She was 54, as old as she would ever get, and I was left to live with what had caused me to allow her to fade from my life. She was an alcoholic, I was her child first, and then her adult and motherless daughter. I didn’t remove her consciously. I just grew up and she couldn’t or wouldn’t change, so I reached for happiness instead of pain. Weeks passed, then months. At the end of that year I got married. I accepted her death, and I thought I had made peace with myself, my relationship with her.

And then my daughter was born.


My mother’s middle name was June. She gave it to me, and I gave it to Zelda. I never really considered giving her another name, even though my relationship with my mother was complicated. In my pregnancy, I reasoned with myself: My mother is firmly in the past. I am giving my daughter a name that marks us as daughters, distinct and in a line.

Being a motherless mother is an interesting, almost impossible problem. My daughter doesn’t feel the lack: My parents had been divorced since I was in high school, and my father remarried the same year that I did. So she has two caring, loving, and supportive grandmothers. My husband doesn’t feel a lack: He never met my mother.

But still, there is a historical role for the mother of the new mother. She is there to answer frantic phone calls, to say, “The baby doesn’t have jaundice, don’t be silly.” She is there, with her decades of stored knowledge, her tips, her advice, her intimate knowledge of you, the daughter turned mother. Even if you ignore most of her advice, even if you think to yourself, No way am I listening to her! She messed me up! it is often an indispensable phase of the mother-daughter relationship.

Or so I assume. Or so I have come to believe.

My daughter was only moments old when I held her for the first time, and looked down at her and thought, I wish my mother were here. Not for her, or for anyone else, but for me. In that moment, I felt truly adult after years of faking it, but in many ways I also felt like a 5-year-old. I simply wanted, for a moment, something irrational, something I couldn’t have. I wanted it purely, for almost no reason at all

But I moved on. This want for my mother, to my surprise, didn’t taint my pure and glimmering joy at the sight of my daughter. As the weeks passed, I began slowly to acknowledge the feelings I was having about my mother. I whispered little things about her to my newborn. I began to hear her voice almost audibly guide me in those fumbling early days. I asked myself, “What would she do?” in the dead of night with a screaming baby. And sometimes, I heard answers. For all of her faults later in life, she was gifted with children, pragmatic and lighthearted. She had intuition and calm, all of these things that I seemed to lack.

I hung her portrait on the wall, and even allowed myself to look at it — her beautiful face, maybe 19 years old, in an outtake, not even looking at the camera, but away, at something else.

And after a while, I realized, I didn’t feel as sad when I looked at it. I didn’t feel dull pain. I felt something approaching joy, a feeling I hadn’t had for her since I was a teenager.


My daughter is almost 2. Just a few weeks ago I was in Trader Joe’s. Usually I shop with Zelda because she loves the grocery store, but this day I was alone. It was crowded as always, and I wandered around aimlessly. Though I’m usually focused on getting the fuck out as quickly as possible, I was off my game. I lingered over things I didn’t want or need. I felt lost and confused, sputtering around with a cart, running into old ladies and annoying them. I stopped dead in the middle of an aisle for a second to regroup.

It’s the holidays, that’s what it is, I realized. And there, for a moment, I thought of that day on the subway, almost nine years ago. “I miss my mother,” I whispered, aloud, but very quietly. The cookies shaped like snowmen — something reminded me of her. It didn’t matter what. I know by now to acknowledge these moments.

I didn’t cry. I blinked and it passed. My mother still lies firmly in the past, but now that I am a mother myself, I can think of her without becoming a child again. She is not simply my mother, who is dead now. She is Zelda’s grandmother, who died long before she was born. Her namesake. A complicated figure in my own history, but a simple one in our current reality. Sometimes — often, now — I can think of her and smile. I can recount a story or have a memory and not feel bad.

My daughter has reinvented the holidays, which were a little worse for wear after my mother died. Now, they are truly fun. But she has also changed — like a time traveler, reaching deep into the past — my relationship with my mother, even though their lives never overlapped. She has stitched up old wounds, and now, when I think of my mother, I think, We’re good, Kath. And we are.

My Daughter Helped Me Forgive My Mother