(Image: Isabella Giancarlo)
For a long time, I couldn’t relate to mother-daughter relationship drama stories. I was way too preoccupied with an operatic level of paternal drama for that. My father’s attentions, and the absence thereof, consumed my childhood. I was too busy being adored, smacked, screamed at, and gaslighted by my dad to have any emotional space left to hate my mom.
My own daughter, Amira, was born 11 days after my 30th birthday. Four and a half years later, my son Lev was born. I did the stay-at-home-mom thing for 10 years, throughout my 30s. My job performance was fair.
In the “pro” column: I think I gave my kids pretty good advice about how to stand down bullies. “If someone teases you,” I said, “squint real hard, look totally grossed out and say: ‘Ewww…! What’s that green stuff coming out of your nose?!?’” They both say it never came to that, but I know they knew what I was getting at: Don’t dignify shitty behavior. You’re bigger than that.
My temper, however, was at the top of the “cons” column. Yelling was like breathing in my childhood home; it was the way my father chose to be heard and it trickled down to the rest of us. I carried my own lack of patience and hair-trigger temper into my nrriage and motherhood. My decibel level was often jacked up to 11.ife
In the same way that I was more profoundly hurt by my father’s abuses than my younger brother was, Amira suffered more from my anger issues than Lev—and I think this manifested in certain behaviors. She didn’t exactly hate school, but she did everything she could to avoid it. My bright and deep daughter, a gifted photographer who started reading Harry Potter novels in kindergarten, who was skilled at observing others while making herself invisible, had long struggled to care about conventional education.
[pullquote]“Pass the salt.” And with those three words, the light began to peek back into our relationship.[/pullquote]
Enabled by her huge public schools, she would check out for long periods without us knowing. We would think she was doing fine, until one of her teachers or a guidance counselor sent us a note saying Amira was failing, or skipping class, or coming unprepared. It was exhausting and infuriating. And junior year of high school, her “most important” year before college, was her worst. Late one night, not long after our last disciplinary meeting with school, I found her watching TV when I knew her homework wasn’t done. I pressed her. I nagged at her. She had two protective mechanisms: one was to shut me out, and the other was to fight me off, hard.
“DO YOU WANT TO GET INTO COLLEGE??” I finally snapped.
“Fuck you,” she spit back.
Without thinking, I slapped her across the face. She pushed me back.
“I HATE YOU!!!” she shrieked.
I was used to being the loud one, but now I was disarmed. Amira stormed out of my apartment around midnight and went to her father’s house, making me the loser in a shameful divorced co-parent smackdown, and she knew it. For weeks she didn’t talk to me at all. Not a word.
I was familiar with this kind of cold war. The first time my dad threatened to stop talking to me, I was 20. He was angry with me for refusing to testify on his behalf when my mom sued him for college tuition money. It’s unclear what he thought I could say to absolve him. The older I got, the harder he worked to manipulate my attentions. He would ice me out for a while, over some perceived slight until eventually breaking the silence to lecture me about why he was right and I was wrong.
Amira knew it would hurt to shut me out like she did. I had a choice. I could let her know that she was wrong to react like she had, that I was her mother and deserved respect. I didn’t think that was untrue. I shouldn’t have slapped her, but she had pulled the final straw.
Instead, I wrote her a letter. I said I was sorry for what had happened and my role in it. I told her how powerless I felt to help her feel happy, with me and about herself. I asked for a fresh start. I would really try to yell less, I said, and to be more patient.
I still felt justified in telling her she was wrong, too. But I resisted. I wanted my girl back more than I wanted to be right. I handed her the letter when she came home from school that day. And then I waited.
Two weeks went by. One night over dinner she looked up at me and said: “Pass the salt.” And with those three words, the light began to peek back into our relationship. I knew she was ready to give it, give us, another chance.
When I was 10, my father told me that his personality failures and bad habits were my problem to deal with. He cited a specific example, but I don’t recall it. He was too old to change, he said. That part I remember so clearly. He was 37. It’s funny what sticks with us when we’re young.
The summer after graduating college, I decided to shut my father out for good (for the first time, anyway). I had a life to get on with, and he would keep taunting me that I didn’t deserve any of it—if I let him. I’m lucky that everyone else in my life, most of all my mom, assured me I did.
Amira did get into college. But she didn’t stay long. A year and a half and two schools later, she was out. Her greatest achievements during that time: a yearlong photography project that led to a self-produced show and tutoring English to elementary school girls in New Orleans, weren’t even done for academic credit (she never thought to ask for it).
My botanically-named daughter, Amira Fern Rosenbush, is now working toward a horticulture career. She just moved into her own apartment, five minutes from mine, and is living with three guy roommates.
Recently, Amira dropped by my place, unannounced, to do laundry. I was home alone, eating Indian takeout and watching TV. I passed her some chana saag and asked how she liked her new job, at a landscape construction and maintenance company.
“I love the work that I’m doing, being in work clothes all day, and working with men,” she said with a smile, digging into her food. “It makes me feel so confident. Yesterday I helped unload 650 thirty-pound bags of soil. Dumped it all, and created a new level ground.”
I choose to be grateful for the lessons my father has taught me, even though I’m not sure he ever really thought of them as lessons, even though I’m sad that he’s never been able to learn from them himself. A shrink once told me she thought my dad channeled his own failed aspirations and dreams through me. Maybe in a weird way, that worked. I am my father’s daughter, but I am not my father. I want my children to be free to fail – and from that, to grow. And I want to show them that I can do that too. Quietly.