Seeing Our Mothers As People

Thursday, September 28, 2017 - 4:00 pm

Seeing Our Mothers As People

There have been moments when I have actually glimpsed my mother and understood her to be a person entirely separate from me. Watching her accept an award when I was a teenager in front of a room of well-dressed people sitting in front of hotel salads of iceberg lettuce. Seeing her dance, her lips slightly pursed, her skirt always long, always swooshing. The annual moment when she would load magazines, vodka, and Diet Coke into the back of her Jeep Cherokee and drive away for a weekend alone in a cabin.

I’m struck by the power and, perhaps related, paucity of these moments. There are so few of them. Even now, 37 years into knowing her, it’s like I can’t totally see her. I’m too close. It’s like I am a museum wanderer standing far too close to a large-scale abstract painting that I’m madly in love with. If only I could step back and take it in, in its entirety. I’m stuck studying an inch at a time.

If only I could look at my mom as she is, rather than as a psychic’s prediction of what I might become. Or a generational spell to break. Or a saint to worship. Or a wound to heal. It’s all so confusing, so muddled. I’m old enough to understand that it’s so much more about me than her.

It has me wondering: Can a child — a daughter, especially — ever acknowledge the real interior life of a mother?

It’s an important question for me as I try to grow an adult relationship — sometimes soaringly, sometimes fumblingly — with my own mother. And it’s an important question for me as I contemplate my fate as the mother of two daughters. Someday, will they have the same struggle? Will they even be interested in who I am? Will they know how to stand back and see me? Does it matter?

I don’t even see myself accurately. I will be sitting in the dark, nursing my youngest, and suddenly realize that I am her mother. That I have been a mother for almost four years now. I am someone’s mother, I’ll say in my head. It sounds preposterous, even as I have been covered in milk and shit and vomit all these years, even as I have been lugging these little girls all over the country, even as I have learning what cries are just the last brief rebellions against much-needed sleep and which ones are inconsolable without my touch.

I have so much subtle intelligence about keeping tiny humans alive that I never had before. My body has transformed — twice over with pregnancy, but also after; I’ve grown impressive biceps after carrying 25-pound babies up and down stairs. Somehow, I am still catching up to the idea that I am a mother, that I have earned those sacred stripes.

So I can’t quite see myself as a mother and I can’t quite see my own mother as anything else.

It’s particularly strange that I can’t own the mother thing when my experience of life right now is so defined by it. When I am with my daughters, and I am with them a lot, I feel like myself but a little muted. I can’t actually hear many of my own desires or needs because their desires and needs scream so loud. Which is fine. They’re still so young. I know it’s temporary. This is why I take long showers whenever I get the chance/go insane. I let the hot water pelt my shoulders and try to hear myself think and feel again. What do you want? I ask myself. Sometimes I have no answers, but the dark and the water and the shut door is enough to restore something inside of me that allows me to smile genuinely when Maya, my three-year-old, comes into the bathroom while I’m drying my body and stares at me as if studying and then asks if she can put on lotion with me.

The other day she asked me, out of the blue, “Why do you have to work?” And I said, “Because everything in this house costs money. And because I like to work.” I knew money was too abstract a concept for her, still, and that she was really asking, “Why is there ever anything else that pulls you away from me?”

Which is a form of “Who are you when you’re not with me?” Or maybe even, “Why does a you that’s not my mother exist?”

At the time, I felt a little irritated. She’s so clingy these days. She makes goodbyes so hard and sad. I just want to be able to leave sometimes without steeling myself for disappointing her. I want to become my not-mother self without feeling like I’m injuring her.

Thinking about it later, I empathized with the inquiry. It’s not just about wanting your mom. It’s a conceptual challenge. Maybe she’s just starting to stand dumbly before the painting that I am.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    When I was a child, then moving through adolescence, teens, and early twenties, I first wasn’t very curious about what my mother was thinking (only what she was doing or might do) or how her thoughts or actions had been shaped by her life experience. During that same period, or at least once I was an adolescent, I came to understand how important it was to my mother to keep much of who she really was private, in part to preserve an image she wanted to show the world and in part to conceal things, many of which she would have liked to forget herself. She was very selective in what she shared.
    When I look at my three children, having been a mother now for over thirty years, I’d say that, while we are all extremely close and they all respect me greatly, none is focused on figuring me out beyond who I am as their mother. I think it is fine. We are at a very different stage developmentally, and the thoughts and complex understandings of a 60-plus-year-old would be hard to feel or understand, really, for a thirty year old, or a twenty-something, or a teenager, regardless of how loving or intelligent the offspring may be.
    I don’t want my children to be working hard to understand me. Their lives are not about me or for me. I want them to be figuring out who they are in the world and hope I have given them the foundation to do that.
    I have never felt I have abandoned my true distinct self, even if time-wise I was typically heavily occupied with their needs of all kinds.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Thank you Gabby–a fascinating perspective on this whole thing. I wonder how many mothers share this view? Seems very selfless. I have to confess that I do hope my daughters want to “figure me out” at some point, though of course I hope it’s not the center piece of their lives. Maybe because I have so much joy figuring out my mom and grandmothers? I don’t know…

      • Gabby

        Thank you for responding. I think mothers’ perspectives on this question might partly be cultural and in part a matter of mother’s personality. In terms of culture, for example, I have read that holocaust survivors were often very unenthusiastic about sharing the horrors of that time with their children. I am trying to remember also from, say, Amy Tan, what older females in her family chose to share or not share about their internal lives.

  • chaosophia

    I’ve read this article. I have to see, I’ve met very few fully mature human individuals that do not see their mothers as people. If they don’t, there has been a disturbance to their development on some level.

    The adolescent is mainly reactive and suffering adaptive stress to the adult world. The role the mother as protector has given is ‘taken for granted’ because in many healthy cases it represents an unchanging background ambience or ‘holding of the space’.

    Later, when after some experience of individuation in the trials and tribulations of the adult world, the soul looks back into memory and slowly integrates what it must have taken to be raised from such a place of vunerability to a full grown functioning adult. The feat, the accomplishment of motherhood is more clearly seen and respect and honour replaces the narcissism of adolescence.

    The same is the case for the father in cases where father has been present and active in raising the child. My respect for both my mother and father only increases with time.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      I get it–“the narcissism of adolescence” fades, but I would argue that even a well-adjusted adult always sees his/her mother or father with some longing for security and unconditional love etc. Feels like you’ve painted too simple a picture here.

  • jlepre

    I think friends, family, even strangers, can call on us to view our mothers (or fathers) more objectively. My mother was widowed at 39 (I was 9) and finished raising my older siblings and me alone. I was a petulant, needy and demanding teenager (much like a toddler!). I couldn’t understand why she needed a (new) life apart from me, something that was especially difficult to accept while I was also trying to separate from her, as all teens do. As she tried to rebuild her life, she was clearly neglectful. She drank too much and left me alone all the time. She expected me to cheer her, to buoy her spirits and care for her emotional needs. She rarely spoke about our loss, hers or mine, and never helped me grieve. It was my grandmother and some close family friends who stepped in to help, but also reminded me from time to time to be aware of my mother’s challenges and her losses. They reminded me that she was a person, too. It didn’t really work at the time, but it planted a seed. Nevertheless, my mother and I patched up our wounds and stayed close-ish over the years. My mom is 88 now. She has Alzheimer’s and is often emotionally fragile which, combined with her memory issues, makes de-briefing tricky. Now, as a grown woman, I fully grasp the losses she suffered and the drastic ways in which her life changed when she became a young widow. She lost the man she adored, made myriad difficult choices, had the sudden responsibility of supporting our family and the challenge of being a “good enough single-parent. She grappled with the desire to find another partner (she never did) and lamented the career that she might have had, but gave up for a stable job and benefits. I guess it’s accurate to say that in an effort to forgive her, I’ve spent some time trying to understand her. Finally, just in time, I think I do.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Wow, what a beautiful journey. Thank you for sharing it and for your deep, hard-earned wisdom on what it takes to acknowledge and forgive.

  • Molly Alden

    A lovely piece. Thank you.

  • Susan

    This essay really got me just where I’m living right now. As a 53 year old woman, I am looking at my 84 year old with very different eyes. She was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and she says things to me about her interior world that makes me think: I so wish I knew you more intimately as a woman other than my wonderful mother. And I have my own daughter, 17. I guess at this age, I need to be more “mom” to her than “individual woman” but I know I do make parts of my interior life available to her. I want her to know that people — ALL people, even me, ESPECIALLY me — are complicated. I want her to know life can be messy. I want her to know these things because I want her to know that’s what make people beautiful, that’s what makes life beautiful. Life is messy. I am confused a lot of the time about many things. I know so very little. I struggle. I work to find a balance with my own daughter of trying to have her see ME while letting her know that I am here to moor her. I’ve always been sensitive to it, but now more than ever as I watch the changes with my own mothers.

    For me, having a daughter has been the most expansive experience I have ever had. It has also been the hardest, most exhilarating and healing experience of my life. I realize that has much to do with the specifics of my childhood so it’s a different thing for everyone. But I am very grateful to Courtney for writing this piece. I think it IS really important that, at some point in our lives, somehow, we try to remember the woman who gave birth to us is a human being in her own right. She has as much of a rich inner world as every other woman. It’s interesting how little time I think we actually give to that and that loss is ours.

    • jlepre

      I agree with you–it’s important–valuable and enriching–to spend time understanding the people who birthed us and/or raised us. Sometimes it happens much later in life, but hopefully it happens.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      What a gorgeous reflection Susan. I love this and so much of it resonates.

  • Stephanie B

    I was a latch key kid and watched as my mother went from HS drop out to Master’s Educated Special Ed teacher. I remember watching a lot from the side lines when it came to my mom. I loved her deeply when I was a child. And then we had a long period of estrangement and isolation because of the messy divorce my parents had. When I reunited with my mother it was painful but beautiful in that I was able to see her as a woman who had to made some very difficult decisions, some that I did not like or agree with. And then we started to become close again. But I never lost site of her as a woman, often first as a woman and then my mother. I loved talking to my mom because we had a fair amount in common but extremely different political ideas. I am very liberal and, well, she loathed Hillary Clinton and all like her. Sometimes I remember some of those conversations where I was completely stunned by the hateful things my sweet, kind generous mother would say about Hillary (and this was over 9 years ago as she has been dead a long time!). And then I would think doubly hard about her as a woman, how did she become this way and accept that nothing her daughter would say would sway her. Nice article Courtney. You always make me think and consider what is in my heart simultaneously.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Thanks for sharing. Another key example of how we do manage to love despite complexity and difference, though the headlines rarely reflect that.

  • Such a beautiful, truthful, profound essay, Courtney. Your mother must be so proud, and your daughters will be also — some day. Can’t wait to share with my own daughter and see what resonates. For sure the “covered in milk and shit and vomit” part will make her smile knowingly. But this “grannynanny” experience is so much deeper than meeting the physical needs. We as mothers and daughters are coming to know each other in new ways.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Thank you dear Shirley. So grateful this resonated. Felt vulnerable to write.

  • Margaret B

    It would appear that you’re about my daughter’s age. In your words I see a bit of a reflection of her and wonder if she shares the same questions. I see my own wondering about her and how she sees me; about me and how I see her. And about how I was with my own mother, who died at 87 in 2004 (I was moving toward 52). In her eighties, as her eyesight failed and her mobility decreased — though her mind remained sharp to the end — my mother seemed so much more fearful and anxious and uncertain about things than I’d remembered from my growing up years. It was hard for me not to be impatient, not to fall into the temptation to explain (one more time) that I had a full-time job and a sick husband (he died in 2006 of Type 1 Diabetes), and two young adult children learning to find their own way, miles away from home (and me). Now…I wonder, in 20 years, will that be me? Will that be us, my daughter and I? And try as one might, I doubt that one can never fully become ‘not-mother’ again. I live over an hour from my children; I’ve found a creative life as a textile artist, living in a quiet rural setting. I have friends, part-time work “in town”, things I enjoy and need to do, but not a day goes by when I don’t think of my children, pray for them, and wish them well. May it be also with you, your mother, and your daughters.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      Thank you Margaret. This is a beautiful reflection. It sounds like you’ve done a tremendous amount of caretaking. I can only imagine the wisdom you’ve gained from all that care and loss. Sending admiration.

  • Maddie Berky

    This is such a beautiful articulation of this curious and beautiful relationship of mothers and daughters. Thank you. It makes sense that perspective is so elusive with mothers. They are nestled into our skin. Their words write our earliest stories about ourselves and about life, so how can they possibly be separate from us? There was some great pivot to my life when my mom needed my help. Or rather, needed my advice. I didn’t know what to do. How could I possibly contain knowledge and wisdom that she didn’t already posses? It made me feel lonely. Separate from her. It acknowledged space in a relationship I had only seen in overlap. And yet, it also made me feel closer to her in way that two lovers have a different degree of intimacy when they aren’t trying to complete each other and are allowed to be autonomous humans. Perhaps it was simply that she has those shower moments too. I loved that bit here. It was the not knowing that made me know her, or know her more than before. It was the acknowledgment that we both shared that oh so human space of just not knowing. Thank you again for this piece.

    • Courtney E. Martin

      So beautifully put. Thank you for sharing. That is such a significant part of the shift…when you realize you’ve transcended your mother in some are of expertise or opportunity in the world. It’s discomfiting in its own way, even as it is inevitable. Another dimension that you remind me of.

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  • Thank you Courtney, you capture those feelings that I feel sure are a part of most, if not all, mother’s lives something I’ve called in my research – finding a line between self and baby. In my doctoral thesis I was seeking out avenues in which women expressed their agency (ability to act) after having a baby. After some time on the case I began to see just how integral the work that most often mothers do – or the care of infants and children, the elderly, the disabled and the unwell – social reproduction – or the macrosocial) is to our social structure! But I was also looking at the microsocial – the interpersonal connection between mothers and their infants and it’s this dimension that is relevant to your article.

    I found the work of Jessica Benjamin useful in this regard. She used the notion of ‘intersubjectivity’ to talk about the mother-infant connection. The mother-infant connection is foundational – being the first of any relationships – and it is complex and yet women are sent home with their baby with little social support and often a toxic mix of guilt and shame – while trying to be the perfect and loving mum.

    It’s hard to believe that there has been very little research on the mother’s relationship with her own mother and yet there is recognition that this has a profound effect over one’s approach to being a mother.

    I’ve uploaded a PowerPoint on youtube that reviews some of the work from within midwifery that talks about the mother-infant connection and this notion of interesubjectivity if you’d like to see more and I’ve set up a Homepage with something on my perspective at it would be interesting to know what you think – see or youtube search: intersubjectivity mothers and infants. Best, Joan G

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