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Can We Ever Let Go of Our Childhoods? A Review of “Mother Daughter Me”


There are some books that unexpectedly touch us. We are moved, and then we move on. There are others that knock us over, striking nerves that we didn’t even know that we had.

For me, Mother Daughter Me: A Memoir by Katie Hafner was one of the former types of books.

It caused me to think about questions — about family, obligations, resentments, parenting, grief — that I didn’t know that I wanted answers to.

I’m so used to wondering (and, yes, worrying) about my parenting in terms of questions about my son’s moods, sleeping, learning, and physical health. But what if there are much deeper unanswerable questions?

On the face of things, I didn’t think that I would have much in common with the author or her story. The memoir is about her unsuccessful “experiment in multigenerational living”: sharing a San Francisco home with her teenage daughter and her aging mother.

But yet it’s also about baggage — the emotional baggage from our childhoods that we all carry with us whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we’ve addressed those bags or not. And it’s about how the wounds of the past — large and small — can sneak their way into the next generations.  Most of all, do we need to confront our childhood hurts and grievances in order to move on, for the sake of ourselves and our children?

There are no easy answers from this story. Hafner starts off this cohabitation experiment with good intentions.

She writes, “For my part, I was guided by a combination of love, protectiveness, and, as I would eventually come to see, magical thinking. I believed we were as close to the mother-daughter ideal as two women could be… I told myself I had long since put any lingering anger about my childhood behind me, that I had taken the ultimate high road. And I had little tolerance for those who harbored bitterness toward their own mothers for transgressions far less serious than those my sister, Sarah, and I had had to endure. With a transcendant eye, I now see that it’s far easier to imagine a future we can invent than to reckon honestly with a painful past.”

And it was quite a past that she endured due to alcoholism, divorce, neglect, and her mother’s eventual loss of custody of her and her sister. It was a childhood that would be difficult for anyone to forgive and forget. Yet Hafner believes that she has done exactly that, until her mother’s  selfish behavior in the present and turbulent relationship with Hafner’s daughter causes them to try therapy (also unsuccessfully) for the first time.

After reading this book, I am forced to wonder — and I think many readers also will — whether I have done an adequate job of addressing the past. Although my early years were not marked by the sorts of unendurably difficult abandonment and dislocations that Hafner’s was, my childhood was in fact hard… sometimes.

I had two loving parents, but I can relate to much of her story of alcoholism, substance abuse, and family conflicts. There were wounds — deep ones — that partially led to my own anorexia during my college years. But there was also joy and love. Enough joy and love so that when my dying father during his last weeks of battling cancer said to me, both of us crying, “Just remember the good times,” I knew exactly what he meant and felt that I could honor that request, putting aside my own resentments to focus on happy times. At that moment, there was no need to say more, to confront those more unpleasant memories.

But am I kidding myself, like Hafner discovered? Is it inevitable — a universal truth of all families — for the wounds of the parents to be passed on to their children?

Hafner doesn’t answer that question directly. But she says that she has let go to her idealized version of her mother, the one whose attention that she has struggled for her whole life. She and her mom continue to embark on a healing journey. She finally accepts her mother’s limitations and it’s enough that her mother “can look her past mistakes square in the eye and express contrition in a way that also makes her daughter feel something approaching unburdened love, even pride.”

Mother Daughter Me: A Memoir is a story of hurt, pain, and fractured bonds but also one of healing in the face of forgiveness and deep love.

Do you think the wounds of the past can ever truly go away?

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  1. Emily says:

    Sounds like a great book…I love reading memoirs, probably because i am trying to get my own memoir published.:) Although I don’t think I have many wounds from childhood, I know my husband does and to this day, it affects so much of him – his personality, his parenting style, his hopes and dreams for himself and our kids…so no, I don’t think the wounds ever truly go away.
    Emily recently posted…The Curious Eating Habits Of A Boy In TreatmentMy Profile

  2. Yvonne says:

    I am fascinated by books – or anything – written about the intricacies of mother-daughter relationships. I wrote a novel about it (though I didn’t realise that until it was almost finished) and then I started another novel and turns out it’s on the same theme. So this book sounds like one I would love to read. Thank you for the review.

    Your ponderings in the post are also interesting. Unanswerable questions still need to be asked. Like yours, my father died of cancer. I had some amazingly wonderful conversations with him in the last weeks. In some of those he expressed regret and it’s true he was at times impatient and fierce when we were young I came to understand what he had been through – and it was a lot. I was once resentful, but holding onto that would only have left me hurt, and the same is true of how I felt about my mother. She recently said that both she and my father grew a lot in the years he had cancer, and it is true.

    You wonder if we need to confront our childhood hurts and grievances and move on, for our sake and our children’s. My experience is that we need to allow the feelings we have suppressed, and then to allow those feelings to be released. But I don’t find that “trying” or forcing works. In fact only a few days ago I noticed I resented someone (not my parents) who I also felt I “should” appreciate because this person can also be very kind. But trying to stop feeling resentment didn’t make it go. Instead allowing it, and allowing the feeling of appreciation mean that the resentment eased. There’s a sense of aliveness that comes from allowing feelings in this way that is hard to convey. I do totally think that yes, childhood hurts can be let go, and healing can and does happen.
    This is getting to be a long comment, so though I could write about this all night, it’s time to stop!
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  3. Lisa Newlin says:

    This gives me mixed emotions about reading the book. On the one hand, I can see why it would be so good….to see how others have issues with their childhood. In a way, I suspect it’s probably comforting to know you’re not the only one who dealt with things.

    My hesitation is that I’m not sure I want to deal with it. I didn’t have anything like abuse in my childhood, but several years ago I saw a therapist to try to work through some of the issues from my childhood. I think it made it worse. I didn’t realize how resentful I was for things, and bringing that resentment to the surface made it hard for me to interact with my parents.

    Maybe I’m just a big wuss about this stuff. I probably am. Or maybe I’m hesitant to deal with things because I like to just bottle things up and not address them.

    Come to think of it, maybe I’m the perfect person who needs to read this book.

    Look at that! You just forced me to talk myself through all of this. You’re like free therapy! Please don’t send me a bill. 😉
    Lisa Newlin recently posted…Why Aaron Paul would be the perfect boyfriendMy Profile

  4. Galit Breen says:

    This is such a thoughtful, intriguing review — I’m adding this to my “to read” list, but may need to wait a bit to read it. It feels… raw, and I might not yet be ready for it?

    I think that wounds can heal, but always leave scars. Le sigh. Great {intriguing} topic.
    Galit Breen recently posted…I am. Home.My Profile

  5. Ordering it right now. I was just having a conversation with my sister last night about how much of our adult lives have been shaped by our childhood. And how often we probably don’t even realize it. I am DEFINITELY reading this book.-Ashley

  6. Sarah Almond says:

    My childhood, although highly transitional, was rather uneventful and normal. My husband had a traumatic childhood, and it shows every day. I constantly worry how my children are going to relate back to their childhood. Will they look at me as mean and lazy because I insisted they do things like chores and help around the house? Or will they remember that while they didn’t have a lot, they have a mom and dad who try their best to help them be strong independent children? So many questions…
    Sarah Almond recently posted…If I Had A Million Dollars…My Profile

  7. Stacey says:

    Great review. I have had this on my list for a bit now and I have now moved it up to the top of the pile. As an only child of divorced parents, I know that my childhood has greatly shaped (for better and worse!) who I am as a person and especially who I am as a mom to two girls. I know this will be interesting reading…
    Stacey recently posted…Twitterature: January 2014 EditionMy Profile

  8. Katie Hafner says:

    Thanks so very much for that lovely review, which I just saw this morning (only three months after the fact). To Rachel, who observed how much the past informs our present, all I can say is YES, that is so true. I tried to reckon with that fact in the book. All we can do is be aware of the ways in which that manifests itself in our own lives, and do the best we can.
    All best,

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