05/08/2011 02:49 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Don't Tell Me I'm Like My Mother... Yet

By my measure, the mother-daughter relationship is the toughest one in humanity. What could be more complex? Two women -- one with wisdom, the other with a lot to learn -- and neither of them willing to learn from each other. Mother? Daughter? I'm not saying which is which, or who is who, because I've been on both sides of that fence.

I've spent my entire life studying how to be a good daughter and a good mother. As a writer, I have a preoccupation with figuring out how things really work. Here's what I conclude:

Mothers want forgiveness. They did their best, taught what they could, did what they thought was important. Perhaps it was too much. Maybe it was woefully little. But it was never quite right, for sure.

Daughters want unconditional love and acceptance. But they need only one thing: not to grow up to be their mothers. If we are the same, then how will we be able to ultimately let go of her? Our difference is our freedom.

I am not my mother. She was resigned to "a woman's place" in the world. I was the first generation to believe we had a choice. I thought that if I worked hard and could do a man's work, then I should be allowed to do it and be paid to do it.

I am not my mother. She didn't believe in dreams or hopes. She only dealt with the way things were. I made my way in a man's business, changing them and changing me as I needed to. I didn't stop until I got what I set out for.

I am not my mother. She made casseroles and home fries and stews. She was afraid of new things, afraid to be redefined. I make cassoulet, Lyonnais potatoes and beef bourguignon. I am not afraid of the world.

Sometimes we daughters are so busy forging ourselves that we forget to build on our ancestry, forget to honor the best of our mothers. Instead, we lose the wisdom of generations.

I am not my mother. I don't have her ability to hold fast to one truth, always knowing right and wrong. I see too many sides of an argument and accept too many lies.

I am not my mother. I don't have her industry. I've never painted a table instead of buying something new. I've never added texture to ceiling paint to hide the cracks. Or made my own curtains so I could have one pair for spring and one for winter. I've never had to pull my belongings out of a fire and sort through what I should keep and what I had to throw away. I've always had more than enough.

I am not my mother. I didn't tell my daughter about how hard life could be. When the recession hit and her company closed, I worried that she didn't have the armor to push through the crossfire. I was so busy telling her to make her own rules that I forgot to teach her how to play the game.

Sometimes the effort not to grow up to be our mother is an upstream swim, and we end up right back where we started. My mother was not my role model. At least I didn't think she was while she was alive. But what I thought was important wasn't. What I thought defined me didn't. I can now see that she was my greatest teacher. Some people teach us things with their words, and others by their actions. Perhaps that's when it's hardest to learn.

  • Mom taught me to be practical. We cooked side-by-side, and now it's one of my most passionate hobbies. She taught me how to crochet and embroider. Even though I no longer do either (who does?), knowing I can do it makes me feel competent and feminine -- and unique in this day and age.

  • Mom told me that when life knocks you down, sit for a while and figure out what happened before you stand back up.
  • Mom taught me that the greatest gift we can give each other is our loyalty. We all need to be able to count on someone.
  • Mom taught me how to laugh at myself, how to laugh at the absurdity of life. If there was a party and you heard laughter, she was in the middle of it.
  • Mom taught me that life is for living. It shouldn't be spent worrying or harboring deep resentments. Learning to let go is a lifetime skill.
  • Mom said happiness is temporary. "If you find happiness, bask in it. Roll around in it until it covers you over and sticks to your clothes and makes you smell like a beautiful day."
  • She showed me that there is no replacement for a mother's love. I had it for 46 years. And even though my mother is no longer on this earth with me, I still have it wrapped around me. And I always will.
  • I am not my mother. That's true. But when I look into the mirror and see her reflected, see those same wrinkles settling in beside my eyes, I'm no longer afraid to become her.

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    Janice M. Van Dyck has written two novels about families. "The O'Malley Trilogy," her first novel, chronicles the conflicts of five generations of mothers and daughters. Her current novel, "Finding Frances," is about three siblings struggling with their mother's end-of-life choices.