07/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Truth about a Mother's Role in Her Daughter's Success

I didn't know until after my mother died that the only inheritance she had received was a letter along with her mother's will saying, "Everything goes to your brother because you can find a man to marry and take care of you."

Most of her life, my mother grudgingly sacrificed her needs for her brother. She couldn't go to college because there was only enough money for her brother's schooling. Her father died when she was five, so she spent most of her childhood working in the family clothing store when she wasn't in school while her brother studied and play sports.

She moved with her mother and brother to Phoenix when she was 20 because of her brother's asthma. Two years later, her mother died. In the 1940s in Arizona jobs were scarce for my mother's level of education and experience. They were even more limited for Jews. My mother eked out a living on her own until she married my father when she was 24. She got pregnant a month later.

My mother never had a life of her own beyond raising her family. Although she did volunteer work, she never accomplished anything that received public acknowledgment as my father had. After we grew up, she spent most of her time caring for my ailing father.

I never felt close to her; she was either angry or emotionally distant. She died in her late sixties from complications due to dementia. Frankly, I think she just checked out.

Many of the high-achieving women I interviewed for my book, Wander Woman, felt their mothers were angry. Even the ones with working moms thought their mothers took jobs more for the money than for accomplishment. Dinner conversations were not about the joy of work but about the pain of not being able to do their best work. A person or rule always stood in their way. Few of the women said their mothers were role models of power and actualization.

What Fuels Ambition?

Shortly after my mother's death, I remember hearing these words in Stevie Nicks' song, Landslide, "I've been afraid of changing 'cause I've built my life around you." I had a flash of insight. I had always thought I, as a high-achiever, had worked hard to please my high-achieving father. In reality, I was working hard not to live my mother's life.

That moment I realized that my mother's pain burned in me as passion. Everything she had lost I was determined to gain. For the first time in history, as a woman, I could actually win many of the battles I fought. I saw this same passion in the women I interviewed.

Today's smart, strong women are determined to define their terms for success. If someone tries to keep them from getting what they want, they work even harder to prove they can succeed. One woman said, "My rebelliousness fuels me."

In fact, these women love to show that they can do something that someone else said they couldn't. Generally, they aren't trying to prove they can do something difficult in spite of their gender; being a woman factors very little into their reasons for proving their worth. They are not their mothers. They won't be defined that way. They are intent on achieving what others think is too difficult or foolish because they want to be judged as exceptional humans.

Julie, age 34, said, "Why did I choose to be an engineer? Honestly, to prove I am smart enough to be an engineer."

Beth, age 30, said, "I don't like someone else telling me what I can't do. Just when you think you know what's best for me, I'll do more."

Yet in their efforts not to be their mothers, I believe they are not acknowledging the gift their mothers gave them.

It was many years after my mother's death before I realized that she was not emotionally distant because she didn't love me. I now believe she was doing her best to give me the space to grow, to learn, and to excel because she wanted for me what she didn't have. She made sure I had everything I needed to succeed and then stepped aside. I am sorry I didn't realize this before she was gone.

I have always dreamed of being a published author ever since I won a poetry contest in the second grade. My mother always quizzed me on my spelling and pushed me to earn an academic scholarship to further my studies as an adult. Next month, I will have my first book published by a major house. Here is my dedication:

I dedicate this book to my mother, who never had a chance to live out her dreams. I wish she were here to see me living out mine.

When thinking about my mother this month of Mother's Day, I realize what she and many mothers around the world sacrifice so their daughters do not have to live like them. What greater gift can a mother give?

Marcia Reynolds, PsyD teaches how to "outsmart your brain" to overcome challenges and find fulfillment on the road to success. Her new book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction will be released June 14th.