05/09/2013 03:58 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2013

A Day for Mothers and Daughters

Alice Hoffman

As daughters, we may come to realize that our own mothers may be the biggest mystery in our lives. When we look at our mother -- whether we're children or adults -- we see the woman who gave birth to us and raised us in a particular way, defined by our needs. She was the person we argued with, the one we stopped speaking to, sometimes hated, and often turned to for comfort. She, who was overly protective or never there, who was too supportive or too judgmental, was the one we talked to our shrinks about. She ruined us, she was hard to live up to, she never told us we were pretty, she pushed us too hard. Let's face it, whether she was a lawyer or a factory worker or a nurse, we defined her by a single role: our mother.

But who was she really, before we came along?

For a girl who is aware she is not being raised by her birth mother, the mystery presents itself early on. Every aspect of an adoptee's birth mother is a missing piece of a puzzle: the way she looks and speaks, her background, her history. What is missing is her mother's story. But even for those of us raised by our biological mother, how do we ever know the true story of our mother's life? What drove her, what were her raw fears and desires? We can never know our mothers as they were as children, beautiful, gawky teenagers or young women with their futures ahead of them. If we could somehow time travel and meet our mothers when they were 8-year-olds who were afraid of thunder storms, or college students in love with the wrong man, or young mothers-to-be awaiting our births, all that we believe that we know would likely replaced by a different vision. Let's face it: Just as we always hid aspects of our true selves from our mothers (who we slept with, what our dreams were, how we climbed out our windows after curfew to meet our friends, or tried smoking), the same is true in reverse. It is a classic don't ask, don't tell situation. Maybe we don't want to hear about our mother's fears and dreams any more than she wants to know about the rules we broke. So, how do we ever break through the roles that define us to each other, and see through to the person inside?

For me, the break-through happened as my mother was dying. She asked me to contact her high school boyfriend, someone she had never mentioned before. I realized this boy had been the love of her life, in a life kept secret from me, one she only admitted to when she had nothing to lose. She told me he was the one, her fate and her destiny, but somehow, she'd made a mistake and let him go. For more than fifty years, she'd been secretly harboring her regret and her sorrow. I couldn't help but wonder what else had she kept from me, and how many other parts of her life she'd kept to herself either to protect me or to maintain her image as my mother. She divided her life into the woman she once was and the mother she came to be. Now as a mother myself, I understand how that happens. The woman you were before you had children is in many ways a stranger, even to yourself. Because there's such a pivotal shift in one's focus after having children, the girl you once were slips away.

But she's still there. I knew that when my mother held my hand and finally confided in me about her true love. I know it now as I sometimes get a glimpse of the girl I used to be, the person my own children have never met, but who, after all these years, is still somewhere inside, and who still has her own story.

Alice Hoffman is the author of many best-selling novels, most recently The Dovekeepers. Her poem Mother's Day, illustrated by artist Maggie Stern, is now an ebook available on Amazon.