Mothers and Daughters: Proof, That Karma's A Bitch!

03/19/2016 08:42 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Senior portrait, 1981 I was all about matching sweaters and keeping my nose out of trouble!

I had it coming. While I was, for the most part, an easy kid-- my mother would tell you that, if she were alive, I also gave her some challenges that I now can see were much harder to get past than I understood at the time. I am the eldest of three kids. Our mother raised us on her own, after my father's death at 32. She was a widow at 29, with three children under the age of 10. The weight of that was hard to appreciate, as that 10-year-old child. I instantly became her co-parent, and mostly I resented that. I was a kid, and I didn't get why I couldn't just be one. I learned early not to make things harder: I got good grades; I helped clean the house and care for my two younger siblings; teachers liked me, and I didn't give my mother much cause to worry -- that was my brother's job.

However, as I entered young adulthood, and broke free of the parental role my mother and I shared, I distanced myself from Mom. I wanted to be different from her in just about every way conceivable. She smoked. I had utter disdain for smokers and the smell of cigarette smoke triggered asthma attacks. She wanted nice things... I found that materialistic. She was very focused on appearance. Weight was especially important to her. I got an eating disorder and waited for her to see that there really was "too skinny." It didn't happen. I'm not sure she ever knew about my struggles with body image, but she thought I looked great when I was 98 pounds and I was both skipping meals and vomiting. I wanted to see myself as totally different than my mother, because I disapproved of most of her life choices, and I felt cheated by her, out of so many things. At the time, a lot of that wasn't even conscious on my part. Hindsight is much harder in youth.

If this sounds like lots of other mothers and daughters, give or take some details, I believe it is. Not all relationships are filled with issues or challenges, but few are pain-free. This is not limited to mothers and daughters. I've seen that my sons, not just my daughter, have their own issues to throw my way, just as I challenge them. But when it comes to issues and relationships fraught with tangled drama, there is little that compares to mothers and daughters. It makes sense. While many would agree that men do plenty to complicate and challenge the lives of women, I would argue that women are infinitely harder on other women than anyone else. What do daughters become? Other women. However, it's so much more personal with our daughters. And therein is the slippery slope that collides with karma.

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This little girl lit my world on fire! (1991)

Our adorable little girls, who charm and nudge us with their sweet little girlness: their fire and spunk, their unabashed curiosity, their feminine wiles, charm and fierceness-- all of the magical elements that define them as little girls-- those incredible little females grow up to be women. As mothers, the very same little girls who we love and wrap our hearts around, can challenge us in the most maddening ways!

When my daughter was little, we joked that she came out of the 14-inch incision in my belly, marching to her own drum. She was independent before the staples were removed, and the scar that has faded to a fine, white line is a constant reminder that she has etched herself on my entire being. It started with her first ferocious cry, and continues now that she is a mother herself. No matter how hard we try to keep the boundaries clear, it's hard not to be engulfed in the drama of raising our children. As we strive to raise strong, independent girls, who will be strong, independent women, it's hard not to feel the pull of our own her-stories.

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My girl marched to her own beat, from the time she could pack a bag and march!

It's not easy being a woman in this world, and despite countless moments of exasperation, I was proud that my daughter was strong-willed from the start. I knew that she would stand firm in the face of adversity, and she has. As she got older and that iron-will was launched against me, I tried to remind myself that I wanted this. I wanted her to speak her mind; I wanted her to resist the pressures to be demure and hold her tongue. Like so many parents, I told her how to avoid being a victim of violence--"Fight! Make noise! Don't let yourself be fooled by puppies and strangers who are lost" -- a metaphor for life. I told her to not to let her dreams come second unless the compromise was one that she believed in. Don't chase love; seek your passions; be yourself; these are lessons I fed her, wishing I'd done more of those things myself. Don't make the mistakes I did, was my silent wish.

It's hard not to parent with echoes of our own pasts in our heads. I saw my daughter's path as one more leap removed from the one my own mother took, each of us running the ball further down the field. My daughter would be educated and independent. She would fall in love one day, but not chase a relationship, in the hope of completing herself. I tried not to focus too much on her physical appearance, but encouraged her intellect and fire. I learned that that gets harder when you're entering middle age and your girl is moving toward her peak. Admittedly, there were days when her youthful body seemed to mock my aging everything. My knees hurt, while hers sprung at the volleyball net, and ran for miles cross-country. The redistribution of weight on my body was chastised by the way clothes complimented every curve and angle on her. And let me be clear here: her size and shape is of little importance, in the bigger picture of my love. As my daughter, I've always seen her inner sparkle; her beauty was never based in her figure, her hair, or her features. But there are challenges to face, in raising a young woman, as you watch your own youth fading. To watch the endless possibilities that lay in front of her, as mine dwindle, challenges me to let her seek her own path, and not shield her from the things I wish I'd known, or done differently, or wish I could do again.

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Oh, to have these sweet days again, when my girl was a girl, and I could still hold her!

In recent years, all of this has come rushing toward me, and despite all the ways I wanted to be different than my own mother, I can now see the things that are the same. My mother lived most of her life with enormous regrets. I've always strived to not follow that example. Her life was very difficult, and she fought with her demons until the day she died of Huntington's Disease (another bitter blow) at the age of sixty-eight. As I navigate each of the phases she got through with me, I see now the ways in which my need to forge my own way probably felt like an even bigger indictment of her choices, than I intended. I see the ways I may have hurt her, when I didn't want to.

When I moved as far away from her as I could, my mother had to have felt the pain I feel, now that my daughter lives on another continent. I'm proud of my daughter's choices. I want to encourage her independence, but it's hard not to feel the blow: she is ok being that far away from me. When I opted to get married in a different state than where my mom lived-- rationalizing that that's where our friends were, that's where we lived-- when I told her that she could look at some of my wedding dress choices at a shop near her, rather than getting to watch me try them on, she raged and cajoled. I told her she was being difficult. I saw it as one more sign that she just didn't get it. I figured she just wanted it her way; she didn't understand it was my life. Now that my daughter is planning her own wedding, 7,000 miles away from me, in a time zone hours ahead of mine, now that I have to rely on Skype and online messaging to see the plans unfold, now that I see what it will feel like to be a guest at my daughter's wedding, rather than a host of my girl's biggest day-- my own mother's hurt seems a little less... selfish. Now I'm the selfish one.

My daughter is a mother now. She has a gorgeous little boy, who I adore. Each time she implies that I'm out of touch with breastfeeding (Me? Me, who used to be a lactation consultant! Me, who nursed each of my three children for at least a year?), I feel my blood boil, but try to remind myself that she needs to explore her own options. Still, I boil. How much can breasts, and nipples, milk and baby's latch, change? Or swaddling a baby (Me? Me, who could swaddle each of my three babes into the tightest of cocoons!), or talks to me about how much she loves her baby-- as if she, and then each of her brothers weren't the center of my entire world, for so very long, I feel my insides twist, even as I burst with joy and pride in her beauty as a mother. Each time I try to give her advice and hear the slightest dismissive tone-- the very same tone I used with my mother, when she tried to tell me how she did things, I am struck by the irony that my daughter and I are locked in the same challenging dance that my mother and I danced before us. It is the same dance that my mother and my grandmother probably danced. It's the same dance mothers and daughters have danced forever.

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I can't deny, my Mom loved being a Grammy every bit as much as I do!

As mothers, it's so hard not to project our own dreams, our own insecurities, our own pasts, presents and hopes for the future, onto our daughters. I wanted to be so different than my own mother, and I imagine my daughter wants the same thing. I am different than my mother, and my daughter is different than me. We all evolve. Still, I hope there are things that my daughter chooses to emulate too. My mother's brokenness is what I focused on, as I became an adult and cut our tangled ties. However, I can't deny that when I'm silly, or cracking jokes at a party, I'm a lot like my mother. When I look at my grandbaby, and want to just hold him and do it over, I understand my mother's intense love for her grandchildren. She loved being a grandmother! When I look in the mirror and fret over new wrinkles, I understand a little better her battle with aging. Despite all my efforts to change and move away from her, my mother left her mark on me, and more and more I'm able to embrace that.

In all the ways I wanted to be different from my mother, in all the ways I'm the same; in all the ways my own daughter lets me know that she is creating her own life, I am reminded that karma is indeed a bitch. Karma is the bitch we run from, the one we repeat despite ourselves, the ways we hope to be different, and the ways truth comes to us in bits and pieces, as we age. Karma's a bitch, and while that is sometimes painful, and sometimes a humbling reality, if we are open to it, the bitches we live with make us stronger.

Did you have a good relationship with your mother? Do you have a daughter? Share your thoughts in the comment section. Tell me what you think; I'm listening. Share/Like on FB; simple things make me happy! Become a "fan," with the icon next to my name, at the top. And follow me on Twitter! If you'd like to read more of my writing, check out my blog Tales From the Motherland.

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Carole King