05/13/2012 07:28 am ET Updated Jul 13, 2012

From Mother to Daughter: Gifts We Pass On, Burdens We Wish We Hadn't

Mother's Day cards make me laugh. I'm not talking about the wild-and-bawdy cards for single-again Moms or even the sound-chip cards showcasing a chorus of tiara-topped poodles. No, I laugh at all those heartfelt cards that pour forth with flowery verses and profusions of adverbs, all designed to express some level of gratitude to mothers near and far.

I'm not a cynical person, but the sentiments are telling. There are verses for daughters who really, really want to say thank you (a.k.a. I'm so sorry I didn't listen to you) and those who want to say thank you (a.k.a. let's keep it simple, the less I say now the better) and those who want to pretend they're sorry they don't live closer.

The bad news is, the cards never adequately express what I want to say to my own 83-year-old mother, nor do they leave me yearning for such tributes from my 18-year-old daughter. The good news is that the cards make me think about all the gifts my mother has given me, the gifts I've tried to pass on to my daughter, and "gifts" my daughter and I would just as soon return to sender. The treasured gifts, for the most part, are habits, attitudes and traits bestowed by example, often unconsciously. Consciously, the things we pass on from mother-to-daughter are often cautionary and come under the heading of "learn from my mistakes" or "do as I say, not as I do."

A perfect Mother's Day card for my mom would thank her for teaching me to be a good listener, to connect with others and to follow my passion. My mother changed careers when she was in her early 50s, going from high school English teacher to clinical social worker. She still has an active private practice and she taught me that I can continue to evolve and grow as I age. She taught me never to be trapped by circumstances. She also taught me to express my feelings -- even the negative ones -- and to write thank you notes. Mostly, she taught me how to be a good mother, and she gave me a strong foundation from which to nurture and raise my three children.

Could I have done without the tendency toward yelling that she bestowed on me? The excessive worrying with which I now burden my children? The techno-phobia? The tendency toward obsession and angst? Absolutely. To compensate, I've tried to give my daughter Becca a powerful joie de vivre, an irreverent sense of humor, a love of dance and the ability to harness her inner diva. To my eye, she wears those gifts beautifully. But when I asked her about the things she's happy -- or not happy -- to have inherited from me and from her grandmother, "Mima," her answers surprised me.

Becca was understandably less than amused by my tee shirt that says "I yell because I care," and said, "Yelling doesn't translate to 'I care' to the person whose eardrums are paying for it. However, it does give your unwanted dinner guests a headache." (There's that sense of humor!) She also shared that she resents my oft-stated expectation to "be grateful" because it encourages an artificial appreciation for certain things rather than allowing her to reach her own conclusions. Then she turned to the gifts she holds dear.

"I love that discussing serious, scary, controversial and uncomfortable topics within our family is OK," she says. "I love that you taught me to embrace cheerfulness while at the same time packing it with sincerity and meaning. And from you and Mima, I learned by observation that worrying doesn't change outcome."

And then my daughter gave me the best Mother's Day gift I could imagine, and it's one I can share with my mom. Says Becca, "The level of investment that runs deep in my mother and grandmother for the people they care about is an amazing gift, and one that makes all of us better people."

Now isn't that better than a card with singing poodles?