Thursday, October 08, 2009

Not Becoming My Mother, Ruth Reichl

A couple of weeks ago we were in the check-out line at the library, standing right next to a shelf of newly released books. As the kids and and I waited our turn we scanned the shelf, picking up books and putting them back. One book - about the size of my extended palm, a black and white photograph on the cover with a middle-aged woman and a young girl, both sitting at a table - caught my eye. The woman's expression drew my attention as much as the title did - her face is resting on her palm and she is looking at the young girl, a gentle smile creasing her cheeks. The title of the book was Not Becoming My Mother, written by Ruth Reichl, the editor of the newly-defunct Gourmet magazine.

I know titles are meant to be provocative and grab the readers' attention, but it still managed to shock me. I added it to our pile of books and read it at the first opportunity I got - that night after the kids were in bed.

The tussle between mothers and daughters, the conflict-ridden relationships that many women have with their mothers, is not new to me. I had a classmate back in college who struggled with her mother's jealousies. That a mother could be jealous of her own daughter's good looks or appearance was unfathomable to me. Didn't all mothers and fathers want their children to be better, to do better, to have better than them? Since then I've listened as numerous friends talked about their daily fights with their mothers over trivial matters, about massive disagreements over deeply-held beliefs, about mothers not showing up at weddings, not even coming to celebrate the birth of grandchildren. And I have read about them. With all those women I could sympathize, but I could not empathize.

I could wax eloquent about my mom and the post would run ten screens long. It's not that I did not have disagreements with her, but even in the midst of my teenage rebellion years, I saw her for what she was. She was a mother looking out for her daughter and her best interests. She was a different human being than me - quite simply her DNA make-up is different than mine - so it was an exercise in futility to expect the both of us to react in the same way to a situation.

For me, in the grand scheme of things, she was and is an awesome human being with a wicked sense of humor that she turns on herself as frequently as she does on us, with a fierce sense of loyalty to her husband and her children (and now her daughter-in-law, son-in-law and the grandkids), a fantastic cook and hostess, practical to a fault ("if something needs to get done, put your head down and do it and quit whining" is her mantra), very strong sense of knowing one's place and doing what is expected, especially when it comes to respecting elders. Being a mother myself now, it is mind-boggling to me that somehow she's managed to impart much of her wisdom to us, without even seeming to try. All in all, she is trying her damnedest to do the best she can. And I love her to bits and respect her all the more for it.

Reichl has had a far different relationship with her mother. She writes that her mother was not good at many things and she was not "if truth be told, a particularly good mother. [M]y mother was a great example of everything I didn't want to be, and to this day I wake up every morning grateful that I'm not her."

The sub-title to her book is 'and other things she taught me along the way'. It gave me an inkling that perhaps the book is not the damning indictment that the title would have you believe, but my initial reaction to the book's title stayed with me until I made my way through a few more pages and it dawned on me what Reich was attempting to do.

At first blush, the memoir is a woman's effort to draw lessons from her mother's life. But it is so much more than that. If a child wrote a letter of love, appreciation, respect and deep gratitude to their mother, it would take the shape and form of Not Becoming My Mother. It is an attempt to peel away the layers and layers of hurt that had enveloped the author over a number of years. It is an attempt to put her mother's actions in context. A mother who was brilliant and wanted to be a doctor, but not that great-looking. In an age where women were expected to be beautiful but not ambitious, it was a double whammy that succeeded in decimating her chances at happiness.

It is so easy to give in to hurt, especially when the one person in the world that is supposed to love you unconditionally does not. Which is why it is all the more heartening that Reichl embarked on the journey to figure out her mother at all, to understand her as a woman. With the help of her mother's writing she finds in shoe boxes, on scraps of paper, on old receipts, Reichl pieces together the portrait of a woman who somehow figured out how to be the kind of role model that her own daughter did not want to emulate. As the sketch fills out and we slowly start to see the flesh and blood and color appearing on canvas, our viewpoint undergoes a change. We are no longer looking at the dark and foreboding image of a bad mother, we are looking at a woman who desperately does not want her daughter to struggle with the demons she did.

Meeting Mom - the real Mom - was even harder than I expected. I never thought her life was easy, but until I read her letters I had not known the enormous burden of pain she carried with her.

There are a few good reasons why it's worth reading Not Becoming My Mother. It is beautifully written, lucid, introspective and thoughtful. It is a personal memoir, but it manages to capture the life of an entire generation of women. It makes its point and moves on.

But the most important reason of all is the fact that Reichl wants to see beyond the veneer that her mother presented to the world. Some of us might undertake the same exercise and come up empty, but Reichl does succeed in seeing her mother for who she was. She places her actions in context, understands her mother's own upbringing, learns of her desires and ambitions, her disappointments and failures. And she sees that her mother tried to do the very best she could, given her experiences and her background and her circumstances. She sees that her mother manged to get her to a place where she could be happy. And she gives her mother credit for it.

The only want I see in this story is that I wish Reichl had reached this understanding when her mother was still alive.

Updated to add the first part of the second sentence in the penultimate paragraph.


Sniffles and Smiles said...

Wow! I think I would have had the same reaction to the mom was my best friend...from start to finish...My heart breaks for those who have not had such unconditional love from their moms! A very fine book review, Sujatha!! Your blog always makes me think! ~Janine XO

Choxbox said...

Nice review Suj.

My sentiments towards my mom are similar to yours. Also I find that I appreciate her all the more after I had kids.

naperville mom said...

Wow! Thanks for the lovely introduction...will def check out this read!:)

Sands said...


Lovely write up. I am totally like you on the how much I care for my mom. She is one amazing woman who I love and respect to death. Having said that I can also see where the author comes from. There are a few things that are personality traits of individuals you don't want to emulate and if this individual is your mom, you need to learn how to be different as well. Sometimes there are generation differences and you want to make sure you know to understand and appreciate those changes and differences. That way you can understand and relate to your children & grandchildren much better. Now am done with my rambling :)

Peter Ferrao said...

Beautifully written.

Pradeep said...

Hi Sujatha,

Long time, how are you?

Mother plays such a unique role. Needless to say the relationship of children with their mothers too is very unique. Mothers do play a huge role in shaping the personality of children. But on the other side I have seen some boys who develop a mother fixation, that ultimatelely lands them in problem with the wife.


shoba said...

I cannot empathize with the author but I can understand it though. There is always a friction between my sis and mom in our house. Unexplainable. Neither is wrong...Just a personality clash totally misunderstood and it has been going on for decades..There is love , but pain too once u peel the layers, as the author says... Should read this.

Sriram said...

great review. will check this out.

Unknown said...

Great review, Sujatha, and adding your personal experience and perspective really added to it. I must check if our local English bookstore has this book.

Anonymous said...

Made my mind irk painfully at the thought of a mother not unconditionally loving her children. Jealousy....cannot empathize ever.

Ugich Konitari said...

Thank you for posting this review. I look forward to reading this when i get a chance (in Mumbai)....

But what makes the authors writing and you review interesting, is the fact, that today, in India, people are getting fairly open about the fact that it is possible for a mother and daughter to not get along. And writing about it.

So much to learn about families, women, and the untold, problems, that we only notice later.

ra said...

Sounds most interesting. I do believea lot of mothers from previous generations felt stifled, a lot do even today-I know one whose family won't allow her to become a doctor, though she clearly has the talent for it.

Have really been enjoying your posts-though haven't commented in the past couple of days.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Janine, thank you. I look at my kids and I feel the same way you do, about not loving one's children.

Chox, thanks. Exactly, especially when I was pregnant, I feel like my relationship with my mom and my mom-in-law went to a whole new level.

N'ville Mom, do and please let me know what you think!

Sands, that is some great relationship advice right there! :)

Peter, thank you. And I loved your post about rain.

Pradeep, that is an interesting angle. Want to write about it? I'm doing great. Things are going swimmingly, touch wood. How are you?

Shoba, please do read and let me know what you think. There is such a loss I think when we lose out on a loving relationship with our mothers. Sorry your sister is going through that.

Sriram, Jawahara, thank you. I'd love to know what your thoughts are.

Partha, so true.

Ugich, you're welcome, and you're right. Within families it was noticeable, the tension b/w mothers and daughters, but it was never discussed outside. But I'm glad we are discussing it now though. Rather than feeling shame, we'd do better to understand why and deal with the differences.

Ra, there's a saying that you can tell how strong or healthy a society is by the way it treats its women. More and more, I'm seeing it applies to so many contexts. And as this book so sadly shows, it has such an enormous impact on not only them but everyone surrounding them. Thank you for reading. I'm glad you've been enjoying the posts. I have so many more that I want to put up, I have to force myself to pace them. :)

Kavi said...

Neat review. I will look this book up here !

Thank you.

it is difficult to do what you describe the author to have done. To go beneath the veneer isnt easy at all !

And to draw some references and lessons from that is even higher a summit

Anonymous said...

Very interesting review...

Sniffles and Smiles said...

Just popping in to say "hello!" to my wonderful friend!!! Hope you are having a fantastic weekend, filled with unforgettable family memories! You are a terrific Mom!!! Love to you~Janine XO

Sujatha Bagal said...

Kavi, it is difficult, isn't it?

Dreamysap, thank you and welcome to my blog!

Janine, thank you, sweets! Thank you for your generosity and concern in this extremely difficult time. I hope you are having a good day. Hugs.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

"I wish Reichl had reached this understanding when her mother was still alive."

Therein often lies the unfairness.How many never get to know their parents until far to late. Or vise versa. I found this a perfect essay, Sujatha. Done so very well and with such insight. Especially where you understood from a very young age that you and your mother weren't going to think alike.

Often women are afraid to write about their lives, their thoughts in journals, essays, etc. I've always thought to the contrary. What better way to get to know me? Even though the pages as a whole are very boring, there is a nugget in there every now and then.

Enjoy this very much.

dipali said...

What a wonderful review! It makes me want to read the book at once. I appreciate my own mother's many good qualities, but I am also fairly dispassionate about what I would not like to emulate. Since my parents live with me now, at times the ravages and crankiness of old age make one forget all that they have done over their lifetimes.

sujata sengupta said...

I and my mom have always had differenecs of opinion on everything, I could not accept what you so well said that we have "a different dna makeup", only when I became a mom, I understood her, i saw her reason behind the verdicts she had passed, I am happy I reached this understanding when she is alive and well, It would have been an awful burden to carry otherwise..will get hold of this book asap

Nagesh.MVS said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sujatha Bagal said...

Julie, thank you for that lovely and thoughtful comment. I'm not one to write things down myself. I find that it makes me morose when I write a daily journal kind of a thing. I'm much better when I've thought about it all quietly. Doesn't help other people who might be trying to figure me out, but there you have it. And high praise coming from you, but I'll take it! Thanks!

Dipali, thank you. I can imagine how the situation you describe might come about, but when we are not in the thick of things, I think we tend to remember people at their best. At least I hope I do!

Sujata, thank you for sharing your exprience. Us becoming mothers switches on a light, I think. And I think our mothers know this even when we are being difficult. So they say, "Just wait until you have children of your own!" :)