My Daughter, My Self
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My Daughter, My Self

We're crazy about each another, so why are we so tough on each other as well? Because we're so different -- or too much alike?

It's a Girl

Early in my second pregnancy, after the obstetrician's nurse called with the amniocentesis results, I made my way shakily down the hall to tell my husband, Mark, the news. I didn't realize I was crying until I saw the alarm on his face. "Oh, the baby's okay," I told him, boo-hooing aloud by then. "She's fine. It's a girl!"

I'd had no idea how much I wanted her, our daughter, until that moment 12 years ago. Yet at the same time, somewhere within, that little horror-movie voice was whispering: "Be afraid. Be very afraid." Friends with daughters cried amen to the old bromide: Boys are easy, girls are hard. Our son, Sam, nearly 2 at the time, had been a dandy baby -- healthy, jolly, a champion sleeper. But Lila in utero was already making me more miserable than I'd imagined a human could be; the morning/noon/night sickness was so bad that Sam learned to answer the phone and say, "Mommy puking." The birth was excruciating, owing to Lila's face-upward position, a delivery the doctor called "sunny-side up."

Hah. We'd soon learn there was little sunny about this kid. Infant Lila was such a fusspot I ate most meals standing, her in the Snugli, me pacing, picking bits of moo shu shrimp from her fuzzy pate. At 2 she stunned us all, not by running around the house naked, but with her reaction when I tried to catch and dress her: "Get your hands offa me, lady!" It was Lila's opening salvo in what may be a lifelong battle of wills. In the presence of others she is a shy, polite, easygoing child. No one -- not her teachers, her friends' parents -- believes us when we try to explain what a contrarian she can be at home. Especially with Mom. "You two are always butting heads," Mark says. "Can't you fix it?"

I wish. It's no picnic trying to unravel the mysteries woven into the mother-daughter knot. At heart, Lila and I are crazy about one another. She tells me daily that she loves me; she's a relentless kisser and cuddler. She roots out my childhood photos and pairs them with her own; we both shriek at the Mini-Me resemblance. We snuggle with our needy little hound, Maybelle, between us, tune into dog competitions on Animal Planet, and root loudly for the beagle entries. At those moments, neither of us could be happier or more at ease.

But there is a tension that crackles between us, a force field that erupts, without much warning, into skirmishes and sulks. It helps a bit to know that most of my friends with daughters are doing a skittish Macarena across the same minefield. "I fully expect to cry every day until my girls leave home," says my pal Andrea. And I confess to her: "I'm worried that in 20 years, Lila will hand me a copy of My Mother/My Self with all my grievous, cliched sins underlined." I knew someone who actually did give her mother a highlighted copy of Nancy Friday's best-selling indictment of mom; the fallout lasted for years. But no feminist theory or self-help guru has adequately explained why we can be so tough on one another. Do I spar with my daughter because she's so different from me? Or because we are too much alike?

Closer Than You Know

"Don't ever do that," I snap, much too quickly, when Lila berates herself for getting "only a B" in math. I was a far worse perfectionist in school, despite my supportive, non-pushy parents. And Lila's self-flagellation in sixth grade gives me the willies. Often, after my ill-advised outbursts, I count the reassuring ways Lila is not me. I was no competitor; she's on the swim team and runs cross-country. I hated anything scary; she rides the tallest, most looping, most upside-down roller coasters -- arms raised, in the front seat. I tootled on the clarinet, briefly and indifferently; Lila declared a passion for the cello, a handsome if unwieldy tub that needs its own humidifier and a chauffeur (me).

I realized one recent afternoon that Lila's cello, and its lovely voice, is her first mature, reasoned declaration of self. Arriving early to pick her up from a lesson, I peered through the small window in the classroom door and saw a stranger in my daughter's clothing. This girl was buoyant, confident, gesturing with the bow, balancing the cello on her strong swimmer's thighs, reading music I cannot parse. She and her teacher were laughing hard at some shared joke. Then they began a duet: slow, dignified, sad and sweet. I can't imagine my face was ever that beautifully absorbed. There I was in a hallway again, crying over my girl. The teacher -- a wry, wise woman -- underscored my little "aha!" moment when she told Mark: "She's not like the rest of the kids. Lila sees things . . . differently. She always will."

This is exactly what I was afraid of for her -- until I saw how whole and fulfilled it made her in that room. I was the odd-duck child in my family, too -- the questioner, the wanderer who loved them all yet couldn't wait to get away. As my father lay dying, he asked me in a gentle, wondering way, "Where did you come from?" These were the very same words that formed in my head as I watched Lila in the music room that day. It's the true miracle of parenthood when you realize you've hatched a human with your eyes and the shadow of your smile -- all secondary to her stubborn, singular, tamper-resistant self.

At bottom, Lila and I recognize our shared outsiders' stance too well. At the worst of our battles, we eye one another like two she-wolves circling on the tundra. Growing up as a suburban loner was hard for me; I suppose, in cuffing my obstreperous cub, I'm trying to make her stronger for the journey. And when she nips back -- as I did with my patient mother -- it's because she's rightfully scared.

Oddly, some of my most tranquil moments come from fending off the wild things that sometimes visit Lila in nightmares. I've always been the first to hear her cry in the night. Climbing into bed next to her, inhaling the scent of shampoo and pool chlorine, I feel her tension ease at once. I whisper the ancient balm: "Mommy's here." I'll confess, I'm greedy for these moments when she still needs me and no one else will do. Holding a trembling little girl affords you one of those portholes when you see part present, part past. From Lila's bed, I see my 11-year-old self awakened, terrified, by a thunderstorm. I hear my mother shutting windows in the house, her footsteps headed to my bed, constant as a ship guided by the North Star. Mommy's here.

From those moments of perfect comfort, I know there is just one way I hope my daughter becomes me, someday. I hope she gets to drape herself around a little son or daughter on a howling night. I hope she knows a love so fierce it's painful, so eternal it's a woman's lasting peace.