Like mother, like daughter - Diane Lee

Like mother, like daughter

My mother was not a pleasant woman. She was violent and cruel, controlling and uncaring. She probably had Borderline Personality Disorder. She was married (and divorced) three times, and all three husbands ended up with alcohol or mental health issues. They may have been predisposed, but my mother brought out the worst in them. If they couldn’t self-medicate with alcohol, they had breakdowns. Or both. And then they left, leaving my mother as the sole care provider (and I use that term in the loosest possible way) for her three children.

From the age of eight to 18 — ten years of my life — I was beaten constantly, for such unforgivable crimes as answering back, not cleaning to her exacting standards, being late. Once I was beaten for daring to tell a joke. My mother had a hit first, ask questions later approach to discipline. I remember being scared most of my formative years. Scared of saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing. Scared that if I said the wrong thing or did the wrong thing, I would be punished. If the shoe came off, or the wooden spoon was reached for, I ran to my bedroom and dove under the blankets in an effort to diffuse the blows… and the pain. Invariably, the blankets were ripped off so whatever object of discipline that was in my mother’s hand at the time could connect directly with my body. Bruises decorated my arms and legs, external evidence of my mother’s internal workings.

The message I received loud and clear, and it is one that has haunted me all my adult life, is: if your own mother didn’t love you, why would anyone else?

I moved out of home at the age of 17 in violent circumstances: my mother accused me of sleeping around (I was still a virgin), lashed out at me and — for the first time ever — I defended myself, landing a punch that blackened my mother’s eye. I left that evening, taking a few belongings, and appearing on the doorstep of a kind work colleague. But even after I moved out, I still didn’t cut ties with my mother. I vacillated for a couple of years, from wanting to crawl out from under the weight of my mother’s cruelty to still wanting her to be my mother. The final move to independence coming at 21, when I located to a different town.

But up until my thirties — when I became a mother myself — I still tried to win her love and approval. Despite the cruelty, I still wanted my mother to be a mother. To love me as I knew I deserved to be loved. It took another ten years for it to finally click that this was never going to happen. That it wasn’t me, it was her. And now in my mid-fifties, I haven’t spoken to my mother since my forties. But the damage is done. The message I received — loud and clear — and it is one that has haunted me all my adult life and permeated most of my relationships with men is: if your own mother didn’t love you, why would anyone else? This legacymore than the physical violence — because bruises fade and scars heal — has been my unfortunate cross to bear.


At 29, I became a mother. I gave birth to a beautiful girl and I fell deeply, irrevocably, intensely in love with the tiny baby who, when I held her in my arms, contemplated me with a calm curiosity. Her eyes were a navy blue, deep like the ocean, and she had a shock of dark hair. When she nuzzled at my breast for the first time, I was complete. I was born to be a mother, and despite my own mother being so awful — or maybe because of it — I was good at it. Not perfect but damn near good enough. I gave my daughter love and stability. I taught her about making wise choices, and the consequences if she didn’t. I taught her about personal responsibility. I gave her the freedom and independence to choose her own path. I cared for her and about her. I gave her mother that I always wanted.

And all I wanted in return was her love.

I didn’t think that my daughter would reject me as a mother. But she has, and in the strangest and most tragic of Shakespearean twists, I have come to the conclusion I haven’t beaten my mother’s legacy after all. My daughter, in her own way, continues it. My daughter tells me every day — through ignored phone calls and messages, through her grudging relent to spend time with me, through her refusal to see me as anything other than a cash cow, through her prioritising of other people and activities over me, through her knowing what makes me happy and doing the opposite — that I am not worthy of her love. If your own daughter doesn’t love you, why would anyone else?

I now realise that I am not the mother that my daughter wants, just as my own mother was not the mother I wanted.

I now realise that I am not the mother that my daughter wants, just as my own mother was not the mother I wanted. She wants a mother who is conservative, which I am not. She wants a family that consists of a mother and a father and loving grandparents, and lots of aunties and uncles and cousins, which I couldn’t provide her. She wants a mother who is quiet and doesn’t talk to practically anyone and everyone, which is not me. She wants a mother who will pay for anything and everything, which I cannot do. She wants a mother who doesn’t embarrass her, which — apparently — I do all the time.

I thought that after me being overseas for 10 months, she would finally appreciate me, value me, love me. This has not been the case. Things are exactly the same. Worse. I am dismissed, sidelined, ignored. Friends have told me that — with maturity — this will change… but I don’t think so. She is nearly 25. This is it for me. This is my reality. She loves me, I’m sure of it, but not in the way I want to be loved by. Like my own mother, I have to accept that I cannot change my daughter. I can’t change how she views me, or how she behaves toward me. All I can do is alleviate the effects of the hurt and disappointment and the pain of rejection. Harm minimisation, as it were.

And that involves the difficult and unrelenting task of silencing the voices that have echoed through my psyche for aeons: You are deserving of love. You are worthy. And you are more than enough.

This is the 21st essay in the #26essays2017 challenge that I’ve set for myself this year. I’m doing this because I’m the first to admit I’ve become a lazy writer: allowing guest posts and series and cross-posting to make up the bulk of content on The Diane Lee Project across 2016. The brave, fearless writing that readers admired and respected me for has all but disappeared. This year—2017—will be different. I’m reclaiming my voice—my write like a motherfucker voice!

Photo credit: National Science and Media Museum via / No known copyright restrictions

5 thoughts on “Like mother, like daughter

  1. Quite sad Diane.. I used to have my differences with my father myself and often despised him for not caring and for not being part of our lives (though it was never as bad as it was for you).. As I grew older I just finally forgave everything and started looking at his good qualities instead of the bad ones…(He just had the wrong priorities but was in essence a decent man).. Our relationship changed for the better since then… Maturity sometimes comes with age and maybe your daughter will see things differently 10 years from now…

    1. I did say to her (the day before I flew back to Vietnam): One day… not today… not tomorrow, but maybe in five years, ten years… or even in twenty years… you will regret that you didn’t spend more time with me. And I also told her that she would remember this conversation…

  2. It’s a hard lesson to learn but a liberating one. You cannot control others. You can love them, obey them, nurture them, appease them, but no action you take can ever guarantee a response when another human is involved. You can neither cause another’s behavior nor change it. The responsibility for how a person acts belongs solely to them. It is their choice. If you want to be happy, you can choose to be, despite the actions and reactions of people who called themeselves your family.

    There comes a time in every relationship between family members when an emotional separation naturally occurs. It is then the people must decide if the relationship reconnects to begin a new, deliberate, mature emotional connection, or the separated relationship moves from family to friendly or even foe. Any of these choices are ‘normal’. .

    1. So true, Mike. Thank you for your kind words. A parent/child relationship is so fraught with emotion and complication. Letting go and saying: “This too will pass” is sometimes the only course of action.

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