Because my grandmother used to confide in my mother, sometimes delicately and with hesitation, sometimes frankly and with tears, whenever she was disappointed in life, in America, in her husband, and because my grandfather also shared his worries and fears, my mother grew up burdened and concerned, an anxious peacemaker and a determined domestic juggler. My parents, who had both heard too much, made sure not to tell me a thing about their lives or feelings when I was growing up. I heard a little about my father's childhood in Brooklyn, and a hint that my beloved grandfather had not been much as a father; I heard about my parents' fateful meeting at the USO dance and not much about their life after that. The boundary around my parents' lives and marriage was firm and steady, but despite their best efforts to keep their private feelings private, there was—as there is for all of us—a certain amount of leakage.

I knew when someone in my house was unhappy, but I rarely knew why. I could tell the difference between a door kept shut in anger, one that meant 'I'm busy,' and another that meant 'I'm crying,' but no one ever mentioned the shut doors or their meanings. My parents kept their mouths shut to protect me, not to mystify me; they said things were fine because they wanted it to be so, not to make me doubt my own eyes. I understand this all a lot better now than I did then.

Here's what I think about parents and children, and it goes double for mothers and daughters: (1) You can't win. (2) Honest mistakes are better than indifference. 

Mothers make daughters crazy with boundaries that leap and shift ('Don't talk to your father like that,' followed within hours by 'Do you know what your father had the nerve to say to me?'); daughters make mothers wary and nervous with the same, and we can all drive each other mad with the barbed and invisible boundaries around That Which Cannot Be Said. 

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I push my daughter's bangs back into alignment (that's what I think I am doing; I am also allowing myself the remembered pleasure of touching her when she was my property and I was hers, the days when I could, and had to, touch her from head to foot and dress her as I chose, the days when she licked my neck, as if I were ice cream and when she had to sit more than a foot away from me, she missed me). She flinches at the implied criticism. I pretend that I am surprised, that I cannot imagine how she could perceive implied criticism in such a mild, even helpful, act. It isn't really criticism, it's just acting affectionately on my observation that her bangs are not lying the way I know she would want them to. It's not as if I care, except that she is beautiful and, of course, even more so when her bangs are lying the right way, not going off in three different directions, which I am sure is not what she intended. You can see that—since I know that her own intention was to have the bangs look right, and I only fix them because I know that had she a mirror she would do it herself—there can be no suggestion of criticism. And that I still flinch when my own mother tugs on my bangs or smooths a spray of hair only because she knows I would smooth it had I a mirror, I know, and so do you.

How can one of my daughters (I have two, in their early 20s) say to me in the frostiest, most Prime-of-Maggie-Smith voice, 'I don't think that's something we should discuss' about something I most certainly think we should, something that, in fact, has direct bearing upon my plans or pocketbook, and two minutes later kiss me, take the very lingerie out of my hands, and say 'Thanks, Mommy, I don't have any clean,' as she leaves me there, whiplashed (and without underwear). Well, how can she not? Intimacy on many fronts does not entitle any of us to intimacy on all fronts, neither as subject nor object. The fact that I treat my daughter to a haircut whenever we're together and she needs or wants one does not entitle me to ask her how much she spends on haircuts when we're not. It does not entitle her to ask me why I spend so much money on my haircuts and so little on...(whatever she might prefer). These are what I think are good boundaries, and although we would both recover from the breaches, I think it's nice, even good and heartening, that we try not to tread on each other's autonomy and self...when possible.

Where boundaries fit into the mother-daughter dynamic


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