The Mommy Wars

Bestselling author Lee Woodruff on why — like it or not — biology is destiny

There are a lot of things people can say that roll right off my back. But there is one phrase that makes my needle scratch across the record: “You are just like your mother.” That one’s a real sphincter tightener for me. And when it comes out of my husband’s mouth, my fingers twitch and involuntarily curl into a fist. And for just an instant, I contemplate Lizzie Borden and channel Lorena Bobbitt.

I have spent a lifetime trying not to be my mother. Don’t get me wrong; I love her dearly. She has many amazing qualities as a person and a wife and nurturer. She did a great job raising three girls on a tight budget and with an often-traveling husband. She devoted her life to us. It’s just that there are things that I want to … branch out from … in order to be my own gal. Was that delicate enough?

And yet, I’ve noticed that in the end biology is destiny. As much as we try to run from genetics, as much space as we try to put in between ourselves and those things we rebelled against, some of that nature and nature begins to trickle back in. Regardless.

Let me just cover a few bases. My mom is old-fashioned. She bemoans modern literature and The New York Times. She loathes any movies made since “Lawrence of Arabia” and she abhors rock ‘n’ roll. She was raised on classical music, and I grew up with worldwide symphonies playing on NPR as she prepared our dinner. “That’s awful,” she’d exclaim as we blasted “Yes” or “Three Dog Night.” I grew up feeling very defensive about the music we loved, the clothes we bought: the naval-skimming hip huggers and bare-midriff tops. My mother didn’t approve of so much of our generation. She was stuck in the ’50s.

But as I watch myself, and as those who love me watch me back, lo and behold there are multiple signs that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

“Change the station,” I implore my 17-year-old son as he blasts some mind-numbing rapid-fire rap song on the car radio detailing what some dude is gonna do to some gal.

“Granny!” he says, because he knows this will get me.

I listen closer, renewing my vows to keep an open mind.

Then, there are all those years I ignored my mother’s pleas to use sunscreen. She would tape articles to the fridge about the damages of UV rays long before it was in vogue. She’d tsk tsk and shake her head as I sat outside in my hot-pink bikini with a foil-covered “Frampton Comes Alive” album, slathered in baby oil.

Now? I’m the village idiot chasing my four kids with a bottle of 50+ sun protection, like some sort of crusader dispensing holy water in a leper colony. Of course, as my kids scatter or fight back, I freeze in midair. I have become my mother, preaching and proselytizing about the ravages of the sun. “You’ll be sorry someday … you’ll get skin cancer,” I say. And then the words reverberate in my head. I have heard them somewhere before.

My mother is a child of the Depression. Some would call her cheap. I’d like to think of her as more of a thrifty Scotswoman. She can’t stand to waste anything, which is not necessarily a bad trait. But it borders on excessive. She keeps soap remains, used note cards, old candles we gave her in second grade and ziplock bags so worn the zippers are broken. She constantly carries a supply of food with her, including old saltine packets she has lifted out of restaurants and grapes housed in the newspaper plastic sheaths to “wet her whistle.” It’s as if the apocalypse is near. She is perpetually prepared to meet her maker with some wrapped melba toasts and a few salted cashews for the journey.

But I’ve inherited the tendencies. Yes, I reduce, reuse and recycle — but there is sort of desperation to my variety. On a family trip to the Galapagos Islands, and I had brought fruit for the long flight. It hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to bring agricultural items into this special environmental zone. Sheepishly, I pulled the plums and oranges out of my bag and turned them over.

“You cannot take this into the islands,” the official said in stilted English.

“I know, that’s why I’m turning it over,” I said. “But you should eat these,” I implored him. “Don’t let these go to waste.”

“I can’t eat them, ma’am. This is a quarantine area.”

“Well,” I huffed, “I just don’t think you should let perfectly good food go to waste. You and your friends should take these out back on break.”

I could go on here. I could tell you about my penchant for making lists — only slightly less manic than the notes my mother sticks all over her house like “blow nose and use nasal spray.” Or “twin sheets” in the closet and “watch news” on top of the TV. I have become a slave of the Post-it note — so much so that once a roommate snuck the words “make a list” on the end of my list.

And then I see myself through my kids’ eyes. I may be slightly more hip than my own mother, since I blast Bruce Springsteen on the car radio and watch “The Office.” But I’m still far from cool. Perhaps no mom truly is.

As I visited my parents recently in their retirement home, I observed my mother, ever spry, ever interested. She was poised on the edge of her chair, offering me food, cooking lunch, cleaning it up and asking after her grandchildren, my husband, my work. My father, whose memory and cognition is fading, is her focus now, and she remains the consummate caregiver. I know that she is anxious, and I know that these weren’t the golden years she envisioned after a lifetime of laundry and chauffeuring and packing lunches.

But I realize as I kiss her good-bye that all of the things that I bristled against were window dressing. In the end, my mother had passed on the truly important things. She had taught me to love and to give of myself. She had pushed me to reach for my own dreams, to find my career and passions before I settled down and thought about a family. She had encouraged me to cherish my body and myself, until I met a man I was ready to share that with. She taught me patience and unconditional love. And I realize that in the end, she has given me her very best moves.

Lee Woodruff is the author of the memoir Perfectly Imperfect: A Life in Progress and In An Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing, co-authored with her husband, ABC reporter Bob Woodruff. Visit her at www.leewoodruff.com.

5 comments so far.

  1. avatar Bella Mia says:

    Biology is huge. I inheirited my mother’s undiagnosed bleeding disorder – and my daughter inheirited it from me. It wasn’t until she had a 3 month period at 13 that an alert pediatrician suggested we all get tested. My mother had a hysterectomy at 29 after 4 children, having had terrible time the six months after my youngest brother was born. I had suffered terribly with ovarian cysts and miscarriages, unmanagable periods, fatigue from chronic anemia and almost died in childbirth from bleeding complications; while my daughter suffered the least of us all, and now has medicine that controls the bleeding.

    My daughter and I both inheirited my mother’s willow frame and fine bone structure – and ample breasts, which has been a boon for all three of us.

    What I notice in your piece is the possible tendency towards neuroticism: being highly sensitive to negative stimuli or information. I know I have this tendency – music, smells, tastes, tone of voice is something I really get on my kids about. If they say something to me or to one of their siblings it has to be stated in a respectful tone – and I can’t focus on anything else until it is.

    As I read the description of your mother as the “consummate caregiver” I realize that my mother and I are alike in the way that we are both NOT “consummate caregivers.” I am slightly neglectful, hang back a lot for kids to figure stuff out on their own, including: rides, certain weekend meals (sometimes weeknights – no one has starved yet) laundry – they need to get the stuff in the basement and start their own loads, they need to figure out the day before if they have what they need to wear for school the next day. At ages 10, 12, 15 they do pretty well.

    When the 15 year old wanted to walk to our dear friends house at midnight on a rainy night because they just got back from a Philly’s game, and he could watch a movie with his friend – I let him walk the three blocks. This philosophy has all led us to be very sturdy independent people. My older children know how to figure out their own challenging situations and often call later with the whole story including how they worked it out. Emergencies,of course, we step in, or with big projects like moving apartments, but for the most part, they live independently.

    Differentiating ourselves from our mothers is much easier if we see their eccentricities as charming, unique qualities that highlight her individuality in a world of 6 billion people. That helps me appreciate my own eccentricities as well.

    • avatar Bella Mia says:

      Clarification: My older children are 25 year old daughter, married with baby; a 22 year old headed to Afghanistan soon, a 21 year old studying nutrition in college, and an 18 year old. We have three children in college, and then I have the younger three mentioned above.

  2. avatar Lila says:

    My Dad was also a child of the Depression and had his own set of maddening thrifty habits like your Mom’s. I think for those who did not live through it, it is nearly impossible to understand what the Depression was really like or just how long-lasting the real effects were.

    My Dad spoke of his parents skipping meals so he could eat. They would shrug and say they were not hungry, but he knew what they were doing and it made him feel enormously guilty. His father was unemployed for years, and they lost the house they had inherited (and the income it generated, since it contained several apartments… but no one could afford to pay rent around there anyway…). During WWII, my Dad just sent his Army paycheck home to support his parents. By the 1950s, his father was working again, but they were aged and worn and barely scraping by. Dad continued to send them part of his civilian paycheck for the rest of their lives.

    I guess adoption is destiny, too… this is my adopted Dad I speak of, and he certainly instilled a sense of financial responsibility in me throughout my youth. It is actually painful for me to spend discretionary money. For my few splurges, I actually have to do the math to show myself that an occasional frivolity won’t break my bank. I am a skinflint, but it’s definitely learned and not inherited.

  3. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    To this day, my husband will say that he didn’t know it at the time, but he could not imagine how marginal his own life would have been if he didn’t marry into my family.  .  . but particularly knowing my mother and her sister, my aunt, who swept him up and made him part of our family in every way possible.  As children, we accept our family as they are.  Only with insight much much later, can we completely look back over time and – in my case – did I realize how much my mother shaped me.  Every bit of it was by example.  . and not with words.  In those years, visiting on a regular basis at the “old people’s home”, bringing gifts, was something we just did often.  I didn’t balk – perhaps because the people there seemed taken with me.  It was just something part of life in my home.  My mother seemed to bring joy and laughter along with us everywhere, and I had no idea that everyone didn’t have such a lively, full life. 

    When I was a pre-teen, it was just the “right thing” to do to donate my beautiful childhood furniture – the whole room full of it – to make a child in the nearby orphanage happy — my mother’s idea, no doubt, but she somehow made it mine without my knowing.  We actually went there and arranged a little dream room for a little girl .   .   . and my mother made this a touching and wonderful experience for me.  She gave to others quietly in endearing ways and I saw no other behavior.  It was what we did .  .  . and it is still today what I do.  I have seen my own children following the same path, touching me in surprising ways.

    My mother had the best time always .  .  . and seemed to know everyone.  Perhaps it was her good manners, her smile, but the love of life and the laughter followed her and probably was her main attraction.  .  . and I notice that each generation has followed in her footsteps – mostly living life on a high, finding the best in everything and just about everyone. 

    Perhaps, my regrets have been that she passed away before I had enough sense in me to actually have conversations with her about the life we lead – our lives on the yellow brick road – and to truly give her the thanks for being so lucky to be her daughter, for attracting a husband that was almost as much in love with the fun of my family as he was with me, and somehow leading — by example most of all – - my children who also has found that our heart soars when we give of ourselves, understanding the full meaning of love and of family.

    It was just my life with my mother to me.  .  . but the aftereffects reside within all of us in my family and still continue, making our lives ones of sunshine.   

  4. avatar Briana Baran says:

    I sometimes think that genetics skipped a generation, and that I am, in truth, my maternal grandmother’s daughter. Our personalities are so very similar, our love of people, curiosity, devotion to learning, feistiness, taking in of strays, both four and two-legged, naughtiness, even our style of decorating, make-up, clothing and love of singing. When I was an infant, and later, as a child, I was often mistaken for her offspring…not my mother’s child.

    I in no physical way resemble my mother…when people see her picture, they ask who she is, and rarely believe that we could be related. She has light blond hair (with an assist from the bottle), light green, narrow eyes, a thin mouth, an aquiline nose, fair skin, and a narrow face. Her body shape is Northern European…wide hips, no backside, narrower shoulders, not much waist, and heavy bones in her lower legs. Her feet are flat. I am dark complected, have dark brown hair (when I go artificial, I don’t fool around…fuchsia, violet, fire-engine red, Euro-trash blond, platinum…and currently a lovely shade of indigo awaits my gloved fingers), and very large eyes that change color from an olive or dark jade green to amber, to gold to an orange-brown. My cheekbones are high, wide and a little Mongol-flat, my face is oval, and my mouth is full, short and pouty. My body is full Mediterranean, wide, square shoulders, big breasts, a long narrow rib cage and small waist, a high, full, round butt, narrower hips, and short, light boned legs. My feet are small with high arches and insteps. Even our hands are completely different.

    Our personalities are antithetical to each other. My mother will not be friends with anyone, as she hasn’t the time or inclination to worry about other people’s problems. Besides, one can only have relationships with people exactly like one’s self…in all regards. My mother talks a lot about her eclectic (read Bohemian, or artistic) taste…but is incredibly limited by what she considers appropriate to her “station” as artiste. My mother was too good of an artist to work for Disney studios when they asked her for an interview when she was young. My mother claims to love men, but is one of the most misandrist women I have ever met. You can tell that she is lying, reinventing the past, or fabricating some new reality…because she’s speaking. All of her life revolves around her, and her alone, and, at the age of 79, she is still living in the political and social world of 50-60 years ago, and has little or no awareness of today’s realities, nor has she for decades.

    Have you guessed that we don’t precisely get along? Good for you, and a gold star. I believe strongly that my mother was desperately disappointed by her firstborn…with her shock of ink black hair that covered her entire forehead and back, and her enormous sloe eyes and Indian skin. I wager she would have given me back if she could have done so. My earliest memories are of her telling me of the horrors and exhaustion she suffered during my birth, my refusal to use a bottle properly, and worst of all, my cruel intentions in never letting her sleep…because I never slept for more than an hour at a time…for months. What an infante terrible I was! Could it have had something to with the load of amphetamines she took while pregnant to keep from gaining weight? No, it was me, the horrible child. She even went so far as to go to her doctor to get sleeping pills…for her infant child. The doctor said no, fortuitously.

    From there, she made my young life hell. But, I did learn something from her. I didn’t have children for any other reason than that I wanted them, and I waited a long time to be sure, and I love them with all of my heart and soul. I know I make mistakes, and have my moods…but I have never told my sons that their births caused me untold misery, or that they were fat, or to blame for my problems (or each other’s problems, thus pitting them against each other). I have provided the things for them that children need, and even desire, and desperately tried not to go overboard because I had to wear hand-me-downs and K-mart specials when my father made the largest salary of almost anyone we knew, my parents paid cash for a brand new car every three years, and my mother wore diamonds and denied herself nothing. I went cold turkey off of alcohol, pot, pills and cigarettes long before I had children so that they would not grow up in the toxic environment of the addicted. I lay on the floor and played with them, read to them, sang to them, danced with them, and stayed up all night with a sick child on my lap even when I worked full time…all things my mother would never have considered doing.

    I may be a sarcastic, cynical, iconoclastic, skeptical, sometimes sincerely evil bitch…but I am not my mother, and never will be. It is next to never about me…even when I use personal anecdotes to illustrate a point…(as I often have asked, you want me to go to the mall and record other people’s stories, then use them, with footnotes and proper credit given, so morons won’t think I’m talking about myself or taking things personally?) it’s just using experience based information about a topic. I do love humanity, I have friends, I love and respect my husband, and I adore my sons, and wanted them, and will always love them.

    I will never, I imagine, have to say, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, I am my mother after all”.